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Boston Marathon Course section

New champion had to overcome heartbreak

By Michael Holley, Globe Columnist, 4/17/2001

s Lee Bong Ju ran up the Boston Marathon's most famous hill yesterday, his thoughts shifted between two degrees of pain.

There was the wrenching pain in his legs, the kind of throbbing that made him say to himself: If the pack catches me here, I'll have a hard time winning. And there was the pain in his heart, a sadness deep enough to convert words to tears.

Heartbreak Hill, indeed.

Lee's heart was broken long before he conquered the hill and won the Marathon in 2 hours 9 minutes 43 seconds. He has been hurting - and searching - since March 5, when his father died of cancer. Lee was a three-hour car ride from his family's home in the village of Sung-Guh when he heard the news.

Even yesterday, when he received congratulatory faxes from the Korean Athletic Federation, and phone calls from his friends and girlfriend, and bottles of champagne from people he didn't know, that fact bothered him. He wasn't there for Lee Hae Ku. His mother, his sister, and his brother-in-law were in the tiny house, but no one actually witnessed the death. For some Koreans, it is important for children to watch as their parents breathe for the last time. It is a way to honor them.

So, for nearly seven weeks, Lee has been searching for a way to bring glory to the man who taught him how to work hard.

Lee's father was a rice farmer. He raised the family in a village of about 35 houses and 100 people. He smoked a lot, drank a lot, worked a lot, and said little. When his youngest child, a 1996 Olympic silver medalist, offered to move the family to a nicer home in a big city such as Seoul, the father declined.

No, son, he said. We are farmers. We love the land. We belong here, where we can be close to the earth.

In 1994, Hae Ku was diagnosed with cancer and kept working. Earlier this year, he was hospitalized because the cancer had begun to permeate his body and cavalierly snatch his blood cells. On the day he was released from the hospital, when it appeared he had defied the disease and gotten stronger, he went home and began farming again.

Just out of the hospital, he was trying to farm. Bong Ju says rice farming is harder than marathoning. When the 30-year-old runner was a boy, he used to help his father with the demanding chores. But given the choice between rice farming and running, he chose the 26.2-mile path.

At least you knew running would end in just over 2 hours.

At least running had a finish line.

Farming doesn't have a clock. You just go until the work is done. On March 5, a frail Hae Ku went to the fields, plowed them, and went to bed. The work was done. He died a few minutes later.

That's the message Bong Ju thought of yesterday when he thought of his father. There is work to be done; finish it. Most sports fans realize how much Americans love winners. Well, as much as Americans love winners, Koreans love finishers. It doesn't matter if you're hurt or in 15th place. Finish, and you will be respected.

Lee summoned the memory of his father during the Marathon, especially when he needed inspiration. Everyone could see he needed it on Heartbreak Hill. His coach, Oh In Hwan, could tell he was hurting just by looking at his face. This hill was whipping him.

Lee had been in better shape for the Summer Olympics in Sydney, when he finished 24th (he fell down). After his father died, he went home for six days. In those six days, he didn't train. He grieved, hard, asking himself how he could find glory for his father.

No way was anyone going to catch him on Heartbreak Hill. What would his father think of that?

''I felt that my father was with me today,'' Lee said later, sitting in the John Hancock Conference Center. ''I felt him when I needed encouragement and confidence.''

Those words were relayed by translator Kim Jeong Yeon, but the emotion was still detectable. There was some joy there, too, because you knew that Lee would no longer have to search for a way to honor his father. He had done it, and all his friends saw it. It was 1 a.m. in Korea when the Marathon started, but two local stations (KBS and NBC) carried it live. Back in Sung-Guh, the folks probably went to the village center and gathered at the building that bears Bong Ju's name. And maybe the networks even played his commercial - the most popular one in the country - where he appears as a claymation figure.

Lee talked yesterday in the Conference Center and runner after runner came by to shake his hand and pose for a photo with him. Silvio Guerra, who finished second, quickly threw an arm around Lee and smiled widely for the camera. Take another one, Silvio shouted. A coach from South Africa stopped to say hello. The assistant director of the Honolulu Marathon grabbed his hand. ''You probably don't remember me, but ...'' A few people mentioned that it was good to see him end the 10-year run of first-place finishes by the Kenyans.

The last Korean to win in Boston did so 51 years ago. The man who did it in 2001 is a papa's boy and a peoples' champ. Before he was taken away to do yet another interview with reporters at home, Lee shook hands with Bill Squires. It was Squires who showed him the course and gave him tips. Squires also scribbled his predicted top three on an index card and showed it to anyone who asked. He had Lee in the top three when many people didn't.

''Look at the guy's legs,'' Squires said. ''He's got strong legs, perfect for this course. You've got to be strong to run Boston.''

Lee was strong yesterday. Honorable, too.

Michael Holley is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is

This story ran on page G02 of the Boston Globe on 4/17/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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