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Qualifying times, faster fields separate Boston from other marathons

By Barbara Huebner, Globe Staff, 04/16/99

s the oldest continuous race of its kind in the world, the Boston Marathon has long been accustomed to its unique identity. In its 103 years, the footrace has been a bastion of tradition, alternately rakish, reviled, romanticized, respected, and revered, and darned proud of it all. Boston is Boston: Take it or leave it, run it or not. If you want to be challenged on the course's terms, not catered to on your own, Boston is for you.

If, on the other hand, you want to leave your hotel 10 minutes before the race starts to alternately jog and walk in a flat circle for nine hours of nonstop music and entertainment, the Boston Athletic Association suggests, albeit graciously, that you go elsewhere.

"That's not what this race is all about," said race director Guy Morse. "This race is an athletic event first. That's as true today as it was in any year you can name."

Unless Boston decides to eliminate its qualifying standards - Morse's best guess on that is "no chance" - it is not likely to lose its hallowed stature anytime soon. On the contrary, as different as Boston is now from the 350 or so marathons run in the United States last year, trends throughout the sport indicate it is on the threshold of even further separating itself from the pack.

Why? See the description in Paragraph 2.

"Vive la separation, that's all I can say," said Dr. David Martin, a Georgia State University physiologist and noted marathon guru. "Some race needs to be unique."

Boston is that race. Marathoners who want to traverse the distance from Hopkinton to Boylston Street face qualifying standards (they have to run fast somewhere else even to get the chance to run fast here), a Heartbreaker of an uphill-downhill combo at 20 miles (they could save a lot of trouble by just staying home and bashing the fronts of their thighs with a hammer for the same effect), and the overwhelming sense that crossing the finish line will weave them into the fabric of a history that began generations ago.

Marathoners elsewhere don't, and while many take their racing as seriously as any Boston competitor, overall the face of marathoning in America is changing to the point where the very definition of the event is being challenged.

Probably the biggest factor is the relatively new idea that covering 26.2 miles can be healthy and even fun. Grueling? Competitive? Who says?

''In the late '70s, you ran a marathon for only one reason,'' said Amby Burfoot, the executive editor of Runner's World magazine who won here in 1968 but now frequently leads pacing groups for marathoners wanting to break four hours. ''You wanted to qualify for Boston. Now, it's to raise money for charity, a one time goal for yourself, to lose 50 pounds, to honor my mother who died of breast cancer a year ago. Twenty years ago, we didn't have any of those [reasons].''

We didn't have Oprah Winfrey, either, at least not running 26 miles 385 yards. Just as the famed Chicago talk-show host can catapult a book to No. 1 on the bestseller list by selecting it for her book club, Winfrey motivated untold thousands by completing the Marine Corps Marathon in 1994.

Several months afterward, Runner's World hit the newsstands with the cover line ''Oprah Did It, So Can You.''

''It was by far the best-selling cover in the last 15 years,'' said Burfoot. ''Everyone felt that she was the last person who could ever finish a marathon. Oprah running the marathon is a very simple, very powerful thought-image capable of lingering in people's minds for a long time.''

That it took her 4 hours 29 minutes 20 seconds to do so - a time at which a 70-year-old woman would still fall 9 minutes 20 seconds short of qualifying for Boston - mattered little. Rather, it was the whole point: For Winfrey, running a marathon was more a lifestyle event than an athletic event.

And for many, that is what it has become. Twenty years ago, 120,000 people finished marathons in the United States. By 1990, the number had risen to 260,000, and in the last eight years it has skyrocketed to 419,000. Demand for entry into some races is becoming fierce: In 1997, the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., held each October, filled up for the first time when it reached its cap of 16,000 in late summer. In 1998, entries closed in June. This year, the field was locked up on March 1.

''We take a lot of pride in our name, if you will, as the People's Marathon,'' said Major David Fadden, the officer in charge of the race.

Meanwhile, finishing times are getting slower; in some races, a lot slower. In a sample of 16 US marathons, the USA Track & Field Road Racing Information Center recently found what it termed a significant slowing of the median time in most events between 1995 and 1998, ranging from nine minutes for the City of Los Angeles Marathon (4:50:30 in 1995 to 4:59:55 in 1998) to 25 minutes in the San Diego Marathon (3:56:06 to 4:20:55). Only the Boston, Big Sur, and Cleveland Revco marathons saw faster median finishing times, by about two minutes, while New York stayed about the same.

In 1998, the median finishing time - meaning half of the runners finished earlier and half later - at Boston was 3:37:46, about 16 minutes faster than Cleveland, its closest rival in the sample. The slowest median was LA's 4:59:55, with the last finisher coming in just one second shy of 10 hours.

Although pleased that it has begun to attract top athletes the past few years, with Simon Bor of Kenya winning in 2:09:25 last month, folks at the helm of the Los Angeles Marathon don't mind how long it takes everyone else to finish, and even encourage walkers to join in.

''I know it's about a race, and I know it's about those guys winning all the cash, but it's also for the citizens of the city,'' said race president Bill Burke. ''When Pheidippides [the Greek warrior who dashed to Athens with news of the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C.] ran, did anybody ask him what his time was? The challenge is the distance, and if you don't believe that I think you've got a screw loose. The idea here is to test the human spirit. The test is not the time; the test is the 26.2 miles.''

Yes and no, says Tom Derderian, author of ''Boston Marathon: The History of the World's Premier Running Event'' and a coach of the Greater Boston Track Club. ''Other marathons have strayed from the idea of being a supreme test of a person's endurance,'' argued Derderian, who has run Boston 14 times and finished 18th, in 2:19:04, in 1975. People, he said, have begun to look at finishing a marathon in 2 1/2 or 6 hours ''as if it's the same. There isn't the sense that it's a race. That's why I'm against the marathon getting dumbed down, that everybody is a winner. That's telling young people it's not worth trying, that you won't get the respect for your extra effort.

''The major purpose of a race,'' said Derderian, ''is to see who's the fastest, and the second fastest, and the third fastest, and so on. When it gets to the point that a lot of people in the race don't care who's fastest and just want to finish, then it ceases to be a race.''

That, of course, assumes the marathon is, and should be, a race for everyone in it, not just for the elite athletes chasing prize money or the age-group aces going after trophies. But for many newcomers these days, the marathon is an event, one to be legitimately savored as the culmination of a fitness or fund-raising campaign. At the Suzuki Rock 'n' Roll Marathon that debuted last year in San Diego, almost one third of the 19,978 entrants were raising money for the Leukemia Society, which took in $15.6 million in a single day. The median finishing time was second slowest in the sample.

Not coincidentally, the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon also was more than half female. The rise in the number of women running marathons - in 1995, 23 percent of finishers were women; by 1998, that figure had jumped to 30.5 percent - is likely contributing at least slightly to an overall slowing of times.

Another factor some see as slowing marathon times is a system of ''walk breaks'' popularized by Jeff Galloway, an Atlanta author and member of the 1972 Olympic team at 10,000 meters who conducts clinics nationally.

Designed as respites to keep a marathoner's legs fresh late in the race so he or she can actually end up running faster than usual, ''Gallowalking,'' say some skeptics, has given premeditated walking too much of a blessing.

Newfound runners think ''what the hell, you can always walk,'' said Martin. ''Then you find people who walk longer than they run. I guess it's human nature: Give someone an inch and they'll take a mile.''

But Galloway sees his program as a way to get - and keep - people exercising and feeling good about it. ''You get a tremendous feeling of accomplishment regardless of the speed,'' he said. ''In most cases, these folks do a marathon and they feel when they finish they are just as good as the winner. Not as fast, but just as good.''

Moreover, they're realistic. ''A great percentage in that first running boom [in the late 1970s, during Bill Rodgers's heyday] set qualifying for Boston as a goal, when they didn't it was a major blow. This is a different generation; whereas they'd love to do it, life goes on. Almost all of them stay into exercise because they go into it for the right reasons. They're not trying to get a time goal, which can create burnout and disappointment.''

In a concession that typifies the complex debate, Martin praises Galloway as someone who ''has probably done more to help the common person make running a lifestyle than anyone around. He correctly emphasizes that unless you're trying to be a competitive athlete, look at your marathon as an experiment in fitness.''

Which brings us back to Boston. Although the BAA in 1994 began granting some bib numbers to charities in a program that has grown to about 1,000 runners for 15 organizations, the overall spirit of the race remains just that: a race.

''I think it's needed,'' said Don Kardong, who placed fourth in the 1976 Olympic marathon and is president of the Road Runners Club of America. ''People in the sport look to Boston for some special qualities. My perception is that Boston still has a very strong identity, and it's the right one based on its history. I don't think it's wrong for the sport's most famous event to have requirements to get in.''

On the other hand, Kardong - who ran a 2:14:07 here in 1978 but won't be approaching that on Monday when he'll be running with a cellular telephone to take calls from Runner's World readers - believes ''it's also been good on the other end to make the marathon accessible to people who don't think of themselves as marathoners.''

Or, as Burfoot put it: ''I continue to believe the road is wide enough and long enough for everyone.''

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