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Fans helped runners get over the hump

High spirits boost sagging legs By Michael Vega, Globe Staff, 04/20/99

he aroma of grilling sausages and hot dogs wafted in the air, a mouth-watering incentive yesterday for runners as they scaled the most difficult part of the Boston Marathon course: Heartbreak Hill. For the past 20 years, Dick and Margaret O'Brien have hosted a Marathon cookout at their home on Commonwealth Avenue, some 100 yards from the crest of Heartbreak Hill.

The gathering had added spirit and enthusiasm this year because the O'Briens' youngest daughter, Laureen, a 29-year-old law student at Boston College, was among the brave-hearted runners in yesterday's 103d Boston Marathon.

''My mother's worried, really worried about the kid,'' said Laureen's older sister, Patricia. ''But she'll do fine.''

The O'Briens had been through this before, when 31-year-old son Eddie ran in 1991. Yesterday, Eddie assumed the duties of host and associate grillmaster.

''The one year he ran,'' recalled Dick O'Brien, ''he came up Heartbreak Hill and he was really dying, he was really struggling. He had even wanted to pull into the house for a beer, but we were all standing there cheering him on.

''You should've seen him. All of a sudden, the chest goes out, the legs start pumping, and he goes right up the hill. He came home later wrapped in a blanket and he sat at the end of the couch for about three days.''

Eddie recalled that day only as a blur.

''Probably because I was going so fast past the house,'' he joked. ''Actually, when I came by, everyone was toasting me with their beers, and I was like, `Oh, those look cold, too.'''

An hour before the race was to start in Hopkinton, fans began lining up on both sides of Comm. Ave., anticipating the arrival of wave after wave of runners. However, a group of 10 walkers was the first to scale the hill, pushing a woman in a wheelchair. They were students from Noble & Greenough School, walking from Woodland Country Club in Newton to the finish line in an attempt to raise funds for their school's computer lab.

They were also trying to help Linda Stranieri, who has multiple sclerosis, achieve her goal of finishing the race.

''Last year, Boston Marathon officials took her off the course because she didn't have an official number,'' said Sarah Swett, a 15-year-old sophomore. ''But we want to try and help her reach the finish line.''

Helping someone finish was also the intent of WBZ Radio personality Dan Roche. His 29-year-old wife, Pamela, was running her first marathon, and he stationed himself atop the WBZ mobile studio on Comm. Ave. to report on the race and to cheer for his wife. This was one time when cheering in the press box seemed appropriate.

''Everything she's ever done since I met her has been to accommodate me or our two children,'' Roche said. ''But this is something she's wanted to do for herself. It all started as a way to get back into shape after our 8-month-old daughter, Victoria, was born last July, but when you watch someone train as hard as they do for this race, only then can you appreciate it. I'm so proud of her.''

Roche said he was hoping to cheer his wife up Heartbreak Hill, then make a mad dash for Copley Square to wait for her there.

''When she comes across the finish line,'' he said, ''I'm sure I'm going to have tears in my eyes.''

Wailing sirens from a police motorcade signaled the arrival of the first wave of competitors: the wheelchair athletes. Then, a half-hour later, another siren signaled the approach of the elite men's runners.

Silvio Guerra of Ecuador reached the crest of Heartbreak Hill in 1:42:26, with a strong stride. About 100 yards behind him, Joseph Chebet of Kenya, last year's runner-up, ran second. Chebet would pass Guerra near Cleveland Circle and win in 2:09:52.

Fatuma Roba soon was coming up the hill. The women's two-time defending champion from Ethiopia ran without peer, but she did not run alone. She was accompanied by seven enthusiastic spectators, countrymen waving Ethiopian flags as they ran up the hill, exhorting their nation's heroine to victory.

Some time passed, and there still was no sign of Laureen O'Brien. But her father was not worried in the least.

''When she smells the good food,'' said Dick O'Brien, as he grilled two dozen sausages in his backyard patio, ''it will be like a magnet drawing her up the hill.''

This story ran on page F07 of the Boston Globe on 04/20/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.

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