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Boston Marathon's unique course recognizable to all but record-keepers

By John Vellante, Globe Staff, 04/16/99

It's not going to happen, but let's say defending champion Moses Tanui runs the marathon of his life Monday and cracks the two-hour barrier.

Or that Fatuma Roba leaves the field in her wake and becomes the first woman to break 2:20.

Those would become Boston Marathon records, to be sure, but would USA Track & Field recognize them?

No, no, a thousand times no.

There, the times would be a ''noteworthy performance set on a technically aided course.''

Not that the Boston Marathon isn't special in the eyes of USATF, it's just that the course, famed as it is, doesn't fall within the parameters of record standards.

And that's because the course begins at an elevation of 490 feet (149 meters) in Hopkinton and drops to 10 feet (3 meters) at the finish in Boston for a net elevation drop of 480 feet (146 meters).

''If the finish was no more than 42 meters below the start, then we would recognize it,'' said Basil Honikman, managing trustee of road running information and chairman of the USATF records committee. ''Boston far exceeds that. It drops 3.22 meters for every kilometer run.

''This in no way reduces the tremendous respect that USA Track & Field has for the Boston Marathon, which, in many ways is the flagship event of American and maybe even world marathons. And it shouldn't in any way reduce the importance or prestige of the event. It's just one characteristic.''

Honikman noted that Boston isn't the only marathon course that fails to meet record standards. Others that don't are Minnesota and Utah; some that do are Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and New York.

''It is a controversial issue, and I know that a lot of people in Boston are upset and I can understand that,'' said Honikman, ''but rules are a matter of opinion and votes. Science, for all intents and purposes, backs up the fact that running downhill does give you an advantage.''

Dave McGillivray, marathon technical director, said he understands the USATF point of view, but that doesn't mean he agrees with it. ''From a personal perspective, I've run 102 marathons coast to coast and abroad, so I think I've experienced the full gamut of what's out there,'' said McGillivray. ''I haven't run every course, but enough to have an opinion.

''Boston is unique in that in order to run it well, you have to know it. Instead of challenging, I look at it as strategic. It has a lot of character by virtue of its topography.

''It's point-to-point, and it's true that the elevation drop could be more of a benefit than a negative, but in a marathon - and some people may be calling this a stretch - I don't agree. The damage one does to the body during the first 10 miles far outweighs what advantage someone on the outside looking in might perceive that you would get. It [the course] really beats you up. By the time you get to the fire station in Newton [17.5 miles], the body has been punished.''

And that's something McGillivray feels the USATF should take into consideration.

''I understand the rules and know they have to be imposed in order to validate and qualify records,'' he said, ''but unfortunately sometimes the rules don't address individual or specific circumstances. I think Boston could be an exception, but I know it can't be.

''I've run 27 Bostons and ran my personal best [2:29:58] in my 10th one. I don't put an asterisk on that, and I don't think anyone else does, either. If someone runs a time faster than the recognized record, I think the populace will recognize it as such.''

BAA director of media operations Jack Fleming summed things up nicely. ''Boston is Boston,'' he said, ''and one of the few things that makes it so special is the course. The Boston Marathon's been around since 1897, long before the USATF or any other governing body was in existence.

''I'm sure that in 1897, when John Graham set out to plot a point-to-point course similar to the fabled Marathon-to-Athens route run by Pheidippides in 490 B.C., this was the furthest thing from his mind.''

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