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FACES IN THE CROWD

The best day in many ways

RICK BALL World-record run RICK BALL
World-record run (Elizabeth Bokfi for The Globe)
By Maggie Cassidy
Globe Correspondent / April 21, 2009
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For the three runners featured in The Globe's Faces in the Crowd feature Friday, yesterday's strong headwind couldn't stop a day of bests -- whether they be personal bests or the best in the world.

Ontario's Rick Ball, an amputee who aimed to break three hours in his first Boston Marathon, just missed the mark, turning in a 3:01:50. But he nevertheless managed to set a world record for single leg amputees, dashing the 3:04 mark set by Australia's Amy Winters at the 2007 Chicago Marathon.

"It's so cool to have a world record at this course, the most prestigious in the world," said Ball, 43.

If it doesn't sound easy, that's because it wasn't. Ball, who lost his leg in a car accident more than 20 years ago, suffered severe dehydration and cramps and had to be treated by medical staff for more than an hour after finishing.

"Honestly, it was the hardest, most difficult thing I've ever done in my life -- harder than my accident, as far as the mental and physical pain," said Ball. "I just wasn't going to give up, though."

Crossing the finish line shortly after Ball was New Hampshire's Cathy Merra. The 50-year-old youth track coach, who years ago had trouble walking down stairs due to psoriatic arthritis, finished her first Boston Marathon in 3:11:59 - narrowly beating her goal of 3:12 despite the tough headwind.

"I thought I could tuck behind some guys but it just never ended up that way," she joked.

Also having a big day was Eric Johnson, Tufts University's executive director of development in the fund-raising department. Last year, Johnson, 49, ran all five world marathon majors, and yesterday he finished his seventh Boston Marathon with the Tufts team in 4:27:16 - his best Boston time by about 15 minutes, he said.

Johnson, who used the marathons as a way to ease his worries about his son's deployment to Iraq, attributed yesterday's strong time to being well rested. Like Ball and Merra, he said one of the best parts was the crowds.

"I was just reminded today about how much fun it is today to run by the two college campuses," he said, referring to Wellesley and BC.

Ball and Merra said spectators especially motivated them when they were struggling.

"At one point I raised my arms up and I yelled as loud as I could, I yelled, 'Bring me in! Bring me in!' and the crowd just roared," Ball said. "It was amazing. That's probably what got me to the finish line, was the crowd."

Merra said, "People are screaming, 'You're looking good,' and you know you're not, but you need that kind of stuff to finish the Boston Marathon."

For Johnson, whose son Griffin is home from Iraq, it was less emotional than last year's event, though he thought about Griffin for extra motivation.

Ball, who experienced his first visit to Boston this weekend, said he enjoyed the city and also hopes for a return trip. His next big goal is competing for Team Canada in the 2012 Paralympics, where the only marathon available is for arm amputees - although he said he would like to run it nonetheless.

Merra was the only runner to hesitate when asked about running Boston next year, but even she hasn't counted it out.

"I remember after Maine [in October 2008] thinking I'd never, ever want to do another marathon again, and the next day I signed up for Boston, so who knows?" she said.