114th Boston Marathon

Crucial check point

Prize money kept Boston in running

Geoff Smith (left) was the last men’s champion in the Boston Marathon (1985) who did not collect a check for his efforts. Last year’s men’s winner, Deriba Merga (right), earned $150,000. Geoff Smith (left) was the last men’s champion in the Boston Marathon (1985) who did not collect a check for his efforts. Last year’s men’s winner, Deriba Merga (right), earned $150,000. (File/Janet Knott (Left), John Blanding/Globe Staff)
By John Powers
Globe Staff / April 11, 2010

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Then, as now, it was the granddaddy of road races. The Boston Marathon first was held in 1897, a year after the revival of the Olympic Games in Athens. For nearly a century, runners competed for a laurel wreath, a medal, a bowl of beef stew, and a touch of immortality.

The beauty of Boston was that it never changed. The problem with Boston was that it never changed, even when the world around it did.

“We’ve been accused of being dinosaurs, of living in another age,’’ Will Cloney, the Boston Athletic Association’s longtime race director, mused in 1980. “I guess we’ll just have to be dinosaurs, then.’’

Only a few years later, the world’s most storied marathon was bordering on Jurassic.

“If they don’t go to prize money, that marathon is going to die,’’ defending champion Greg Meyer predicted before the 1984 edition.

What world-class runner would come to a place that offered no prize money, no appearance money, not even expenses?

“I can’t see going to Boston and wasting my effort there,’’ Ron Tabb, the 1983 runner-up, said when he withdrew before the 1985 event.

That year, Geoff Smith retained his men’s title by more than five minutes despite walking across the finish line. Lisa Larsen-Weidenbach won the women’s race by more than eight minutes. If her shoe company hadn’t offered her a bonus for winning Boston, she almost certainly wouldn’t have come.

“It’s just very difficult to go to a race for a handshake,’’ Larsen-Weidenbach observed.

That was the last time that the hand wasn’t holding a check. When Australia’s Rob de Castella turned up in 1986, he left town with $60,000 of sponsor John Hancock’s money plus a Mercedes-Benz after shattering the course record. Norway’s Ingrid Kristiansen collected $35,000 and a car, and Boston was reborn.

“It was weird to win prize money,’’ recalled Bill Rodgers, who earned nothing for his four previous victories but picked up $12,500 for placing fourth that day. “But it was such an honor to be treated with respect. Now, we were like everyone else in America. We weren’t a niche sport any more.’’

Twenty-five years after the financial services company stepped in to save the race from becoming a holiday sideshow, Hancock has paid out more than $13 million in prize money. The winners of the 114th running a week from tomorrow will collect $150,00 apiece, not counting bonuses, and they’ll also earn points toward the World Marathon Majors crown that brings another $500,000.

Boston has become a thoroughly modern race, organized to accommodate both the elite athletes and the true amateurs who’ve multiplied the field five-fold during the past 25 years.

“We try to fulfill everyone’s expectations,’’ said race director, Dave McGillivray, who is in his 23d year with the race director. “People look at us as setting the standard.’’

Field gets crowded
For decades, Boston had set the standard because it had so few competitors. But once the running boom took hold in the late ’70s and new 26-milers began paying top runners, the BAA’s treasure seemed destined to become a period piece, a charming throwback to the day when a Melrose printer or an Arlington florist’s assistant would win it.

New York City, which held its first marathon in 1970, wasn’t bashful about passing around cash.

“[Race co-founder] Fred Lebow made it about money from the beginning,’’ said race director Mary Wittenberg. “He kind of bragged about passing money under the table.’’

By the early ’80s, there were spring marathons in London and Rotterdam that were decidedly more attractive because they were lucrative.

Boston’s last great amateur men’s race came in 1982, the remarkable Duel In The Sun between Wayland native Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley. The next year, Salazar ran in Rotterdam instead. By then, even Cloney had come around to the reality.

“Those people who want to turn the pages back 20 years and have it be a nice little local race have not awakened to the changes that have come in the world,’’ said Cloney, who’d stepped down as race director after 36 years. “We can’t live in 1920.’’

Living in 1985 meant getting into step with a growing list of rival marathons that had more to offer than the roar of the crowd along Commonwealth Avenue.

“It became clear to me that in order to compete that we needed to make changes, and that changes meant paying money,’’ said BAA executive director Guy Morse, who became race administrator before the 1985 event. “But offering prize money means you have to have money, and the BAA had no money.’’

The budget was $150,000 plus in-kind contributions from sponsors like Prudential. What the race needed was a local corporate savior that wouldn’t mind pouring millions into the race without changing its essence. That was the public plea from Mayor Ray Flynn, himself an avid jogger who could tell one Johnny Kelley from another.

Up stepped Hancock, named for a patriot known primarily for his penmanship. The company was looking for a younger and hipper image and saw the marathon, with its emphasis on health and fitness, as a natural partner.

“We actually want people to live a long time,’’ said David D’Alessandro, the former chairman who as vice president helped arrange the marriage between Hancock and the BAA in late 1985. “It doesn’t pay for them to die early.’’

The BAA, which had been burned several years earlier by a controversial and abortive sponsorship deal with Marshall Medoff, was apprehensive about a long-term corporate deal.

“These were extremely uncharted waters for them,’’ said Morse. But a $10 million, 10-year deal was too attractive to pass up.

“The BAA had to go through a crisis,’’ said Rodgers, “but I take my hat off to them because they made the move.’’

Instant results
Hancock wanted remarkably little for its money. The biggest change was moving the finish line from in front of the Pru down the street to Copley Square in the shadow of the Hancock tower.

“You can move it 120 yards,’’ D’Alessandro said. “We just spent $10 million and the finish is in front of our competitor?’’

The impact that prize money had on the race was immediate and immense. The field, recruited then as now by persistent and persuasive Patrick Lynch, was top-grade: de Castella, Rodgers, US Olympic trials winner Pete Pfitzinger, two-time New York winner Orlando Pizzolato, top-ranked Steve Jones (who pulled out with tendinitis), and women’s world record-holder Kristiansen.

“Deke told me, I may never win the Olympics but I will be forever famous if I win the Boston Marathon,’’ recalled D’Alessandro.

Besides the lore, the lure was a creative combination of prize and bonus money plus a personal services contract (in lieu of appearance money, a BAA no-no) that rewarded elite runners for making appearances and doing clinics. De Castella responded with a 2 hour, 7 minute, 51 second effort that was the third-fastest in world history, and Kristiansen’s 2:24:55 was second in race annals only to Joan Benoit’s 1983 global mark of 2:22.43.

Boston, finally, had gone global and would never go back. The Africans arrived two years later, led by Kenya’s Ibrahim Hussein, and he and his countrymen have won all but five men’s races since. Runners from seven countries have claimed the women’s crown.

The BAA’s challenge has been to change with the times without tossing away its traditions.

“It all comes down to who you want to be,’’ said McGillivray. “It’s a style, it’s a preference, and it has a lot to do with how we’ve done it in the past. There’s a delicate balance going on here.’’

The biggest changes, which have come in the last six years, were responses to necessity and practicality. A separate start for elite women (2004). Two waves beginning 30 minutes apart (2006). A morning start (2007).

“The thing that drives the changes more than anything is the sheer volume, the number of entrants,’’ said McGillivray, who has watched them soar from fewer than 7,000 to nearly 27,000.

What hasn’t changed is the Patriots Day date, the age-old 26-mile layout with the notorious Newton hills and the race’s name. It is not, and will not be, the John Hancock Boston Marathon. When Hancock merged with Manulife in 2004, it was unclear what business value a Canadian firm would find in sponsoring a Boston footrace and it made for a delicate minuet.

“For the first two or three years, we were trying to figure out where do we each want to take this,’’ said Hancock executive vice president Jim Gallagher.

With Hancock signed through 2023, there’s no confusion.

“The marathon is the jewel property in our portfolio,’’ said assistant vice president Rob Friedman, whose firm also sponsors the Red Sox and Dodgers.

For a time, that jewel was ignored by the world’s top marathoners, who couldn’t afford to run for rhinestones while diamonds were being offered elsewhere. Clarence DeMar and Johnny Kelley ran for the laurels and the lore, but they wouldn’t have minded some lucre.

Pheidippides, who ran the first marathon 2,500 years ago and died at the end, knew that 26 miles is no fun run.

“Every runner earns every cent in that race,’’ said Rodgers.

John Powers can be reached at