Step ladder

Former Boston winners knew how to conquer the route's challenges and climb the podium

By John Powers
Globe Staff / April 15, 2011

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There are two proven ways to run a fast marathon in Boston. Jump in just after Kenmore Square, as Rosie Ruiz is reputed to have done in 1980. Or run a course that later was later found to be 1,183 yards short, as Antti Viskari did in 1956.

The local wisdom is that there won’t be a super-swift clocking here until they flatten the Newton hills. None of the top 35 all-time men’s or top 15 women’s performances were achieved on the historic Hopkinton-to-Back Bay layout. London, Berlin, Chicago, and Rotterdam are where the speed racers go. But it is possible to hang up a low number on Patriots Day.

Yun Bok Suh and Joan Benoit both set world records here and there have been seven men’s and three women’s American marks established. Last year Robert (The Younger) Cheruiyot chopped a minute and 22 seconds off Robert (The Elder) Cheruiyot’s course record in the fastest time (2:05:52) ever run on a non-flat course in an unpaced race. “It’s the easiest course in the world,’’ Johnny (The Elder) Kelley used to say. “The first 5 and last 5 miles are downhill.’’

Yet Boston, with all its topographical quirks, can be devilishly difficult. “It’s how you run the course, the intuitive feel and learning,’’ says four-time champion Bill Rodgers, who dropped out in his debut. “It took me three years.’’

Experience is an undeniable asset here. So are patience and pragmatism. Not that champions haven’t set standards here by defying convention. Benoit went out with her needle on the verge of the red zone in 1983. Margaret Okayo was a newbie in 2002. Rob de Castella ran the last half of the race alone in 1986. Ron Hill sloshed through hypothermic conditions in 1970.

But most of the record-breakers have used time-tested strategies that date to 1897. “You’ve got to run the course with respect,’’ says Rodgers. “Otherwise, you’ll be at the top of Heartbreak Hill, wondering what happened.’’

Know the course The elder Kelley, who ran the route 61 times, literally could have traversed it blindfolded. “I know every rock on that course,’’ he once said. You don’t need a photographic memory to post a fast time here, but experience clearly helps. “It’s one thing to see the course,’’ Olympic medalist Meb Keflezighi said after his debut here. “It’s another thing to run on it.’’ The constant gear-changing, especially in the hills, takes getting used to, which is why former coach Bill Squires had his Greater Boston Track Club guys train on it. “You’ve got to get the feel,’’ he says. “You can’t do it on one practice run.’’ That’s why Ryan Hall arrived here in March before his second bid last year and went on to run 2:08:41, fastest ever here by an American. “People who know the course have a huge advantage,’’ he says. “Getting on it for three weeks totally allowed me to work the course.’’

Get a cool day — and a tailwind Rodgers always liked brisk race days. Once the BAA switched from its traditional noon start to midmorning, strength-sapping heat became much less of a factor than it was in 1982, when Alberto Salazar bested Dick Beardsley in their famous “Duel in the Sun’’ and ended up as what a medical-tent doctor called “a potato chip,’’ having half a dozen bags of saline fluid pumped into him. Most of the fastest efforts in Boston — like Benoit’s world-best 2:22:43 in 1983, Cosmas Ndeti’s course-record 2:07:15 in 1994, and Robert Cheruiyot’s course-record 2:07:14 in 2006 — were submitted on cool days with a westerly breeze.

Avoid irrational exuberance Anyone remember Simon Karori? He holds the checkpoint record for 10 kilometers (28:43), set on his mad dash into Framingham in 1992. The pack gobbled him up at Wellesley Town Hall. “If you put too much into the early miles, you’ll pay,’’ warns Johnny (The Younger) Kelley. That’s what happened to Tom Fleming, who was 40 seconds ahead after 10 miles in 1979 and ended up fourth. “You have to keep your cool,’’ says Rodgers, who made his move in the Newton hills that year and went on to win his third title with an American record.

Let others lead There are no prizes for being at the head of the parade. “That’s like having a huge bull’s-eye on your back,’’ says Rodgers. Keith Brantly led at the midway point in 1994 but Ndeti and a whole bunch of folks ran him down. Benjamin Maiyo was all by himself going into the hills before Cheruiyot lassoed him in 2006. Hall, a natural front runner, led for most of the first 9 miles in 2009 before the Africans caught and dropped him. “I was just trying to be myself out there,’’ said Hall, who eventually rallied to place third. “It kind of caught up with me later.’’ More often than not, the race isn’t decided until the final 8 miles. “If you do hold back,’’ muses Rodgers, “it always seems to pay off.’’

Stick to a rhythm When Benoit smashed the world record, she was told she was going too fast. “I remember people saying, ‘She’s going to blow up, she’s going to blow up,’ ’’ recalled the subsequent Olympic champion, who was nearly 40 seconds under her American mark at the halfway point. “But I was running within myself.’’ The body clock trumps the stopwatch here. “You have to get into an ideal pace for yourself,’’ says the younger Kelley, who couldn’t believe how easily he was running during his 1957 triumph. “That’s the most important thing.’’ That’s why Cheruiyot refused to stay with the overeager crowd in 2006. “I do not follow the guys because I know the race is too fast,’’ he said. So he waited to make his move at the firehouse turn going into the hills and ended up setting a course record.

Throw in a tactical surge Upping the ante at the right time can quicken the front runners’ tempo. The flats coming through Natick around 10 miles can be a good place to take the pack’s temperature. Rodgers liked to bust a move on the steep downhill between Wellesley Hills and Newton Lower Falls. The right-angle firehouse turn onto Commonwealth Avenue is a favored place to pick it up during the few moments when you’re out of sight of pursuers. And the “Haunted Mile’’ between the bottom of Heartbreak and Cleveland Circle is where Lee Bong Ju shook off the Kenyans in 2001. “You can go by the people who are spent,’’ says Squires.

Have someone fast at your shoulder While it’s possible to beat the clock without company as de Castella did, it’s better to go toe-to-toe. That’s how Salazar and Beardsley both went sub 2:09 in the most memorable showdown in race history. “Runners need someone to push them at least part of the way,’’ says Rodgers. “Without [Toshihiko] Seko pushing me in 1979, I wouldn’t have set the record.’’ Watch out for trapdoors What makes Boston difficult is that it starts out easy. “The course is a lullaby for about 11 1/2 miles,’’ says Squires. Then it plays the unwary for suckers. “You have to sense the way the course can prick you,’’ says the younger Kelley. If you go hurtling down out of Wellesley, Hell’s Alley grabs you by the ankles. “You get the fake sense that you’re doing better than you are,’’ said Lisa Rainsberger, the former champ who got caught up chasing Ingrid Kristiansen up and over the Route 128 overpass in 1989 and ended up fifth.

Push it in the hills The Newton trimountain between Miles 17 and 21 may be where races are lost, but it’s also where they’re often won. “It’s a great place because most people are scared to death of the hills,’’ says Rodgers, who did his best work there. Tarzan Brown shattered the course record by attacking the hills in 1939. Yoshiaki Unetani did the same in 1969 when he posted the biggest winning margin in 11 years. Salazar and Beardsley covered that stretch in a jaw-dropping 17:11 and de Castella made a point of going hard to Heartbreak when he destroyed the record. “If you were smart through the first half you can start duking it out there,’’ says Rodgers. “The hills give back, too.’’

John Powers can be reached at

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