The Start

For some, taking a look back was a nice way to get going

Timing is everything, even at the start for the men's elite field, which included eventual winner Robert Cheruiyot (No. 1, third from left). Timing is everything, even at the start for the men's elite field, which included eventual winner Robert Cheruiyot (No. 1, third from left). (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Tony Chamberlain
Globe Correspondent / April 22, 2008

HOPKINTON - Standing on a podium, where she would be the starter for the women's division of yesterday's 112th Boston Marathon, Joan Benoit Samuelson took a long, reflective look down at the field of elite runners warming up.

Samuelson, 50, set an American record for her age group in Sunday's Olympic Trials in Boston - knowing it was her last competitive marathon. Yesterday she mused about the huge growth in the women's half of the sport since she won her first Boston in 1979, then established her legendary image by winning the first women's Olympic marathon in 1984.

"The sport has come so far," said Samuelson. "I'll never be able to train at the level I trained at again for [Sunday's] race, but I'll run Boston one more time before I end my career.

"I would love to come out and run with my son or my daughter," added the two-time Boston winner. "But [Sunday], just to be able to run through the streets of Boston, where I started my career 29 years ago, was really a wonderful time to reflect on what Boston means to me and what all these runners from around the world have done to support me over the years.

"When I saw my daughter [Abby, 18] on the course cheering me on, I really had a tear in my eye, because I was running marathons long before she was born."

Samuelson's appearance in Hopkinton yesterday was part of what has become a pageant unto itself - the prerace hours at the town's bucolic village green.

A mob of well-wishers with cameras greeted cycling star Lance Armstrong, No. 100, when he appeared at the start with his own film crew. That was shortly after Spyros Zagaris, the mayor of Marathon, Greece, presented the town with a replica of the marathon winner's trophy from the first modern Olympics in 1896, then acknowledged the torch from Greece that was burning on the green, another gift from his town.

Trooper Dan Clark once again sang "God Bless America," and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry fired the starting gun for the wheelchair division.

The Marathon now runs so smoothly that 21-year race director Dave McGillivray not only can put on two marathons in two days (he directed the Olympic Trials), he always expects the unexpected, ever-ready to react.

With the elite women runners tensed as the countdown continued, Samuelson held the starter pistol aloft and . . . nothing. Not even a "bang" flag.

Swiftly, McGillivray produced another gun, recycled the countdown to the next minute, and Samuelson fired in the air. No, this had never happened before, said McGillivray, but the extra pistol has always been on hand just in case.

"Just remember," he said with a grin before mounting a maroon motorbike for the trip to Boston ahead of the men's division, "pressure is a privilege."

The marathon has as many motivations as it does runners, many of them inspirational. In the crowd, stretching and warming up on the common, was 21-year old Northeastern student Katie Jerdee, who had never run long distances before.

But a year ago, Jerdee suffered a stroke similar to the one Tedy Bruschi had, and in her recovery she joined the Patriot linebacker's American Stroke Awareness campaign. Last Thanksgiving, Jerdee, a soccer player, began training for the distance, and yesterday she just hoped to make it to the finish. (She did, in 5:10:36.)

Jamie Parks, 46, of Chicago, was also stretching before the start, exchanging encouragement with his wife Lynn, whom he pushed in a wheelchair. The Parks Family Running Team, dressed in team shirts, has run several marathons, and last completed the Montreal race in 3:15, according to Jamie.

"Our Chicago Marathon is a great race," he said, "but Boston is the big one. It's the one you have to do if you run marathons. We've been getting excited to be here, even with all the hills."

If Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" has become entrenched as the anthem of the Red Sox, Neil Young's "Long May They Run" made for a less mystifying connection with the 25,000 runners who, after all the training and waiting and mounting tension, finally whooped and hollered their way out of town under a large mounted TV camera.

"Whenever I'm in Fenway Park, I always hear people asking, 'What does "Sweet Caroline" have to do with anything?' " said Jerry McGonnagle, who was selling sausages on the village green (not many to runners).

"But that song, it makes sense. Those people have a long way to run."

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