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She’ll be gunning it

1985 champion Rainsberger gets the starting nod

By John Powers
Globe Staff / April 14, 2010

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Twenty-five years later, she’ll finally get to start what she finished. On Monday morning in Hopkinton, Lisa Rainsberger will fire the pistol to send off the elite women in the 114th running of the Boston Marathon. Then, wearing the symbolic No. 1985, she’ll join the first wave of more than 26,700 competitors and head for Copley Square alongside husband Bud and 26-year-old daughter Meghan.

“I am toeing the line,’’ promises the woman who was Lisa Larsen-Weidenbach when she literally won by a mile here in 1985 at 23. “It’s not going to be pretty. It’s more like Memory Lane for me.’’

Rainsberger, who was living in Marblehead then, remembers a Boston Marathon where women started among the masses, when the race began at noon and ended in front of the Prudential Center, when there was no prize money or appearance fees, and the only foreigners among the top 10 came from the British Commonwealth. She was not only the last American woman to win here, she also was the last champion who didn’t receive a fat check from John Hancock.

The shoe companies provided the payday back then, and if Saucony hadn’t offered her a bonus for winning Boston, Rainsberger likely wouldn’t have come.

“Probably not,’’ she says. “Not that I’m a mercenary and ran for money, but a marathon was half of your yearly paycheck.’’

The top runners at that time trained year-round for a handful of races, and they couldn’t pay the rent or buy groceries with a laurel wreath. Winning Boston, the world’s most famous road race, was a career-changer. Though Rainsberger later won two Chicago titles and was an alternate on three Olympic teams, she made her name here on one muggy afternoon.

“The whole purpose was to come to Boston and win,’’ she says. “Look at what it does for one’s life.’’

Jimmy Carter inadvertently did the most for Rainsberger by keeping the US Olympic team from competing in Moscow in 1980. She was an All-America swimmer at Michigan then and had qualified for the trials in the individual medley. But after the boycott was announced in April, Rainsberger saw no point in traveling to California in July to earn a ceremonial place on a no-show squad.

“There was no way I could afford to fly myself there if it isn’t going to be an Olympic trials,’’ she says.

Instead, Rainsberger went to Wyoming to take a summer biology course and began putting on weight. “Beer and boys,’’ she says. So she began running and quickly was hooked.

The scenery was undeniably more interesting.

“I didn’t have to follow the little black line on the bottom of the pool,’’ she says.

After working out with her track-team roommate, Rainsberger was amazed to discover how much talent she had for it; she quit the swim team and became a distance runner.

“I’m almost ashamed to say how quickly it happened,’’ she says.

One season after walking onto the squad, Rainsberger was a cross-country All-American. In 1984, she finished fourth in the US trials for the inaugural Olympic women’s marathon in Los Angeles, which was won by previous Boston victor Joan Benoit.

That made Rainsberger, who went on to set US records for 30 kilometers and 5 miles, the odds-on favorite amid a thin field here in 1985.

“I had investigated the other women,’’ she says, “and I figured that it was my race to lose.’’

In those days, though, female contenders could and did come out of nowhere, just as Rainsberger had. Spotting one’s challengers amid a forest of males was tricky.

“In the ’80s, a lot of guys had long hair,’’ Rainsberger recalls. “Lots of times I would look up ahead and think, is that a woman? And it was just a man with shaggy hair. So I always ran scared.’’

That day, Rainsberger, wearing No. 8001, took off briskly and was under 39 minutes after 7 miles. Spurred on by a canyon of cheers from the Wellesley undergraduates, she was under an hour and 14 minutes at the midpoint, on schedule to become only the fourth US woman to break 2:30. Then the heat made her dizzy and wobbly, but she was so far ahead by Chestnut Hill that it didn’t matter.

When a friend called to her that she was eight minutes ahead of her nearest pursuer, Rainsberger could smell the laurel.

“I thought, OK, I can literally jog and make this happen,’’ she recalls.

Her time was so slow (2:34:06) that she apologized for it, but her 8:09 margin ahead of runner-up Lynne Huntington was, and still is, the third-largest in race history.

It was Rainsberger’s best day in Boston. She was injured and couldn’t defend her crown in 1986 when Norway’s Ingrid Kristiansen won $35,000 and a Mercedes-Benz for her efforts. In 1989, she made a mad dash at Kristiansen (“I went for it — came through the half in 1:11’’), blew apart, and finished fifth. In 1993, she was banged up by a car in the Back Bay three days before the race and ran anyway, but the pain made her drop out after 9 miles. Her last lace-up here came five years ago on the 20th anniversary of her victory.

Though Rainsberger went on to be a national-level triathlete, her serious running career ended a dozen years ago when she developed a 16-inch blood clot in her right femoral vein that couldn’t be treated while she was pregnant. But at 48, she still is committed to keeping herself and everyone else off the sofa.

Rainsberger, who lives in Colorado Springs and is the mother of four, organizes the Kokopelli Kids trail race series to introduce youngsters to the joys of putting one foot in front of the other.

“Most kids think of running as punishment,’’ she muses.

Rainsberger also directs the Race Against Suicide, a local 10K event, and the Springs Splash & Dash swim-and-run series, coaches 50 runners and triathletes (including five Army marathoners). and has a TrainingGoals.com website.

“I’ve got a great gig,’’ Rainsberger says.

When she’s not playing soccer mom for her 11-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son (“I get the pleasure of driving them all over creation’’), she’s doing the killer Pikes Peak Ascent or taking a vertical jaunt along an abandoned cog railway.

“I do a lot of fun-adventure stuff,’’ she says.

On Monday, Rainsberger will have herself a nostalgic adventure on the hilliest Memory Lane imaginable. She’ll fire the gun, then she’ll limber up and be back where she started a quarter-century ago, alongside 16 times as many women (from 701 to 11,315) but with a much lower number and a unique place in race lore.

“I’m just happy I’m still able,’’ the Last Unpaid Winner says.

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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