The 1986 Boston Marathon

Boston: the Canadian Story
By David Blaikie ©

The 1986 Boston Marathon

I sat in the back seat of a yellow school bus, watching Boston recede behind me on the grey windy morning of April 21,1986. The tires hummed on the Massachusetts turnpike and a collage of images rolled away into the distance, the most striking being the outline of the John Hancock and Prudential insurance buildings. The bus was filled with lean chattering runners, part of a long convoy of yellow buses threading out of Boston that morning for Hopkinton, twenty-six miles to the southwest. The stage was set for the 90th running of the Boston Marathon and it was also set for a changing of the guard.

John Hancock had taken over the role that the Prudential had played for the previous twenty years at Boston – that of chief race sponsor and site of the famous Boston finishing line. The two companies are neighbors on Boylston Street in the Back Bay area of Boston, not far from the shore of the Charles River. Hancock was about to do what the Prudential had done in another time – usher in a new chapter of Boston Marathon history.

Amby Burfoot ran to the Prudential Centre in 1968, the day he ended America’s long Boston drought and won the race before half-delirious crowds. The Prudential beckoned Bill Rodgers, not once but four times to the laurel wreath waiting in its shadow. And the same frosty landmark, on a hot afternoon in 1977, pulled Jerome Drayton home, a victor so parched for water, and so furious at race organizers because of it, that he could scarcely savor his triumph. The Prudential, in 1980, was also the destination of Rosie Ruiz, the impostor who stole the cheers of victory that belonged to Jacqueline Gareau.

Visible from Heartbreak

First visible as Boston marathoners top Heartbreak Hill at twenty-one miles, the Prudential figures richly in the tradition of a race known worldwide for its love of tradition. It is natural to resist the abandonment of tradition and the Prudential could not bring itself to let go of Boston’s tradition as an amateur race. But the point came when even the Boston Athletic Association could no longer resist the pressure for prize money marathoning. So tradition died and the Prudential withdrew. Hancock, the company with the newer and taller office tower, stepped in, hurling Boston overnight into the modern marathon world with a ten-year sponsorship deal for $10 million – enough to buy a lot of laurel wreaths.

The old finish line at Boston was a strip of paint across Ring Road, a service lane paralleling Boylston in front of Hynes Auditorium and the Prudential Centre. It had become something of a shrine over the years, so many were the marathoners who had run across it or posed by it for commemorative snapshots.

I had gone over on Saturday to look at it and was surprised by what I found. Faded and scarred after a year of neglect, it was scarcely visible amid parked cars, construction equipment and piles of building materials hauled in for a major construction project. Ring Road was closed and all but gone, gouged away by earth removers. And Hynes Auditorium, marathon headquarters for many years, looked as though it had been bombed.

I thought of Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley sprinting shoulder to shoulder down Ring Road in 1982 at the conclusion of the fastest Boston Marathon in history, Salazar snatching victory 2:08:51 to 2:08:53. And I thought of the cheers that shook Back Bay the day Joan Benoit crossed that same line in 1983, arms flung high, the clock reading a fantastic new women’s world record of 2:22:43. Now there was only the wind, whipping bits of garbage about, and the drift of passersby down Boylston in the direction of the new finish line next to the Boston Public Library at Copley Square.

Near the Lenox

In truth, the new finish line was closer to where the Boston Marathon had ended for decades – next to the Lenox Hotel on Exeter Street – than it had been at the Prudential Centre. But it didn’t seem that way to me. The view of history is always obscured by the part we’ve witnessed personally.

Copley Square, bounded by the library, the Hancock building and the Westin Hotel, was the centre of activity for the 1986 Boston Marathon. Colorful tents and bleachers had been put up and a big billboard announced Boston is Back. Runners entering the Westin, the new race headquarters, paused to gawk upward at two giant Sock Racers fixed to the outside of the hotel, an eye-catching Nike shoe promotion.

On the bus to Hopkinton, I flipped through the Marathon Edition of the Boston Globe, handed out free as we boarded. It was packed with race reports and features, including the names of all runners in the field of nearly 5,000. I thought of what Canadian newspapers could do for their hometown marathons if sports editors put their minds to it. But running a marathon rather than reading about one was a more immediate concern. My attention strayed to the landscape beyond the bus window. I wondered as we sped past the fields and houses, and leafless April trees, how I would ever be able to run back to Boston. Twenty-six miles can seem longer in a bus than it does on foot.

Also on my mind was the fact that I was here by the grace of the Boston Athletic Association. I had not earned the number I was wearing on my chest in the same way other runners on the bus had done – by running a qualifying marathon, within the past twelve months, of two hours and fifty minutes or faster. For males under forty that was the requirement gaining admittance to this the most ruthless “open” marathon in the world. My best time was hardly within an hour of the standard.

Appealling to the BAA

So last fall I wrote a letter to the BAA, enclosing a copy of a book I had written, Boston: The Canadian Story. I explained that I had spent more than a year researching and writing it, that the work had immersed me in the storied history of Boston, and that I felt almost a part of the race as a result. I wasn’t subtle. Just once, I pleaded, could I run the Boston Marathon?

A man named Harold Rathburn wrote back a kind and generous letter. “Although we have qualifying standards,” he informed me, “it is also an invitational race. And as a member of the Board of Governors it will be my pleasure to invite you to participate as a numbered runner.” There are events in my life that have meant more but the list is not long. Rathburn was as good as his word. My number – 1409 – was waiting when I arrived in Boston.

As the bus turned into Hopkinton, with its tall church spires and prim New England homes, I felt apprehensive. In a classic tale of marathon woe, I had pulled a groin muscle eight days before the race. It was healing well but would it stand a marathon? I had nightmare visions of being forced to quit the only Boston Marathon I would have the chance to run.

Rain was spitting as we arrived at the Hopkinton Junior High School and disembarked. The name of the town jumped at me from a school wall, as it had been jumping at me from signposts all the way from Boston. It reminded me of an error in my book, one that had slipped through despite countless proofreadings. No one had pointed it out to me for almost a year after the book was published but, incredibly, I had mispelled Hopkinton. It came out Hopkington – with a g. I tried to put it out of my mind.

Throwaway Clothes

So many runners had crowded into the school that there was almost no room to move. I found a narrow strip of floor in the gym and tried to relax, making another stab at reading the Boston Globe and then attempting to sleep. Finally, I gave up and went outside. The rain had stopped and lines had formed at a bank of portable toilets in the parking lot.

A handful of runners wandered about the playing field adjacent the school. I put my running bag on a Boston-bound bus and donned some throwaway clothing I had brought to keep warm during the final wait for the gun. Then I set off for the starting area, half a mile away at the head of the main street in Hopkinton. As I walked down Hayden Row, the street where the marathon started in the days before the running boom churned up unmanageable numbers and it became hazardous for the runners to make the sharp right turn onto the main street, it occurred to me that never before had I been dressed so ridiculously in public.

I was wearing a large green garbage bag. My head poked up from a hole in the top of it and my arms stuck out through slits in the side. There was a rip the size of a bowling ball in the sleeve of my sweater. And my legs were clad in what probably was the ugliest underwear ever put on the market by Stanfield’s Ltd. Topping the ensemble was a jaunty blue Mercedes Benz running hat, included in the official BAA running kit. As a group of runners walked past I heard one mutter, “Boy is that guy in trouble.”

The Boston Marathon begins at the crest of a mile-long hill on Route 135. An hour and a half before the race, state troopers had cordoned off a section of the starting area for the benefit of television interviewers. The focus of attention was Steve Jones, the British marathoner who once held the world record and missed reclaiming it by a single second last October in Chicago. Jones had hoped to run Boston but was sidelined by injuries. Elite runners who would compete for the hefty pot of $250,000 prize money had not yet made their appearance.

First Congregational Church

A few yards behind, on the lawn of the First Congregational Church, a crowd had gathered for a 10:30 a.m. Runners’ Service. The master of ceremonies was a marathoner named Bob Brandon and music provided by a gospel-belting singer named Lisa (Mullen) Itse. The text for the service Hebrews 12:1, was, “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” It was a cheerful, if windy, service and clearly appreciated by the many runners who filled the church lawn, their heads bowed in prayer.

As the clock edged closer to noon, and the tension rose, I spotted several elite runners warming up in a parking lot behind the church. Peter Butler was there, prancing about like a nervous racehorse, although his name would be missing later when the finishers were counted back in Boston. Butler was among the fastest runners entered with a marathon best of 2:10: 56, a time he ran last December in winning the Sacramento Marathon. The second fastest Canadian time ever, it was a mere 47 seconds short of Jerome Drayton’s durable national record of 2:10:08.

Also warming up was Rob de Castella, a man as powerful in the flesh as he looks in photographs. Wearing blue and white warm-ups, he was blasting back and forth across the parking lot like a sprinter, a tip-off to the way he would attack the Boston course that day – breaking Salazar’s course record with a blazing 2:07:51.

Then a door flew open at the side of the church and out filed the full parade of elite runners. I stood there with Chris Jermyn, a 2:56 marathoner and co-worker from The Canadian Press in Ottawa, and watched them head through the trees to the starting line.

The Aura of the Elite

World class athletes have an aura about them, a presence that sets them apart. Ingrid Kristiansen of Norway strode by, feet clad in those strange Sock Racer shoes. A couple of days earlier I almost bumped into her as she jogged through Copley Square. She was relaxed and smiling then, waving at everyone who called her name. Now she was the image of concentration. She hoped to become the first woman to break 2:20 but would settle instead for mere victory in 2:24:55.

As the race announcer called down the final minutes to noon I mercifully got rid of the last of my warm-up costume and made my way through the mass of humanity to the area corresponding with my race number. I was dismayed to find myself shoulder to shoulder with runners who would fly through the course in the 2:30s. The BAA had not taken leg speed into account when it issued my number. I belonged at the back of the pack.

I always feel very much alone in those final moments before a marathon, even with thousands crowded around me. It is still a daring thing to do, to run twenty-six miles. Society has grown used to the image of the marathoner in these aerobic times but it has not got used to the marathon. Despite the impression created by mass marathon starts, only a tiny fraction of the population has ever tried to run such a distance. When I run a marathon I ask my body to do more than at any other time and I know it can always refuse. It has happened before.

A marathon can seem more important than anything but afterward it is often a blur, a jumble of fragmented memories. For me, nervousness seems to wipe out most recollections of the early miles, concentration fills up the middle of the race, and the last miles are absorbed by what George Sheehan calls a rising tide of pain. I sometimes learn more from a newspaper the next day than I grasp while running the race, everything but why a marathon is worth running in the first place.

Johnny Kelley

At the boom of the starting gun a human river spilled out of Hopkinton. I caught a glimpse of Johnny Kelley, the grand old man of the Boston Marathon, winner of the race in 1935 and 1945, now 78 and running the race for the 55th time. Crowds applauded. Bands played. And we were on our way. My focus narrowed quickly to the flipping of digits on my watch and the passage of mile markers. The towns went by one by one. At Natick, the wind whipped greyly across a roadside lake, presumably the same lake Tarzan Brown leaped into while leading the race in the 1940s. Then came the spine-tingling cheers of the women of Wellesley College, their welcome enough to make the rest of the race seem ordinary.

At the New York City Marathon last fall I thought the New York spectators were the equal of those in Boston. I was wrong. New York crowds are as noisy but there is an extra dimension at Boston, a quality that can only be explained by ninety years of tradition. Boston cheers the marathon along with the runners. The place echoes with the memory of great deeds and great names like Longboat, DeMar, Miles, Pawson and Cote.

The rain returned somewhere past the half way point, a light spatter increasing to a steady downpour. The temperature dropped and the rain took on a light sting. As my running shoes slapped through ever larger puddles I grew concerned. The groin pull that had worried me for a week caused no problems but the hills found a tense hamstring muscle and tugged it with each stride. Visions of being forced to quit flared anew.

The hills at Boston are legendary, despite a net drop of almost five hundred feet in elevation over the course. Judged rightly, Boston can reward a runner with the race of a lifetime. But it can also be deadly, the easy downslope of the first fifteen miles killing the muscles quietly, delivering the runner empty into the Newton Hills. There are four main hills, ending with Heartbreak Hill at twenty-one miles. None is extreme – even Heartbreak rises only ninety feet – but taken together, and at the point they come in the race, they can pounce on the unsuspecting. More Boston marathons have been decided in the Newton Hills than at any other point along the course.

‘All Downhill from Here’

Crowds cheer runners over the crest of Heartbreak with the cry, “It’s all downhill from here.” The words are well meant but not especially accurate. Although no serious grades remain, the rest of the race is not all downhill or even flat.

The big barrier always for me is to break four hours and I knew I had my work cut out of me. Coming through the hills I had begun to fall off pace and was now confronted with the task of picking up speed to reach my goal. Thankfully, I could not spot the Hancock and Prudential buildings in the rainy distance to remind me how far I had to go.

What gets runners through those final miles remains a mystery to me. The pain can be so relentless and cumulative. Spectators help but they cannot run. I found myself growing less and less aware of them as I went along. Even on Beacon Street, where they pressed so closely they shouted into our ears, I scarcely heard the roar. The bear was truly on my back.

Yet my legs did not give out. With a mile to go I caught sight of Gloria Norgang and Margot Arseneau, two friends from Ottawa waiting in the crowd on Commonwealth Avenue. Their cameras clicked as they cheered me past. I wanted to thank them for waiting so long in the rain but it was all I could do to nod and keep moving. Half a mile later I turned right onto Hereford Street, flowing in grim file up the final hill, then sharp left onto glistening Boylston Street, still lined with screaming throngs. And there, looming through the gloom, was the sweetest sight on earth – the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

Among the Bandits

I crossed it in 3:58:32, a straggler among the numbered runners but still accompanied by hundreds of bandits. They deserved a better name, I thought. At least here. The lure of Boston is not confined to the fleet of foot. I knew why they were there, and that the struggle we had shared was the same.

I finished too late for a marathon medal. The last were handed out at three hours and fifty minutes. I will not receive a race certificate nor will my name be recorded in the official results (although the Boston Herald was good enough to publish it the next day). But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I ran those twenty-six sacred miles.

I shuffled slowly through the finishing chute, the wind grabbing at a mylar blanket around my shoulders, and made my way across Copley Square and down the street toward my hotel. A woman from Dallas fell in beside me, her hair matted with rain and sweat, her lips blue with cold. She walked on bare and blistered feet. I had begun to mumble words of sympathy when I felt her hand on my arm.

“It’s okay,” she said.

Her eyes shone and she flashed a smile.

“I’ve just run the Boston Marathon. And so have you.”

Note: This article was originally published in Athletics Magazine, Toronto, July, 1986.