On Monday, April 18, about 27,000 runners will start the Boston Marathon, the world’s oldest, annually contested marathon. Qualifying times ensure only the best, most dedicated athletes can attain entry. For 34-and-under athletes that translates to 3:10 for men and 3:40 for women for this year’s race.
Registration for the 2011 race closed in just over eight hours. Thousands of hardworking, qualified runners were denied entrance to this year’s race prompting the running community to cry foul. As a result, starting next year, qualified runners will only be able to register on a rolling basis with the fastest runners allowed to register first ensuring the most competitive field possible.
In 2013, qualifying times will be reduced by 5 minutes in each age group making Boston qualifying (BQ) even more difficult.
I asked Dick Beardsley, runner up in the 1982 “Duel in the Sun” Boston Marathon, “What makes Boston so special?” He said, “The year I took second to Al, I knew I could run fast. Coming up to the start line and looking down the first hill, I thought of running in the footsteps of Johnny Kelley, Clarence DeMar, and Tarzan Brown.” That day Beardsley himself became a Boston legend, losing to Alberto Salazar by seconds because a police motorcycle cut him off on the final turn to Boylston Street.
This year’s elite field will ensure a competitive and fast race. The 2010 running featured an incredibly close women’s finish with Teyba Erkesso edging Tatyana Pushkareva by three seconds. That must have seemed like an eternity compared to 2009 when Salina Kosgei out kicked Ethiopian teammate Dire Tune to win by one second. All four women are in this year’s field as is four-time champion Catherine Ndereba. Also look out for top American Kara Goucher who returns to the race seven months after giving birth.
On the men’s side, course record holder and returning champion Robert “Bob the Younger” Kiprono Cheruiyot is back to defend his title. Cheruiyot’s time of 2:05:52 last year was so fast that he ran a 4:37 split over the Heartbreak Hill mile en route to smashing the record by 82 seconds. He will be challenged by 2010 New York City Marathon champion, Geb Gebremariam, last year’s runner up Tekeste Kebede, and top American Ryan Hall, Hall has been close to winning before finishing third in 2009; maybe this will be his year.
The real story of Boston must be seen as a spectator or experienced as a runner. When I ran Boston, as a slow-footed charity entry, some 22,000 plus runners out kicked me to the finish. As I ran in their footprints and Gatorade puddles, I took a moment to slap little kids hands, take oranges from the locals, admire the quintessential New England architecture, and smile in the Wellesley scream tunnel. Crowds packed the 26.2 mile course several deep cheering for athletes fast and slow (like me).
Following 1976 Boston champion, Jack Fultz’s advice, I made sure to negative split the race through Heartbreak Hill. After passing Heartbreak and Boston College, I got my mojo back on the downhill ghost mile #20. Rounding Cleveland Circle to Beacon Street, I crested a wave of energy that allowed my tired legs to churn past dozens of competitors. And while pointing to the name sign on my chest hundreds if not thousands of spectators cheered me on, “Rick, Rick, Rick!” like I was a World Series champion. Approaching mile 25 my energy had reached a crescendo and flexing my muscles in Arnold-like fashion, I screamed as excitedly as I could to the emptying Fenway crowd, 25-deep along the barricade. The loudest crowd cheer for anything I had done in my life erupted around me making my ears ring. It continued as I put my fist in the air, past the mile 25 marker - This is Boston!
Finishing the race down Hereford and finally turning onto Boylston, most of the crowd had gone home with their faster runners. Passing quiet and empty grandstands and putting my hands above my head for the finish line photo marked my anticlimactic end of the Boston Marathon.
With tears flowing down my smiling cheeks, I bent over and gladly accepted the coveted unicorn medal while the volunteer said in her perfect Boston accent, “Congratulations on finishing Boston, the oldest, most prestigious marathon in the world.”