by Pax Beale
I recall running my first Bay to Breakers a couple of years ago. I was soothing my sore muscles in front of TV when Elaine Pedersen (Petie) asked me what appeared to be an innocuous question, “What’s the date of the Boston Marathon?” Right then I should have known I was in trouble.
Soon we were hooked! There is a great feeling of accomplishment in finishing a 26 mile, 385 yard race, which is steeped in tradition since Pheidippides ran across the plains of Marathon in Ancient Greece. Many memories will linger after this race before 300,000 people on Patriots Day (a state holiday). More people watch the Boston Marathon in person than any other singular sporting event.
As you roll through one town after another, the crowds maintain a steady applause that becomes a crescendo by the time the Prudential Center in downtown Boston appears. Hopkinton, Ashland, Natick, Framingham, Wellesley, Newton, Heartbreak Hill, Boston College, and Cleveland Circle, the 22 mile mark. You now have the first sign that you are going to make it, but to the neophyte marathon runner, the last four miles are indescribable. Not too long ago, we had all looked upon four miles as an excellent distance for a workout. Four miles really isn’t so far, unless you have gone 22 first. When the worst muscle soreness you have ever experienced is numbed by the soreness in your knee and hip joints, you know pain. Personally, I always hurt worst in the groin area, feeling like if I didn’t bend over when I coughed, I would flop my stomach onto the street. You can’t lie down without help. You fear that to bend your knees even a minute amount will place them completely out of your control, and you will fall – in sections – to the ground. Your swollen knees will smash like a broken mirror.
The pain in the marathon is inversely proportional to the pain to which you subject yourself in training. Few of us have the time to do training justice – 70 or 80 miles a week for a year should be minimal. Pete Mattei is an expert on this type of training, and he ran his fastest race ever – 3 hours 7 minutes. Mattei did the best of our Cathedral Hill Medical Center Joggers Club.
Many of the 1,152 starters did not make 4 hours. “Mr. Boston Marathon” Jock Semple, had no favorites. One runner stopped and became nauseous 15 yards from the finish. He became disoriented and drifted into the crowd. Jock was all heart. He listed the runner DNF (that’s American for Did Not Finish).
After my 1968 debacle at Boston, when a calendar could have been used to time me, both Elaine Pedersen and I decided we had to break 4 hours – and it had to be on the hard 2 Boston course. I had already done it in Las Vegas, Petaluma, and Santa Rosa, but they don’t count compared to the pinnacle of all marathons, the Boston Marathon.
Flory Rodd dedicated 140 miles a week for a year, and easily was our star. His time of 2 hours 47 minutes is truly outstanding for his 45 young years.
Keep in mind, women were not allowed in the Boston Marathon at this time, and so a small cadre of women had sneaked into the race in recent years.
Sixteen nations and almost every state were represented. Unetani of Japan won in record time of 2 hours 13 minutes. He averaged 4 minutes 43 seconds per mile for the first eight miles of rolling hills. He then did the impossible. Between 17 and 21 miles is a four-mile hill, affectionately known as Heartbreak Hill. Historically, this is where the eventual winner is determined. Unetani was not to be denied. He motored past his Mexican rival at 17 miles, and averaged 5 minutes 3 seconds per mile uphill to the 21 mile mark. He literally “poured it on” every mile of the race to sustain a 12 mile per hour pace throughout.
Advanced skiers look down at the “bunnies” and good golfers are bothered by the “duffers.” Good runners, however, seem to have empathy for the “joggers.” At Boston, I’m sure I finished just as tired as Flory Rodd and Peter Mattei. And I’m sure they believe they put forth an effort equal to the Japanese winner.
The alternative to an “all-out” effort is the horrible bus that is always patrolling behind you, picking up those who have given up hope – voluntarily or involuntarily. Labeled the “Losers’ Bus,” it doesn’t play favorites either. It always carts a lot of “dogmeat” but world renowned runners are not unfamiliar riders. The Losers’ Bus is omnipresent, just as sure as a bus will appear at the end of every Mission Impossible.
Everyone seems to be looking for that little morsel of knowledge to improve their time. Ten minutes before the race, Mattei was making a survey to decide which pair of his shoes was the lightest! Flory Rodd didn’t want any extra baggage. He refused to wear a wrist watch, and purposely lightened his load by getting a short haircut. He didn’t even want the normal male undergarments – too much weight!
Good diets are forgotten near race time. The theory is to load up on starch (carbohydrates) in the hope that it will convert to energy during the race. Mattei, again, was champ. He consumed more spaghetti and rolls in his 137 lb body than I could ever down… and then had a hot fudge sundae for dessert. We found out later that he had whetted his appetite before dinner with a cold can of Franco-American spaghetti. Most top runners use this approach. Not one to go against the tide, I ordered lasagna with a ravioli chaser.
Seemingly inconsequential obstacles become monumental. The problem of not losing time by Mother Nature’s call is a side benefit of the heavy starch diet before a race. The 3 nemesis of runners – the mighty blister – seems best curtailed by wearing no socks, and putting Vaseline all over your feet.
Positive thinking is mandatory, too. The race must be psychologically run in sections. You don’t run Hopkinton to Boston, but Hopkinton to Ashland, Ashland to Natick, etc. At 15 miles, the thought dawned on me that the remaining distance was far greater than our S.F. Bay to Breakers race (7.6 miles). I immediately faded. Misrach and Petie ran away from me. The remaining girl we had seen in the race was more than threatening. Nina had taken a 50 yard lead, and she was accompanied by fellow New Yorkers, who we will call Mr. Yellow Shirt and Mr. Green Shirt. I developed an immediate dislike for Mr. Yellow Shirt, as Misrach informed me he was about my size. Our two groups had exchanged friendly words before the race, but there was no doubt we were “gunning” for each other. We promised to get together after the race. Misrach insisted that if there were ever another Bataan Death March, he would be over-trained.
Knowing that the Matteis and the Rodds run in another world, I always excuse myself with some “positive thinking” about competition from other 200-plus pounders. Early in the race, Misrach would point them out to me. I had redeemed myself at 15 miles and was about to point out to Misrach how many heavyweights we had passed, when Mr. Yellow Shirt went by with Mr. Green Shirt and Nina. Since Mr. Green Shirt was a high school coach, and had more time to train, he had an unfair advantage over me. Note, this negative thinking didn’t appear before the race – only after I faded at 15 miles. The negative thoughts were now eating up the positive thoughts faster than I could produce them!
The running climate began to get proportionately less humorous to the miles under our feet. One fading runner mumbled something about needing help from the Good Lord to make it. Misrach still had one of his patented comments left to amuse us. He told the guy not to count on any help, because the Good Lord got on the Losers’ Bus at the 12 mile mark.
By this time, Petie was edgy to discard our pre-race strategy, and go in pursuit of Nina… even at the risk of missing our 4 hour target and thus, the diploma, and a bowl of Irish stew (courtesy of the Boston Athletic Association). Actually, the previous year, Petie had been the only female to ever become an “official entrant”, in the sense that I had someone take her physical, and she entered as E. Pedersen. She was actually issued a number for her shirt. This year, a personal note from Jock Semple, “Head Honcho” of the Boston Marathon, excommunicated Petie and me for sneaking her in the previous year. Undaunted, we nevertheless returned with our Cathedral Hill Medical Center team shirts, to run the “classic” of all marathons again.
With Misrach’s help, Petie caught Nina and her friends at the bottom of Heartbreak Hill. Four miles later, Petie was 400 yards ahead, amazingly fresh, and determined that if this was to be her last marathon, it would be her best. Boston papers noted how strong she finished, and she said that the cheers from the crowd put watermelon-sized goose pimples all over her. She ran past Jock Semple, and the official finish line in 3 hours 39 minutes and 54 seconds.
Women’s marathons are not uncommon outside the US, and last year the fourth fastest was 3 hours 57 seconds, and the third fastest was only 30 seconds faster than her time. Not bad for training only 29.5 miles a week since January, and less than that last year.
Understand, I am always being chided about Petie beating me, but actually it had never happened until this race. I ran 3 hours 46 minutes and 4 seconds, and I’m very proud of it. I didn’t know what it took to run faster, and I didn’t want to know. (Subsequently, I ran 3 hours and 14 minutes.)
When I finally caught Misrach, he was putting in 5 minute mile efforts, and getting 9 mile results. He was determined to make it, even if it killed him. Any way you look at it, the odds were 50/50 at this point.
I was still running the race in sections, but the common denominator was not cities, but streets. To me, that was real progress! Then I saw Nina and her Mr. Shirts. I passed the awful Mr. Yellow Shirt, the last heavyweight, and Nina. Mr. Green Shirt didn’t die so easily. I passed him right after the last official Gatorade (no longer water) stop at 25 miles. Picking my way through a sea of discarded paper cups, I caught a bucket of water thrown over me by some Good Samaritan. Refreshed, I pressed onward.
In war movies, ever notice how the hero always spends his time solving everyone else’s problems, while appearing to be immune to his own? I wonder if, in reality, the hero is not the coward. Nevertheless, the system works. The last few blocks, I shouted encouragement to those walking, sitting on curbs, or leaning over fenders. (The games people play with themselves.) Down Beacon Street, then famous Commonwealth Avenue, Hereford, and finally, around the last corner, and one block to go. I knew I had made four hours, for I could see Jock Semple checking times one block away. He closes shop at 4 hours on the nose! An hour and 43 minutes after Unetani’s record finish, fans were still there to cheer “dogmeat” like me across the line. I suspect these sadist fans were the types who like ice hockey and car racing. Ah, the “roar of the crowd and the smell of the liniment.”
The first 35 finishers got medals. I didn’t get one…but neither did 1,112 others. In fact, over 600 didn’t even make it in 4 hours.
The exhaustion at the end of the race makes it difficult to coordinate any immediate response out of the bodies strewn over the floor of the locker room. Nausea and inertia are all-encompassing. I went to Ralph Paffinbarger’s room. It was now 7:00 p.m. – 7 hours after the start. As I came out of the shower, I looked down at the finish line from my tenth floor view. The grandstands had been removed, the crowds dispersed, and the TV cameras long gone. Suddenly, out of the long shadows cast by the tall downtown buildings, came two runners crossing the finish line. There would be more after these two. No Losers’ Bus for them!
Eventually we gathered at our personal champagne victory party at Flory Rodd’s hotel room. We gave out our Cathedral Hill Medical Center awards and, were it not for the fact 5 that the recipients were a balding 45-year-old man (Flory Rodd), a young 32-year-old girl (Petie), and a guy who puts validity into the expression, “some of my very best friends are Jewish” (Pax relates to Bob Misrach), one would have thought it was the official awards banquet. Unetani, the actual winner from Japan, could not have felt any better.
We never saw Nina or Misters Green and Yellow Shirts again. I don’t think it was necessary. Our friendly competition and mutual running experience were evident, without additional verbalization. I’m sure they talked about us as Petie and I talked about them, on the plane coming home.
Finally, I became sleepy and started to doze off, dreaming about our race, when Petie nudged me, asking if I had ever thought of swimming the Golden Gate – both ways. I grabbed my United Airlines “security pillow” for dear life, and fell back to sleep. This time I had a nightmare!
Yes, ultimately I did swim the Golden Gate.