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Boston Marathon Course section

Finding peace in calm before the storm

By Barbara Huebner, Globe Staff, 4/17/2001

OPKINTON - It's just a church basement, one like so many others in New England. Lines of a basketball court dimly etched onto the floor, baskets at each end. Small classrooms off a balcony. Childrens' drawings lining the walls.

But on this day, the walls are also lined with runners, some of the best in the world, leaning back and resting on mats, napping, contemplating, trying to pass the tedious minutes until 11:45 a.m., when they are walked through a cemetery to the starting line of the Boston Marathon.

The trip for these elite athletes begins in Boston at 9:15, when they file out of the dining hall of the John Hancock Conference Center and down the wide stairway to parade through a phalanx of green-jacketed volunteers toward five waiting buses. The volunteers applaud, and many of the runners shake the hands of their new friends while moving briskly along. It is a festive scene.

When all the athletes are accounted for, the bus takes off into the Turnpike tunnel, the lights and sirens of State Police motorcycles clearing a path. Three-time women's champion Fatuma Roba gazes out the window at the Charles River, the sunny morning. The athletes are quieter now.

Arriving in Hopkinton about 10, they file off the buses, walking down dead-end Claflin Street and up a dirt path to the back door of the Presbyterian church, where they promptly settle down to conserve their energy.

Two Chinese women, Wei Yanan and Zhang Shujing, curl up and are asleep within minutes, their heads on the gear bags they will later reclaim at the finish.

Most athletes congregate by nationality, although American Josh Cox jokes with the Kenyans and Mbarek Hussein, a Kenyan who lives in Albuquerque, is greeted by almost everyone who comes by. Some sit alone, thinking private thoughts. At 10:30, Americans Mark Coogan and Rod DeHaven go outside for a brief TV interview, one made briefer by music that begins to blare from giant loudspeakers. They quickly go back inside where it's quiet.

Coogan, a native of Attleboro, confesses: ''I'm nervous. I want to have a good race.'' He would finish 17th.

Huddled in the far corner are four South Africans, trying to stay warm under knit hats, their jackets over their legs like blankets. Summer has just ended in their country and they are cold on this New England spring morning. Security monitors notice their discomfort and direct people around to the front door, trying to keep the back way closed and the drafty hall as warm as possible.

At about 10:50, a few athletes get up to begin stretching, and within minutes most are jogging up and down Claflin Street to warm up. Hopkinton residents start coming out of their houses, leaning over deck railings or setting up chairs to watch the procession. Among them is Bernie Mitchell, who has been doing this so long that his 5-year-old German shorthair dog is named Uta.

''All you hear is the runners' feet,'' he says of the serenity, which is in stark contrast to the carnival atmosphere on Main Street just a block away. ''We let them be.''

At 11:45, the athletes regroup and head for the starting line. Their workday is about to begin.

This story ran on page G05 of the Boston Globe on 4/17/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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