Path to distinction is a course in endurance
By Michael Vega, Globe Staff, 4/12/2002
The sign in Hopkinton says it all: "It all starts here."
What it ought to read, however, is: "Boston, the Alpha and Omega of Marathons."
It is a strand of eight shimmering pearls -- Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Newton, Brookline, and Boston -- strung together by a 26-mile, 385-yard ribbon of asphalt.
When Boston Athletic Association official John Graham laid out the course in 1897, the intent was to duplicate the long-distance route Pheidippides followed on his fabled run from Marathon to Athens in 490 B.C.
Bill Squires, 69, the venerable guru of the Boston Marathon who has tutored the likes of four-time winner Bill Rodgers, said he was astonished to find during a trip to Greece in 1956 how strikingly similar Graham's Hopkinton-to-Boston layout was to the original Greek marathon course.
"It's so similar to Boston that you could almost call it a duplicate," Squires marveled. "It's almost scary. That's why Boston is so unique. No one is going to put up a Boston course now, because they want world records, and how can you get a world record on a course that has such a flying downhill start, and terrible hills, on a hard course that Boston is?"
And so, from its start near Hopkinton Green at 490 feet above sea level to its rapid, 310-foot descent into Ashland to the surround-sound experience at Wellesley College to the unrelenting torture test of Heartbreak Hill to the breathless Back Bay finish on Boylston Street, the Boston Marathon has remained a time-honored test of human endurance.
Even Pheidippides, who dropped dead after completing his marathon trek to Athens, would have found Boston to be no walk in the Parthenon.
"People laugh," Squires said. "They go, `Boston is so downhill.' But if you've ever been on it, or run on it -- and I've spent hours on it -- yeah, you've got 9 miles that are downhill. But then you've got 61/2, almost 7 miles of terrible uphills at the end of the course, right where the athletes are starting to make their moves.
"The first part of Boston, no matter how easy it is ... I don't think anyone would ever think to mirror Boston at all, almost because of how slow it would be and what it does to the human body.
"It's a course that actually beats up a person very, very badly. After Boston, you're feeling it almost two weeks later."
And while it does have a 480-foot drop in elevation, Boston also has character lines formed by its undulations.
For Catherine Ndereba, the two-time reigning women's champion, the hills proved daunting when she arrived from Kenya to compete in her first Boston three years ago. A marathoner of limited experience, Ndereba knew only one thing about Boston. "I always knew about the Heartbreak Hill," said Ndereba, who finished sixth (2:28:27) in her Boston debut in 1999. "In fact, I almost quit the race when I approached Heartbreak Hill. But I just said to myself, `I'm looking to finish this race.' I always look for each course that is challenging and I feel that Boston is a very challenging course. So I just like to be challenged, and, in fact, that's what happened."
Three times in the history of the Boston Marathon, a runner has risen above the challenge to leave with a world-best performance. Yun Bok Suh of Korea is the only man to establish a world mark in Boston, when he covered the distance in 2:25:39 in 1947.
On the women's side, two world marks were set in Boston. Liane Winter of West Germany first did it in 1975 when she ran a 2:42:24. Joan Benoit Samuelson did it in 1983 with a 2:22:43. Ndereba is the current custodian of the women's world-best marathon effort. She became only the second woman in history to record a sub-2:20 when she ran a 2:18:47 at the Chicago Marathon last Oct. 7.
But can a world record ever again be achieved over Boston's demanding course?
"I'm not definitely sure, because the course is so tough and has difficult elevations," Ndereba said. "If something can happen, or if something can be done by any human, maybe it can. But I can't say that it can't happen, because I know sometime in the future it will."
If it does happen, it will likely reopen an age-old debate about whether USA Track & Field officials would even recognize it as a world mark.
USA Track & Field regards Boston as an "aided" course. About two decades ago, Peter Riegel, a renowned expert in course measurement, chaired a road racing technical committee that drew up a standardized set of rules designed to establish certain parameters and course requirements for the recognition of road racing records.
Riegel's committee adopted Rule 185, applicable to long-distance running events, which, in part, stated for all road records:
(a) "A course must not have a net decrease in elevation from start to finish exceeding [1 meter per kilometer]." Strike one against Boston.
(b) "The start and finish of the race must lie no more than 30 [percent] of the race distance apart as measured along the straight line between them, except when it can be shown that the average component of the wind direction at the head of the race [the lead runner] did not constitute a significant tailwind." Strike two.
(c) "A tailwind shall be deemed to be significant if it prevails consistently throughout more than 50 [percent] of the course during the race." Strike three.
Dr. David Martin, professor emeritus at Georgia State University's Department of Cardiopulmonary Care Services and chairman of USA Track & Field's committee of men's marathon development, debated the rule's merit several years ago as part of a panel group commissioned by the BAA.
"What Pete Riegel and his merry band were saying in his committee is that the Boston Marathon, venerable though it is, if you ran a fast time on it, it would not count as a world record or an American record," Martin said. "It would be an `aided' course because of the downhill portion. Of course, the Boston people were a bit up in arms because we all know about Heartbreak Hill and we all know about the infamous headwinds that hit you near Boston College."
Said Squires: "When it came up, I was actually on the US Olympic Development Committee and I went out of my mind. I was like, `Are you kidding me?' I mean, how few world records do we have? We have very few world records. This is a bitch of a course, and they were like, `No, it can't be point-to-point; it has to be a loop course. And the wind has to be facing one way.'
"A marathoner starts to run at 18 miles. That's exactly when a real runner starts to run. And in Boston, at 18 miles, you're in the middle of the hills. It starts at the fire station, where you hit three hills in a row. And when I read it all, I'm going, `This is just absurd.'
"Again, what you had was a committee made up of about 6 or 7 wannabes like Chicago, LA, San Francisco, Pittsburgh. These people who had [marathon] races, they wanted to make sure that they'd get honored instead of the old granddaddy."
But Martin and his panel had no scientific proof that showed Boston worthy of being recognized as a record-eligible course.
"No marathon is easy," Martin said. "It is an endurance sport. It's about going from Point A to Point B, regardless of the details. I think our conclusions were that there's no real scientific evidence that 30 percent start-finish separation is either better or worse than 29 percent separation or even 31 percent, so this seems arbitrary. Same thing with 1 meter per kilometer; that seems kind of arbitrary, too.
"We, of course, supported the BAA's concept to let things as they are and whoever runs fastest on the course -- if the course is correctly measured; and if the runners run the course as is laid out; and if there is drug testing -- well, then let the performance stand. Let the best man win. That's been the rule of the Association of International Marathons, a worldwide body of which Boston is a member."
Martin indicated that AIMS and the International Athletics Association Federation (IAAF) were synchronous in their stance that a world record implied "something pretty refined." He said, "And road racing is not a refined business. It's rough and tumble. If the track is Carnegie Hall, then road racing is bluegrass. But there's room for bluegrass, too."
And that's why it would seem unconscionable to a Boston purist like Squires to have a world-best performance in Boston not ratified by USA Track & Field. "Oh my God, that would be absurd," he said.
"There used to be only four major marathons in the world, and now we have 23 that are `major' marathons, and all of them are looking for time, they're not looking for endurance, because Boston owns that.
"The Holy Grail is Boston."
And, just like the sign in Hopkinton says, it all starts here. Everything else is just a footrace.
This story ran on page F3 of the Boston Globe on 4/12/2002. © Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.