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Distant memories

The lure of adding to Boston's lore attracts Goucher

By John Powers
Globe Staff / April 17, 2009
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PORTLAND, Ore. - Kara Goucher has been reading what she calls "the Boston book," immersing herself in more than a century's worth of lore about the annual footrace hereabouts. Clarence DeMar. The Kelleys, elder and younger. Boston Billy. Bobbi Gibb and Kathy Switzer. The Duel in the Sun and Joanie's Run. Catherine The Great. The women at Wellesley, the firehouse turn, Heartbreak Hill and the Eliot Lounge.

"All of the history and all the amazing performances that have gone on there," muses the woman who'll be the top American hope in Monday's 113th marathon. "I want to have a chapter in there so bad."

If the 30-year-old Goucher wins, she'll be the first domestic champion since Lisa Larsen-Weidenbach in 1985, the last year before the Boston Athletic Association began awarding prize money. "I'd like to be the one that does it," she says. "I want to be that person."

By winning here, Goucher would continue the American distance-running revival that began with Deena Kastor's Olympic bronze medal in 2004 and her subsequent triumphs in Chicago in 2005 and London in 2006, and was followed by Goucher's global bronze in the 10,000 meters in 2007 and Shalane Flanagan's Olympic bronze last year. "Kara has the eye of the tiger," says Bill Rodgers, the four-time men's champion here. "She's going for the win, and that's what it takes."

A victory also would be a huge step in Goucher's evolution as a marathoner, which began with a startling third-place finish last year in New York in her debut at the distance. "I want to be a marathoner, I want to be in that club," she says. "But I don't just want to be a marathoner. I want to be a distance racer."

Covering lots of ground
Goucher's résumé is remarkably diverse. She won the NCAA cross-country title while at the University of Colorado, plus the outdoor crowns at 3,000 and 5,000. She made the Olympic team in both the 5,000 and 10,000. She won the mile at the last two Millrose Games. Last month, she ran away from the field in the Lisbon Half Marathon. And her New York marathon performance (2 hours 25 minutes 53 seconds), the fastest-ever there by a US woman, produced the first podium finish by a domestic runner in 14 years.

"I like changing it up," says Goucher. "A lot of what I love about the sport is the challenges, going to different places and trying different things. I can't imagine not doing that."

What she hadn't imagined was the marathon. In fact, Goucher's distance results had been so discouraging amid a series of injuries that she'd considered dropping down to the 1,500. After both she and husband Adam missed making the Olympic team for Athens, they decided to switch their training base from Colorado to Oregon and work with Alberto Salazar and his Nike Project group.

"We said, 'Let's try something new,' " recalls Goucher, who knew so little about Salazar's stellar racing days (three New York and one Boston marathon titles plus an Olympic appearance) that she had to Google him to find out. "I was drowning. I thought, anything is better than where I'm at. I'd completely lost faith in everything I was doing. I was starting to lose faith in myself. Alberto was upbeat, he was positive. He said, 'You can get healthy, you can get better.' I just had to go for it."

Her breakout came in 2006 when Goucher posted a series of personal bests, most notably a 31:17:12 clocking in her second attempt at the 10,000. Only Kastor had been faster among US women, which caught Salazar's eye. The best 26-milers, he believes, are those who were superb on the track. "You're going to make a great marathoner," Salazar had told her after her first 10,000. "I was like, gag me," she remembers. "But Alberto didn't push it. He said, someday. He never forced it on me."

Goucher still considered herself primarily a track runner, especially after her medal in the 10,000 at the pre-Olympic world meet in Osaka, the first by an American in the event. So her 10th-place finish in Beijing last year left her crushed and confused. "I was devastated by how it went," says Goucher, who finished ninth in the 5,000 a week later. "I thought I was going to medal, and I was a minute behind the winner. I was so NOT going to win."

Don't worry, her coach told her, you're going to be a great marathoner. "I was like some dad trying to be nice to her and make her feel good," says Salazar. "It was a stupid thing to say at the time and she was furious at me for saying it right then. But part of me was actually relieved. If Kara had gotten fourth or fifth she might have thought, OK, I can medal again."

Unlikely, reckoned Salazar, who told Goucher that she'd need a perfect race even to win a bronze at either distance. "Look at Tirunesh Dibaba and Meseret Defar - do you think you can beat them?" he asked. "You and a bunch of other people will be fighting for third. You go to the marathon and you have a legitimate shot at winning. There is nobody who is clearly superior to you."

City limits
Before Goucher could start calculating her odds across 26 miles, her coach ramped up her weekly mileage to 100 and signed her up for New York, the last major marathon of the season, but barely 10 weeks after the Olympics. "Alberto said, 'Let's just do it. Get your feet wet. Let's jump in. It won't be the perfect preparation, but it's enough time,' " says Goucher.

As race day drew closer, though, Goucher began worrying. What if she ended up being road kill in Queens, where she was born? "I was excited, but I was so scared," she recalls. "There was a part of me that was so afraid that I'd be the greatest hoax of all time. They're giving me all this attention, they're paying me. I don't even know if I can do it."

Salazar and Nike sports psychologist Darren Treasure worked as a tag-team on Goucher's psyche. "Alberto said, 'This is where you're going to shine, this is where you belong,' " she says. "Darren and I laughed about it. He said, 'If you bomb you go home with your money and they're never going to invite you back.' "

Besides the distance, the field was daunting - world record-holder Paula Radcliffe, Olympic runner-up Catherine Ndereba, and defending World Marathon Majors titlist Gete Wami, plus three former champions and Dire Tune and Rita Jeptoo, who'd both won Boston. The doubting whispers in Goucher's head that frequently bugged her returned.

"I don't want to find out that I'm not that good," she said. "Self-confidence is something I've always battled. I've definitely gotten better at it, but it's hard to take risks. But that's where it pays off."

Salazar, who told Goucher to stick close to Radcliffe from the gun, now thinks his advice was mistaken. "Kara was rigid right from the start," he says. "She was staring at Paula's shoulder blades." Yet Goucher, who'd beaten Radcliffe in a half-marathon in England the previous year, hung with her, albeit with trepidation. "Paula's the greatest road runner of all time," she says. "I knew she was going to just put the hurt to us. It wasn't a fun little jaunt in the park for her. There was that sense in the back of my mind that this could end at any second."

Once Radcliffe put the hammer down in Manhattan she ran away from everybody, winning by the biggest margin (1 minute 47 seconds) in nine years. Though Goucher kept up with the other contenders, she paid for it in pain.

"I kept waiting for the wheels to fall off and they did," she says. "The last 55 minutes were awful. It was unbelievable. After I finished and everybody was patting me on the back, I thought I was going to die. I told my husband, 'I'm going to pass out right here and no one's even going to be aware.' But after I finally got some liquid into me, I thought, you know, I could have gotten second. And the next morning I was, when are we going to do this again? I need to do this again."

Maybe you should run Boston, Salazar suggested. It was a no-brainer, Goucher figured. "I wanted to race in the States," she says. "That was first and foremost. What are the biggest ones? New York and Boston, right?" Boston wouldn't be anything like New York, Salazar told her. The topography and tumult are unique. "He said there'd be craziness all around me," she says.

Up for the challenge
Goucher test-ran the course in February, when she was here for the Reebok Indoor Games, and was captivated by it. "I love New York so much, but there are times when you're running there when you feel insignificant," she says. "All those bridges, super-tall buildings, concrete everywhere. Boston is more intimate. The roads are closer, you're running through neighborhoods with trees."

With rare exceptions, like the stretch from Newton Lower Falls (over Route 128) to Woodland, you're also running through a wall of sound for the second half of the race, often with spectators standing four and five deep along the curbs. If Goucher is up with the leaders on Monday, the noise will be deafening. There hasn't been an American woman in that position in years (Kastor, undone by stomach cramps, was fifth two years ago). In fact, there hasn't been a top-three finish since Kim Jones in 1993.

Goucher's Lisbon victory, by half a minute over Alice Timbilili, was auspicious, coming as it did after a wretched week of practice. What she learned there, Salazar says, was that she can win even without perfect preparation. No matter what happens here, Boston will be Goucher's last big one for a while, since she hopes to start a family soon and be back in form for the next Olympics in 2012. "This is it for me," she says. "This is my goal for the year."

Not that it's going to be a gimme for Goucher, who'll be going up against Tune, former champion Lidiya Grigoryeva, and Salina Kosgei. "It's unrealistic to believe that I can just trounce everyone," she realizes. "There are some really accomplished people there and they've been around the block."

If there weren't, Goucher wouldn't be interested. She can pick up a laurel wreath from a Back Bay florist. "I want to run against the best," Goucher says. "I don't want to lie to myself and fool myself into thinking I'm better than I am." The possibility of getting her butt kicked is one of the attractions. "I don't want to go and win Boston because they didn't invite anybody good," she says. "What does that mean? It doesn't mean anything. You want to win Boston because it's one of the greatest races of all time."

The $150,000 winner's check is alluring, but that's not what entices her. "I honestly can say from my heart that it's not about making money," says Goucher. "It's all about living the passion." What she proved to herself in New York is that she could run 26 miles without putting herself into intensive care. That race was about survival, she says. This one will be about identity - and possibly posterity. "I have to find out," Kara Goucher says, "who I am as a marathoner."

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.