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US elite are starting to rediscover Boston

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / April 18, 2009
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Riding in a lead vehicle during last year's Boston Marathon, Ryan Hall wished he was running alongside eventual champion Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot. He wanted to jump out of the television truck and onto the course.

"I'd just run 2:06 a week earlier in the London Marathon and I wanted to be out there," said Hall. "I was jealous seeing the enthusiasm on the course and taking it all in."

When race organizers arranged for Hall's special ride, they hoped for such a reaction. History and tradition sell the Boston Marathon to professional and amateur runners alike. But sometimes some special treatment, recruiting in a sense, helps sway elite marathoners, especially when other races may offer faster, less grueling courses or more appearance money.

For a variety of reasons, top American marathoners haven't always found time in their schedules for Boston. Some may have preferred a marathon in which they could be more competitive. Others may have desired a marathon that wouldn't demand extra recovery time. With Hall and Kara Goucher, not to mention fellow US Olympians Brian Sell and Elva Dryer, competing in the 113th Boston Marathon Monday, it is testament to the care taken by John Hancock and the Boston Athletic Association to build relationships with elite athletes and cater to them once they arrive for Marathon weekend. It may also signal that American marathoners are ready to embrace Boston and all the race can offer with more consistency and greater numbers.

"I don't understand Americans that want to duck Boston," said Kevin Hanson, who coaches Sell as part of the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project. "Part of the reason we first started the program was because we thought it was ridiculous that Americans were not a part of this event. Part of it was that Americans were not as competitive in the '90s as they were in the late '70s and early '80s. Sometimes they felt they could collect a paycheck or run a fast time someplace else.

"But you're losing part of the history if you do that. Anybody that goes to Boston on Patriots Day will learn exactly what I'm talking about."

That was Hall's experience last year. Although he always intended to run Boston, his victory before an American crowd at the US Olympic Trials in New York and his Boston Marathon ride-along made him more eager to try Heartbreak Hill. With marathons completed on fast courses and undulating terrain, Hall also considered it the right time in his marathon education to run the famed race.

"The reality is Boston is one of the marathons that you need and want to run," said Hall's agent, Ray Flynn. "Ryan has always wanted to run in Boston. We knew a year ago that this would be in the future. We were fortunate they let us get a bird's-eye view of the race [last year].

"But Boston recruits itself. Who wouldn't want to run Boston? Athletically, it's always going to be a place you want to run. If you're a marathon runner and an American, you're rated in your career on how you do in the Boston Marathon."

Meanwhile, with Goucher's desire to start a family, a different kind of timing pushed her toward Boston sooner than expected. Also, her interest was encouraged by her coach, Alberto Salazar, who memorably won Boston in 1982 and has longstanding relationships with race officials.

"I told my agent, 'I want to run Boston. Figure it out,' " said Goucher. "They didn't really have to sell it at all. I'm a United States citizen, so it's really important that I race here in the States.

"There's going to be some great performances on Monday and I think it's going to bring a life back to American marathoning. People are going to want to be a part of that. After Monday, I think you're going to see a lot more American elite runners coming back to the Boston Marathon. I want to run a fast [personal record], but I can't imagine not coming back here and I haven't even run it yet."

Lynch linchpin
Part of Goucher's affinity for the Marathon comes from the efforts of Patrick Lynch, the elite athlete recruiter for John Hancock. When Goucher made her marathon debut in New York last November, Lynch was there. When Goucher toured the Boston course during several training runs in February, Lynch was there, driving to different points to make sure she stayed safe and took the right turns.

When the trajectory of Hall's career started pointing toward success in the marathon, Lynch connected with the young runner at different events. Without crowding Hall, Lynch wanted to establish a relationship with the top male American marathoner. Lynch was wisely and openly laying the groundwork for the day Hall would run Boston.

"When it comes to inviting athletes into the field, you not only want to have a feeling for them, but they should have a feeling for you," said Lynch.

Lynch does much of his work building relationships because, as many athletes, agents, and coaches note, the race sells itself. Still, it helps when elite athletes put Boston at the top of their lists.

"My first question is always, 'Where do you want to run, to compete?' " said Lynch. "If they say Boston, it's a no-brainer for me and I do my best to get them here."

As American marathoners reassert themselves on the international scene, Boston should become even more of a priority. It is one thing to run fast or set an American record in a major world marathon. It is quite another to run well in Boston. Just ask Hall or Deena Kastor, who had the best performances of their careers in London. The news didn't exactly travel well beyond American running circles.

"We believe it's important for our sport to have Americans win some of our major marathons over here," said Salazar. "Kara wants to give back to the sport. We believe that having Kara or Ryan, one of them or both of them win in Boston will be a great thing for our sport here in this country. Her running here and winning does much more for our sport than her winning in London. And it does more for her, too. Winning Boston, New York, or Chicago is huge in our country. Winning over there, nobody in our country really hears about it, not much anyways."

Boston a must
Former Boston champions Salazar and Bill Rodgers, who created some of the most memorable chapters in Boston Marathon history, share similar sentiments. They speak from a broader historical perspective and remember a time when the marathon was as much or more about runners testing themselves against tough courses and tough competition. It was well before some top races employed rabbits to set record paces.

"To me, all the top Americans should come to Boston first because it's the oldest marathon," said Rodgers, who won Boston four times. "But it's a more complicated world these days with agents and everything else going on. So much has changed in the marathon world. There's a tremendous focus on times. Everything is record, record, record. If I was a marathon runner and I had a chance to run Boston but make less, I would do Boston. Most of us old-timers would."

More and more, US runners appear of a similar mind. They recognize the value of racing Boston is, in many ways, incalculable, even if they could run faster elsewhere.

Lynch already is looking ahead to up-and-coming Americans who will soon make the transition from the track to 26.2 miles and, he hopes, to Boston early in their marathon careers. If Goucher is right about US marathoners performing well Monday, Lynch could have even more history to talk about with other elite Americans. And that could provide even more of a draw to Boston.

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.