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113th Boston Marathon

Time after time

With 42 and 41 consecutive Bostons, there seems to be no stopping this pair

By John Powers
Globe Staff / April 19, 2009
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Neil Weygandt and Bennett Beach have much in common by now, not the least of which are 1,075 shared miles on Patriots Day, give or take a few yards while sidestepping potholes.

They've answered the gun in Hopkinton with both the elder and younger Kelleys, with Bill Rodgers and Joan Benoit, with Robert Cheruiyot and Catherine Ndereba. They've finished behind Rosie Ruiz and wolfed down canned beef stew at the Pru.

They ran for the hoses during the 1976 scorcher and sloshed though gale-driven rain two years ago. And they'll take the line again tomorrow morning for the 113th edition of the world's most fabled footrace.

Weygandt and Beach are the most senior members of the Quarter Century Club (or "streakers" as the BAA folks have been known to call them), the three dozen hardy perennials who have completed at least 25 consecutive Boston Marathons. Weygandt, a 62-year-old from the Philadelphia suburb of Drexel Hill, Pa., has finished 42 in a row. Beach, a 59-year-old from Bethesda, Md., has logged 41.

Weygandt's is a record not only for Boston, but for the planet.

None of the other four major marathons - London, Berlin, Chicago, New York - existed when Weygandt first ran Boston on a wet Wednesday in 1967 or when Beach turned up a year later. Since then, their shared devotion to this hilly rite of spring has outlived the Soviet Union and Bear Stearns, trickle-down economics and the leisure suit, the Old Man of the Mountain and New Coke.

"The race is almost sacred," says Weygandt. "It's truly special. I think it's the world's greatest sporting event."

Neither age nor ailments have been able to keep him and Beach away from their annual April appointment. Since longevity and durability have put them next to each other on the consecutive list, Beach figured that it made sense to add Weygandt to his Christmas greeting list a few years ago.

"I thought, here's this guy I have this special bond with," he says. "It sort of felt natural to send him a card. And he responded with one to me."

They are fellow travelers more than they are rivals. The man they're both trying to outrun, after all, is Father Time.

"I suppose both of us would like to be the guy who has the most consecutive Bostons," says Beach, who has one more than Timothy Lepore, a 64-year-old Nantucket resident. "Neil is that guy. I know what it means to me, so I know what it must mean to him. It's hard to wish him ill."

At this point, the challenge for each of them is to maintain reasonable locomotion for 26 miles.

"I'm a little bit embarrassed because I'm really slowing down," says Weygandt, who's hoping to finish somewhere under 4 hours and 40 minutes. "I've lost speed and lost endurance, too. It's kind of frustrating."

So it is, too, for Beach, who for seven years has been battling dystonia, a neuromuscular movement disorder that affects his left leg, disrupts his stride, limits his training mileage, and sabotages his finish time.

"I walked a lot last year," he says, "which was humbling bordering on humiliating."

Jumping in the race
In their primes, both men were more than competitive racers. Weygandt, whose personal best is 2:36, once ran 23 straight sub-3-hour marathons. Beach, who once ran 2:26 in New York, has posted 17 sub-2:40 finishes here - a feat matched only by the elder Kelley - and has finished as high as 34th.

Weygandt, a retiree who reckons that he has run around 100 marathons, once won the Jim Thorpe race in Pennsylvania. ("I got to meet his grandson," he recalls.) Beach won two - the Midnight Sun in Fairbanks, Alaska ("I got a really cool trophy with a bear on it") and one in Gettysburg ("I got a nice hug from my wife Carol").

The two are throwbacks to a time when the prizes were shoes and restaurant certificates, when Boston had fewer than 1,000 starters, none of them (at least officially) female. When Patriots Day was a moveable feast. When there was no prize money and no qualifying requirements. When all you had to do to get a start number was convince skeptical gatekeeper Jock Semple that you weren't a holiday prankster.

Weygandt was running for PMC Colleges (now Widener) when friend and mentor Tom Osler convinced him that Boston was one great jaunt.

"So I literally just snuck up there," he recalls, "much to the unhappiness of my coach."

It was a raw, drizzly afternoon that immediately became historic after an enraged Semple tried to tear off Kathrine Switzer's number, furious that a woman had crashed his race.

Weygandt was up ahead of the hubbub, finishing 88th in a respectable 2:47, running near the elder Johnny Kelley for much of the way.

"I remember the roar of the crowd when he went by," he says. "I thought I beat him, but I remember reading somewhere that he beat me."

Beach, who was a senior at Governor Dummer Academy that spring, was intrigued by the idea of hundreds of people plodding 26 miles in a chill rain on a weekday.

"I had a penchant for things that were offbeat," he says.

So the following year, when he was a Harvard freshman, Beach called the BAA for an entry form.

"Jock chewed me out," he recalls. "I wasn't a serious runner, but I wasn't a joker. I'd been running with the crew."

Once he'd passed muster, Beach bought a pair of running shoes at Brine's and began getting in shape.

"Nobody knew much in those days," he says, "and I knew less than most people."

But Beach logged enough mileage that he was able to finish in under 3:24.

"This is perfect," he told himself. "It's offbeat, but it's something I have some ability to do."

Element of luck, too
Beach never counted on doing another 40 straight.

"I didn't embark on this with any sense that I would do this for the rest of my life," he says.

After half a dozen more, though, he realized that the race was becoming a habit. After 10 or so, it became close to an addiction.

"At that point, missing one would have been unthinkable, and it's even more so now," says Beach, whose sons Carter and Evan and daughter Emily ran alongside him to mark his 40th straight race.

Weygandt wasn't aware that there was a list, nor that he was leading it, until the BAA asked him for some memorabilia.

"I think it was around 1996," he says. "So I sent some of my numbers."

The stack is an inch thicker now, as Weygandt manages to pile one completion atop another.

"There were some tough years with minor injuries, but nothing major," he says. "I've been very fortunate. I just try to be healthy in April every year."

So much of consecutivity depends upon serendipity.

"Besides being dogged, you've got to be lucky to have a streak this long," muses Beach, "because so many things can happen."

Beach's own streak might have ended at three, after a knee began giving him trouble 3 miles into the 1971 race. Had the injury bus turned up then, "I think I would have climbed aboard." When it didn't, Beach simply kept chugging to the finish.

Keeping good things going is in Beach's nature. He'll be married to Carol for 30 years next month. He has worked for The Wilderness Society for nearly 25. He has run all 37 Cherry Blossom 10-milers in Washington, seen every Harvard-Yale football game since 1966 and hosted a pre-kickoff barbecue since 1973.

"In a world that changes so much," he says, "I appreciate having things that are stable."

Stability and a remarkable durability have kept Weygandt ahead of his annual pursuers. If he cared to, he probably could do four Bostons without stopping. Weygandt, who took up ultraracing more than three decades ago, has run 50 miles in 5 hours and 51 minutes, 100 miles in 14 hours and 35 minutes, and covered more than 133 miles in 24 hours and 462 in a six-day race.

Last October, in the Ted Corbitt 24-hour race in Queens, Weygandt logged nearly 85 miles.

"I don't know how Neil's body has held up that well," marvels Beach. "He must be made of steel and rubber bands."

His approach, Weygandt says, is to take it one year, one race at a time. Though he admits to feeling a bit of pressure to keep the streak going, he long ago discovered the secret to getting from there to here - keep putting one foot ahead of the other.

"If I have a broken leg," he says, "I might come up to root people on."

Otherwise, Weygandt will keep answering the gun on Patriots Day, as he has every year since 1967.

"The best thing would be for Neil to wake up some morning and say, 'This is silly, I don't want to do this anymore,' " says Beach. "But I'm not expecting that day to come."