Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Fri, 28 Mar 2014 06:35:12 -0400

Timeless Boston

(This piece is for my book-in-progress titled See How We Run: Best Writings from 25 Years of Running Commentary. I am posting an excerpt here each Friday, this one from April 1990.)

It’s time to make peace between fact and opinion. The fact (in case you missed it the other 99 times I’ve mentioned it here) is that the Boston Marathon runs on a net-downhill course, and times from such courses no longer qualify as American records (or by extension, world marks).

My opinion, voiced earlier this year, called the new rule “necessary” because headlines and bonuses ride on road records, and “fair” because it equalizes the record courses. This didn’t play well in Boston.

A second, peace-making opinion: By defining what comparable conditions are, the Athletics Congress (now USATF) has done the Boston Marathon a favor. TAC has forced Boston to redefine its race in terms that make it incomparable with any other.

Boston never has been about setting records. Only three years in the race’s first 93 did anyone set a world best here: Yun Bok Soh in 1947, Liane Winter in 1975 and Joan Benoit (Samuelson) in 1983.

Boston didn’t truly claim either the men’s or women’s American records before the legislative rewriting. Benoit Samuelson had set the women’s mark at Chicago, and Alberto Salazar had run a disputed time at New York City that was faster than his U.S. “record” at Boston.

The last man to set a recognized national record at Boston was Bill Rodgers in 1979. And he drew more notice for his third victory there than for his time.

That’s where the emphasis belongs, on the competition. The Boston Marathon isn’t about running against the clock, but about racing against real people.

The best races are all that way. At the biggest of all, the Olympics, time hardly matters at all. Winning a medal is what counts.

Someone can break a marathoner’s record. No one can take away an Olympic medal.

Boston is the “Olympics” of American road racing. Here the first question is, “Who won?” and not, “How fast?”

We remember Boston’s names, not times: Clarence DeMar’s seven victories… Johnny Kelley’s two, 10 years apart… the other Johnny Kelley and the young man he’d coached, Amby Burfoot, being the only American winners in an 11-year span… Kathrine Switzer’s run-in with Jock Semple… Nina Kuscsik, the first official women’s winner… the Rodgers era… Salazar’s race with Dick Beardsley… Benoit’s Olympic preview.

Jacqueline Hansen once held the world best and was the second official women’s winner at Boston. “That was one of my worst times ever,” she recalls of that 1973 race, “but it also stands out as my most memorable victory.”

The man who won that day, Jon Anderson, never held a record at any distance. Yet he won a spot on the U.S. Olympic team (in the 10,000) the year before winning at Boston in a time that no one but him recalls without looking it up.

The appeal of Boston, says Anderson, comes not from times but from “bringing together many of the best marathoners in the world on a unique course to find out who is the fastest on a given day. True fans appreciate the race, the course and the athletes based on this alone.”

True fans of the Boston Marathon always have focused on the runners and never on the records. They know that the hills (both up and down) make Boston times comparable only with those from other Bostons, and that a race-day’s times are more the product of wind and temperature than the runners’ abilities.

UPDATE FROM 2014

The “record” debate resurfaces every few years at Boston, whenever friendly tailwinds push down the times. Never has anyone gone faster, anywhere, than Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai ran at Boston 2011. Ryan Hall became the fastest American that day.

I wrote then, “The narrative that took shape after Boston was, ‘Mutai would have set a world record, and Hall an American mark, if not for those silly rules.’ It should read, ‘They would not have run this fast without the tailwind [estimated at 15 to 20 miles per hour].’

“I soften this comment by adding the one indisputable fact that these were by far the fastest times ever run at Boston, where the course as the same as always and the wind has blown favorably before. The times of Mutai and Hall don’t need to be official records to let them stand as runs for the ages.”


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from Amazon.com; (2) as e-books from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; (3) as PDFs for e-reader devices and apps, from Lulu.com. Just released was Joe’s Team. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]
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