Running marathons, I never had a great day on a good course in good weather. Of my two fastest races, one was plagued by heat and the other by rain and a sloppy track. But certainly of these two races, Boston 1973 was my best marathon effort.
In the late 1960s, I was in the Air Force stationed at Pope Air Force Base. Wanting to continue running competitively, I had written to several nearby North Carolina universities looking for possible running contacts. I thus met up with a small group of fellow post-collegiate runners who trained and raced under the banner of the “North Carolina Track Club.”
The ‘70s were a great time for amateur racing, and NCTC was right there in the mix, winning three national team titles: the National 30K in 1970 and 1972, and the National One Hour Run in 1971. I ran 2:25:54 at the 1970 Atlanta marathon, then used that time to join four other NCTC sub-2:30 marathoners at the ’72 Olympic Trials. Three teammates finished in the top 21: Eddie Hereford, Gareth Hayes, and Marshall Adams. By 1973, my Ph.D. work in exercise physiology at the University of Maryland carried me to the D.C. area, and I decided it was time to set my sights on Boston. That year I had been consistently training 80 to 90 miles a week.
Travel expenses were always an issue in those days. Fortunately, guys from the Baltimore running club had worked out a deal for area racers with one of the airlines. Basically, the plane was full of runners who had really cheap seats. I think we got tickets for about half price.
In 1972, the Boston field had topped 1,000 runners for the first time. Now a year later, those numbers were up another 40%. Joining the mob scene in Hopkinton, I was not on the front row. Instead, I stood just back in a gap between guys on the front row. I had enough gumption not to try to horn in on guys I knew were top runners, guys I had previously run against who had kicked my butt. For example, I recognized track star Jon Anderson, and knew I wasn’t going to take off with him. (A good move on my part, as Jon would be almost ten minutes faster in his impressive ’73 Boston win.) I remember Jack Fultz was one of the guys on the front row. Of course, Jack and I raced against each other in D.C. I felt it was pretty much a pitch up, though he probably had the advantage in longer races.
Waiting for the starting gun, there was no shortage of talent on the front row; plus a number of publicity seeking sprinters of dubious pedigree, ready to take off like scalded dogs. So, I was content to stand a little further back. Then the starter fired his gun, and not only did this row of runners take off down the street, it seemed like everybody who’d been standing nearby on the damn sidewalk joined them!
One problem with the Boston start back then was a 90-degree right hand turn almost immediately after gun. I purposely set myself over on the left, because I wasn’t going out with those sprinters: No way. I didn’t come here to run eight miles and quit. I figured, way over on the left side, I could stay out of trouble. I swung wide, and took the longer route. After the sharp turn, I was still on my feet, but already fifty yards in the hole, distance wise. You just hoped you don’t lose a place at the end by not joining in the sprint at the beginning.
After that turn, I’m still surrounded by lots of runners just getting in the way. The first five or six miles, it’s like you’d just run into a maze. Each mile, you probably ran a hundred yards out of the way, just getting around people. The congestion really slowed you down. However, I felt my early pace was quick enough to put me where I wanted to be.
I wanted to run a good race in a good time at Boston. But that afternoon, I pulled one out of my kazoo. Based on the competition, there’s no way I should have finished 12th. However, as can often happen in Massachusetts in April, this Patriots Day was very hot. And, the thing of it was, I had been assigned of one of those military “special projects” where I had researched heat acclimatization. Back then, a lot of research on the subject had been done by the army, and a lot of that stuff was classified “Top Secret.” I’d had access to information on racing in the heat not available to the average runner.
Most of today’s modern synthetic fabrics were not around. However, those loose fitting, floppy running shirts allowed for ventilation, and I’d gotten several of those. Also, I’d started wearing white running shorts (of course back then, they were so skimpy, they didn’t cover enough of your body to reflect much heat!).
I’d even gotten a short haircut to help with heat dissipation. In the midst of a hot race, I’d read 13% of heat dissipation came from my head. Guys with mop heads, they took a beating. I knew a guy who’d been involved in the study of football, looking at body core temperatures of football players with burr haircuts versus football players with mop heads, guys trying to look like the Beatles. In warm early season games, the difference was significant. [Ron Hill was an example of a big time racer who understood this tactic: in hot conditions, he always showed up with his head clipped.]
Even in the sun, I didn’t wear a hat. Again, you wear a hat to keep your head warm. You might wear a visor to keep the sun out of your eyes, but you don’t wear a cap to keep cool. (That was a time before many people ran in caps. Now you see people out at four o’clock in the morning, running in a baseball cap, turned around backwards. Like a disguise. 47 year olds, old enough to know better. Why are you wearing a cap in the summer? It’s 87 degrees before daylight. How crazy!)
The big thing was many guys were intolerant to heat. That’s one reason I was so far back for so long at the beginning of the 1973 race. I started taking water early in the race: Gatorade, Gatorade, Gatorade; water, water, water. And I started taking ice cubes, and carrying them in my hands, to help the circulation.
In ’73, Boston’s distance check points were another item that hadn’t yet entered the 20th century. Funky splits like 6 ¾, 10 ½, and 13 ¾ miles. Yeah, that made a lot of sense! But I carried a stopwatch at the start, and had done the calculations ahead of time. That was probably the most studied race I ever ran in my life. At the time, I really didn’t know how many years more I’d be running competitively, so I’d really done my homework. I had sort of figured out what I wanted to be at each place. I was pretty close to being on schedule at the half way point, and pleased with my performance so far.
At ten miles it seemed like I was between 800th and 1,000th place! Because between 10 and 15 miles, I began passing groups, big groups of people, non-stop. You’d have groups and stragglers, groups and stragglers. You’d go by them, and think, “Now we know why you are suffering, because you were sprinting a mile ahead of me at eight miles!”
By then I’d really started noticing the crowds along the way. They were wall to wall, wall to wall. Some of the places, maybe not that thick, but still, the sidewalk was full, the road was full.
I’d heard all the horror stories about Heartbreak Hill. Of course, Ed Plowman, NCTC’s local contact during his grad school days at Boston University, had driven us out there to take a look beforehand. We didn’t see anything intimidating. You stop and think about it. Back when Heartbreak Hill got its name, Boston runners were trained with such low mileage, they were going to run out of gas at 17 miles, uphill or downhill. A twelve mile run might have been their long run. They might have gotten in one 20 mile run and then rested for four days afterwards. And that was at a minute or two a mile slower than race pace.
Anyway, I scampered over all of the Newton Hills. I really didn’t start getting fatigued until after the crest at Boston College. Going down that last hill, that’s when my poor old quads started begging for mercy. (It seems like my best racing distance was under 30K, maybe a half marathon. I tell people, “I got a two hour body and a two hour brain. Beyond that, I’m suffering.”)
I’m not sure I fully appreciated this fact during the race, but I was fortunate the weather had turned hot. Probably the only person I was seriously concerned about outperforming me in the heat was Jack Fultz. When I saw him at the end of the race, he had this spiffy looking purple outfit. It was nylon, high dollar designer stuff some company had given him. Basically he overheated: that dark outfit probably cost him fifteen minutes. Jack was in better shape than that. I think Jack learned from the experience as he turned around in ’76 and won Boston on another warm day. But in ’73 as I went by, he looked terrible.
From the top of Heartbreak Hill on in, there were just waves of spectators. Not inching in enough to make you feel claustrophobic, but a continuous large crowd. There were a lot of trees on Commonwealth Avenue, where the course ran from west to east. Running on the right hand side of the road, particularly at that time of the year, the south side provided some shade. I remember purposely running on the right side for the shade, though most of us always trained running on the left side of the road. Sort of an awkward sensation, running too far on the opposite camber of the road, but of course the shade was worth it.
I didn’t start falling apart until I got over the last hills, at 22 or 23 miles. When I made that right hand turn after the Citgo sign, I was hanging by a damn thread. But nobody passed me. Steve Hoag from Minnesota was right behind me. Afterwards, he said “I had my eyes on you. I kept bearing down on you, but you wouldn’t relent!” Steve finished sixth in 1974 and then ran 2:11:54 behind Bill Rodgers in 1975.
At the end (2:25:31), I wasn’t close enough to see track speedster Anderson or roadrunner Tom Fleming go one-two. Turning on Boylston Street, Germany’s Lutz Philipp (who had posted the world’s best marathon time in 1972) was about 150 yards ahead of me. Before the heat took its toll, Philipp had challenged for the lead, and run through both Natick and Wellesley in first place. Of course, I’d never seen him, so I didn’t recognize him until after we finished.
Dennis Spencer from the University of Georgia in sixth place had also run much better than expected. Talk about pulling one out of your kazoo! He ran 2:22:31 on Monday and was supposed to run in his conference championship 10,000 the following Saturday. I remember him saying later “Race 10K? I can’t even walk!”
I finished 12th, and was happy as a clam: just pleased with the time under those conditions, and more than pleased with my finishing position. At the last two turns, I knew I was in the small numbers. I didn’t think I’d be in the top ten, but thought I’d be somewhere close. I got a little medal about an inch tall, tied on a ribbon, presented to me afterwards upstairs at the Prudential Center, after we’d choked down a little beef stew.
The next year I skipped Boston to concentrate on the AAU National Championship Marathon at Yonkers. I was trained for another good effort, but once again encountered less than ideal weather conditions. It rained the whole race, and on each of three loops, we had to deal with the slop of the Yonkers Raceway horse track. Running in the mud, it was not what you would describe as a “fast track.” I managed a 2:23:24, which remains my marathon PR. This time around, I was 21 seconds slower than Steve Hoag and right behind him in ninth place. We each finished behind four runners we had bested in Boston the year before: Winner Ron Wayne, Carl Hatfield, Justin Gubbins, and Marty Sudzina. You might say that PR at Yonkers both solidified my reputation as “NOT A MUDDER!” and made me appreciate even more my sole appearance at Boston.