What a Field Day for the Heat: Outtakes from the Boston Marathon
Observations and opinions from the 108th Boston Marathon.
Posted Thursday, 22 April, 2004
Fair? Certainly not. But if the marathon mimics real life, then nearly 20,000 runners got a full dose of reality in the form of 80+ degree temperatures this year in Boston. Surely the majority of marathoners felt physical pain in reading the three-day forecast in advance of the race:
Sunday: sunny, cool, highs in the 60s
Monday: sunny, hot, windy, highs in the 80s
Tuesday: sunny, cool, highs in the 60s.
After all of those long runs gutted out during a long, cold winter, for the second year in a row the third Monday in April brought New England its first shot of summer. What can you do?
For one thing, stay out of the sun before the race. I was amazed at the early morning television views from Hopkinton, and the hundreds of runners sprawled out on the high school field out in the open sun. Was there not enough cover for the runners, or did they all freely choose to bask in the sun before the race? One thing is for sure: heading to the starting line with elevated skin temperature is a surefire way to bring on a prematurely elevated body temperature in the marathon on a hot day. Any time I have run in an abnormally warm marathon or long distance race, I have made every effort to keep my body cool before the race by staying out of the sun, in as cool a place as possible, and pouring water on myself. Anything to have fighting chance on a brutal day. *****
It’s an old argument, but will the B.A.A. ever look at moving the starting time up a few hours? Really, how much harder would it be to start the race at 9:00 a.m.? It would surely make a big difference on a warm day, such has happened the past two years. Most runners would not mind getting up a little earlier to get to the start. We all know marathoners don’t sleep that well before the race anyway. As for the tradition of starting at noon, the B.A.A. has ditched many long-standing traditions in favor of practicality in recent years, including a separate, earlier start for women this year. Perhaps too, the Boston Red Sox could play their game at night, allowing fans to watch both the race and the game, and alleviating congestion in town. *****
The aforementioned early women’s start played to rave reviews, especially given the fact that the race for the win was much closer and more exciting on the women’s side this year. Yes, the women got their day in the sun—literally. From this viewer’s vantage point on the Newton Hills however, it seemed there were many women strung out being the leaders who probably wished they were part of the main pack instead. Having been dropped by the women’s leaders, these ladies were also reeled in by the front running men, who blazed by them as if they were not even there. Trying to hang onto the pace on such a difficult day, they were caught in no woman’s land, praying for the finish to arrive. Perhaps there were too many not-quite-elite women allowed to start a half-hour early, but I would guess that not all of the early starters were as enthusiastic about it as the fans and media were. *****
No one would dispute that the Kenyans at Boston, in addition to being terrific runners, are unfailingly polite. I personally witnessed this affability being put to test in this year’s race. At mile 19, one of the leading women, a Kenyan runner, ground to a stop at the aid table. Soon it was clear she would not continue, and she drifted to the grassy median between Commonwealth Avenue and the carriage road to await a ride. After a while a teenager approached on his bike. As he spied the runner with her number still pinned to her singlet, he shouted to her, “Hey, whaddaya doin’ ? Start runnin’!” I cringed at the youngster’s crude lack of decorum, but the Kenyan runner, surely emotionally crushed at having had to drop out, patiently explained to the young man that she was injured and could not run any further. Although her poise was lost on the teenager, it was not on me. I could only imagine how a pampered American professional sports star such as Barry Bonds or Terrell Owens would have handled such a remark from a spectator. The kid would have been lucky to escape with his bike in one piece. *****
Every year it seems, there is a designated “celebrity” that runs the Boston Marathon. Last year it was actor/comedian Will Ferrell. This year, David Elliot from television’s “Jag.” I must say, before the marathon I had never heard of Elliot and was only vaguely of “Jag,” a show I have never watched. Nonetheless, Elliot revived A-list celebrity treatment from the press and the fans, many of whom (most on the female side) went crazy when Elliot slogged past on the Newton Hills en route to a five-hour finish. So to any actors, singers, or comedians out there looking for an ego boost, the marathon has to be the way to go. What’s 26 miles of pain, compared with tens of thousands of adoring cheers? *****
An underrated part of the marathon weekend is the awards ceremony at the Copley Plaza Hotel, emceed by the longtime voice of the marathon, Tom Grilik, who does a great job. Open to all, it is fun and interesting to see the top runners, both open and age-groupers, collect their prizes. In addition, one is able to appreciate performances that might otherwise fly under the radar. This year, one such performance was turned in by Henry Wanyoike, who clocked a speedy 2:33:15. Amazingly, Henry competed as part of the visually impaired division, winning that category by nearly an hour and setting a division world record, surely the only runner to do so this year. On a day when only 31 of the 18,000 runners matched his time, Henry Wanyoike deserves credit and congratulations for such an outstanding and inspiring effort. *****
One disappointing aspect of the awards, however, was the runners who were not around to accept their prizes. Sometimes logistics or fatigue prevents a runner from making it to the ceremony, but more often than not it is simply the fact that they aren’t aware of the ceremony or that they actually won anything. I saw a friend from Wisconsin during the race and was surprised to hear her name called at the awards as one of the top 10 women’s masters’ finishers. Alas, she was not at the ceremony. When I e-mailed her the next day to tell her about her award, she replied, “It never occurred to me that my time would have been good enough to win anything, so some friends and I went out to dinner instead. Had I known, I surely would have been at the awards.” Perhaps the B.A.A. can do more to promote the awards ceremony in future years, although that might make it more difficult for me to get a seat! *****
When I ran into two top local runners at the Expo on the Saturday before the race, I inquired as to whether they were running in the marathon. “No way,” was the quick reply from both. The runners expressed dismay at how little is done to encourage top local runners to run in the Boston Marathon. While these yeoman marathoners are not likely to factor among the top 10 finishers, through the years they have added much to the race. While top international runners get the red carpet treatment, including travel expenses and lodging for weeks before the race—not to mention the hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money—top local marathoners are often not even extended an invitation to run. Would it be so hard to encourage these marathoners to run in the biggest and most prestigious race in their region? One of the runners I spoke with said he felt more at home at the Chicago Marathon than in his hometown race. Surely, something is wrong with that. *****
Taking this topic one step further, how about presenting awards to the top men’s and women’s finishers from each of the seven towns the marathon runs through? It would add a small degree of civic pride for the towns, as well as promoting local runners. *****
So, the Boston Marathon is complete for another year. For 108 years—especially the last 30—the race has proved to be an irresistible draw. Will those marathoners that ran this year remain as enthusiastic when next year’s race rolls around? Will they be able to forget the pain and disappointment of the furnace-like conditions that made the race such an ordeal in 2004? No doubt, many will. It’s easy to forget the pain, they say. Is it too early for a long-rang forecast?