By Don Allison
One of Race Director Dave McGillivray's biggest obstacles in organizing the first Chancellor Challenge 100 Km road race in Boston was to find a suitable course. Many ideas were bandied about, with a 10-km loop around Boston side of the Charles River footpath the final location chosen. But to squeeze out 10-km between the Museum of Science and the Boston University Bridge, an additional bit was added, including a 110-degree turn just 20 yards from the start and finish of each loop.
To most runners this was nothing more than a minor nuisance, but as Ohio's Mark Godale was running in the early stages of the race, he noticed that the final turn was somewhat tricky to negotiate and wondered to himself "Wouldn't it be funny if it came down to a race for the finish around that final turn."
After more than 62 miles of running, from the early morning hours until mid-afternoon, the race for the first-place prize of $3,000 and a gold 18-carat gold ring was going to be determined in the final yards, around that hairpin turn to the finish line.
But the story of how there ever came to be a race to the finish deserves mention first. When Chancellor Corporation CEO Brian Alder gave Dave McGillvaray a call a few months ago asking him to direct this ultramarathon race, Dave naturally thought the was specualting on an event in the fall of 2000. But Adler was insistent that October of 1999 was the time he had in mind.
Thus, for Both McGillvary and Chancellor, a truck leasing company headquartered in Boston, the wheels were set in rapid motion for this 100-km race. Through the yeoman efforts of everyone involved, 64 ultrarunners from the USA and around the world and 10 relay teams were on hand for the drizzly, overcast start at 7:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning in October.
Those who are not indoctrinated to ultra-distance races find it hard to believe that runners actually race over the full 62.13 miles. Just being able to complete the distance seems such a formidable task that it would seem ludicrous to try to actually run hard and compete toe-to-toe with other runners as well.
That is indeed the case, however. Top-level ultrarunning is a highly competitive sport. Many countries field national teams for the annual World Challenge 100-km, a race that is an elite ultrarunner's Olympics. In a testimony to the efforts of race organizers and the substantial $20,000 in prize money on offer, the field included many members of the USA national team, as well as several who had represented other countries in the World Challenge.
Many felt the winner of the Chancellor 100 Km would come from that foreign group, despite the fact that a trio of favored Russian athletes were unable to reach Boston in time to make the start of the race. A non-American winner appeared likely, as after the first of ten 10-km loops Canadian Victor Hickey led a group of other foreign runners: Tim Sloan from Australia, Russell Crawford from South Africa, and Jan Vandendriessche from Belgium. Trailing this pack was the first American, Jim Garcia, a local ultrarunner from nearby Westford, Massachusetts.
On the women's side, the favorite was Rae Bischoff from South Africa, a winner of the Comrades, the world's most famous ultra-distance race, a 56-mile jaunt in South Africa that annually draws more than 10,000 runners and is considered the crown jewel in ultrarunning. Bischoff has also represented South Africa in the World Challenge as well. Seizing the lead early on, Bischoff carved out a several minute advantage on Daniele Cherniak from upstate New York, currently the top USA 100-km runner.
The top four foreign men jockeyed back and forth in the ensuing laps before Vandendriessche grabbed hold of the top spot and settled into a startlingly fast pace. The Belgian, who bears the same last name but no relation to 1963 Boston Marathon winner Aurele Vandendriessche, is a strong, powerful runner, but with a quick, efficient stride that is characteristic of so many elite ultrarunners.
Behind Vandendriessche, Garcia was making some headway against the foreign competition. Slowly he reeled in Hickey, Crawford, and the finally Sloan, more than 40 miles into the race. In doing so, Garcia had extended himself at a very fast pace, one he had not maintained in an ultra for several years, reaching the 50-km (31-mile) halfway point in 3:17. To catch Vandendriessche seemed unlikely however, as he was unable to erase much of the four-minute margin the Belgian had established.
Although Garcia did not know it with certainty, things were not going so well for Vandendriessche. His legs were starting to betray him on the final 10-km loop. With the loop configuration of the course, Garcia was able to have a few looks at the Belgian on the out-and-back sections, calculating just how much of a deficit he needed to make up to have any chance for the win. Still it seemed improbable, more than a minute in arrears with a mile to go. With a quarter-mile left the gap was down to 25 seconds, but still....
Then came the turn.
Garcia had pulled nearly even with Vandendriessche as they rounded the turn, Garcia easily the stronger of the two. Taking a wide turn, the Belgian faltered slightly, then more than 62 miles of incredibly hard, fast-paced running caught up with him, as he buckled and fell to the ground. Garcia jumped clear and strode to the finish line, the final 20 yards the only portion of the race in which he held the lead during the entire race. Vandendriessche picked himself up and crossed the line in second place, 18 seconds later.
Garcia, who was hoping only for a top five finish before the race, was probably the most composed person in the crowd after the wild finish. "With 200 yards to go, I thought there was no chance," he said, "But this is what dreams are made of."
It was more like a nightmare for Vandendriessche, who was flat on the ground with exhaustion for several minutes after the conclusion of the race. Later, he seemed happy with his effort, if not with the final result. "It is sport," he said graciously.
Hickey staged a late race comeback for third place in a strong 7:02, followed by Sloan and Crawford. The next five runners were Americans: USA national team members Bob Sweeney and Godale, then Virginia's Courtney Campbell and Brookline's Rick Doubleday, who amazingly captured a top ten finish in his first ever run beyond the 26.2-mile marathon distance. Kevin McGovern from Boylston, Mass, also a former USA national team member, rounded out the top ten.
The women's race did not have the excitement the mens' race did, but featured some extraordinary performances nonetheless. After Bischoff was forced to retire halfway with a back injury, Edit Berces from Hungary assumed a lead that she did not relinquish for the remainder of the race. Cherniak gave Berces a good battle, but finished 10 minutes back of the Hungarian's winning time of 8:01:01, for which she collected the $3,000 first-place prize.
New York's Ellen McCurtin ran a strong race for third place, followed by Florida's Nancy Drach in fourth and Christy Cosgove from Boxford, Mass in fifth. Amazingly this was Cosgrove's second ultra race in a week, as she finished as the second women in the Vermont 50-mile trail race the previous Sunday. Talk about strong endurance and powers of recovery!
As the late afternoon sun faded and darkness settled in, many runners continued to complete their 10-km laps, grinding towards the finish line. One of those was 63-year-old Frenchman Henri Girault, who was on his was to his 415th 100-km finish, as incomprehensible as that may seem. Many of the runners, family members and supporters, gathered under the huge tent for the awards ceremony, went outside the cheer the Frenchman to the finish, then again as Ruth Kessler from Burlington Massachusetts confidently strode around the final turn, the last runner to cross the finish line, 12 hours and 37 minutes after the start.
All parties seemed to be quite pleased with the first of what is hoped to be many Chancellor Challenge 100 Km races in Boston. Sixty-two point one miles may seem like an impossibly long distance to run, but then again, you never know when it might come down to that final turn.