Boston 1984 (Part 2 of 3)

Leading up to the 1984 Boston Marathon, I didn’t have enough experience to know that the worst thing you can do when you’re a couple of weeks out from a race is to start reading random articles in running magazines telling you how to prepare for the big day. With an excess of mental and physical energy as the result of tapering, you are especially vulnerable to other people’s theories and the almost irresistible urge to try new stuff — exercises, stretches, massages, acupuncture treatments, diets for carbo-depleting or loading, different drinks, etc — just when you should be sticking to the routine of what you’ve been doing all along.

I fell victim to the idea — picked up from Runner’s World or some other equally suspect source — that it would be a good idea to do some fast 200s in the week before the race. I didn’t stop to consider that I hadn’t been doing anything fast all winter, nor did I have a clear idea of what I was trying to accomplish. Nevertheless, on the Tuesday before the marathon I went out to a nearby golf course and ran some really quick 200s on grass. I’m sure they were impressive, in their own way. Unfortunately, the next day my hamstrings and quads were really sore, and they remained sore for several days. By Monday, I didn’t feel sore anymore, but those several days had been a huge worry, and had left me feeling oddly disconnected from my body.

That was one mistake.

Another mistake was deciding to wear the lightest possible shoes for the race itself. This decision, perhaps exacerbated by the ill-advised strides and the raw weather (it was cold and drizzly right up to the start), almost certainly compromised my quads, which essentially stopped working after twenty-one miles. This was a specific instance of a more general obsession I had going into the race of running the fastest possible time. I had run 2:36 in my debut and, having trained much harder for this second marathon, I figured I would easily go under 2:30.

But my biggest mistake was failing to appreciate the specific logistics of the start and the first few miles of the race. Simply, I had not realized how crowded it would be. In my mind, I had imagined that I would run at a particular pace, just as in any other race. It always took a few seconds to get up to speed; I knew that. But I didn’t imagine that I would be WALKING, trapped in the middle of a crowd of runners who seemed indifferent to the urgency of getting to Boston as quickly as possible.

You have to remember that the depth of the Boston Marathon in the mid-80s was extraordinary. The qualifying time for open men was 2:50. I had run 2:36, and that time had earned me a bib number in the high 500s. There were a LOT of fast runners in the race, and if I hadn’t been so impatient, I would have let them carry me along at whatever pace they chose. Instead, finding myself shuffling down Route 135 at what felt like 8-minute pace, I panicked, and starting looking for any opening to improve my position. I began darting out and around runners, now accelerating to find a seam in the phalanx, now slowing up to avoid clipping the heels of the runner in front of me. Thus did I spend prodigally the glycogen currency that might have sustained me in my all-too-near hour of need.

With all this pointless jockeying for position, I was still sure that the first mile would be a minute slower than I had hoped to run. Instead, as I passed the clock, I saw that it was just over six minutes. Not so bad, I thought, as I continued weaving around slower runners.

As I was committing suicide by fartlek back in the pack, Geoff Smith was running the race of his life at the front of it. On the TV broadcast, you can see Smith’s arms pumping like a half-miler and his cheeks puffing out white clouds into the cold, dreary April afternoon. Smith, who had finished a heart-breaking second to Rod Dixon in the NYC Marathon the previous fall (after leading until just past the 26-mile mark), would run 2:10 that day, winning by over four minutes. He would win again in 1985 in a much slower time, becoming the last man to win Boston before the prize money era. For Smith, Boston 1984 would turn out to be the high point of his career.

In the women’s race, New Zealand’s Allison Roe, who had held the world’s best before Benoit destroyed it at Boston 1983, went out hard and built up a lead that grew to over a minute against fellow New Zealander Lorraine Moller. I never saw Roe during the race, but for many miles I was running near enough to Moller to see the typical crowd of male runners who used to attach themselves to the lead women. I was still near her at twenty miles, but after that our races would go in opposite directions.

When asked about her lightning fast splits for the early miles after the 1983 race, Joan Benoit had smiled and quipped “What splits?” Unlike her, splits were very much on my mind in 1984, and help explain everything that happened later. After my 6:05 first mile, I sped up a lot. I reached 5 miles in 27:50, meaning that I had run miles 2-5 at about 5:27 per mile pace, sixteen seconds per mile faster than the pace needed to break 2:30. I had no idea at the time, but by five miles, my fate was sealed and the rest of the race was now set to unfold like a Greek tragedy. But I didn’t notice or think about it because, finally, I had running room, and for a few miles, I felt like things were back on track. In this temporary state of grace, I ran through Framingham and then Natick where I noted my 10-mile split of 56:00.

The first time I felt that something wasn’t right was at a point just after 11 miles when it suddenly seemed that the runners around me were pulling away. Although I thought I had been running fairly strongly, suddenly going up a very small hill, I felt like I had to work quite hard to maintain my place in the pack. In fact, I was starting to slow down, and I had a long way to go.

I passed halfway in 1:14:15, and made my way through Wellesley, but as I descended the long hill into Newton Lower Falls, I began to experience sharp stabs of pain in my quads. My stride was starting to deteriorate, and, as a consequence, I was using more and more energy to less and less advantage. Having bottomed out on the course, I passed 16 miles in 1:31, and from the way I felt running up the modest hill up and over Route 128, I knew without a doubt that I was in big trouble.

My family had come to Boston to watch me, and like so many other friends and relatives, had chosen a viewing place near the Woodland T Stop that would allow them to watch me go by, and then meet me at the finish. As I passed Newton Wellesley Hospital, I began scanning the faces in the crowd. Suddenly I saw my brother Jeff, and yelled out his name. He saw me and yelled out my name, and then I was past him. I had meant to say so much more, to let him know that I was falling apart, but even if there had been time to say something, I doubt I could have come up with the words to express the certain knowledge I had that these were the early stages of breaking down completely.

After I passed my family, I focused all of my thoughts on getting up and over the Newton Hills. For me, that was the farthest point on my mental horizon. I simply couldn’t imagine anything beyond the crest of these hills. The hills, I felt, were finite. Each one hurt a little bit more than the last, but I was still maintaining the semblance of a running stride, and my quads didn’t hurt so much going uphill. I passed 20 miles in 1:55:20, and threw what was left of my reserves into getting up and over Heartbreak.

In the TV broadcast, the stationery cameras on the Boston College side of Heartbreak Hill show Lorraine Moller motoring along on her way to catching Allison Roe and winning the race. The fast-starting Roe would suffer hamstring cramps at 24 miles and wouldn’t finish. That race pretty much marked the end of her competitive career.

After Moller passes, the camera remains on the road and just before the broadcast switches to the Men’s leaders, you can see me come into view wearing a red knit cap against the cold and running gingerly down the gentle incline grimacing with every step. The first time I saw that footage, I remember thinking that it was a pity the race hadn’t been 22 miles instead of 26.2. I’m not the first person to have had that thought.

I stopped and walked for the first time at 22 miles, just before Cleveland Circle. As I write those words, I can’t really remember all that I was feeling at that point. If there’s a memory in my brain somewhere, it seems to be locked away to prevent unauthorized access. I know that I was disappointed and I know that I was embarrassed because so many people were passing me (such a lot of people passed me that day). I remember that people in the crowd kept trying to get me to start running, and that I did try to start running, and hated those people. Why wouldn’t they leave me alone? I remember taking orange slices from kids and seeing their eyes go wide. Did I really look that bad? I remember that those last four miles took a long time… about 34 minutes, in fact.

After it was all over, after I had finished in 2:41:44 and had been wrapped in a space blanket, I managed to find my way from the finish to the Prudential Parking garage where my family and I had arranged to meet. My memory of those twenty minutes after crossing the line is completely blank. I simply have no recollection of what happened. The next thing I remember is my family standing around awkwardly while I sat against a wall and wept from exhaustion and disappointment. I had tried so hard and for so long, that I just didn’t have anything left to keep back the tears.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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2 Responses to Boston 1984 (Part 2 of 3)

  1. Robin says:

    There was an interesting article in the Guardian about the 2013 London Marathon that discussed the issue of pace and fatigue

    In a way it was what I was thinking when you blogged about the two hour marathon. For any given race at a particular place and on a particular day, there is probably a best possible finish. For any given athlete, with best possible training, strategy, and luck, there is probably a best possible finish. For a human being with the best genes, nutrition, and build, there is probably a best possible finish (no one is talking about a man running a two minute mile, but horses do it every day.) There are enough elite athletes (even if they can only really run two or three marathons in a year), and enough races, that we out to get a sense of whether the finish times are approaching a limit, or whether there is still a lot of scatter. If there is scatter, then it is a matter of time until someone runs the best possible race on the best possible course in the best possible conditions and runs a 2 hour marathon. If the best finish times tend to be close to the same, then that 2 hour marathon might not happen (unless, as you said, there is a breakthrough of some sort). If athletes could they probably would run faster, whether it’s one second faster per mile, or one second faster for 26.2, but if they try their performance suffers.

    I am really looking forward to the third installment of Boston 1984. I have found it both very moving and very educational.

  2. Robin says:

    ought not out

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