Monday, August 30, 2010

Humorous nuggets of Buffalo's original running boom

Having been a road runner since 1973, when my first road race was the New York City Marathon, I have been sharing by recollections of running Back in the Day with others through my writing.  My first piece was entittled "The Ignorance of a Long Distance Runner", which appeared in the November, 2003 issue of Running Times.  I had another article entittled "Straight Eye for the Running Guy" which was in the Jan/Feb issue of  Marathon & Beyond.  I have also written many articles for the newsletter of the local running club here in Buffalo, NY called Checkers AC.  After many articles, the powers that be at Checkers saw fit to censor some of my articles, in part or completely.  Therefore I look to the medium of this blog to get my articles out to the huge public that cries for my works (both of them) in a timely manner.

I plan on posting weekly blogs, somtimes putting out articles that have appeared in the various publications they have been in, usually with a brief explanation, or new articles I have written.  Today I will start with my first article that I wrote for the Checkers newsletter after they asked me for my recollections of running in my earliest Boston Marathon in 1974.  Not my best, but my first.  This appeared back in August of 2003, so some things about modern day Boston Marathons have changed, such as the cost of running it now.  Hope you enjoy, and we'll see you next week.

Rip Van Winkle Does Boston

By Bill Donnelly

When recently asked to start writing a column for the Checkers Chatter about what running was like back in the 1970s, I thought, what a great way to annoy all the young and old hot-shots who are kicking my butt now, but who were not running back then! Then I realized, why not be an equal opportunity annoyer, and bug everyone, so here goes.

I started running in April of 1973, and with the wisdom that comes with youth, I made my first road race the New York City Marathon in September of that year. DUH! I kept training and competing, aiming mostly at marathons, through the Seventies, and I ran my last marathon in Columbus, Ohio in 1981. I then took off running completely through the Eighties, and most of the Nineties. I only got back into competitive running in 2000, and in 2001 I ran my first Boston Marathon since 1979.

It was truly as if I had been asleep for twenty-two years, and woke up to find out how much running has changed. So now to annoy you with some observations as to how much running has changed, using the Boston Marathon as my case in point.

Starting with the obvious, they have certainly lengthened the Boston course, as now it takes me much longer to finish it. My guess is they have nearly doubled the distance, but officials I have written to deny this has been done. I smell a cover-up.

I ran my first Boston Marathon in 1974. The entry fee was only $3, compared to $75 now. Of course we would get no shirt or finishing medal (only the certificate), and you pretty much depended on the spectators for water and orange slices. There were no mile marks or timers either, but you know, for three bucks, you got to run Boston, and those certificates were plenty neat.

So there I was, early Monday morning, giving Jock Semple $1 (he personally collected the money) to ride the bus to Hopkinton, wearing my $17 Tiger Boston’s (now Asics), cotton shorts, and my new Buffalo Philharmonic nylon mesh singlet that could cut the nipples off a rhino, if said rhino was crazy enough to wear such a shirt while running a marathon.

I arrived at Hopkinton as one of 1,700 runners, and this period was being called the “Running Boom”, yet that number was one tenth of the 17,000 that ran with me in 2001. We were herded into a school where we had to pass a quick physical before we were handed our number. The young interns doing the exams actually refused to pass some 20 or 30 already qualified runners, said they had suspected heart murmurs. There was such an outcry over this that 1974 was the last year we had the physicals.

The school we were in provided the only bathrooms, and although small by today’s numbers, 1,700 was the biggest marathon at the time, and the few bathrooms in the school were not enough for all of us. Most of the runners headed into the nearby woods for relief. I noticed in 2001 that the woods near the school are very lush and green.

After killing time, and many trips to the woods, we headed towards the start. The shrubs and bushes of the local residents also became makeshift bathrooms, and in fact, some homeowners stood in their yards with hoses running, spraying any athlete daring to soil their yard. Who could blame them?

We lined up for the start with no computer chips on our shoes, and with only a dozen or so women in the field. Because of this, the nervous men who needed to line up early to get a good spot (no corrals or seeding of runners then) emptied their bladders right there on the road. It turned out to be a splashy start to the race despite the blue skies.

Back to the future. Now we runners are herded into the Athlete’s Village, a large grassy area surrounded by fences and more port-a-potties than I had ever seen. Probably enough to have satisfied the 500,000 concert goers at Woodstock, but just enough to handle the 17,000 nervous and anxious athletes gathered here. We start meandering the half mile or more to our different corrals. There are many more port-a-potties along the way, probably more than enough to handle the athletes had this been 1974. Unfortunately, this was 2001, and it was good to see at least one tradition from the old days still intact. Every shrub, bush, and parked car became a potential bathroom. This time, however, I saw no homeowners chasing away athletes with spewing hoses. Perhaps the residents of Hopkinton came to realize that their bushes were healthier and their grass greener, and all without the use of Miracle-Grow.

One thing that hasn’t changed in Boston are the crowds of people that cheer you on. Not many sports have literally over a million spectators cheering on the athletes during the competition. The crowd control is a bit better, as I do remember that in one of the Bostons I ran during the Seventies, we were running all the way up Heartbreak Hill in almost single file because those cheering us on had closed almost completely in on us. And then there is Wellesley, the private school for women (back then we said private girls school), whose inmates (back then we said babes) make so much noise (back then we said noise) you can hear them a half mile before you reach them. That hasn’t changed, and I still lose ten minutes each year taking up the offers of seniors with the signs that read “Kiss me, I’m a senior.”

In 1974, the first woman runner, Miki Gorman, passed me with a couple miles to go and finished in 2:47:11, which was just 41 seconds off the world record for women at the time. I think that record has improved since then. Oh yeah, I would say the most noticeable and best change in running since 1974 is the number of women (did I mention that back then we said girls or babes) who compete. During the Seventies, I knew only a handful of local women runners, while now the numbers of men and women competing are nearly equal.

We finished in front of the Prudential Center then, herded into a small finishing chute, where my finishing time of 2:48:57 was good enough for 302 place. It would not be until the next year that they would give the finishers those silver blankets they still give out, and in1974 they turned the race clock off at 3:30, which was the qualifying time one needed in 1974. That qualifying time started to change soon enough, and as we all know, it keeps right on changing, but at least now, they keep the clock going much longer.

And so the biggest difference between “The Good Old Days” (I said that just to annoy you) and now are the numbers of runners, both men and women. We thought we had a “Running Boom” going then, but it does not compare to what is going on now. We were fierce competitors back then though, and I have many more tales to tell in future newsletters. Just to annoy you.

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