Monday, September 6, 2010

Nugget #2

The following is the article that was in the Sept/Oct issue of the Checker's newsletter.  It was my second article, and corrected a mistake or two I made in the first article about the earlier days of the Boston Marathon.  Also, I must have thought it was clever to have two titles for my article.

My (almost) First Boston Marathon


Who Wouldn’t Choose His Senior Prom?

by Bill Donnelly

First things first. I have to admit I am a huge pack-rat, and I mean HUGE! (I got that HUGE idea from the side of a NFTA bus). If you look up “pack-rat” in the dictionary, it says “see Bill Donnelly on page 395”. If you look up “Bill Donnelly” it says see “HUGE”, and if you look up HUGE”, it says see the side of an NFTA bus.

Anyway, I have been collecting valuable artifacts since I was but a wee bit of a boy. I have some strange things, such as several 1964 pocket schedules for the Minnesota Twins (you never know when you might go back in time and want to catch a game), ticket stubs to every high school play I’ve been to (who could forget Riverside’s 1965 production of “The Ten Commandments), and all my report cards going back to Nursery School (“Billy has a problem staying still during nap time”). Hey, we pack rats save these things just in case we become President some day, and they need to fill up the Bill Donnelly Presidential Library. Believe me; they will need a big library for my stuff.

So this brings me to the point of my tale. I owe an apology for a mistake I made in my last story to the newsletter entitled “Rip Van Winkle does Boston”. In it I mention that the entry fee of the 1974 Boston Marathon was $3. I was wrong. In going through one of many boxes of my running memorabilia, I found the instruction sheet from Will Cloney for my first Boston, and the entry fee is $2 (NON-REFUNDABLE). The bus to Hopkinton was $1, but by the next year (That’s right, I saved the 1975 instruction sheet also) the entry fee was up to $3, and the bus ride was now $2. Such inflation!

Well, besides that mistake, I also found my copy of the official entry blank for the 70th running of the Boston Marathon, which was run in 1966. Then it was called the American Marathon Run, and it was held on Tuesday, April 19. Up through 1968, the race was held on Patriots Day, April 19, unless that day fell on a Sunday. If that happened, it would be run the following Monday. In 1969, they made Patriots day a Monday holiday, to be run on the third Monday of April. Anyway, how I came into possession of said entry blank, which implies that I was thinking of running said marathon, is a story in itself, the story of my introduction to the crazy idea of running 26+ miles, and the story of the first person I knew to actually run the race.

Let’s go back in time to the fall of 1965, my senior year at Riverside High School in Buffalo. I was co-captain of the cross country team (along with Les Takacs, who won the 1965 Turkey Day Race), a team that went on to the mediocre heights of placing sixth in the all-high meet out of twelve teams. Ed Hoffman of Grover Cleveland won individual honors, running the 2.7 mile course around Delaware Lake in 14:14, but Fred Gordon led the unbelievably strong Bennett team to it’s fourth straight Columbia Cup Championship, with Fred taking second, and the other Bennett runners taking positions 3, 4, 14 and 16.

In the Buffalo Evening News article about the race (yes, I have all the clippings saved too), it is mentioned that Ed Hoffman’s long range goals include running the 1966 Boston Marathon before the up-coming track season. This was probably the first I ever heard of this marathon, and it didn’t really register at the time. In talking to Fred Gordon recently about Hoffman’s plans back then, he said he too had planned on running the marathon in 1966, but his coach, and Hoffman’s coach, had both wisely put the kibosh on such plans, and they were forbidden from doing it. Nothing like a marathon in April to ruin a young runners track season (Hoffman and Gordon went on to finish one-two respectively in the All-High Mile). However, unbeknownst to any of us, a team-mate of mine was making the same plans to run Boston in 1966.

My team-mate Bill Nordstom was a decent runner and very good friend of mine. He had come to Riverside from Park school a few years before, and he had a motor scooter he used to ride to school. His family lived in the Frank Lloyd Wright house over on Soldiers Pl. next to Bidwell Parkway, close to Delaware Park. Before every cross country meet, I would ride on the back of his scooter to his place, where we would change and head for the meets. Nothing like a Frank Lloyd Wright dressing facility to get you up for the run.

It turns out Bill had plans of running Boston, and his father even got him a membership in the Delaware Y so he could run indoors during the upcoming winter. In talking to Bill recently, he admitted he had no idea as to how to go about training for a marathon. He knew enough not to tell our coach, Jim Decker, so he went to his coach from Park school, Herb Mols, to vouch for him. Herb became a HUGE! Figure in local running and in the Niagara AAU, and together they fudged some numbers and told the Boston officials Bill was more than capable of running the marathon. Bill was in.

Bill’s longest training run was the seven miles our cross country team did in October of 1965, when we ran to the Grand Island Bridge and back. Fred Gordon was running seven miles in his sleep back then, but we thought we were amazing. During the winter Bill would go to the Y now and again to run on the indoor track. I believe the number of laps per mile is somewhere between 30 and 2178, and thus it is tough to get those long ones in. Bill admits his longest workouts were three miles. Look out Boston!

This is where I come in. I was a back-stroker on the high school swim team, and along about the beginning of March, when that season ended, Bill came to me and asked if I would like to join him in running the Boston Marathon. Seeing the very puzzled look on my face, he proceeded to explain what the marathon was all about, and not really comprehending what he was telling me, I agreed to do it. We went out and ran a couple miles in miserable weather, and he got me an entry blank for Boston, which would be placed among my papers waiting for my Presidential Library.

We ran another one or two times, and then I began figuring out my financial situation. Being from a family of nine kids, I knew I couldn’t ask my folks to pay for my stay in Boston. The entry form has no mention of any entry fee, but even I figured Boston might be a bit rich for a poor high school kid. Yeah, I had some money saved up from my part time job of baby-sitting, and it may have been enough. But it hit me, the Senior Prom was coming soon, and I even had a girl-friend who was counting on me paying for the event. How do I tell her we can’t go to the Prom because I want to run 26 miles in Boston? So I had to tell Bill he would have to do Boston without me, and that is just what he did.

The 1966 Boston was historical for a couple reasons, not the least of which was that I almost went. According to Bill, it was a hot and sunny day (he remembers getting sunburn), so the winning time of 2:17:11 was fair. The Kenyans of the day, the Japanese, took the first four places, led by Kenji Kimihara. More importantly, it was the first Boston in which a woman competed, though unofficially. The next year, Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to run Boston with a number, having entered as K. Switzer, but in 1966 Roberta Gibb ran as a bandit and finished in 3:21 and I believe she finished in 124th place. Bill didn’t know until the next day she had run.

So here is Bill Nordstom lining up in Hopkinton with just a few hundred other runners, not really knowing what he was in for. As he remembers it, he was running along well enough, at least through Wellesley. Why doesn’t that surprise me? Somewhere in the Newton Hills, his lack of putting in 67,831 laps a day at the Delaware Y caught up with him, and he began thinking of trying to call a cab for the ride back to Boston. He did not know about the bus that followed along picking up strays.

Somewhere before Heartbreak Hill, he had enough, went through an opening in the crowds, and found a party hosted by college kids. He was a celebrity there, was immediately handed a vodka gimlet, which he chugged, and then he had another. Hey, what did he know, and besides, they didn’t have Gatorade back then. He hung around for a half-hour, thinking of that cab and partying, er, fueling up on vodka gimlets. Believe it or not, he started feeling better (I might try this method next Boston), used their bathroom, and continued the race.

Bill finished his ordeal, and he guesses it took him about 5 hours and 15 minutes. A guy from the Boston Globe took his picture as he crossed the finish line, as they liked to show the last place finisher in the next day’s paper, but unfortunately for Bill, a couple guys behind him were bound and determined to take that honor.

Bill came back to school and didn’t talk much about his experience to me. In fact the only hint I had of what he did was the fact that he hobbled around on crutches for a while, and he got to use a special elevator pass in school for two weeks. Me, I took my date to the prom, and a couple days later we broke up (I’m not making this up!) It would be eight years before I would do my first Boston, and my only keepsake from the 1966 Boston is the entry blank, which patiently waits for a spot in the Bill Donnelly Presidential Library. Unfortunately, that Library is looking less and less likely, while my friend Bill Nordstrom has his memories of a Boston Marathon that he took on as a very young man, and conquered!

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