Monday, September 13, 2010

Nugget #3

Here's a little piece I wrote about running in the second Boilermaker held in Utica, NY in 1979.  Those were the days.

Before Ruiz, There was Bieksza

By Bill Donnelly

In 1980, Jacqueline Gareau of Montreal was the first woman finisher in the Boston Marathon with a time of 2:34:28, which was the fastest winning time in Boston for woman up to that point. Very few people remember her name though, for another woman captured the headlines at the time, and most of us runners from those days easily remember her name, which is unfortunate. I am talking of course of Rosie Ruiz, who stole Gareau’s thunder that fateful third Monday in April of 1980 by cheating and finishing ahead of the French-Canadian woman.

A brief recap for those who have not heard the sad tale. Ruiz had qualified for Boston in the New York City Marathon by taking the subway and jumping in at the finish, just breaking three hours. Her friends didn’t believe her (how perceptive of them) and so she would really show them in Boston. I believe she took a cab in Boston, but anyway, she waited about a mile from the finish for the right opportunity to jump into the race. Rosie wasn’t out to win; she just wanted to show her friends up.

She apparently got way too nervous and in her state of excitement she jumped into the race too soon. Imagine her surprise when she crossed the finish line as the winner. Yow! What to do now? Simple, act like you won and stagger to the podium. Men’s winner Bill Rodgers knew immediately something was wrong, and so did everyone else, but the race committee gave Ruiz first, and it was not till a week later that they corrected their mistake, brought Gareau to Boston and gave her first place.

Too late! No one would notice nor remember Gareau, but Rosie Ruiz would be a name burned into the memory of runners everywhere. Most runners found it just too unbelievable that someone would cheat in a race. After all, we are mainly competing against ourselves, trying to out-do past performances, and maybe winning a medal here or there. You would be fooling nobody that mattered, since you are the only one who does matter when it comes down to it. Are you going to sit in your den and look at trophies you did not earn and feel proud of yourself? I think not.

I believe Rosie Ruiz changed her last name to O’Donnell and disappeared into talk-show host oblivion or something, but many of us runners in Western New York knew she was not the first to cheat in a major race. We had run into our own “Rosie” less than a year before, and of course, I am about to tell you the whole sad tale.

In July of 1979 I ran my first Utica Boilermaker 15K race, which then was the second running of the race. I had heard about it from my friend and Checkers runner, Jim Caher, the Deputy Corporation Council for the City of Buffalo. We went down to Utica together, but neither one of us remembers where we stayed the night before. All I know is that we found a place to party, and party we did, thus, we do not remember where we stayed.

As most of you know, the Boilermaker is a huge race now, but even in 1979 it was large, drawing over 1200 starters. One reason for the large turnout in 1979 was that it was the National AAU 15K Master and Junior Championship, so there were runners from all across the country. The Junior age groups were 13 and under, 14 to 16, and 17 to 19. This is all important later, as you may be tested.

The race started at the Utica Radiator Corp., where they actually made boilers, and finished at the Utica Club Brewery. You remember Utica Club Beer, that fine swill that was advertised on TV with those lovable talking beer steins named Schulz and Col. Klink or something like that. Advertising heads must have rolled later when the owners of Utica Club realized that in order to sell beer, you must show girls in bikinis playing in the snow, or on beaches, or mud wrestling. Talking beer steins? Cripes! Now, of course, Utica Club has become Saranac, and instead of those bikini clad girls, they use the concept of good taste to sell their product. They never learn!

Anyway, on that July 15 Sunday so long ago (That’s why I don’t remember where we stayed) Jim and I lined up for the 10:30 start, and the temperature was at 87 with humidity that was “almost visible.” (The Utica Daily Press, July 16, 1979, page 9) My main memory is that I had a terrific hangover, one of the worst ever. In those days I could usually sweat out a hangover after a mile of running, on this day I was so rough it took four miles. That takes us to the top of the huge hill on the course, and I do remember up till that point I was not enjoying the race or the weather. Something clicked at mile four, I suddenly felt great, and I flew down the hill and finished strong for a PR of 53:25, which was good enough for second in my age and 42 overall.

Jim Caher ran well enough that day, despite feeling less than perfect at the beginning of the race. Now, we all have that someone we race against, always trying to beat them in every race, and if we do it and get a PR, we are feeling so great. For Peggy Towers, it’s Diane Sardes; for Tom Donnelly, it’s Bill Donnelly; for Joann O’Loughlin, it’s Kieran O’Loughlin; for Maureen “Madonna” LaChiusa, it’s Diane “Britney” McGuire; for Julie Doell, it’s Heather Patterson; for Bill Rodgers, it’s Bill Donnelly (I did beat him at Utica – well, sort of, my time in 1979 was better by a minute than his time in 2001, the next time I ran the Boilermaker). And for Jim Caher back in the seventies, it was Jack Meegan Jim always wanted to beat, the same guy kicking butt today, the same one who wasn’t able to run Boston a couple years ago because of a minor injury, thus breaking a string of 23 Bostons in a row. Seems he fell out of a tree while hunting, and according to legend, he broke some ribs, cleaned up his camp site, and drove back to town and parked himself in front of the TV with a couple beers to ease the pain. When he realized he could open the bottles of beer using the two ribs that were sticking out of his chest, he decided it was time to go to the doctor.

On this hot July day, Caher was just trying to survive when he got to the top of the big hill and saw Meegan in very bad shape, suffering from heat stroke. He was passed out, and EMT”S had his shoes off and were icing him down. Jim went on feeling much better, knowing that he was finally going to beat Jack. Even though Jack was down and on ice, Jim considered it a legitimate win. Meanwhile, back on top of the hill, Meegan was coming to, literally yelled “Cripes! Give me my shoes!” He put them on, and on he went. Caher was close to finishing in a very respectable 63:34 and 22 in our age group. Imagine his surprise when with a quarter mile to go, Jack Meegan pats him on the fanny as he goes by and says “Great race Jim.” From then on, Jim knew to never count his chickens till he finishes the race.

When we finished the race we were handed a souvenir beer glass with a handle, and the finish chute emptied out into the parking lot of Utica Club, where they had row after row of beer trucks serving up their fine brew. In those days, the beer never stopped flowing, and even Utica Club fresh from kegs tasted pretty good on this hot day. The heat was blamed for the death of one runner, a William Marceau, who collapsed 30 yards from the finish. The race committee started the race at 10:30 to try to accommodate out of town runners, but Marceau’s death made them decide to start earlier after 1979.

What does this have to do with Rosie Ruiz and cheating you ask? Bet you thought I would never get to that (or at least you hoped so). In 1979, before computer chips, Utica experimented with not using numbers. Instead they had us wear wrist bands, much like you get when you go into the hospital, and inside was a slip of paper with your number and vital statistics. They simply pulled out the slip in the finish chute, and had your results. Who needs computers? Thus, you did not have to wear a number, which would cause problems when they wanted to check the video cameras they had set up along the route.

As we were enjoying the re-hydrating process with many fellow runners from Buffalo, we were joined by Joe Jordan, founder of Checkers AC, who had come down with some Checkers’ runners. He and a couple people had positioned themselves at a couple places along the route and at the finish in order to cheer on their friends. The awards had started, with the youngest runners first, as usual, and there was some rumblings going on about doubts concerning the winner of the 14 to 16 year old boys, a lad by the name of John Bieksza of Utica who won his age group with a time of 50:20, which was also good for seventh overall. I didn’t think much of it, but Joe Jordan was being adamant that they had never seen the lad go by any of the spots Jordan was at until the finish, when the boy came through without so much as a sweat worked up. Remember, this was a National Championship.

And then I saw Bieksza, enjoying his trophy with his father and brother. To say the kid did not look at all fit would be an understatement. He was a bowling ball with arms and legs, and his running shoes were the K-Mart brand. Nothing wrong with K-Mart, but no self-respecting runner would ever run in them (other than Tom Donnelly). Well, now my blood was boiling, and along with the help of the Utica Club brand of lubricant I had imbibed, I went into action

Bieksza and family did not know what hit them. With Jordan and about seven other runners backing me up, I was in the lads face, challenging his running ability. His brother’s answer to my doubts about John’s running talents was that he (the brother) had won the division the year before. This coming from Bowling-Ball-With-Legs-the-Elder only made me realize our sport was being cheapened by a whole family of cheats. I got louder and more obnoxious in my berating of the whole conspiracy, and now the father, He-From-Whose-Loins-comes-Bowling-Balls-With-Legs throws in his two cents, which is, and I’m not making this up: “Well, gosh, he did train for three weeks for the race!”

By now the crowd following me is getting bigger, tripling in size, and it includes such fine runners as Ralph Zimmerman (a 2:17 marathoner) and Don Howieson (one of Canada’s best, also a 2:17 marathoner) and everyone is egging me on. The clincher came when the real winner of the age group, Dennis O’Rourke (52:37), comes to me in tears, asking me to please get him the trophy Bieksza stole from him. By now the family O’Bowlingballs is asking police officers and race officials for protection from me and the crowd (now half the finishers of the race), but no help is offered.

Then my name is called, which surprises me, I did not think I placed, and I go up and get my second place award, a big silver bowl. I ask the Race Director what is he going to do about Bieksza, and he says that they know it’s a problem, but there is nothing they can do. I go back to the front of the pack and wave my bowl in their face, claiming that at least I EARNED THIS! They keep backing up, looking scared and looking for an exit. They finally duck into a building and elude us. I take my bowl and have it filled with Utica Club, and soon forget the episode.

Back in Buffalo, Joe Jordan spreads the tale of “Bill Donnelly, The Mighty Wind vs. Bowling Ball.” Most runners offer me congratulations, but soon we all forget about it, until the next Boston Marathon, when Rosie Ruiz grabs the headlines. We talk about it, and feel good when she is stripped of her title. At least we had put up the good fight.

We felt even better after the next Boilermaker. I wasn’t there, but friends who were came back and immediately told me that the Race Director had made a big deal about the cheating that went on in 1979, how they determined that Bieksza had not run the race, that they had given the title to the true winner, Dennis O’Rourke, and that they were making sure the cheating would not happen again. He made reference to the Rosie Ruiz incident, and perhaps that was what prompted them to change the results. Perhaps.

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