My Walter Mitty marathon

For the 1979 running of the Boston Marathon, I devised a way to have my cake and eat it too - to experience the thrill of running in the event while still being able to watch the leaders finish. I had qualified to take part by running a sub-three hour marathon the year before, but I had foolishly neglected to send in my entry before the deadline. I could have run unofficially, but I didn't want to be one of the four thousand ''bandits'' - as they are referred to contemptuously by the race organizers - who annually do just that. Still I felt I was entitled to something more than spectator status. So when I got wind of someone who could not make it to the race but was willing to let another runner take his place, I seized my chance.

There was a mob of unprecedented size officially entered that year - seven thousand, I believe. In order that faster runners would have less traffic to contend with and slower ones would avoid being trampled, the decision was made to clump people at the starting line in the order of their qualifying times. Since mine was probably somewhere around the four thousandth fastest, I would have started far to the rear. When I received my benefactor's number - 131 - I realized it would put me in the clump of those who had run rather spectacular qualifying times, between 2:20 and 2:25. That meant I would be starting just a few steps behind men like Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter, the living legends whose careers I'd followed over the years in the pages of Sports Illustrated and Runner's World. Since I didn't want to embarrass Mr. 131 by having a slow time attributed to him, I arranged to have my fiancee meet me at the halfway point in Wellesley. The plan was then to jump in the car and try to make it back to the finish line in time to see the winner come across. I knew there was a good chance we could manage it, but only if I ran the race of my life over those first thirteen miles.

April weather in Boston is notoriously unpredictable. I'll not soon forget Patriots' Day 1976, the year the thermometer in Hopkinton Square, where the race begins, hit 116 degrees F. The mood among the runners skulking about the high school gym that year resembled that of World War I infantrymen awaiting the order to go over the top. But the weather on Patriots' Day 1979 was made to order for marathoners: cool and overcast with a hint of drizzle in the air. I had read somewhere that Bill Rodgers felt he ran his best races when the weather was cool enough to wear cotton work gloves and a shaggy wool ski hat. As I stood shivering in the starting area, I noticed Bill chatting animatedly a few yards ahead of me. Sure enough, he was wearing his cotton gloves and the hat. The whole situation was beginning to take on a rather Walter Mittyish, dreamlike quality. I began wondering if perhaps I didn't look a bit out of place standing in the front ranks of this unclad army, but a closer inspection revealed a few people who didn't look all that much more fit than I.

With the helicopters droning overhead, the police escort motorcycles revving their engines in front, and the crowd alongside us all roaring at once, I didn't hear the gun go off. But suddenly everyone around me was hell-for-leathering it down the street. I felt like one of the mob trying to outrun the bulls at Pamplona. When I glanced at my watch at the one-mile mark, I realized I'd run virtually the fastest mile of my life just trying to avoid being trampled by the herd stampeding up from the rear. The race so far seemed to require little conscious effort; it was hard not to run a sub-five minute mile with this tide of swift and skinny bodies sweeping me along. The problem was that it showed no sign of thinning out or slowing down. I had little choice but to run my fastest ever for three and then five miles. As if to drive home my folly, an old racing friend from college, seen along the route, yelled out, ''Holland, what are you doing up there?''

By the time the crowd began to thin out, I had grown sufficiently accustomed to the pace to believe that I just might be able to hold it for another few miles. As we entered the town of Natick, I clocked still another personal record - this time for ten miles. I can't honestly recall how I felt over the last three miles. I suspect people were starting to pass me at that point, and my main concern was hanging on. I do remember thinking that up ahead was the section of the course where the Wellesley College women traditionally form a gauntlet of banners and orange slices. In any case, as I came into view I gave one final, frantic burst for the benefit of the fans, sprinted to the next intersection where my fiancee was waiting, and staggered into her arms. There was no question of going on. I'd had it. My thighs were so tight that I could only negotiate the concrete stairs to the parking lot by walking down them backwards.

The most excruciating ordeal of the day came, however, when I had to hobble half a mile from where we left the car in Boston to the finish line near the Prudential Building. We made it there in the nick of time. Two minutes after we gingerly edged our way into the crowd, Bill Rodgers rounded the corner at Hereford Street with his feather-light, flawless stride. He gave one last glance over his shoulder to align the Japanese runner who had been shadowing him for the last eight miles, then hammered the final stretch and broke his own American record for the marathon.

Although he was to win Boston a fourth time the following year, it was in many respects the peak of Bill's career. On that day over that course, no distance-man in the world could have touched him. Of course, I haven't let on to him that he wasn't the first runner that day to make it from Hopkinton to the Pru. Somehow, I suspect, he might not take my claim to that distinction very seriously.

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