My best 14 marathons

WHICH one was your best?'' This question inevitably comes from runners when they learn that I have run 13 consecutive Boston Marathons. Now, as I train for No. 14, I ask myself that question during an early morning run against a cold northwest headwind along the old abandoned railroad right-of-way. The answer warms me. It recalls times with the children when they were very young. Michael would be laughing and hanging on my neck. Ricky would be seated on my lap patiently waiting for his story. Dan would be tugging on a leg.

``Daddy, Daddy,'' Michael would yell, ``don't you love me the best 'cause I'm oldest?'' ``No, no, Michael, Daddy loves me best 'cause I read best,'' promptly responds Ricky. Dan joins the teasing with minimum verbiage: ``No, no! Daddy loves me best.'' Each boy knew full well the answer to the question and the resolution of the argument. Each knew by heart the litany the question produced. ``You boys know I love you each the same. But you are each one unique; you each in your special way are best!''

And so I cherish the memories of each of those 26-mile runs from Hopkinton to the Prudential Center. Each run was unique. Each brought fresh insight. Each presented renewed opportunity for overcoming limitations.

Certainly that was true for the first one in 1972. Worries about Vietnam and civil unrest temporarily disappeared on that sunny, clear, third Monday in April. Women were permitted to compete for the first time. I didn't realize so many people actually watched runners run! Fears of fatigue, fears of failure and pain steadily vanished in the warmth of love and support coming from thousands of spectators. In those days you could easily learn the name of a competitor by checking his or her number against the list in the newspaper. There weren't that many of us. I wonder what has become of that petite elderly lady standing right at the crest of Heartbreak Hill, just before the parked police cruiser. Will she return in '85? She must have sensed my fatigue that day in '72 and yelled in a raucous voice belying her frail frame, ``Go, Dick -- get your tail moving!'' And ``go'' I did. I finished in 3 hours, 7 minutes, satisfied, elated. But was that the ``best''?

In 1975 I broke 2 hours 40 minutes for the first time and learned that the lovely young women at Wellesley College cheer just as loudly and enthusiastically for balding older runners as they do for the younger ones with flowing locks.

A cold gust of wind stings my eyes. I recall how warm I felt last July when I worked in an unshaded portion of the garden. I remember how thirsty I became. I multiply that feeling by ten and promptly appreciate what it was like to run Boston in the heat of '76. That winter had been spent in getting elected to the Circuit Court bench. Training suffered. Ill prepared as I was, I ran anyway. All of my friends finished ahead of me. My ears were filled with the dreaded words, ``Keep it up, Dick,'' as friend after friend passed me. The time was 3:02 -- my slowest since '72. I still felt that same sense of accomplishment -- but tempered with much needed humility!

The awards ceremony at Boston is impressive. The male and female winners are crowned with wreaths. The hall is filled with the elite of running -- past and present. Press and sports personalities abound. The room is aglow with flash bulbs and camera lights.

Ten very simple medals are reserved for the first ten finishers age 40 or over. These are called Masters' Medals. One of the joys of turning 40 in 1976 was the opportunity to fantasize about winning a Masters' Medal at Boston. It must be a common fantasy. One fact escaped my fantasy. Other runners were also turning 40 each year. They, too, wanted a medal. In '77, '78, '79, and '80 these runners were getting faster and faster. But finally, on a cold, raw, overcast day in 1981, Toshihiko Seko of Japan broke Bill Rodgers's winning streak at Boston and I finally won a Masters' Medal with a time of 2:30:26. It was my best time, but was it my best Boston? Perhaps, I think, unless --

1982. That winter and early spring were disastrous. A Boston medalist had to train hard, right? Well, I did and could not run a step for several weeks. One injury followed another. Could the ego survive a non-medal-winning performance at Boston? With the prayers and moral support of a friend, I learned that it could. About a month before Boston, I eliminated all thoughts of competition and pride. I was, once again, going to run simply for the fun of running. One sunny, early spring Sunday I went to the C&O Canal tow path and ran an easy two miles. There was no pain. When Patriots' Day arrived a month later, I was again at the start at Hopkinton. What a relaxed feeling I had. My only goal was to run Boston and enjoy it. That is exactly what I did -- in a respectable 2 hours, 44 minutes. What fun that '82 run was! Could '82 have been my best?

My training run on the old railroad right-of-way comes to an end just past the duck pond. The ducks and geese honk a noisy salute as I pass. I still don't know after 12 miles and many memories which Boston was my best. Frankly, I hope I never know. New York and Chicago can have their fall marathons. Those were wise men in the Boston Athletic Association who decreed that the Boston race should be run in the spring. It is run during the season of renewal. Each year the Boston experience teaches new lessons and renews the spirit. '85 just could be my best.

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