People's marathon

PHEIDIPPIDES wouldn't have believed it: Marathons with thousands of entrants. Marathons with thousands of dollars in prize money. Marathons with thousands of volunteers and tens of thousands of cheering spectators. Pheidippides was the Athenian soldier who ran the first marathon, according to legend, and as a solo. He is said to have run the 221/2 miles from the battlefield at Marathon to Athens to carry news of Athens' victory over Persia in 490 B.C.

Today's marathoners run their organized races not as messengers, but for economic or personal reasons. For world-class marathoners it is a profession: They command tens of thousands of dollars for winning a race, plus hefty endorsement fees from shoe and other sporting goods companies. They aim frequently at world records and push one another to the utmost. The winner of last Sunday's World Cup Marathon in Tokyo came within four seconds of the world mark, yet the 26-mile race was decided only in the last 500 meters.

The bulk of marathoners compete for personal satisfaction. For them, April's traditional Boston race is the mecca, the people's marathon, where for decades the only reward for finishers was a bowl of steaming beef stew.

What separates Boston from other marathons is its exceptionally supportive crowds. Runners tell of personal encouragement from spectators. From first to last, competitors give spectators reason to cheer. There's Geoff Smith, this week winning his second consecutive men's ``Boston'' after overcoming pain on the course. And Lisa Larsen Weidenbach, also upholding her favorite's role by winning the women's race. Finally, the runner easing to the finish after eight hours -- for the second time in recent years the race's last recorded finisher.

In between are many special stories: Two-time winner Johnny (the Elder) Kelley who finished the marathon for the 51st time, exactly 50 years after he first won it; the father who completed the course pushing his handicapped son in a wheelchair; the young man who overcame mental affliction to complete 20 miles.

Volunteers dole out thousands of cups of water along the route and aid runners at the finish. Without them there would be no race.

Like other distance races before it, Boston is trying to decide whether to accede to elite runners and pay sizable purses to the first finishers. Without prizes the elite threaten to go elsewhere, as nearly all did this year.

It is a difficult decision: Times do change, and spectators like to see the best. But there is something to be said for retaining tradition in a city with a long history: That's a view to which Pheidippides could relate. ----30{et

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