Runners Going Strong

And with an ally in the White House, it's a lonely sport no more

AS Bob McNaught tells it, the finish of the Boston Marathon in 1987, just weeks after he had arrived in the United States, turned him into the road runner he never expected to become.

Though an immigrant from Australia, a country with a long and successful tradition in road and marathon running, he gave running short shrift, confining his athletic endeavors to playing squash a couple of times a week. Then an invitation to join a friend and take in the excitement, and "the special aura" of the Boston tradition, turned him into an instant convert.

Now, along with several million recreational runners across the United States, he takes to the road on a regular basis several times a week, chalking up the miles that give him the stamina to complete up to a dozen or so marathons each year. This Monday will be his sixth race in Boston, "a prince among marathons," as he puts it.

His first attempt at the 26-mile, 385-yard distance was the 1988 Boston Marathon, when he ran as an unofficial entrant.

"I ran at what they call `the back of the pack,' " he says. "There is always a group of a thousand or two that run behind the registered runners."

At the time, he had little idea of how he would fare at such a distance or even if he would complete the course. But finish he did, though it took him almost five hours.

That experience taught him one thing above all others: Even moderate success in marathon running would not come without dedication and a lot of hard work. Within days he was back pounding the roads each morning, enjoying the spring weather and putting in the miles that would cut his marathon time almost in half.

In 1991, as an official entrant, McNaught ran the Hopkinton-to-Boston race in 2 hours, 52 minutes, 4 seconds. In Berlin that year, he ran almost 10 minutes faster for his best marathon time yet. He won the Bismarck, N.D., marathon last September.

Of course, not everyone who takes to running as a mature adult becomes as dedicated as McNaught. The vast majority plod around local streets, limiting their competitions to an occasional five- or 10-kilometer road race, now commonplace. There are a lot of these casual runners.

According to Henley Gibble, spokeswoman for the Virginia-based Road Runners' Club of America (RRCA), the umbrella organization for road-running clubs around the nation, an estimated 6 million Americans take to the roads on a regular basis.

Like McNaught, some are drawn into it by watching an important local race, but a majority are influenced by seeing a neighbor go out running, or by the desire to shape up.

And then, of course, there are those who are influenced by celebrities. After American Frank Shorter won the Olympic marathon in 1972, "there was a real surge of interest," Ms. Gibble says. And now President Clinton, with his much-publicized morning runs, is sparking the latest surge of interest. "Between November and March we've had 22 new clubs join the RRCA," Gibble says. Runners of all abilities are welcomed at the clubs.

George Hirsch, publisher of Runners' World magazine, confirms the trend. "President Clinton could do for running what Eisenhower did for golf," he says. "That old excuse, `I'm just too busy to run,' seems pretty lame when the man with the toughest job in the world finds time."

Another plus for the sport of road running is the ease of getting into it. "All you need is to invest in a comfortable pair of running shoes and you're ready to go," Gibble notes. She cautions everyone to start slowly, however.

Bob McNaught concurs. "If you've done very little physical activity, start by walking," he says. "Later, you can jog a little, walk, then start jogging again. Pretty soon you'll find yourself jogging all the time and you can build up the distance from there." According to Runners' World, President Clinton is currently up to 10 km (6 miles) with the aim of turning that into 10 miles.

Another way to improve your running is to join one of the more than 500 road-running clubs in the country. As McNaught points out, clubs provide would-be runners with "coaching, helpful advice about training, and friends to go training with." He also notes that clubs provide many opportunities to socialize. "There's a special sort of camaraderie among road runners," he says.

Meanwhile, this year's Boston event will be his 31st marathon. His runs to date have taken him all across the US and Canada, and overseas to England, Germany, Holland, Greece, and back to his native Australia, among others - all because he decided to look in on the finish of the 1987 Boston Marathon.

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