Even before this year's Boston Marathon began, there were plenty of story pegs. Bill Rodgers was going after his fourth straight victory, 73-year-old Johnny Kelley was entered in his 50th Patriots' Day race, and a strong women's field readied to erase the previous year's Rosie Ruiz fiasco from everyone's memory.
With Rodgers and women's favorite, Patti Catalano, both from the Boston area, and Kelley hailing from Cape Cod, the race looked certain to have a strong local flavor. At the finish line, though, the big winners hailed from the far-off lands of Japan and New Zealand, giving Boston its first pair of foreign winners.
Toshihiko Seko (pronounced Say-ko), a compact Japanese import with a neat crew cut, ended Rodgers's Boston reign on an ideally cool day, knocking a second off the defending champion's US marathoning record with a time of 2 hours, 9 minutes, 26 seconds.
Allison Roe, a New Zealand secretary repeatedly called upon to spell Auckland , her hometown, after the race, overtook Catalano about three miles from the finish en route to the second fastest women's marathon ever run. Her 2:26:45 clocking was nearly eight minutes faster than the Boston record set by Montreal's Jacki Gareau last year and is in the "ballpark" with Grete Waitz's world mark of 2:25:42.
Race officials may have preferred to see Catalano, who took second place for the third straight year, wearing the laurel wreath, but they nonetheless were relieved to find Roe and not a row (as in a noisy disturbance) grabbing the headlines. Last year mystery woman Rosie Ruiz turned the old race on its ear by crossing the finish line first. No one had seen her on the course, and eventually race director Will Cloney untangled the race's embarrassing aftermath by declaring Gareau the winner, citing circumstantial evidence against Ruiz's claim that she ran.
Ironically, however, Julie Shea, a late entrant not even listed among the starters the day before, set the pace for the first half of the women's race, and Roe, a relative newcomercompeting in only her fifth marathon, won.
If safeguards hadn't been taken to monitor the women's progress closely, many of the million or so spectators lining the 26-mile, 385-yard route from Hopkinton might have suspected foul play. But no, both Shea and Roe were legitimate contenders, a sign of the depth in women's running recognized by the recent decision to add a women's marathon to the 1984 Olympics.
Seko, the focus of much pre-race attention, certainly didn't need any introduction to marathon watchers, many of whom recalled his second-place finish to Rodgers two years earlier. Since then, the 24-year-old running machine had not lost any high-mileage sweepstakes, winning Japan's last three Fukuoka Marathons, besides setting two world records at shorter distances.
A Seko-Rodgers confrontation went by the boards last summer when both the United States and Japan boycotted the Moscow Olympics, so Seko came to Boston determined to settle things in his favor.
Rodgers was bound and determined not to relinquish his title without a fight, particularly not when he had the man some think is the world's top marathoner in his backyard. But as much as the likeable, unaffected champion wanted to win and show the experts he deserved a top 10 international ranking, which eluded him last year, he couldn't find a passing gear.
Actually, it looked as if Seko might not have one either for a while. Some one hour into the race, neither Seko nor Rodgers was among the top 20 runners, who were led by a rabbit named Gary Fanelli. Considering the ideal conditions, it seemed odd that Seko was not pushing the pace himself in hopes of breaking Derek Clayton's 12-year-old marathon world record of 2:08:34.
Asked his strategy later, he said through a translator, "I didn't really have any plan. I just went at my own pace."
As it turned out, Seko's pace was much too steady, beginning to end, for the rest of the 6,800-runner field, as he gradually pulled away from his last pursuer, Craig Virgin, at about the 23-mile mark -- "right in front of Bill Rodgers's running store," Seko explained.
Rising up to test every runner's striding consistency and stamina just before this are the notorious Newton hills. Remembering how Rodgers left him here in 1979, Seko had done a lot of hill runs in training. They paid off as he and Virgin dueled through the roller-coaster topography in record time, somewhat demoralizing Rodgers, who struggled to catch up. Like a Japanese auto that keeps going when others can't, Seko actually ran the race's second half (1:04:01 ) slightly faster than the first (1:05:25). Virgin, a world cross-country champion from Illinois, finished a minute behind, and Rodgers was a close third.
If Bill didn't win, he at least achieved his second goal, which "as the Japanese say, was to run honorably."
That, of course, is what thousands of others did as well, attempting to break their own PRs (personal records) and perceived physical limitations. Johnny Kelley blew past the age barrier, grinding out a 4:01:25 clocking after refusing all special treatment, except for a state police escort to the starting line (it was suggested he start out an hour ahead of everyone so he could bask in the applause). The only participants who got a jump on the field were the wheelchair athletes, who make even better time than the runners. Winner Jim Martinson, a Vietnam veteran, rolled across the finish line in 2:00:41.