A marathon is 26 miles, 385 yards long, and the feeling grows in a city like Boston that every inch is paved with gold -- or soon will be. Road racing has gone commercial with corporate sponsorship, and finally even the Boston Marathon is succumbing to the lure.
With the exception of the low-profile support long given it by a major insurance company, the traditional Patriots Day race had resisted the trend until now. But several companies have enlisted to sponsor today's 86th run from Hopkinton, including a Japanese watch manufacturer, which will award the winner a clock of more than sentimental value.
While sturdier and more practical than a laurel wreath, this keepsake may just be a stepping stone toward what world class runners want and already get elsewhere -- prize money.
Bill Rodgers, a local hero who has won here four times, can't understand why Boston's race organizers aren't providing a cash incentive.
''It's incomprehensible how a marathon with so many hundreds of thousands of dollars floating around won't give some of it to the athletes,'' Rodgers said. ''If [marathon world record holder] Alberto Salazar wins the race he should get at least $25,000. At least that.''
Some, however, worry that money could ruin what was once a purely amateur event. Will Cloney, whose organizational efforts in behalf of the Boston Athletic Association make him Mr. Marathon, has made Marshall Medoff the event's exclusive agent. Medoff, the president of International Marathons, Inc., remains something a mystery man in his behind-the-scenes efforts to raise money for the race.
Sensing the marathon has launched itself in a new commercial direction, the Prudential Insurance Company has announced plans to end its 16-year commitment of support to the race beginning in 1983.
The marathon traditionally ends in front of the Prudential Center, yet there's growing concern the race route will change in the future. Speculation isn't limited to the finish line, either. The citizens of Hopkinton have asked for some assurance that the starting line will remain in their town, as it has for the past 68 years. Cloney can't give them any.
Another source of friction involves the town's opposition to switching the marathon to Sunday, when it would interfere with local church services -- especially if it keeps its noon starting time. Historically the race has always been run on this Massachusetts holiday celebrating Paul Revere's ride and the Revolutionary War battles of Concord and Lexington. Race organizers, however, realize the marathon will probably never attract network television coverage unless it moves to Sunday, when it could be seen live by so many more people throughout the country.
The marathon, as a local institution, has never come under closer scrutiny. The air is thick with questions about where it's headed.
For the time being, though, the focus has shifted to the race itself, and to the exciting prospect of watching Rodgers and Salazar running Boston for love, not money.
Rodgers, the 34-year-old veteran, has a store of knowledge on how to run Boston; Salazar, on the other hand, has no first-hand impressions, for although the 23-year-old native of Cuba grew up in the Boston area, he has never competed here before.
Salazar's entry gives Boston the big-name it needed opposite Rodgers, who last year finished second to Japan's Toshihiko Seko. Consistent with the Japanese way of doing things, Seko, having already achieved his goal, will not run. Neither, at last report, will last year's female winner, Allison Roe, who is out of shape.
That leaves the stage to Rodgers and Salazar in what amounts to a dream matchup as far as Bostonians are concerned. Their pending duel is a natural between two local products.
Rodgers and Salazar once trained together with the Greater Boston Track Club. But Salazar was an unknown at the time, a promsing high school runner from the suburb of Wayland. As Rodgers was making international headlines and building a small business empire in Boston, with his own line of running clothes and four stores, Salazar was compiling an outstanding track career at the University of Oregon.
Two years ago, however, Salazar stole the spotlight from Rodgers,ending Bill's four-year reign in the New York City Marathon in only his first try at that distance. Then in the same race last fall, Alberto broke a 12-year-old world marathon record on national television. Rodgers pulled out at the last minute when he couldn't work out the financial details of his participation with two outside sponsors.
No one seems to begrudge Rodgers his new wealth, yet more and more he has made bottom-line decisions on where and when he runs. ''I'll never become like Bill Rodgers,'' Salazar once told the New York Times. ''Not that what he's doing is bad.But winning races is more important than getting seventh place in a marathon and making money.''
On the other hand, Alberto admits to making his living in running, and has said he prefers under-the-table payments to the trust fund concept now sanctioned internationally.