Women take marathon spotlight in Boston

For Greg Meyer, winning the Boston Marathon was largely a personal triumph. For Joan Benoit, victory in Monday's Patriots' Day race was by its very nature much more: an affirmation of the tremendous strides being made by women distance runners.

Benoit didn't just break the world record, she shattered it with a bold stroke, lopping nearly three minutes off the old mark shared by Allison Roe and Grete Waitz, with a clocking of 2 hours, 22 minutes, and 42 seconds.

She entered the race with no particular plan other than to ''run the best race I could.''

Given rather ideal conditions - a slight trailing wind and a cool, overcast day - the 1979 women's winner wasted no time in setting a mean pace.

Hitting ''PR's'' (personal records) at each checkpoint, she left every other woman trailing in the serpentine mass of humanity that had begun its 26-mile, 385-yard journey in Hopkinton.

Roe, who won this race in 1981 and was considered Benoit's chief rival, dropped out. Jackie Gareau, the 1980 Boston winner, couldn't keep up either, finishing almost seven minutes astern of the efficient running machine from Maine.

Gareau lost contact with Benoit at the outset. ''I never saw her,'' the Montreal runner said. ''She was flying!''

Out on the course, male runners aware of her scorching pace were telling her, ''Hey, lady, you better watch out.'' And at the press headquarters in Boston, reports of Benoit's progress had knowledgeable experts buzzing.

At one point, runner-turned-journalist Amby Burfoot was heard to remark on her time, ''It's almost absurd.'' The incredulous Burfoot realized that Benoit was running at virtually the same pace that carried him to victory in 1968.

When looked at in the light of Boston Marathon history, her astonishing time carries the message that Burfoot's presence underlined. That is, that women distance runners are rapidly closing the athletic gap with their male counterparts.

Just look at what has happened at the world's oldest continuing marathon during the past decade. In 1973, almost 50 minutes separated male winner Jon Anderson from female champion Jacqueline Hansen. This year Meyer's 2:09:00 clocking was little more than 13 minutes faster than Benoit's.

What accounts for the quantum leaps being made by the women?

Opportunity, better training, and the fact that women are still very much exploring their outer racing limits. Men, on the other hand, are already at a point close to their optimum expectations, and thus for the most part can only hope to chip away at existing records.

Greater opportunity for women, of course, is a familiar theme in many sports, and it echoes clearly in running. The Olympics, the grandest of running forums, will have a women's marathon and 3,000 meters for the first time in 1984. The establishment of these events certainly provides a healthy stimulus to women's running generally, and world-class athletes in particular.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Benoit plans to leave her job as the women's distance running coach at Boston University to enter full-time training for the '84 Los Angeles Olympics. Consequently, the only marathon she has penciled onto her future schedule is next year's Olympic Trials.

As a coach herself, Benoit certainly knows how women are adopting the well-rounded, training regimens previously only associated with male runners.

Waitz, a Norwegian with a track background, was something of a pioneer in this regard. ''She's teaching us what it is to train like serious athletes,'' said fellow runner Patti Catalano several years ago.Waitz, a four-time champion of the New York City Marathon, equaled Roe's existing marathon record of 2:25:29 only the day before Boston in London.

Waitz's record-tying effort came in a crowd of 17,000 runners, the most ever for a marathon. With 6,600 official entrants, the Boston field was considerably smaller, but still large enough to make finding the female leader a chore.

Thus it was that one local television station assigned former Olympian Kevin Ryan to run with her. Ryan, a consistent 2:12 marathoner, wore a cordless microphone and was accompanied by a TV truck, which occasionally got in the way and forced Benoit to wave it aside.

Obviously, however, it was mostly clear sailing for the women's crowd favorite, who first won over Bostonian hearts when she crossed the finish line in 1979 wearing a Red Sox cap. That year she startled people nearly as much, slicing 15 minutes off her pervious best to take a surprising victory.

Billy Squires, the coach of many outstanding men runners, including Meyer, said Benoit's latest effort proves what he's been saying for some time - that a woman's bodybuild is ideal for the marathon. ''Women like Joanie are carrying less weight. They're like the jockey-size Japanese men who used to win Boston. These woman have added strength, which they never used to have.''

A good bit of the strength comes from working both the roads and the track, a combination that Squires says gives Benoit the ''total sphere.''

Meyer may be the model in terms of this kind of versatility. At one time or another he has held American records from 5 to 30 kilometers, plus four distances in between.

The missing entry in his portfolio, however, seemed to be a win in a prestigious marathon. In 1978 he came to Boston as a ''trackie'' from the University of Michigan and began working in the running store of Bill Rodgers, a four-time Boston winner. The young men became good friends and training partners, but in Meyer's only previous Boston Marathon try, he went from a mid-race lead to a disappointing 11th-place finish two years ago. ''I still have vivid memories of crawling home on my face,'' he said of that awkward debut.

This time he was ready, having trained regularly in the rolling natural staircase called Heartbreak Hill. It was there, some 19 to 20 miles into the race, that he passed Benji Durden on Monday and never looked back.Ron Tabb, the husband of star miler Mary Decker Tabb, finished second 31 seconds behind Meyer. Durden was third.

Fred Lebow, the president of the New York Road Runners Club, had once said Meyer wasn't as hungry as Rodgers. The former steeplechase runner wanted to prove to Lebow and a lot of others, however, that his refrigerator has a lot of room left. The trophy case appears to be filling up nicely, though.

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