by John Ellis
I love this morning. Do you ever look forward to basking in the glow of a lull? I wake up on this morning just a moment too early, just one blissfully tranquil moment before the traffic report on my clock radio erupts my pseudo dream state into fragments of memory soon forgotten.
I love this morning.
It's Patriot's Day. Running's first day of spring. It's a morning charged like anticipatory expresso, resonating as Christmas morning does for a five year old, rushing down the stairs to see what Santa had left during the Reindeer Marathon the night before.
It's Patriot's Day. My dad once told me that "the shot heard 'round the world" is remembered on this day. So, every year, dad would take the family to the 22 mile mark of the Boston Marathon, just beyond the cemetery where my dad's dad is buried, to watch the aftermath of that shot fired at high noon in Hopkinton. To this day, I prefer to think that "Grampy" is watching, too. In Ireland, he was a runner long before it was fashionable.
It's Patriot's Day. The Boston Marathon is today! The first runner will be through here shortly, just as soon as my dad finishes explaining to me about some shot fired in Lexington a few hundred years ago...
Part of the Boston Marathon's tradition lies in its fanbase. If the allure of baseball, as America's pastime, can be traced to the game's very continuity throughout the vast changes of the 20th century, then, that same notion can be verified for a footrace many people worldwide have shared a passion for over it's103 years of existence. Comparing the accomplishments of Babe Ruth and Mark McGwire are as intriguing as they are endless. Fans of America's oldest ongoing road race also enjoy such spirited nostalgia, when comparing the fleet feet of Clarence DeMar to Bill Rodgers. (and Tanui, too!)
Out of all tradition comes ritual. As April brings the eyes of Red Sox Nation towards Fenway Park with a prayer that the "wait until next year" is over, so too, go nearly one million spectators to the streets between Hopkinton and Boston every third Monday in April. We come, at tradition's beckoning, to loyally observe a ritual of New England spring. We cheer, too, from tradition. A tradition of purging winter's repression from our souls in joyous form, allowing its transfer to assist the runners as a secondary fuel for their own catharsis at hand. Most of all, we come to observe the tradition of competition, and on Patriot's Day in Boston, there is always a RACE!
One inherent problem with being a fan of an essentially participatory sport, is that, by dawn of race day, I always feel somewhat quilty for not actually being in the race! Consequently, I am compelled to hit the roads for an early hour of running therapy. As I'm quite excited at the thought of the day ahead of me, this run, often times, is unusually enjoyable. I recommend such a workout to any proper spectator of the "big race"! It will not completely cure your symptoms of Marathon Associated Non-participatory Guilt (or "MANG" as it is referred to in the physician's guides), but it effectively manages any excessive feelings of dread that might, otherwise, inhibit optimal viewing!
"I'm so nervous I just sit and smile.
Your house is only another mile."
"Magic Bus" - The Who
The 1999 Magic Bus Marathon Tour. No, The Who are not re-uniting (again). For several years, though, several staffers of the Bill Rodgers Running Center and I, along with a rotating cast of "compadres" more varied than a sweeps week set of celebrity guests on "Fantasy Island", have commandeered a rented minivan along three vantage points of the marathon route.
Triple-jumping the route between Framingham, Wellesley, and Brookline provides a direct tap into the ebb and flow of the racing's pure adrenaline. Let me warn you, though: if you want to try this away from home next year, come prepared to run!
This year's Magic Bus assembly lived up to its eclectic reputation. Riding "shotgun" to my position behind the wheel was Jason "Classic Corner" Kehoe. Admirably found no closer to the mainstream than to its outer fringes, Jason's individualism runs parallel to his innate intelligence, a trait that waxes reflective when the topic turns to the Marathon and its history. He is a scholar of the sport.
Some friends in the Bus we knew; some we were just getting to know. To one side was Louis Smith. A 70 year-old going on 30, he remains the only runner I know, who, as a three hour marathoner, only then discovered that he could sprint! At 55, Louis set a world age record -- at 400 meters! Louis still posses an energy that I, at less than half his age, often envy. I am still waiting to see if anyone can be in Lou's presence for over five minutes without laughing!
Alongside Lou, was Bill Rodgers Running Center alum Dave Dial, with his five year old son, Sammy, in tow. Dave, no stranger to running 100 miles-a-week himself, flew in from his home in San Diego just to watch. He is a devoted fan.
Sue has been making pilgrimages from Indiana since 1996, when she ran the 100th Boston. Sue's perpetual hospitality has made her addition to this year's Magic Bus, along with her friend Ivan, who has also proven to be a valuable addition to the BRRC staff for Marathon weekends, a genuine pleasure for all in attendance. Sue was also accompanied by a rather quiet gentleman in the Bus, mysteriously content to observe the kaleidoscopic surroundings of the day, within the shadow of Sue's vivaciousness.
Yelena Laptev, 17, was already a veteran of two Bus trips. She has accompanied her father, Yuri, for the past three years from the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan. Yuri was a Soviet marathon champion in the 1970's, but was unable to come to Boston until 1992, in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse. He has competed in Boston on Patriot's Day every year since. Prior to Yelena's first trip to Boston, she had never even seen her father in competition. Now, even as she dutifully bridges the language gap for her father, she has become a fan of the Marathon.
"Everyday you'll see the dust (too much, magic bus)
as I drive my baby in my Magic Bus!"
It's Patriot's Day!
I arrive at the Bill Rodgers Running Center around 10 a.m.. Excited smirks, like the one your friend had sitting next to you, just before the chain under the roller coaster car engaged, replace the vacuous stares of retail exhaustion that I had left behind there just the evening before. About three ounces into my morning cup-of-joe, I begin to worry about the sun. Through merely a welcome companion to my temperate run 90 minutes before, now it rose in the sky naked , and in no apparent hurry to get dressed!
A few ounces of coffee later, the assemblage adjourned to our rented minivan with the rear seats removed, which up until last night, was used as a retail workhorse, shuttling goods from the BRRC to the Marathon expo. With all parties aboard, the Magic Bus was in session, going mobile: destination Framingham.
The outbound drive was a giddy elixir of anticipation, mixed with just a dollup of the sublime. While early handicapping simmered between picking Kenyans Tanui, Kagwe, or Chebet on the men's side, picking the women's race was an exercise in quick consensous. The pick of Fatuma Roba of Ethiopia, the defending, two-time champion, was unanimous.
We were all amused with the thought of Bill and Lynn Jennings racing together, "mano y womano", over the Newton hills. Alas, just as the conversation focused on how closely our friends Dave, Yuri, Leo, and Fred were going to come towards running 2:40, 2:40, 3:00, and 3:40 respectively, Louis, in a tone reminiscent of Redd Foxx with a "Bawstun" accent, rang:
"Eh, eh, John Ellis, you do know where you're driving this fast?!"
The only response needed was a chuckle, but the ensuing laughter signaled to me that it was time to play the tape.
The classic 1970's Richard Roundtree movie, Shaft, is not about running. Sammy Davis Jr. despite his lean physique, was never about running (except for Cannonball Run). Nevertheless, for the past three years, for no expressed reason, save a momentary need to shift focus away from THE focus ... to fulfill, perhaps, some innate need for equilibrium, we have enjoyed an outbound moment. Indeed, we have enjoyed a recording of Sammy Davis Jr., singing his interpretation of the Isaac Hayes classic, "The Theme From Shaft".
"get down with your bad self, John Shaft."
Without a dry eye remaining, the Magic Bus was christened.
We arrived in Framingham just as Jason had aptly filled each of the water bottles with the prescribed combinations of replacement drink powder and spring water, executed masterfully in a, (ahem), rapidly moving vehicle. We parked just far enough from the courseside carnival developing to facilitate our quick escape at the annointed time. Walking under a stubbornly naked sun towards Route 135, Dave suggested returning to the Bus, with Sammy, just a few minutes before the rest of us. This made sense for Dave with his five year old son alongside. He realized that our leisurely stroll toward the course would resemble a small stampede upon the return to the Bus.
In one corner was a man resembling Darius Rucker of Hootie and the Blowfish, singing and playing his acoustic guitar. Tents were erected for the sole purpose of selling cell phones. The scent of barley in plastic permeated the air. One had to wonder whether the Boston Marathon was the day's attraction, or merely a distraction to this swelling, late morning, block party.
Louis get's a beer.
"Eh, eh, John Ellis: I'm 70 years old! Hell, yeah, I'm of age, you know!"
Not that I'm offended. I may have been slightly jealous in my role as designated driver, but Louis' interest in this race went without question. Louis is as passioned a fan of running as I've ever known.
Two flights above the party, within a former train depot converted into a saloon, is a small room, equipped with a large TV. At this time, annually, the room's vacancy strikes a bold contrast to the mayhem below. For our viewing purposes, the room is perfect! With three local stations carrying the race, we are able to avoid all commercial breaks in watching the the Marathon's first five miles take shape.
The first miles pass, the lead pack remaining unusually large.
"Is that John Campbell with the leaders?"
The splits reveal a tactical pace through five miles, and, as we adjorn to the course, we notice that it is very comfortable. For us! It's sunny and near 70 degrees. I offer to carry some of the water bottles that Jason is holding. It's turning into a gorgeous, spring day ... unless, of course, you're running 26 miles!
Young Sammy beckoned his dad, Dave, to look at the street, to "look at the wheelbarrows!" This five year old was excited to see the wheelchair runners pass, and so were we. In fact, we could soon see the TV helicopter overhead, followed by a procession of "official" vehicles, culminating with the passing of a multi-leveled, flatbed truck, overflowing with the assembled press.
This was it! Here they come!
The huge pack looked like a procession of people exiting Park Street Station at 8:59 a.m., except that they were leaving the station at a five minute mile pace! We could even see some American runners mixed into this predominently Kenyan group. Jason and I, at 6'5" and 6'3" respectively, were particularly happy to see another six-footer, Joe Lemay, throwing his racing flats into the ring. Just to see an American in contention, even at seven miles, was exciting. However, it's the same ambivalent excitement that comes with seeing the Red Sox in first place in May. One can't help but feeling pessimistic towards the outcome. Nonetheless, as with the BoSox, we all enjoyed the moment.
Watching China's Sun Yingjie pass made us all wonder whether she had any idea how fast she was going. She was still on a 2:15 pace, and with the conservative pacing on the men's side, she was actually just behind the men's lead pack! She ran stride for stride with New Zealand's 50 year old phenom, John Campbell, as they passed us. Frankly, Campbell's wincing expression suggested that either he was struggling with the pace, or, perhaps, he was struggling with the notion of a woman being capable of running alongside him. They were a curious duo.
One also had to wonder what Yingjie must have carried by her sides in training, as she ran with her arms conspiciously held at a six o'clock angle. Did she run her groceries home that way? Regardless of her tactic, it occurred to me moments later, as a fresh looking Fatuma Roba whisked by, that Yingjie had all of the makings of a Red Sox fan.