It was beginning to seem that the only way for Bostonians to prepare properly for Patriots' Day was to take a cram course in Japanese numbers, particularly the low ones—ichi, ni, san, shi—because for the last two years the Boston Marathon has been a Japanese stampede down Beacon Street. Methodically, the Japanese had finished the 26-mile, 385-yard course in ichi, ni, san order, as the rest of the world gasped along behind.
This year official Boston was at the finish line at the Prudential Center and ready. Mayor John Collins, green wreath and gold medal in hand, was silently mouthing the Japanese word for congratulations, the band was tootling up for the Japanese anthem and the crowd, unrattled by a bitter, slanting, bone-chilling rain, was set with hundreds of Japanese flags. A sudden roar around the corner on Hereford Street, and here came ichi-ban. He burst into sight, a tiny figure, churning along with sturdy strides, his arms pumping and his head held high.
Good grief, ichi-ban had bright orange hair. In fact, ichi-ban was not Japanese at all. He was a wisp of a fellow (5'4", 120 pounds), a 24-year-old printer from New Zealand who was away from home for the first time in his life. Not only had David C. McKenzie turned the Boston Marathon into something other than a Japanese rout, he ran the course faster than it had ever been run before—two hours, 15 minutes and 45 seconds.
With a desperate ruffling of pages, the band came on strong with God Save the Queen, but before the look of stark amazement had left the faces of race officials, Shock No. 2 bolted into view: Tom Laris, an American. It was the first time in six years that an American runner had finished anywhere near the leader, and Laris did it just 15 seconds off the old course record. A minute later Yutaka Aoki salvaged third place for Japan, but hot on his heels came the second star-spangled surprise, Louis Castagnola, a 30-year-old electrical engineer from Maryland, who made it in two hours, 17 minutes and 48 seconds, and that, sir, is world-class time.
And where were the rest of the Japanese? Oh, baby san, don't ask. Antonio Ambu, the Italian champion, and Andy Boychuk, Canada's best, were home before the Japanese crew finished seventh, eighth and 58th. Somebody had not forgotten Pearl Harbor.
The question is: What happened to the Japanese of the formidable reputations? Two years ago they finished 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6, and last year they were even more thorough. They sent only four runners. The quartet charged up the Newton hills in lockstep, strung out slightly on Commonwealth Avenue and crossed the line 1, 2, 3 and 4.
The four who entered this year were a sort of junior varsity, Japan's best being saved for a marathon in Mexico next month. Small comfort. Picture a map of Japan. Put your finger on it—anywhere. Squash. Theoretically, you have just landed on a marathoner. So thoroughly have the Japanese gone at the event, there are nearly 20 runners who can finish any course within 30 seconds of each other, and all the times are that close to a record.
The four who were picked for this year's running arrived in Boston eight days before Patriots' Day, stocky little fellows who bowed a lot, smiled a lot, took pictures of anything they could get in their sights and then took pictures of each other taking pictures. When they were told such things as, "You are not eligible to run as a team," and, "The field really is a lot stronger this year," they said ah so and laughed.
The press dutifully recorded such pearls, figuring that no matter what the Japanese said it was meaningful. As for local talent, not only was Tom Laris overlooked by the Japanese, he was overlooked by Tom Laris. "Oh, I'd like to make it in two hours and 20 minutes," he said. "That would give me a measure of satisfaction." As for his assessment of the Japanese, it was just like everyone else's: "Those guys are unbelievable."
Laris' credentials were really quite sound. Last year he entered the marathon mostly for laughs, as his home was then in nearby Lynn. But he surprised just about everybody by finishing seventh. This year he was far less offhand about his training. After a good indoor season—he won a couple of two-and three-mile races and pushed Australia's Kerry O'Brien to a two-mile record—Laris really went to work, reeling off 125 miles a week around Palo Alto, Calif., where he now lives.
Dave McKenzie arrived in Boston 10 days before starting time, retired to a friend's house in Winchester and proceeded to disappear into the woodwork, except for daily workouts and a brief tour of the course. He loped up the hills in Newton, nodded his head vigorously and said, "It suits me style." Almost anything does. McKenzie had won eight of 10 marathons he entered, two of those wins coming in the last 12 weeks.
A huge, billowing gray mass of a low-pressure area saluted Patriots' Day by snowing all over Boston. To go out in such weather was unreasonable, illogical and foolish. So what happened in Boston was irrefutable evidence that Japan has no lock on manias. Last year Boston Athletic Association officials were staggered by 415 starters. By 11 a.m. on this Patriots' Day the Hopkinton High School gym was stuffed with 601 souls—most of whom would not strike you as odd at first glance. Dr. Lawrence Hilt, 67 years old, from Eugene, Ore., respected in his community, loved by his family and a responsible, serious man, was there, reeking of wintergreen. Dick Rothschild owns a seat on the New York Stock Exchange—that's $350,000, baby—and there he was, reeking of wintergreen.
The question is, why? The best of the lot will make it to Boston in just over two hours. For most, it will take twice that long, and on this day every one of them will be chilled, soaked, sore and exhausted at the end, and for what? A bowl of watery beef stew, compliments of the BAA. Thanks a lot. The question was put to a priest (reeking of wintergreen). "Because, because..." and then his eyes veiled over and off he went, muttering: "The race, ah, the race."
Five minutes before high noon the starters jostled shoulder to shoulder just off Hopkinton Square, joyfully peering into the bitter slanting rain and puffing great vaporous clouds. As the clock struck, off they went. Almost immediately the Boston Marathon became two races. Up front, way up front, were the world's best, 20 runners who bunched together in a tight little mass, unable to pull away and terrified of dropping out. The Italian, Ambu, set the early pace, and it was a fast one. It was also just what the Japanese did not want. Official or not, the Japanese were a team, and their overwhelming success in the last two years came because they set the pace. For the casual observer, however, that ball of humanity seemed to have a mind of its own, a creature with 40 legs.
Well back of all that was the other race, the one for doctors and stock brokers and students and priests and, yes, by George, the girls. Shunned by officials and unable to enter by virtue of some obscure and ill-defined dictum established shortly before women got the vote, the girls started the rebellion last year when Roberta Gibb Bingay, a leggy blonde from Winchester, hopped out from behind a bush and joined the happy throng. By finishing in a perfectly respectable, if strictly unofficial, time of three hours and 21 minutes, Roberta demolished the sound, old theory that women can do nothing for a marathon.
Furthermore, Roberta was there behind the bush again this year, and she was not alone. At the start of the race came a frantic cry from the press bus: "No. 261 is a broad!" Indeed she was, a lovely girl listed officially on the program as K. Switzer. That is, Kathy to her friends, and she is currently an English major at Syracuse University. It was that number that caused the trouble. It made Kathy Switzer official, and it made Jock Semple, a BAA official, furious. He gallantly tried to wrestle Kathy off the course but was prevented from doing so by some burly Syracuse companions of Miss Switzer. Roberta finished in 3:27.17, Kathy in about four and a half hours.
Up front, that fast-moving ball of arms and legs was shrinking. First one, then another of the runners peeled off until there were just nine bobbing heads. At about the 15-mile mark, the Japanese, most unhappy now because Honorable McKenzie seemed to be getting stronger, resorted to emergency tactics. A Japanese bolted off ahead and when McKenzie ignored the ploy dropped back with the pack. Then another raced ahead. Nothing, and back he came. There was a third try and a fourth. McKenzie did not bite.
Then came the hills, the awful, awful hills of Newton, three of them in succession. They are not really all that formidable but after running 18 miles—Mont Blanc. And it was here that McKenzie began to move ahead—10 yards, 15 yards—and then three-quarters of the way up the last hill, called Heartbreak, "I felt something in me legs click," said McKenzie, "like a gear. And all of a sudden I was off and away."