Just past 16 miles, the Boston Marathon course rears its head and tells runners to climb. That's the start of the long, winding hills of Newton. They reward the strong and destroy the weak.
This is an article from the April 27, 1987 issue
Steve Jones of Wales hit the hills first on Monday afternoon, leading a tightly bunched pack of 11 runners into a stiff head wind. Jones, 31, an RAF corporal who rebuilds Phantom jets, looked as well-steeled as he had in Chicago in 1984, when he had run a then world best of 2:08:05 in his first complete marathon. On his shoulder here, however, was a frightening arsenal of speed: 30-year-old Toshihiko Seko of Japan, who had lost only one marathon in the last eight years; 1984 Olympic silver medalist John Treacy of Ireland; two-time Boston champion Geoff Smith of England; and Tanzania's tiny Juma Ikangaa, the No. 1-ranked marathoner in the world last year.
This much was clear: What had promised to be one of the fastest Boston Marathons in the 91-year history of the race was instead becoming a tense, strategic battle—"a staring contest in motion," said 1972 Olympic champion Frank Shorter, who was not running. The hills, and the drama, loomed ahead.
New York City Marathon director Fred Lebow had labeled Boston's field "the best ever assembled for a marathon, bar none." Yet the field, along with the 15-mile-per-hour head winds, cast a mood of caution over the race. As Treacy said before the start, "People may pay so much attention to each other that they don't pay attention to running fast." Indeed, after an unannounced, rough-and-tumble start—defending champion Rob de Castella of Australia tripped on a restraining rope and had to perform a nifty front shoulder roll on the wet pavement to avoid being trampled by the mass of 6,312 other entrants—the lead pack crawled to the halfway point in 1:06:22, nearly three minutes off world-best pace. Seko had made a brief spurt at six miles, but no one had followed, and he dropped back into the pack to hide from the wind.
The redoubtable field evidenced a remarkable comeback by Boston. Just two years ago this marathon was a badly slumping anachronism, rigid in its refusal to pay prize or appearance money to attract big-name runners. But, prodded by Mayor Ray Flynn and others, the Boston Athletic Association, organizer of the race, agreed to bring the event into the modern era. In September 1985, the BAA announced a 10-year, $10 million sponsorship deal with John Hancock Financial Services, which swiftly transformed Boston into the most lucrative marathon in the world.
At stake on Monday were $347,000 in cash and prizes ($40,000 and a Mercedes-Benz to both the men's and women's winners), and some leading participants received even grander sums for putting on Hancock-sponsored prerace clinics. De Castella, for instance, reportedly got a $150,000 guarantee. "The market value of an athlete is whatever the market will bear," said Hancock senior vice-president and race impresario David D'Alessandro, whose free-spending ways prompted one rival marathon director to dub him "the George Steinbrenner of marathoning."
Yet some marathoners run for reasons other than money. Take Seko. For years he lived the life of an ascetic, training under the all-absorbing spiritual and religious guidance of Japan's aged marathon master, Kiyoshi Nakamura. The two most devastating events of Seko's life have been his 14th-place finish at the L.A. Olympics and the death of Nakamura in May 1985. Nakamura was found dead in a river where he had been fishing. Officially, his death was an accidental drowning. But those who knew of Nakamura's fanaticism think that an inability to cope with Seko's Olympic defeat may have moved him to commit suicide.
Since then Seko has carried Nakamura in his heart. This race was for the old master. Training on an island near Okinawa had sharpened Seko for the challenge. He bowed to a picture of Nakamura before and after each workout.
At the 20-mile mark, just before Heartbreak Hill, Seko looked around and studied the faces of Smith and Treacy and Jones. He saw, to his surprise, tired faces. The hills had taken their toll. "I thought, If I go here, they will not follow," Seko said later.
At the crest of Heartbreak, Seko went. "He put on such a surge," Smith marveled after the race. "I closed up on him, but he put on another surge. I started sucking wind."
As impressive as de Castella had been on the hills in 1986—his mastery of them, en route to a course-record 2:07:51, had inspired both Treacy and Jones to run the '87 race—Seko was equally dominant. He broke the race open with a 4:40 split for the 22nd mile (until then, the pace had been 5:04), and before long he couldn't believe how far ahead he was. Again and again he turned to look back, and saw no one.
Back in the pack in the women's race, 5'1¾", 99-pound Rosa Mota of Portugal was on her way to a 2:25:21, wire-to-wire victory. Her closest potential challenger, Joan Benoit Samuelson, three months pregnant, had scratched from the race because of a torn right thigh muscle. Runner-up Agnes Pardaens of Belgium finished in 2:29:50.
Among American men, only Dave Gordon of Eugene, Ore., who would end up fourth in 2:13:30, was within foghorn distance of Seko on this gray and damp afternoon. Such is the drought in U.S. men's marathoning that no American male has made the Top 10 of Track & Field News' world rankings since 1982. "We're going like this," said Bill Squires, Alberto Salazar's former coach, holding his arm at a sharp downward angle.
The final miles at Boston are flat or downhill, and Seko savored them. He had run Boston twice before. In 1979, as an identically crew-cut 22-year-old, he had watched Bill Rodgers go past him on Heartbreak and had finished second. In '81, however, he came back to win Boston in 2:09:26. Now, against the best in the world, he was about to win again.
Seko cruised down Boylston Street through a channel of cheering fans in windbreakers and rain slickers. He raised one fist as he broke the tape at 2:11:50 and smiled, satisfied. Since the Olympics he has married, and his life low includes a revved-up seven-month-old son named, no fooling, Subaru, who now gets to ride in a Mercedes.
Jones came across second in 2:12:37, and Smith was third in 2:12:42. "He just an away from us, and there was nothing we could do about it," said Smith. Added Tones, "The whole race was about survival, really."
Seko survived. So has Boston.