I hope no one will run very crazy," said 1988 Olympic marathon champion Gelindo Bordin of Italy before the 94th running of the Boston Marathon. He heaved a sigh of resignation. "But it's just a hope I have. Sometimes they don't respect the right way to run the marathon. There's no strategy, just crazy running."
"They" were the East Africans, Kenyans, Ethiopians and Tanzanians who had made the opening miles of the two previous Boston races look more like sprints than tests of endurance. And from the crack of the starter's pistol at noon on Monday, it was as clear as the skies over Hopkinton Green that Bordin would not get his wish.
As the 9,362 runners swept down the winding, wooded hills of Hopkinton and Ashland, Tanzania's tiny Juma Ikangaa, whom Bordin affectionately refers to as "that crazy man," was pushing the pace mercilessly. Ikangaa had finished second the past two years, and he was running like a man who would die before he allowed history to repeat itself again. "If I can win," he said before the race in the dignified, measured tone that befits a major in his country's army, "it will become history that once a Tanzanian, Juma Ikangaa by name, won the Boston Marathon."
In fact, Ikangaa was making Boston history at every mile marker he passed. He hit 10 miles in 46:53, 28 seconds faster than the course-record time for 10 miles that he had run last year. "I was trying to keep the same pace with which we started," said Ikangaa with a straight face. "We ran a 4:26 mile. I wanted to see if we could finish at that pace."
Astonishingly, Ikangaa was not alone in his lunacy. He towed behind him a pack of four, which comprised two Kenyans, Ibrahim Hussein and Kipkemboi Kimeli, and two Ethiopians, Zeleke Metafaria and Tesfaye Tafa. They averaged 4:41 a mile for their first 10. That pace, if carried to the finish, would have yielded a gaudy world best of 2:02:48, 4:02 under the mark Ethiopia's Belayneh Densimo set two years ago in Rotterdam.
But just what would that have meant? This year Boston's venerable course has been the center of a controversy that still isn't resolved. Because road courses vary so much, the International Amateur Athletic Federation does not recognize a world record for the marathon, only a world best. While that's a distinction most of us can live with, to the folks whose business it is to keep road racing records, it's an intolerable slight. So in December, at The Athletics Congress's convention in Washington, D.C., the members of the Long Distance Running Committees concocted a rule they hoped would standardize courses and thus be a significant step toward the establishment of recognized world marathon records. The new rule stipulates two things: First, a course cannot have a net loss of elevation of more than one meter per kilometer (in the case of a marathon, that's 138 feet), and second, its finish must lie within 30% of the total race distance from the start.
The most revered marathon course in the world, Boston's, fails on both counts. From start to finish it drops 480 feet, while the virtually straight line it traces puts its finish almost the full marathon distance away from its start. So, however fast Ikangaa might have run on Monday, no world record could have been set.
That left road race aficionados sputtering with rage. "It's so asinine," said New York City Marathon director Fred Lebow, feisty as ever despite the chemotherapy treatment he's undergoing for lymphoma of the brain. "It's a bunch of little guys with nothing better to do. The marathon has always been point-to-point. If Boston were a fast course, there would have been 20 world records set here. There have been three. Is 93 years not enough proof?"
What the new TAC rule seems to ignore is that marathoners pay a price for running on a course like Boston's, which follows 16 miles of downhill racing with five miles of nearly steady climbing. "It breaks the leys," said Bordin, snapping an invisible pretzel stick with his hands. Boston officials, who are hoping to have the criteria changed, ought to be supported.
If anyone required proof of the damage done by downhills, let him consider Ikangaa's slow progress up the winding hills of Newton. After breaking away convincingly at 15½ miles, he built his lead to 120 yards. At 19 miles, however, Ikangaa was laboring. A single vein stood out like a ridge on his glistening forehead. At 20 miles his left calf began to cramp.
Meanwhile, history was working against Bordin. No male Olympic marathon champion had ever won Boston. "In 1988 I came not to risk," Bordin had said of his one previous run in Boston, in which he finished fourth. "Now I want to risk everything."
Wisely, though, Bordin had not risked everything. He had prepared carefully for Boston's hills, training in the Canary Islands at an altitude of 6,700 feet. When he heard 4:26 at the first mile, he backed off, letting Ikangaa and the others go their merry way. "I was 99 percent sure they would come back," he said after the race.
On Heartbreak Hill the gamble paid off. Ikangaa's mind had grown fuzzy with fatigue, and he drifted into the middle of the road. Bordin swept by, hugging the curb, and instantly Ikangaa was broken. Crossing a bridge near Fenway Park, Bordin looked back along Beacon Street. He saw nothing but a gantlet of enraptured spectators.
Bordin hit the tape in 2:08:19, the second-fastest time in Boston history. Ikangaa also set a record—for frustration. He finished second for the third year in a row, in 2:09:52. On the press room stage he paced disconsolately, his head bowed, before finally being persuaded to take his seat. "I am very, very disappointed," he said. "Some things I cannot control."
The women's race was business as usual for world and 1988 Olympic marathon champion Rosa Mota of Portugal. Although her clocking of 2:25:23 was the slowest of her women's-record three Boston victories, Mota led from start to finish, beating Uta Pippig of West Germany.
With his dramatic victory on Monday, Bordin seems at last to have recovered from the celebration his countrymen threw in honor of his win in Seoul. "Life became very hard at first," said Bordin, "because all the people in Italy wanted to meet me. So they organized parties."
The affable Bordin had trouble saying no, and la dolce vita took its toll. He missed Boston last year with an Achilles injury and then caught pneumonia. He bounced back quickly and finished third in New York on just two months' training.
Although Bordin is something of a comedian, he acutely feels his responsibility to his countrymen, some of whom cross themselves in his presence. "The champion in every sport has to give back something," says Bordin. "If, as you say in America, you have a big head, you do not help. But if you are normal, the young boys will think they can do it too."