Don't talk to Uta Pippig about the wall that waits near the end of a marathon. When you grew up in East Berlin, the Wall is something else entirely, a grim reminder that your world has had definite boundaries. Pippig spent most of her 28 years chafing against those limits, but on Monday afternoon, in the 98th running of the Boston Marathon, she proved that, in terms of running, her limits are still out of sight. Pippig, the reigning New York Marathon champion, reached the finish line in a stunning 2:21:45, the third-fastest marathon ever run by a woman and 58 seconds faster than Joan Benoit Samuelson's 11-year-old course record.
The wind was Pippig's ally, blowing from the west at 19 mph. "That's a vicious tailwind," said Dr. David Martin, an exercise physiologist who advises many of the top U.S. distance runners. "You'll need a combination of controlled aggression and reckless abandon. Call it controlled abandon."
For Pippig that seemed a risky strategy. For one, she was facing the strongest women's field in Boston history. What's more, Pippig had been sick in the days leading up to the race. She had come to Boston in the best shape of her life, but on April 13 she came down with a nasty cold. On Monday, when she reached the half marathon in 1:10:48, in second place at the time, one could not help but read in her troubled squint the lingering effects of her illness.
Pippig, who is normally the sunniest of athletes, has weathered many storms. She took up the sport at age 13 but was not selected for one of East Germany's elite sports schools until she was 17. That's when she encountered the ugly side of her country's sports system. Every other day her coaches at the Army Sports Club in Potsdam gave her a pill, which turned out to be Turinabol, an anabolic steroid. Pippig took the drug for about five months but stopped when her mother, an internist, warned her against using it.
Three years later, in 1986, she met Dieter Hogen, a coach 12 years her senior who longed to escape to the West. Pippig began to share his dream when politics denied her a chance to compete in the '88 Olympics. But there was a strong argument against such impulsiveness: Both of Pippig's parents were doctors and would certainly have lost their jobs had their daughter defected.
So Pippig waited. When the Wall came down, late in 1989, she and Hogen, by now her boyfriend, moved to Stuttgart. Even then she encountered difficulties, learning that the three years of medical school she had completed in Berlin counted for nothing.
She and Hogen now split their time between Berlin, where she is finishing her medical studies, and Boulder, Colo. With school and training, she has been too busy to learn how to drive, which means she can't get behind the wheel of any of the five cars she has won. "We could start a cab company," says Hogen with a chuckle.
Pippig didn't need a cab on Monday. She broke from the pack in the 19th mile and ran the final miles down Beacon Street blowing kisses to the crowds. Later she sat on a stage for a press conference, a beaming champion, sniffling but ecstatic. "I'm not so worried now about the Chinese runners," she said, referring to the sensational times turned in by several women from China in recent months. "Now they can come."
And let them bring their Great Wall. Pippig has a way of running right through walls.