In a couple of weeks, the BAA will bring out their Unicorn banners for the 118th time to mark the start of the 2014 Boston Marathon. Those of us running the race are in taper mode, which leaves us time to discuss the issues of the day, and gives us the need to discuss those issues to distract us from the wait for Patriots’ Day.
One question that’s always open for discussion is, “Who’s the greatest Boston Marathon runner of all time?” It’s not an easy choice. There are just too many great runners and too many things to take into consideration. But that never stops people from having an opinion.
Ideally, we can agree on a set of objective criteria to use to help us pick one Boston Marathon runner as the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT). We all have our subjective favorites. Runners my age are likely to favor Boston Billy, while barefoot running fans might favor Tarzan Brown, who won in 1935, even though his shoes fell apart at mile 21. But marathon racing isn’t subjective – the first to cross the line is always the winner. We should mirror that as much as possible in our search for the greatest marathoner.
First of all, to be the GOAT clearly you have to be the GOOD, Greatest On One Day. You can’t be the best Boston Marathoner ever without winning the race at least once. And it’s Boston you have to win. In this case, all that matters is what you do between Hopkinton and Boylston Street, not what you do in some other marathon.
Some of becoming the GOAT is just luck. You don’t become the GOAT solely via effort. Obviously, you can’t win Boston without training hard, but the runner who works the hardest and gets the most out of his potential could be the runner who finishes in 8675th place. You have to be born with the proper physical gifts.
Unfortunately, that lets out all the women. As great as Rosa Mota, Uta Pippig, and Catherine Ndereba have been, they were never the fastest runner on the course on any Patriots’ Day. Call me sexist if you want, but when a woman beats me (happens all the time!) it counts. When choosing the GOAT, the converse is also true.
That also lets out most of the age-groupers. Come back to me when you win at age 41, like Clarence DeMar did.
I also leave out Ernst van Dyk, Jean Driscoll, and the other fine wheelchair racers. I admire them greatly, but racing in a wheelchair doesn’t compare directly with running.
To me, the choice for GOAT comes down to three people: Geoffrey Mutai, Clarence DeMar, and Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot.
But a lot of things can affect race times on any particular day. The weather and the level of competition have an enormous impact. And winning race times in general are getting faster, due to modern training methods, equipment, and lifestyle changes. Is it fair to mark Clarence DeMar down because he had to hold a full time job in addition to training for marathons?
Also, when picking a GOAT, shouldn’t we consider not just “how fast” but “how often”? Sustained excellence should count for something.
That’s where Clarence DeMar’s claim is strongest. DeMar won Boston 7 times between 1911 and 1930. 16 men have won Boston more than once, but only DeMar has won it more than 4 times.
However, back when DeMar was winning, Boston was a much smaller race. In those days, the sport of running was much less popular than it is today. On top of that, commercial air travel was still in its infancy – Charles Lindbergh’s Atlantic crossing was in 1927. Merely getting to Boston was a major challenge for most runners.
The travel required a significant time commitment in itself, and got in the way of final preparations for racing. And since races were limited to amateurs, the expense of traveling to Boston was often enough to keep a prospective runner away.
So the size of the field when DeMar was winning Boston was limited to one or two hundred runners. His competition just wasn’t as strong as Mutai’s or other modern runners.
Perhaps the GOAT should be someone who fits both criteria – a multiple winner with a fast time.
All three men who have won Boston four times, Bill Rodgers, Gérard Côté , and Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot, set the course record in at least one of their victories. Of the three, Cheruiyot ran the fastest and beat the largest, most inclusive, fields.
We could consider other things, like multiple high placements for runners in years when they did not win. Maybe if I had all the data I could do something fancy with trends, standard deviations, and regressions, and develop a formula to choose among these men. I might even discover that the numbers pick someone else as the GOAT. But failing that, and in spite of the solid arguments you can make for all three men, I’m happy with the choice of Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot as the greatest Boston Marathoner of all time.
Who’s your choice for the GOAT? Leave your pick in the comments!
With less than three weeks to go before this year’s Boston Marathon, I’m asking you one last time (promise!) to see if we can generate some additional more money to help the victims of the bombing at last year’s race. Please, share a link to the book with your friends, post a review on Amazon or another book site, and maybe even buy another copy or two (they make great gifts!).
Thanks for all your help so far – let’s see what more we can do.
The weekend three weeks before Patriots’ Day is always a busy time in the Newton hills. Thousands of runners, most of them running for one charity or another, head to the course to get their last long training run in before the Boston Marathon.
This year, between the expanded size of the race field and the threat of a storm on Sunday, there were probably more runners doing their training on Saturday than ever before.
I spent some time with my video camera at the start of the hills, just past the firehouse turn, finding out what the runners had to say:
And don’t forget to check out the One Fund benefit anthology, The 27th Mile!
One of my Facebook friends, Rachael Toor, just came back from the Jerusalem Marathon. She called the race “by far the most spectacular urban marathon” that she’d ever done. Over 25,000 runners participated in the weekend’s events, which included races covering distances from 800 meters up to the full marathon.
In the context of the new security procedures for this year’s Boston Marathon, I had been curious about how Jerusalem addressed the issue of runner and spectator safety. Israel, of course, has had to deal with much more in the way of terrorism over the years than we have here in the US.
One controversy among Boston runners is the new bag check policy, which requires runners to check their clear, BAA-provided bag at the finish before getting on the bus to Hopkinton. In previous years, runners, many of whom have to spend 4 hours or more outdoors in potentially nasty weather waiting for the race to start, could check their bag on a bus in Hopkinton just before their run.
Meanwhile, according to Rachael, Jerusalem has “a bag check with no regulations at all.” Perhaps they realize that the runners aren’t the problem.
Rachael also says that there was “way less visible security than in most other major cities.” Jerusalem had 1000 police along the course, while Boston will have over three times as many. The Jerusalem course twists back and forth within the city and the whole area is basically shut down for the race. That could make security easier than it is for Boston, where officials have to cover a 26-mile corridor for the point-to-point race.
On the course, an Israeli runner pointed out to Rachael that much of the city, and certainly most of the marathoners, were trained in security. The mayor, an experienced marathoner who ran the half, said, “We do this [security] all day, every day.”
Boston could learn from this. I’m confident that most runners can tell the difference between pre-race jitters and “I’ve got a bomb in my bag.”
Of course, it’s not all just Manischewitz and anemones. A report on the 2012 edition of the race complains that most Palestinian West Bank residents would never be given permission to enter the city for the race. Another reporter discussed his thoughts on running only a day or two after reporting on bombings in the city.
But so far, Jerusalem has managed to strike a reasonable balance between safety and celebration for runners and spectators. Let’s hope Boston learns to do the same.
It’s only March, and already the media coverage of this year’s Boston Marathon is more intense than ever before. Unfortunately, most of the coverage ignores the majority of the runners who will line up in Hopkinton on Patriots’ Day, the Boston qualifiers.
Approximately 30% of the entries for Boston this year went to non-qualifiers. Of the remainder, only a very few have any hope of winning. That leaves the qualifiers, about 69.9% of the field, who make up the true heartbeat of the Boston Marathon for me and many of my friends inside the running community.
As the world’s oldest annual marathon, the Boston Marathon has always carried special significance, making it one of the few races (other than the Olympics) to get any attention outside of the running community.
In years past, for a week or two prior to Patriots’ Day, marathon updates ranked with Celtics and Bruins news in the Boston media (though always lagging behind the Red Sox). The results of the race would make sports pages around the world the next day.
As a runner living in the Boston area, I’m inundated with marathon coverage. Multiple stories and TV segments discuss the bombing, its aftermath, and charity efforts surrounding the marathon, for both the victims of the bombing and other worthy causes. There are even a few stories about the elite runners, a reminder that the marathon is not only a celebration of civic pride and resiliency in the face of terrorism, but it’s a race, too.
It’s not wrong that the great majority of media interest involves bombers, charity runners, or Kenyans. Just like it’s not wrong that people like Neil Young or Justin Beiber. People like what they like, and the media caters to that.
But the 69.9% see things differently. For them, the significance of Boston is increased by the fact that most people can’t get in unless they beat the qualifying standard time for their age and gender in another race. The standards are by design difficult enough to eliminate the majority of runners, so qualifiers have always taken justifiable pride in earning a number for the race.
This year, the unprecedented demand for entries to the race meant that many of us, after sweating for months or years to meet the qualifying standard, still needed to sweat out the registration process to see whether our precious numbers would be snatched from us at the last moment.
On top of that, it’s always been hard for qualifiers to go out and run their best after spending the hours before the race sitting outdoors in a field, often in nasty weather. This year, the new security procedures implemented in reaction to last year’s bombing will make it even more difficult for qualifiers to run their best race.
Given all the challenges we have to overcome just to make it to the starting line, we qualifiers want people to know we take our Boston Marathon seriously as a race, not just as a 26.2 mile parade. The fact that that tends to get lost in the hubbub makes me a little sad.
So this one’s for you, my brethren (and sistren) of the 69.9%. May the wind be at your backs on (a cool, but dry) Patriots’ Day!
Are you running the 2014 Boston Marathon to raise money for charity? The 27th Mile would like to work with you to help raise money for your charity, The One Fund, and the victims from last year’s bombing at the Marathon.
We would like to provide you with discounted copies of The 27th Mile for you to sell as part of your own fundraising efforts or give away as prizes to your donors. If you’re interested, please send an email message to email@example.com.
The 27th Mile is an anthology full of articles, stories, and poems about running and runners. All proceeds from sales of The 27th Mile go to The One Fund Boston to support the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. One of the contributors, 1968 Boston Marathon champion and Runner’s World editor Amby Burfoot, says The 27th Mile, “is not just another running book. It’s varied enough to be interesting, with articles, fiction, and poetry, but it’s focused enough to have a moral, emotional core that will resonate with runners and those who love them.”
More info about The 27th Mile:
Boston.com has published my article, “2014 Boston Marathon begins with a race to the starting line“. The story covers how marathons in the summer of 2013 were affected by runners’ desire to make it to Hopkinton for the start of the 2104 Boston Marathon. You’ll find data from summer races and interviews with runners who were motivated to qualify or improve upon their existing BQ time after the bombing at the 2013 race.
There’s also a sidebar, “Increased 2014 Boston Marathon field will have 500 more qualifier spots“, explaing how the BAA divided up the 36,000 entries into the race among qualified and non-qualified runners.