Boston In Three Tales
Let me just say unequivocally, I love Boston. I mean I really love Boston. I love Boston in the Spring, with the change of seasons and flowers blooming. I love Boston in the Fall for the spectacular colors of fall foliage. I love Boston in the Summer and driving up the coast. And, I cannot say I’ve actually experienced Boston in the Winter, but I have experienced winter weather in April.
April is for the Boston Marathon, and my every visit has been full of drama every single time. The first ever visit was in 1973 and I have to admit, I was only there at the suggestion of a friend, who trained with me and witnessed my first marathon / first win (in Culver City, 1972). He advised me to put my next goal as Boston. The part I shamefully “admit” is my ridiculous response: “What’s in Boston?”
The Novice: First Experience
Since those two marathons were also my first-ever two road races, I was not a seasoned enough road racer to know about the Boston Marathon. I actually had to talk my coach, Laszlo, into the concept of running the roads. He had never been a road racer either. He was famous for being the third man in the world to break the four-minute mile, after Roger Bannister. Naturally, I was trained as a middle distance runner. However, I had only modest success. Yet, quite honestly, the 1500-meter race is still my favorite distance. When I suggested running my first marathon, he told me “the marathon is something you do when you’re too slow to race anything shorter.” Seriously? On the other hand, he also said that there are some things that you have to find out for yourself, things you wonder if you could do, and he added, after all, I was the most determined runner he’d known (he might have said “stubborn,” I’m not sure). He said he thought I’d “go far.” To this day, I do not know if he meant “far” like I had a future in marathon running, or “far” as if I’d go about 18 miles and drop. My first attempt wasn’t pretty as I probably could have walked the last six miles faster than I was trying to run. My friends had to get off their bicycles, they could not pedal that slow. The difference between my first two marathons is that I at least trained for Boston. Laszlo did pile on the miles in intervals on the track every other night in the week. And I piled on the miles on the roads on the weekends.
Finally, I made it to Boston arriving a couple days before race day, and felt suddenly terribly homesick. But there were beautiful gift baskets from home waiting for me filled with food and flowers that cheered me up. I recall first going to the highest viewpoint I could find – the top of the “Pru” (Prudential center, the finish line at the time). From twenty-something floors up, I could see all over town, spotting the obvious places to go for a run. The most logical runner’s route went along the Charles River. Once there, I made friends with runners along the way. I visited museums, the public library, old churches and parks. I tagged along with a team from Florida to go to a track meet one afternoon, and to the aquarium another time with local runners. On race day, we all piled onto school buses for the long ride out to the starting point in Hopkinton.
April in Boston could bring any kind of weather, and for me, like the drama I mentioned at the top, it always seems to be extreme weather. In this, my first trip, it was a heat wave, so starting at the traditional noon hour was not a welcome thought. I believe the men were herded into a gym, but the women runners were sheltered in a local chapel. It was kind of a charming choice, if overly protective, now that I reflect on it. There weren’t so many of us, and it was only the second year with an official women’s division. I was fortunate enough to meet previous “unofficial” winner Sara Mae Berman, but not until years later did I meet the actual first woman to “unofficially win” Boston, Roberta,”Bobbi,” Gibb. Of course I did meet the first official winner from the previous year, Nina Kucsik, who in time became one of my dearest friends and colleagues advocating for women’s rights to run.
As I’ve indicated, I was not the most experienced road runner. My race day preparation in outfitting myself is telling. I was thinking more like a hiker than a runner. To protect my feet, I wore two pairs of socks, one thin and snug, and a second layer of thick wool socks for cushioning. And I chose to wear my heaviest training shoes with good thick soles. Believe it or not. The shirt and shorts were chosen for looks actually. I knew the race was run on Patriot’s Day, so I looked through my closet for something patriotic. I ended up with a white t-shirt embroidered with red & blue stars and stripes, and matched it with some blue-checkered shorts made out of terrycloth. This detail came back to haunt me, as sideline spectators with good intentions showered us with garden hoses. Those shorts soaked up water like a towel, dragged to my knees and poured water down into my wool socks, so that I was squeezing out the hems of my shorts and my feet made squishing noises as I ran up Heartbreak Hill carrying extra water weight. I learned my lesson the hard way. Tom Derderian wrote the book, Boston Marathon, for the centennial race edition, and his chapter on 1973 accurately depicts my experience.
I don’t remember a lot of the race, the course, the splits, but that’s not unusual. I don’t remember suffering any, but I suppose it’s because I was a heat-trained California girl. I do know that I was afraid to eat or drink anything en route, because my coach never allowed it on the track (what did we know about distance running?).
The venerable Bud Collins wrote in the Boston Globe that I “seemed like Florence Nightingale entering a battalion aid station just behind the lines……..the accompanying troops were bloody and bleary. Some were making it only in stretchers or wheelchairs……but there she was upright and in command, La Hansen, waving shyly, yet gratefully…” All the reporters latched onto my answer to their question about what I was going to treat myself to eat, although why is beyond me. I said the first thing that came into my head, “going off training for a pizza and a root beer freeze” (Collins). I’ve got a dozen articles from all over the country quoting me with that line. Couldn’t I have thought of something better to say?! If only one knew when their fifteen-minutes of fame was at hand, you’d hope to be more clever. Incidentally, they still served the traditional hot beef stew post-race, and in the near 80-degree weather, that was just not as appetizing.
There were a couple of other trips to Boston for other races, or to watch or celebrate the marathon, including the one where I did a speaking engagement at Wellesley College. I had a bad cold and did not intend to run the whole race. I recall Kenny Moore running by me telling me I should not be running sick, so I ran just to Wellesley and stopped at my hotel.
HIGH DRAMA ON PATRIOTS DAY 1984
The next serious attempt at the Boston Marathon did not happen until 1984. I was trying to qualify for the first-ever women’s Olympic Marathon Trials; and this was the last race, the last day, the last opportunity to get a qualifying mark (sub 2:50).
The circumstances were such that first, I had spent the last ten years advocating for women’s distance races to be included in the Olympic Games. Back in 1974, when I set my first world record in a marathon, I was naive enough to think a letter-writing campaign would change the minds of the powers-that-be to put the event in the Olympics. By 1979, I was president of the International Runners Committee, a lobbying group working to attain the 5,000 and 10,000 meter races as well as the marathon into the Olympic program. I will save that long story for another day. But it is important to know at this point, because it provided part of the drama of the day.
Because we had successfully lobbied the marathon into the Games, it was more important than anything in the world to me to qualify for those Trials. The problem keeping me from doing so before this final day was because I had surgery about six months prior. The diagnosis was compartment syndrome of the left hamstring, rather unusual, and not easy to diagnose. Fortunately, Dr. Jerry Bornstein was brilliant at figuring out the problem and the solution. The surgery brought nearly instant relief and did not require months of physical therapy, so I was able to resume training fairly quickly, but much valuable time had been lost. I made two other attempts beginning soon after surgery, but through one mishap or another, I missed the mark each time. So it was all on the line this day in April of 1984.
The second circumstance was that after the marathon was accepted into the Olympics, the 5,000m and 10,000m were orphaned events. We were not supported by our federation, and to make a very long story short, we, the IRC, brought an international class action lawsuit against the IOC and all the entities working under them. I will spare the details here for now. The relevant fact is that our case was coming to court for the first time, in Los Angeles, the same April day, but I had to be in Boston. The ACLU represented us, and the lead lawyer Susan McGrievy went to court as I went to Boston. One of the consequences was that two separate news crews were following me around Boston my entire time. They had me wearing a microphone up until the start, when I declared my quiet time before going to the line. Also, I had to tell them, no I will not stop at the halfway mark to talk to them. One was an ABC news crew focused on the story line, “former Boston winner returns…..will she win?” I could have told them that eleven years later, that wasn’t going to happen. The other crew was focused on the lawsuit in court that day. No stress, right? Did I mention drama?
The third circumstance actually made me cry. My roommate for that trip was from Florida, so we two warm climate runners stood at our window the morning of the race, watching the rain and hail blow against our window in a chill. I cried. She said we had nothing to lose and we had to try. I knew she was right. We were not alone in our quest for qualifying times. All the women were particularly bonded that day and tried to run together in mutual support. We shared extra clothing and tried to dress as warm but efficiently as we could. Even with tights and long sleeves, the rain and hail felt like little arrows flying into my skin. The first thing I remember about the splits en route was the fact there were splits that made sense. My previous race there, I heard splits as I entered each new town, with odd distances given in fractions of a mile that no one could calculate. This time, I knew every 5 miles that I was on pace, all the way to 25 miles, where I may have been hallucinating, but I saw a digital timer telling me that I was in 10th place and my projected finish time was 2:44. The last thing I remember was wondering how they did that. Then I began to feel like I was fighting against falling forward face first, and I started to get tunnel vision. My reaction? I got mad. I just got mad. I yelled to myself, “It’s one more mile! I deserve to finish!” And I began to chant “I deserve to finish.”
When I woke up on the hospital cot with an IV bottle hanging overhead and dog tags around my neck, in a woolen blanket, the doctor said “We’re keeping you here for observation, your temperature is below 93-degrees.” I responded with teeth chattering out of control, “Did I finish? What was my time?” He made a joke to the nurse that although I was dying, I’d like to know my time and she went away to find out. After all, my watch was still running, so I did not know. While we waited, he asked where my bag and dry clothes were, and I said that I expected to jog back to my hotel from the finish and had not intended to be here, so did not send clothes ahead. When the nurse returned, she said 2:47+ in 14th place. I rounded up to 2:48 and figured that according to the last clock I saw, I had lost four minutes and four places in one mile and, oh my, I must have looked like I was running in place. But I made it and I was qualified. I was a sick puppy but I was happy. The news crews were all over themselves looking for footage of “the fall” at the finish line, but to my good fortune, they did not find any. However, my husband said I was on Nightline that night, looking like a drowned rat. Nice. I said book those tickets to Olympia for the Trials. I called back to say put the income taxes in the mail, and got a message from Julie Cart of the LA Times. We had lost our case in court that day. I went from such a high point to the lowest point in minutes. I call this the most dramatic day in my entire running career. (By the way, do not worry, we eventually prevailed and the 5 & 10 made it into the Olympics in the next two Olympiads.)
My Final Marathon: Queen for a Day
My last run in the Boston Marathon came in 1996. It was on the occasion of their 100th Anniversary. By then, I had become a Masters runner (40-plus) and had returned to competing middle distances, now that I found a new ballpark I could be competitive in. I had won two World Masters Championship races, in the 1500m and 5,000m. I also had knee surgery and did not bounce back, so had not only retired from marathons, but from all running. I learned to swim and swam with a local masters swim team instead. However, the invitation came to run the 100th Boston and who could resist? I came out of retirement, and wrote myself a training schedule that alternated days, two in the pool and one on land: pool run/land run/swim and repeat. The only injury I sustained was a torn rotator cuff, that started with a fall, but exacerbated by swimming. Not one to give up my goal, I shifted my training a little and ran in the pool more than swimming, found that acupuncture is good for pain management, and proceeded. It worked! I was able to run better than even I had imagined. At the halfway point in Wellesley, I was at 1:30 and excited about it. The problem began when the course began to get a little hilly. My knees did not like down, but were OK going up, so I walked the downhills and ran the uphills, quite the opposite of most everyone around me who felt the need to walk the uphills. I thought about all the downhill into town to the finish line and knew that my knees were going to be thrashed from it, so I happily walked off the course around 18 miles, celebrating the fact that I had a good half-marathon in me, and I would save my knees for some shorter runs another day.
The entire trip to Boston that year was like being “queen for a day.” The Boston Athletic Association brought in as many living Boston Marathon winners as possible. There were press conferences, a Breakfast of Champions, photo shoots, and lots of celebrations and reunions. I even received my medal from my first winning performance. This was to rectify the fact that in the original days of the race, medals were given out to the top ten, regardless of gender. Although the women’s winner received a trophy and laurel wreath, those traditional medals were only given to the top ten men, at least in the first five years after women were recognized as official entrants. I cherish that coveted medal to this day. The BAA does everything with class.
I have returned to Boston on anniversaries, such as the 20th anniversary of the official women’s division, my own 20th anniversary, and as I said, the 100th anniversary. I’ve returned to watch runners I have coached as well, and that’s always fun. I am looking forward to celebrating my 40th anniversary in April (2013)!