Kopacs at NY Marathon finish line
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Lynne in NYC

Kopac's Corner

Close Encounters of the Running Kind

by Bob Kopac

It was hard to walk around Boston the weekend of the 2004 marathon without tripping over famous runners. They were ubiquitous, almost more numerous than New York Yankee haters. From staged events to random encounters, there were many opportunities to observe the running elite.

My first encounter with a rising star was at the John Hancock Sports & Fitness Expo at the Boston World Trade Center. A large crowd had gathered in front of one of the booths. The attraction: Olympic marathon qualifier Josh Cox attempting to set the world marathon record-the treadmill marathon record, that is.

Unlike a marathon, where spectators catch only a fleeting glimpse of the runners, the crowd was able to observe Josh's running form for an extended period of time. His legs turned over like pistons, each stride seemingly perfect. It was an awesome display of form and power.

In a concession to the heat in the hall, a support person held up an electric fan to cool Josh. Marathoners in the crowd asked if the support person would do the same for them during the Boston Marathon. Apparently the fan helped, for Josh set the world treadmill marathon record of 2:31:04. Would the record have an asterisk for being wind-aided?

Over at the Runner's World Magazine stage, Dick Beardsley gave a talk entitled "Duel in the Sun" about his famous contest with Alberto Salazar at the 1982 Boston Marathon. Salazar beat Beardsley by 2 seconds in what some say was the greatest Boston Marathon ever. (See the April 2004 issue of Runner's World Magazine for an excellent article about the race and Dick's battle with drugs after a farm accident.) Afterwards I attended a Running Network party at a Boston Harbor restaurant, where the guest of honor was-Dick Beardsley.

After the party, I wandered over to the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel where I encountered Bill Rodgers, winner of 4 NYC Marathons and 4 Boston Marathons. As I had interviewed him twice before at the Old Chatham 5K in upstate NY, we spent the time talking about the Old Chatham 5K, the reasons for its demise, and the upcoming Sean French Memorial Run.

The next day I returned to the Copley for a press pass, and there stood Kathrine Switzer! In the Dark Ages of 1967, when women were banned from the Boston Marathon, Kathrine registered as "K.V. Switzer". During the race, official Jock Semple infamously attempted to rip off Kathrine's race bib number. After Kathrine escaped Semple's grasp and completed the course, race officials summarily disqualified her. Kathrine would go on to win the 1974 NYC Marathon and in 1998 be inducted into the National Long Distance Running Hall of Fame.

In 1974 the Boston Marathon officials finally allowed women to run. This year, on the 20th anniversary, 1978 and 1983 Boston Marathon female champion Joan Benoit Samuelson was the official race starter for the elite women. For the first time at Boston, the elite women would start a half-hour ahead of the rest of the field. Kathrine Switzer was quoted in the press as saying, "Women have gone from being excluded to being exclusive."

On race day, from my vantage point on the Photo Bridge above the finish line, I photographed this year's stars: Catherine Ndereba repeating as female champion! Timothy Cherigat becoming a first-time Boston winner! Wheelchair athlete Ernst Van Dyk of South Africa setting the world record of 1:18:27!

There also was a poignant homage to a Boston Marathon legend. After 96-year-old Grand Marshall Johnny A. Kelley ceremonially ran cross the finish line, officials placed a finisher's medal around his neck. Johnny won the 1935 and 1945 Boston Marathons, finished second at Boston 7 times, and competed in a record 61 Boston Marathons.

That evening, my photo press credentials gained me admittance to the BAA post-race awards ceremony. As I photographed the award winners, Bob Rother and my wife Lynne were in the Oak Bar with New England Runners Magazine editors Bob Fitzgerald and Michele LeBrun. Serendipitously, legendary coach Bill Squires joined them and regaled them with stories about training athletes. Too bad I could not be in two places at once. Of course, if I were in two places at once, I probably would encounter twice as many famous runners!