Friday, February 10, 2006

Inspired by Duncan, here is a second round of vitriol, but this will unfortunately not be palatable to Ms. Fisher. In an interview published in Runner's World, former 49ers great Roger Craig said that "Boston is definitely the Super Bowl of all marathons." The term itself is thrown around far too much, much like Boston is reputedly the Mecca of runners, but a man like Roger Craig surely ought to know better. Craig won three Super Bowls with the 49ers during the Joe Montana era, and of course recorded the famous double-double season in which he both ran for 1,000 yards and caught 92 passes worth more than 1,000 yards.

The Boston Marathon is similar to the San Francisco 49ers in many ways. Both were once at the peak of their respective sports and endeavours. The 49ers were long the best franchise in professional football, winning five Super Bowls, thirteen division titles, and making sixteen playoff appearances in an eighteen-year span beginning with the 1981 season and lasting through 1998.

Similarly, the Boston Marathon was long the pre-eminent road race in the world, enjoying a heyday during the 1970s and 1980s that would attract greats such as Robert de Castella, Ron Hill, Gelindo Bordin, (Canadian) Jerome Drayton in addition to household names in Bill Rodgers, Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley. Even as late as 1998, Moses Tanui, world champion over 10,000 metres and still the eighth-fastest man over 42.195 kilometres, won the race.

However, if Boston was the pre-eminent marathon at one time, today it is anything but. As far as the Association of Road Racing Statisticians is concerned, the 2005 edition was not even the most competitive road race in the state of Massachusetts. The rankings are somewhat skewed based on my rudimentary understanding of the algorithm that produces them in that races over rarely-contested differences will always be more competitive.

Now this is not by any means a long invective intended to castigate the cadre of elite North American road racers, a sort of ragtag barnstorming cast of impoverished East Africans that I tend to romanticize far too much, for their perceived sloth at the race. Rather, to come full circle, the Boston Marathon is hardly the Super Bowl of marathons, maybe a contest between a pair of 8-7 teams fighting for a wild card spot.

Rather, let us focus on the plain truth: the world's best marathoners still come by the dozen to a marathon in the middle of April, but this one is located in London. For the last two springs, Dave Bedford and the London Marathon have collected a men's field so good that it is almost absurd. The aggregate competition is indeed so great that it threatens to negate itself, paradoxically, when speaking of a fast time. This year's field includes Haile Gebrselassie, Paul Tergat, Stefano Baldini, Jaouad Gharib, Evans Rutto, Felix Limo and former world record holder Khalid Khannouchi, an inspiration to his fellow scrabbling immigrants with a penchant for long-distance running. By comparison, we can expect only one big name at the Boston Marathon, and that is Meb Keflezighi, the Olympic silver medallist at the distance. It will likely be filled out by other Americans and East Africans capable of running 2:10 or faster, but it would be a disservice to the gentlemen at London to claim that this race offers anything near the level of competition.

I have now established two obvious truths in excruciating detail: London has a lot of big names, Boston does not. Where the vitriol comes in is in explaining Roger Craig's claim that Boston is the Super Bowl of marathons. Boston is best-known for its qualifying standards, 3:10 for open men, that offer an imposing challenge to many recreational runners. In the bizarre world of running mass culture, and yes, there is such a thing, Boston is the equivalent of the dream amongst American competitive runners to make the Olympic Marathon Trials by achieving its exponentially stiffer standard of 2:22. There is no equivalent in Canada, though I will offer that my own dream is to qualify for the national championships in both the half marathon and marathon, and run in the cross country championships (an open race). Boston today is but a name, acting as little more than an achievement that is attainable by a bunch of guys in good shape, much like a 20-minute 5k or the 5-minute mile. To call it anything more is to waver between delusion and outright lying.

Running 3:10 or 3:05 (or the Bostonian equivalent for gender and age), while far beyond the reach of the average marathoner, who comes in at well over 4 hours, does not, however, turn a race into the Super Bowl of marathons, but maybe the Super Bowl party of marathons. There is a tension found in the appeal of Boston within running culture; Boston is revered as a road race for its stringent qualifying standards, challenging course and the history of big names, but it carries an appeal mostly to those for whom qualifying is a significant achievement or pipe dream. In other words, the race is propped up by the new face of running in North America, the slow and the wealthy, who must contrive a sort of People's Super Bowl, the Everyman Championships if you will, to transpose onto themselves the greatness seen elsewhere. In our meritocracy, it is not only enough for those with merit to succeed, but those with even an iota of merit must also receive attention. This is why we differentiate between a 23-year old and a 28-year old at road races, this is why we give awards simply for finishing, and this is why we have draw prizes.

To many of those running Boston, particularly at the front of the pack, it is a highly competitive road race steeped in tradition, but not The Race. The Super Bowl of marathons, insofar as there is such a thing, would either be at the World Championship and Olympics, or at London, Chicago and the other fast, flat courses that attract the stars of the sport. To fully appreciate the hollow, melodramatic appeal of Boston, consider whether or not the players in Sunday's Super Bowl thought that there was probably another game they could be playing in, one of greater significance, if they were good enough.

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