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Just past 16 miles, the Boston Marathon course rears its head and tells runners to climb. That's the start of the long, winding hills of Newton. They reward the strong and destroy the weak.
Steve Jones of Wales hit the hills first on Monday afternoon, leading a tightly bunched pack of 11 runners into a stiff head wind. Jones, 31, an RAF corporal who rebuilds Phantom jets, looked as well-steeled as he had in Chicago in 1984, when he had run a then world best of 2:08:05 in his first complete marathon. On his shoulder here, however, was a frightening arsenal of speed: 30-year-old Toshihiko Seko of Japan, who had lost only one marathon in the last eight years; 1984 Olympic silver medalist John Treacy of Ireland; two-time Boston champion Geoff Smith of England; and Tanzania's tiny Juma Ikangaa, the No. 1-ranked marathoner in the world last year.
This much was clear: What had promised to be one of the fastest Boston Marathons in the 91-year history of the race was instead becoming a tense, strategic battle—"a staring contest in motion," said 1972 Olympic champion Frank Shorter, who was not running. The hills, and the drama, loomed ahead.
New York City Marathon director Fred Lebow had labeled Boston's field "the best ever assembled for a marathon, bar none." Yet the field, along with the 15-mile-per-hour head winds, cast a mood of caution over the race. As Treacy said before the start, "People may pay so much attention to each other that they don't pay attention to running fast." Indeed, after an unannounced, rough-and-tumble start—defending champion Rob de Castella of Australia tripped on a restraining rope and had to perform a nifty front shoulder roll on the wet pavement to avoid being trampled by the mass of 6,312 other entrants—the lead pack crawled to the halfway point in 1:06:22, nearly three minutes off world-best pace. Seko had made a brief spurt at six miles, but no one had followed, and he dropped back into the pack to hide from the wind.
The redoubtable field evidenced a remarkable comeback by Boston. Just two years ago this marathon was a badly slumping anachronism, rigid in its refusal to pay prize or appearance money to attract big-name runners. But, prodded by Mayor Ray Flynn and others, the Boston Athletic Association, organizer of the race, agreed to bring the event into the modern era. In September 1985, the BAA announced a 10-year, $10 million sponsorship deal with John Hancock Financial Services, which swiftly transformed Boston into the most lucrative marathon in the world.
At stake on Monday were $347,000 in cash and prizes ($40,000 and a Mercedes-Benz to both the men's and women's winners), and some leading participants received even grander sums for putting on Hancock-sponsored prerace clinics. De Castella, for instance, reportedly got a $150,000 guarantee. "The market value of an athlete is whatever the market will bear," said Hancock senior vice-president and race impresario David D'Alessandro, whose free-spending ways prompted one rival marathon director to dub him "the George Steinbrenner of marathoning."
Yet some marathoners run for reasons other than money. Take Seko. For years he lived the life of an ascetic, training under the all-absorbing spiritual and religious guidance of Japan's aged marathon master, Kiyoshi Nakamura. The two most devastating events of Seko's life have been his 14th-place finish at the L.A. Olympics and the death of Nakamura in May 1985. Nakamura was found dead in a river where he had been fishing. Officially, his death was an accidental drowning. But those who knew of Nakamura's fanaticism think that an inability to cope with Seko's Olympic defeat may have moved him to commit suicide.
Since then Seko has carried Nakamura in his heart. This race was for the old master. Training on an island near Okinawa had sharpened Seko for the challenge. He bowed to a picture of Nakamura before and after each workout.
At the 20-mile mark, just before Heartbreak Hill, Seko looked around and studied the faces of Smith and Treacy and Jones. He saw, to his surprise, tired faces. The hills had taken their toll. "I thought, If I go here, they will not follow," Seko said later.
At the crest of Heartbreak, Seko went. "He put on such a surge," Smith marveled after the race. "I closed up on him, but he put on another surge. I started sucking wind."