Roberta Bingay's personal triumph unfortunately took some of the luster from the group triumph of the Japanese, who were truly exceptional. Last year the Boston Marathon was won by Japan's Morio Shigematsu, and his countrymen finished second, third, fifth and sixth behind him. This year none of the five could even qualify for the trip to Boston. Shigematsu himself finished ninth in the tryout held last February in Beppu, Japan, even though he bettered his Boston time by 17 seconds.
The Japanese seem as enthusiastic about roadrunning as Australians are about tennis, and they are threatening to build just as powerful a dynasty. All schools from junior high on up include distance running as a compulsory part of the physical-education program. Seventh-graders regularly go out on 2�-mile jaunts, and from the ninth to 12th grades the distance is stepped up to over five miles. Given this as a foundation, it is not surprising that Japan holds approximately 20 major marathons each year or that it goes slightly gaga over its ekidens, which are long-distance relay races in which teams cover a distance of up to 375 miles.
There is also an emotional as well as environmental factor involved in Japan's enthusiasm for the grind of the long-distance road race. "The Japanese have strong physical endurance," reports a Tokyo journalist, "but it is based a great deal on strong spiritual fortitude. The marathon is mainly an endurance test with the mental phase playing a greater role near the end of the race when the runner must fight exhaustion. Japanese by nature love a challenge and hate to lose, especially where it concerns their physical endurance."
Since the element of luck plays a distinctly minor role in marathon running, it was not likely that any of this year's Japanese contingent was going to lose the challenge. Judging from their times in the February tryout, Tooru Terasawa, 31, Hirokazo Okabe, 24, Kenji Kimihara, 25 (a member of Japan's 1964 Olympic team) and Seiichiro Sasaki, a youthful 20, seemed unbeatable. Terasawa had won the Beppu race in 2:14:35, an average of under 5:10 per mile, and all four had finished well under the Boston record set last year by Shigematsu.
At Boston the Japanese strategy was simplicity itself. "We will run together for 20 miles," said the team's runner-manager, Terasawa, "and then it is every man for himself."
That is just about how it went, though the Japanese stuck together in front of the pack for over 25 miles. The race course heads due east from Hopkinton all the way into midtown Boston, and the runners wrestled with a 15-to-20-mph head wind the whole way. Until tiring at the end, however, the leaders set new best times at five of the six official checking stations en route. Then, with less than a mile to go, Kimihara, apparently only slightly less tired than the rest, spurted ahead to win by 13 seconds over Sasaki in 2:17:11.
For Americans who take their marathoning seriously, some consolation could be found in the showing made by the fifth-place finisher, gray-haired Norm Higgins, a 6-foot-3, 29-year-old native of New London, Conn. who now attends Los Angeles City College. If an athlete pushing 30 can be said to be very promising, then Higgins is that in the marathon. He has been running for 20 years and is a prot�g� of New London's Johnny Kelley, whose win in 1957 is the only American first at Boston in the last 21 years. For three years now Higgins has been training in California with the Hungarian distance-running wizard, Mihaly Igloi, who also helped put Jim Beatty and Jim Grelle on the world-class map. Being so tall makes Higgins a rarity among the marathon's fast set—only one runner over 6 feet has ever won the Boston Marathon—but his time of 2:18:26 last week was the fastest yet posted by a U.S. runner at Boston. Looking somewhat like an elderly scoutmaster escorting a troop of tiny scouts on a camping trip, Higgins stayed with the Japanese until the halfway point near Wellesley College, fell back a bit, then came on strong toward the end to pull within 15 seconds of Okabe.
"I had trouble getting my tempo at the start," was Higgins' assessment, "but then I began to feel really good. I tried very hard to get a U.S. runner in front of at least one of the Japanese, but I guess they just got a little too far ahead."
Thus there was no surprise to match the one Roberta Bingay provided meet officials, who nevertheless remained quite stubborn about assigning her a place in history.
"Mrs. Bingay did not run in the Boston Marathon," insists Will Cloney, the genial ma�tre d' of the marathon. "She merely covered the same route as the official race while it was in progress. No girl has ever run in the Boston Marathon," he concluded, remaining a staid New Englander to the last codfish.