It was beginning to seem that the only way for Bostonians to prepare properly for Patriots' Day was to take a cram course in Japanese numbers, particularly the low ones—ichi, ni, san, shi—because for the last two years the Boston Marathon has been a Japanese stampede down Beacon Street. Methodically, the Japanese had finished the 26-mile, 385-yard course in ichi, ni, san order, as the rest of the world gasped along behind.
This year official Boston was at the finish line at the Prudential Center and ready. Mayor John Collins, green wreath and gold medal in hand, was silently mouthing the Japanese word for congratulations, the band was tootling up for the Japanese anthem and the crowd, unrattled by a bitter, slanting, bone-chilling rain, was set with hundreds of Japanese flags. A sudden roar around the corner on Hereford Street, and here came ichi-ban. He burst into sight, a tiny figure, churning along with sturdy strides, his arms pumping and his head held high.
Good grief, ichi-ban had bright orange hair. In fact, ichi-ban was not Japanese at all. He was a wisp of a fellow (5'4", 120 pounds), a 24-year-old printer from New Zealand who was away from home for the first time in his life. Not only had David C. McKenzie turned the Boston Marathon into something other than a Japanese rout, he ran the course faster than it had ever been run before—two hours, 15 minutes and 45 seconds.
With a desperate ruffling of pages, the band came on strong with God Save the Queen, but before the look of stark amazement had left the faces of race officials, Shock No. 2 bolted into view: Tom Laris, an American. It was the first time in six years that an American runner had finished anywhere near the leader, and Laris did it just 15 seconds off the old course record. A minute later Yutaka Aoki salvaged third place for Japan, but hot on his heels came the second star-spangled surprise, Louis Castagnola, a 30-year-old electrical engineer from Maryland, who made it in two hours, 17 minutes and 48 seconds, and that, sir, is world-class time.
And where were the rest of the Japanese? Oh, baby san, don't ask. Antonio Ambu, the Italian champion, and Andy Boychuk, Canada's best, were home before the Japanese crew finished seventh, eighth and 58th. Somebody had not forgotten Pearl Harbor.
The question is: What happened to the Japanese of the formidable reputations? Two years ago they finished 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6, and last year they were even more thorough. They sent only four runners. The quartet charged up the Newton hills in lockstep, strung out slightly on Commonwealth Avenue and crossed the line 1, 2, 3 and 4.
The four who entered this year were a sort of junior varsity, Japan's best being saved for a marathon in Mexico next month. Small comfort. Picture a map of Japan. Put your finger on it—anywhere. Squash. Theoretically, you have just landed on a marathoner. So thoroughly have the Japanese gone at the event, there are nearly 20 runners who can finish any course within 30 seconds of each other, and all the times are that close to a record.
The four who were picked for this year's running arrived in Boston eight days before Patriots' Day, stocky little fellows who bowed a lot, smiled a lot, took pictures of anything they could get in their sights and then took pictures of each other taking pictures. When they were told such things as, "You are not eligible to run as a team," and, "The field really is a lot stronger this year," they said ah so and laughed.
The press dutifully recorded such pearls, figuring that no matter what the Japanese said it was meaningful. As for local talent, not only was Tom Laris overlooked by the Japanese, he was overlooked by Tom Laris. "Oh, I'd like to make it in two hours and 20 minutes," he said. "That would give me a measure of satisfaction." As for his assessment of the Japanese, it was just like everyone else's: "Those guys are unbelievable."
Laris' credentials were really quite sound. Last year he entered the marathon mostly for laughs, as his home was then in nearby Lynn. But he surprised just about everybody by finishing seventh. This year he was far less offhand about his training. After a good indoor season—he won a couple of two-and three-mile races and pushed Australia's Kerry O'Brien to a two-mile record—Laris really went to work, reeling off 125 miles a week around Palo Alto, Calif., where he now lives.