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DO THE ELITE STILL MEET IN BOSTON?
TOP RUNNERS NO LONGER CONSIDER PATRIOTS DAY MARATHON A MUST, BUT RACE STILL HAS MASS APPEAL

One of the world's most prestigious marathons will have a tremendous field assemble at its starting line in a few days. The competition is considered to be so strong that world records for both the men's and women's races could fall if conditions are right.

The race in question is not Monday's Boston Marathon, but rather Sunday's London Marathon.

Perceptions of the Boston Marathon have changed over the past quarter-century in a number of ways:

After years of being the ultimate 26.2-mile race, it has dropped down the "must-run" list of the world's best.

The lack of top American runners has caused a drop in the interest level of many U.S. fans outside of New England.

For "typical" American marathoners including Western New Yorkers, Boston remains the Holy Grail of running . . . and they are convinced that the world's top athletes don't know what they are missing.

The major reason for the diminished status of the Boston Marathon on the international stage is -- no surprise -- money.

The Boston Marathon began in 1897 and came to fill a unique niche on the sporting calendar. For decades, marathons only seemed to matter on Patriots Day in Massachusetts, when Boston would stage its race, and during the Olympics. There was no prize money for Boston's winner, and little recognition the other 364 days of the year.

Then the running boom came along 30-40 years ago. Millions around the world -- including women, a greatly underrepresented group in the running community at the time -- took to the streets and entered races. Americans such as Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, Joan Benoit and Alberto Salazar became internationally known. Every major city started staging a marathon. "Not too many years ago, Boston owned the landscape. It was Mount Everest," said Amby Burfoot, the 1968 winner of the Boston Marathon and now an executive editor of Runner's World. "Now there are many towering marathons around the world. It's impossible for any single race to dominate like that anymore."

Cities competed for the talents of the world's best runners, and the obvious attraction was cash. The Boston Marathon started offering prize money to winners in 1986; this year's Boston Marathon will present checks of $100,000 to the male and female winners. That's competitive with payouts of other top races, including London's. Top runners also earned good-sized amounts of money just for showing up at races, and they signed sponsorship contracts with shoe manufacturers and other running-related industries.

Times are changing

However, professional runners today have to build up a resume to keep the dollars coming in, and Boston is no place for those interested in recording a very fast time. That fact applies to the entire field of 20,000, which last year had to deal with difficult hills and temperatures in the 80s.

"Records aren't going to be set there," said Hamburg's Joe Powers, who will be running in his fourth Boston Marathon on Monday. "From mile 16 at Newton to Heartbreak Hill in mile 21, there's no harder place to run."

Besides, any world record time set on the Boston course would not be considered "official" because of an elevation drop of more than 400 feet -- not that anyone would set a record on this course because of the hills' ups and downs.

"It's a simple fact -- we're world-record crazy," Burfoot said. "Boston is not the fastest course. Chicago, London and Berlin are faster. . . . Fast runners have to run fast times to leave a legacy."

Paula Radcliffe did that in London last year. Her time of 2:15:45 set a world record and earned her an estimated $900,000 in prize money, bonuses, appearance fees and sponsorship payments.

But what about all the tradition involved in Boston? What about running in the footsteps of the late Johnny Kelley, who won the race twice and ran until he was 84? What about going over the same course as Joan Benoit Samuelson, the first women's Olympic marathon winner (1984) and a two-time Boston winner?

"If you are an elite runner, you can't live on history and tradition," Burfoot said. "You live on what someone will pay you, and that's based on how fast you go. It pains me deeply to say that. I did believe once that any good runner had to come to Boston. The year I won in Boston, one reason for that was that it was an Olympic year and runners skipped races like Boston to prepare (for Mexico City's Games). Well, to me, Boston was more important than the Olympics. It was in my back yard."

While plenty of the world's best runners may be in London this week, several other very good runners will be in Boston. After all, "Boston Marathon champion" still looks good on a resume. If history is a guide, Monday's winners probably won't be from America. Thirteen of the last 14 male winners have been from Kenya. In fact, there hasn't been a men's or women's winner from the United States since 1983.

That certainly could be a factor as to why some American newspapers will not put the Boston Marathon results on page one of their sports section Tuesday, and why the race's broadcast has gone this year from powerful ESPN to the less-popular Outdoor Life Network -- shutting out millions of homes in the process.

"As narrow-minded as it sounds, speaking as someone who has been to Olympics and world championships, hometown fervor is universal," Burfoot said. "In Russia, Spain or Finland, people root for their national heroes. Obviously, right now the East Africans -- in particular the Kenyans -- are dominating the sport. That's difficult for most casual runners to (grasp)."

While Americans probably won't get the thrill of seeing one of their own cross the finish line first, they still consider the Boston Marathon the peak of a running career. That's why about 75 Western New Yorkers will be headed to New England for Monday's race, and many more wish they could be joining them. Less than 5 percent of all marathon runners hit the qualifying times needed to enter. Debbie Symoniak of Hamburg vividly remembers breaking the magic number.

"I qualified when I was 44," she said. "My qualifying time was four hours. I ran the Casino Niagara Marathon and finished in a time of 3:59:56. I made it by four seconds. When I finished the Casino race, Dan Loncto (of Fleet Feet Sports) told me, 'You qualified!' I didn't even realize it at the time. Then I really got excited."

Participants become almost lyrical when describing the experience of running in Boston. It's everyone's favorite race, right from the time they first set foot there.

"There's no doubt about that," Kevin Patterson of Clarence said. "My wife and I ran the New York City marathon last year. Everyone talks about the crowds and the support, but it's nowhere near what it's like in Boston."

"It's hard to explain to people who aren't runners, but it's an amazing feeling," Symoniak said. "The whole city is involved. . . . From start to finish, it's incredibly well-organized, so well timed out. When you are there, you just want to buy everything that has the words 'Boston Marathon' on it."

Atmospheric conditions

Once the race begins, there's plenty of time to soak up the atmosphere. Everyone seems to appreciate the way the students from Wellesley College come out to cheer the entire field of competitors in the 13th mile.

"There are a bunch of girls up there who are just screaming," Powers said. "I had tears in my eyes. The emotion is so overwhelming. It is so loud. It's easy to get so tied up in the moment."

"I was told to write my name on my arm, so I did that," Symoniak said. "They called out to me by name and said, 'You can do it.' That's the way they are. They act like they know everyone running."

Finishing the Boston Marathon, participants say, mixes equal parts relief and joy. While it's good to merely stop running on such a difficult course, runners love coming up Boylston Street and soaking up the atmosphere in the final yards.

"You have the grandstands filled," Powers said. "There are people from the curb all the way back to the buildings. You can see the finish line. No matter how tired you are, how beat you are, it's a thrill."

If runners who are hours behind the leaders are that excited about finishing, imagine what it's like to be the winner. Burfoot is one of the few who knows that feeling, and he says it doesn't take a back seat to any experience in the sport.

"Other races may have a flat course and piles of gold on the finish line, but the city of Boston has that special relationship with the race," Burfoot said. "I just tell people I feel incredibly lucky and privileged to be a member of that elite club of those who have won the Boston Marathon. It is pretty high up there on the pinnacle. I worked very, very hard for it, but I have to acknowledge that I was blessed."
e-mail: bbailey@buffnews.com