Like all stories, there has to be some introduction, some background and unrelated bull to fill in the dead time and space.
My story of the 1982 Boston Marathon has been hijacked and I’m attempting to set the record straight before I forget the whole thing and start believing the story that has been floating around for years. I should have copyrighted it years ago and been living on some exotic island walking around in a grass skirt. Next time, next life.
Here is the build up to the real story, with only a few lies.
In the winter of 1981 I was living in Omaha, Nebraska, and training for that year’s edition of the Boston Marathon. There’s the first lie that you missed. I was surviving in Omaha, not living. Nobody lives there in the winter. Anyway, one morning I was out running and needed to take a pit stop.
I found a vacated, run-down house and did my business. As I was treading gingerly down what remained of the driveway I hit an especially icy spot. On the way down, face forward, limbs spread out, I see the bottom of a broken beer bottle, sharp edges pointed upward.
Somehow I made some body moves that would have put me in any internationally renowned and respected ballet troupe. I managed to land on both hands and knees and limped home.
After struggling for another six weeks with a sore knee and running 120 miles a week I finally broke down and went to see a doctor. And it wasn’t a shrink. He poked and prodded until in desperation he ordered me to lay down on my back on his examination table. He tells me to straighten my legs, takes the closest ankle and proceeds to lift the attached leg until it is at 45 degree angle and I am screaming for mercy, for my dead mother and calling the doctor every word that is four letters long.
He totally disregards me and walks around to the other side of the torture table. I am sweating profusely by this time and living in the future. The immediate future. I brace myself for I know what is going to happen next. He grabs the other ankle and lifts that leg ordering me to stop being a baby, to keep still and to shut the f up. All in a very professional tone I’m sure. The leg goes to about the same angle before he shows a little humanity and lets the ankle and leg crash to the table.
It’s a Stretch
He looks me straight in the eye and says “There’s nothing wrong with your knee”. However, he continues, “You have the hamstring flexibility of a 117-year-old dead person who has been stored in a freezer for the last 23 years. Maybe that’s why your knee hurts. What’s more, you’re in serious need of some psychiatric help, although I doubt if anyone in their right mind will treat you”.
Slowly I’m getting his drift. Maybe stretching once a month could be beneficial. I wouldn’t overdo it. Maybe five minutes one month and build up to six minutes over the next decade. Apparently, my assumption was incorrect. He orders me to stretch for five-to-10 minutes every waking hour until the knee pain goes completely away.
Being an over achiever, I get on it. I go back to work and every hour I do my stretches. On the second day I can’t walk. Give me childbirth in a phone booth, a rusty nail in the eye, pull out my finger nails one by one; anything but more stretching.
Being a compliant patient I call the doctor and beg for mercy. Maybe amputation would be a more suitable alternative? He asked what I’ve been doing. Stretching every hour, just like you told me. It’s the first time in my life I ever got close to following directions. “No, no, no” is the response. Three times a day is good. The doctor explains he tells people to stretch hourly, expecting them to get two to three stretches in a day. Then he asks me whether I’ve seen a shrink yet.
Great. I back off my stretching routine, the people in the office think I’m less crazy than they did a few days ago. Over the next few weeks my knee pain lessens. I reconsider water boarding not to be a viable alternative to running a 120 miles a week. But it’s close. I have to think long and hard to make a decision between those two options.
The net result of this drama is I miss Boston in 1981, but my marathoning that year has more to it.
The ‘Real’ Bob Wallace?
Shortly after the Boston Marathon that I missed I talked to the wife of a runner who ran the race. She asked me how I finished. I told her I didn’t run.
“I heard your name on the radio, you were leading the race at one point,” she explained. So, in the ’80s there wasn’t TV coverage of the Boston Marathon. This was before Al Gore invented the World Wide Web, when telephones where attached to the wall and email wasn’t a word. The Boston Marathon coverage was a few horses and riders with carrier pigeons that they hoped could make it back to the radio station with a note attached to its leg before the gas lanterns were lit. Yes, the good old days.
I repeat, that I was in Omaha freezing my arse off and didn’t run Boston. I blew it off. Maybe there was another Robert Wallace crazy enough to run a marathon. My memory is not great, but I knew I did not run the race.
A few weeks later I get some mail, it has a picture of an old geezer finishing the marathon in four-plus hours and this other person, wearing a number 30, arms stretched up above his head finishing next to him. Did I want to buy a 4X5 photograph of myself finishing this prestigious event? 30, that’s my number, that’s not me. What’s going on?
Not wanting my name in the results at four-plus hours, not wanting my totally unknown reputation to be completely destroyed, I promptly wrote a letter to the Boston Marathon Board, attached the photograph proof of the imposter wearing my number 30 and demanded an explanation of how this criminal could show up, get my race number, lead the race and have my name printed in the results?
A few weeks later I get a response back from Boston, with my unviolated race number and an explanation that the race number in the photograph was a different color from a different race and my name would be removed from the results.
My reputation was reestablished to its prior low, low level. I would be able to walk the streets at 3 a.m. and not be called bad names. There is justice in this world after all. Although not much.
Heading to Duluth
My stretching and a few weeks off training, along with missing Boston in 1981, worked out well in the end. In June that year I travelled to Duluth, Minnesota, and finished third to Dick Beardsley and Garry Bjorklund in a PR of 2:13:14. Of course, by the time I finished, the two of them had showered and had lunch.
Sadly, I was second the year before, improved two to three minutes and still got blown away by those two. The story I heard was that Dick worked for Garry in his running store. As Dick was making his break late in the race Garry reminded Dick of who he worked for and if he wanted a recommendation for his next job. Apparently Dick has very selective hearing especially while running a faster than five-minute mile pace. It happens.
Now we’re done with the warm up, here’s the 1982 Boston Marathon as seen through my eyes with a little color thrown in to keep it interesting. Try your best to stay awake.
The race has been called the Duel in the Sun, of which I played no part, in the competitive portion of the event.
In those days the Boston Marathon started at noon. The qualifying time was 2:50 for men and 3:20 for women. Boston didn’t care how old you were. If you were a 97-year-old woman, you had to run a 3:20 marathon or faster to qualify. Age groups be damned.
Being a sponsored Adidas runner they had arranged housing near the starting line as well as transportation.
Bob and Grete
The late Grete Waitz was the star of the marathon in those days. She pretty much won every race she entered. The Adidas athletes waited outside our hotel and two large station wagons (woodies) pulled up. Grete, husband Jack and an Adidas kingpin get in the first vehicle and it takes off in a cloud of exhaust fumes. About 12 of us scramble into the second wagon.
I, along with one other participant, get the luxury of being stuffed into the luggage section in the fetal position for our hour-plus journey to the start area. My hamstrings were not concerned in the least.
Upon arrival at our pre-start housing us second class runners were ushered down to the basement while Grete, Jack and the Adidas big boys enjoyed a light breakfast, TV and comfortable seating upstairs. The downstairs dwellers, which soon grew to about 30, just stood in line sharing the one bathroom. You got your business done, flushed and went to the back of the line. It was a great way to warm up for a major marathon. Not that I am still bitter some 35 years later. No bitterness at all. Not one little bit. Ask my shrink.
But it was better than what most of the participants were offered.
Shortly before noon we were summoned outside and led to the starting line. Grete was of great assistance here. As our group made our way, runners and spectators would turn to see what the commotion was about, they would see Grete and take a couple of steps backwards and the rest of us would file past hurriedly. It was fun viewing it from behind.
Us “elites” had a special roped of section behind the start line where we could stretch a little or whatever you do before racing as fast as your tight skinny legs would move for 26.2 miles.
I have a few memories from standing around in the coral before the marathon started. Firstly, I saw Holly W., who was a half-miler at UTEP when I was there. I was surprised to see him at the start of this race especially. That’s quite a jump from the 800 to a marathon. In college I didn’t regard Holly as an especially smart student. Like running a marathon was evidence of high intelligence. But in college if he was told to run the first 400 in 52 and then sprint home he would do it to the extent of his physical ability. Usually that meant a split of 54 and walking home in 68. But he never questioned what he was told to do. We caught up for a few moments.
Then an unknown runner started talking to me about the race, if I had run it before, did I know the course, what was my mother’s maiden name. All the usual stuff that fills your time before a race. He warned me of all the downhills in the first 10 miles and to make sure I didn’t go out too fast. I assured him I’d take it easy at the start.
Then I saw Bill Rodgers, who I had met in Omaha and jogged over the Pepsi 10K course the day before the event. He was a headliner for that series and raced nearly every weekend across the nation. He greeted me, remembered my name, which impressed me, and we spoke for a couple of seconds. Nice bloke, great personality.
Eventually we were called to the start. I’m already feeling the sun and probably getting sunburnt. Hydration wasn’t a big deal back in the day. In fact, I can remember that the national and international marathons were not allowed to have water stops until after the first 15K. Such were the rules made up by officials in three-piece suits who smoked and most likely never ran a step in their lives.
Anyway, the ropes came down and the gun was fired and off we go, downhill. At the 10-mile mark, the clock showed at 49:50, I felt a tap on my shoulder and my unknown friend from the start line says “I told you not to go out too fast.” I still don’t know who he was and have never seen him again. I should have listened to his advice. A little late now. In retrospect he was pretty smart; especially for a marathon runner.
One of the few other parts of the race I remember clearly is running up Heartbreak Hill. I looked up and literally couldn’t see where I was supped to run. The hot weather brought out everyone with their BBQ’s and beer and obviously crowd control wasn’t a high priority. But then again with those qualifying times who needs crowd control?
Luckily, a motor cycle cop came to my rescue and led me up the hills. I’ve never been so grateful to suck exhaust fumes for three miles instead of oxygen. It was the only way I could have fought my way through the crowds. At some stage, around 20 miles, my police escort ends and I’m left on my own. Apparently the three-piece suiters had the wisdom to place a few miles of crowd control barriers.
By this time I would have been happy to have been part of the crowd. My legs were shot, my quads no longer working, and my hamstrings even shorter than when I was four-foot tall. I’m dehydrated, sunburned and seeing images of giraffes walking on lakes filled with milk. My give a shitter has given up, I just wanted to finish and get the torture over and done with.
21 Miles and Counting
At the 21-mile mark I’m looking for the finish line knowing full well it’s not going to be around the next corner. Of course, the crowd is encouraging me with “you’re almost there” and other such lies. If I had the energy I would have told them what they were full of, but I’m out of energy.
I continue to shuffle between the barricades and the crowds, stumbling and tripping over the invisible cracks in the road. I don’t remember stopping at any of the aid stations. I was completely out of fuel. WTF, it’s the Boston Marathon.
Finally, with a set of borrowed binoculars, I saw the finish line and sprinted towards it at a snail’s pace. Let me tell you, those snails can really move. They are fast. I don’t care what you believe.
Somehow I finished and made a sharp right turn towards the refreshments and medical professionals in a multi-level parking garage. The first person I see is Alberto Salazar laying in a kid’s wading pool covered in ice. That’s what you get for running so fast. Me, on the other hand, am covered in sunburned skin. That’s what you get for running so slow.
Not wanting any of the hot chowder that Boston is famous for giving to the finishers, I make my way towards the hotel where I know the Adidas big wigs will be in a room with air conditioning and frosty beverages.
I enter the hotel lobby in my sweaty running gear, number still safety pinned to my top. I wait for an elevator, get in with some hotel guests who give me more room than I require and head to the desired floor. I’ve been finished probably 10 minutes.
Off I get and head down the hallway to the Adidas room. Coming my way I see a cart full of dirty sheets and towels. I know this thing is not on remote control. As it pulls up beside me I see a short lady dressed in all white who is pushing the cart. She stops. She looks at me. Here I am, sunburned, sweaty, and dressed in my running gear. I smell worse than the cart she is pushing.
“Did you run in the race today?” she asks. (Obviously she’s not going to be hired as a detective anytime soon.)
“Yes” I reply excitedly.
“How did you do?”
By this time I’ve got a shit eating grin from one ear to the other.
“I finished ninth!” I reply, mustering as much excitement as I could under the circumstance without doing cartwheels and dancing up and down.
Without a change in facial expression or tone of voice she responds, “Better luck next year.” Turns away and proceeds down the hallway with her cart.
Apparently it’s hard to impress some people. WTF!!!!! Really? I’d run my guts out and the first person I’ve actually spoken to is totally unimpressed with my efforts. “Better luck next year.” For crying out loud, which I don’t make a habit of doing in public. Ninth at the Boston Marathon. May all your towels be covered in irremovable stains.
Better Luck Next Year?
As you may or may not know, I’m not the most emotionally stable person in the world. Ask any shrink who has attempted to treat me. All have failed, miserably. Ask even the ones I’ve put into retirement or better still put into a padded cell.
But the “Better luck next year” comment put me immediately into a deep dark depression. I’m on the 17th floor of a hotel, a couple of paces from my shoe sponsor’s room and I’ve just been slammed by the cleaning lady for only finishing ninth at the Boston Marathon. Until 30 seconds ago I thought I was set for life. I’d make millions, be on the cover of Rolling Stone and maybe do a few TV commercials. But no, I probably couldn’t get a job pushing dirty sheets down the hallway at some overpriced hotel for $3.20 an hour according to this lady.
My mind starts racing. What excuses can I come up with for finishing only ninth at Boston? I’m seconds away from meeting up with the Adidas monkeys.
I didn’t hear the starting gun.
I usually start with my right foot forward, this time I started with my left. It didn’t work.
I got squeezed off my spot on the starting line and had to start on the second row.
I missed my drink at 12.7 miles and couldn’t recover.
I had to stop and wait for more runners at Wellesley College because I was afraid of being attacked by the screaming teenage girls.
I ran off course and did an extra seven miles.
I had to reapply sunscreen.
I thought I was in eighth. Someone must have taken a short cut.
I had to face the consequences. Head down, depressed, devastated, I shuffled as quietly as I could into the Adidas room. Nobody even turned around. They were either busy counting shoe brands of finishers or drinking frosty brews. They probably thought I was the cleaning lady. I picked up my stuff. As I was leaving the room someone said to me “You know, we call you The Phantom.”
“Because you show up at races, run and leave. You never talk to anyone. Just show up, run and leave.” I left the room. I did not say a word.
The next year Adidas came out with a running shoe named the Phantom. It was the lousiest piece of shit I’d ever put on my feet. I never asked if it was named in my honor, because I didn’t talk to people.
So this is one of the many reasons I’m the way I am today; a cynical, skeptical, piece of work with a chip on my shoulder. My Boston trophy, a unicorn on its back legs, is in the basement; hidden from view so I don’t have to relive the whole humiliating story again. It’s one of the few running trophies I have kept.
I have written this account of my experience of the Boston Marathon to clear up the stories that have been passed along over the years.
I dedicate this story to the two coaches I had over the years, the late Roy Whitehead in Australia, who started my running journey, and Ted Banks, my college coach. Ted memorably yelled at me across the track as I fell off the pace during a workout, “Have a little pride in yourself Wallace!” Such fond memories made me the runner I am.
For the record, I only ran Boston once.
My sincere gratitude to Rebecca for her editing skills and patience.
Bob Wallace is the founder of Run On! In Texas and co-author “Running Your Bucket List Marathon.”