1981 Boston Marathon: The story of runner 4646

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text. All rights reserved.

I wrote this column for the Norwich (Connecticut) Bulletin, where I worked as a sportswriter in 1981. I was about four years into my career then. Looking back, I might have made a few changes to the text and I’ve added a few clarifications in brackets, but the sentiments hold up over time. Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos from the race. I’m running the column here as a tribute to the person profiled, to all Boston Marathoners past and present, and to the supportive crowds. The 121st edition of the race was run today, April 17.

Runner number 4646 crossed the finish line almost two hours after Toshihiko Seko set a [course] record Monday [April 20, 1981] in the 85th Boston Marathon.

By then the crowds along Boylston Street had thinned considerably. A few remained long enough to see 73-year-old Johnny Kelley cross the finish line in his 50th straight Boston Marathon. But the majority who were left were waiting for friends or loved ones.

Some were waiting for both.

It had grown colder as the afternoon stretched toward dusk. In about an hour, a gentle rain would begin to fall.

Runner 4646 followed the other runners as they hobbled into the garage area underneath the Prudential Center. Hours before members of the press swarmed in an anxious cluster here to record the comments of Seko and New Zealand’s Allison Roe, the women’s winner, who also set a [course] record.

At times the remarks of the winners were rendered inaudible by the static rustling of 500 mylar blankets, a silver aluminum foil-type of wrap designed to retain body heat.

By now just about all the reporters were gone, sending stories across the world about this country’s oldest marathon. Mostly, there were just other runners around when runner 4646 found a person dispensing mylar blankets.

[Japan’s] Seko and Roe had won their titles, worn their laurel wreaths and medals, been embraced by the media horde and had left.

This runner, a bit hoarse from the exertion of the race and tired-looking, was never in contention for the awards. He wasn’t even one of the 6,845 official entrants. But finishing the race was as meaningful to him as everyone else who managed to cross the line after starting in Hopkinton 26 miles, 385 feet away to the west.

He was running as part of the American Medical Joggers Association, a group of doctors and dentists that hold a race in conjunction with the marathon, that also provides medical assistance along the route and at the finish.

The time of 4:07 [four hours, seven minutes] and some seconds he couldn’t remember exactly was not the runner’s personal best. That had come in 1979 with a 3:39, the first time the 55-year-old had run Boston.

Perhaps a bit disappointed this spring’s time had not been faster, he said he had trouble getting his pace.

“It’s easy to set a nice pace and to glide when you know there are no obstructions or people to worry about, whereas in a marathon there are people all over the place,” he said Tuesday morning after reading that [American runner] Craig Virgin, who finished second to Seko, had been bumped along the way by an enthusiastic crowd.

This was the runner’s ninth marathon, a large accomplishment for one who had only taken up distance running four years previously.

It began one day near his home in Coral Gables, a suburb of Miami, Fla., when he saw runners in the Orange Bowl Marathon bouncing down the road.

He said to himself, “Next year I’m going to run with those guys.”

And so he began his training. At first it was five miles in the morning at the nearby University of Miami track before going to his office.

“Then I went to 10 miles and I thought I was Superman. I was amazed I could travel that distance. I used to carry dimes and move them from one pocket to the other to keep track of the laps.”

Forty dimes, enough for the 10 miles, made a considerable weight in his tennis shorts, a sport he had played for years and still does.

“I had always done a mile or two after tennis, but before it became a national craze it never occurred to me to do long-distance running.

“Then I graduated to street running,” he said, mapping out a scenic route near his home, which took him down a bicycle path under the shade of the huge banyon trees which line the streets.

The distance kept growing and soon the runner entered his first marathon, recalling, “I’m a competitive person by nature. I thought it would be a nice achievement. It was a physical challenge. Like the old saying, the mountain was there and I had to climb it.”

His first marathon was on a hot, humid mid-January day in Florida. The course began at the Orange Bowl near downtown Miami from where it took its name, and passed by the spot [where] the runner had seen the competitors a year earlier.

His time on that sultry Florida day was 4:34.

He kept up his training with middle distance runs and races, shedding 20 pounds from his six-foot frame to come down to 180. Although never heavy, the weight he had put on over the years had vanished.

In retrospect, running marathons is a great deal of fun, but while you’re doing it, there are other adjectives that might apply.

Some claim that marathoners are crazy. Others say they are special.

Runner 4646? He’s special. He’s my father.

A touching gesture, days after the race

My words and photo appeared from top to bottom down the left-hand column on the front page of the Bulletin’s Sports section on Wednesday, April 22. The Boston Marathon is always run on a Monday, and my overall coverage of the 85th race appeared in the Tuesday paper.

A few days later, the sports editor — my boss — told me that the publisher wanted to see me in his office. I had been working at the Bulletin for only about three months, and in the normal execution of my job, I would have little to no contact with the publisher.

My editor didn’t give anything away.

As a fairly new employee, I couldn’t think of anything I had done that would warrant this meeting, and wondered if I was going to be cautioned or reprimanded about something. Or was my job on the line?

The Norwich Bulletin, established in 1791, was at that time family-owned. Its daily circulation was 36,000, and on Sundays, 42,000. A chain owns it now and its circulation numbers have tumbled, like many newspapers around the country as digital has come to the forefront.

The sports editor, Tom Perry, had hired me away from the newspaper I was working at in North Dakota, The Minot Daily News. We had met at a summer youth baseball national tournament we were covering in Williston, N.D., and shortly after he got back to Connecticut, he offered me a job. He was willing to wait several months until I gave notice, took an already-booked vacation to Australia and New Zealand and relocated to Connecticut.

So I hadn’t met the Bulletin’s editor or co-publishers in an interview situation as a condition of my being hired.

I don’t remember the layout of the Bulletin building now, but I know I walked from the newsroom through a hallway and possibly through the press room.

When I got to co-publisher Donald Oat’s office, there was a brief greeting and he handed me a plaque.

It was a copy of my article about Runner 4646 on a gray metal plate, squared off over three columns, and mounted on a sturdy piece of dark wood. I was floored at this kind gesture, and even though I’m sure I thanked him, I’m also sure that whatever I said was inadequate.

It was, simply, the single nicest thing that anyone in management ever did for me over a newspaper career that spanned 35 years.

I gave the plaque to my father. It used to hang on the den wall in Coral Gables. When he died in 2006, I brought it to Georgia.

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