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Veteran timers remember past Boston Marathons

Marathon workers give the official word at finish line

Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe

From left, Kevin O’Malley, David J. Ryan, and John Connelly in their BAA finish-line jackets.

Just like horseplayers remembering a long-ago Kentucky Derby, everyone claims to have had the winner.

It was April 17, 2000, a day that would go down in Boston Marathon history for its tight finishes. Elijah Lagat of Kenya won the men’s race by less than a second, edging out Ethiopian Gezahegne Abera. Lagat clearly won, but both men finished with a time of 2:09:47, making it the closest men’s finish in Boston Marathon history.

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Catherine Ndereba of Kenya won the women’s open division, but two other runners coming down Boylston Street were neck-and-neck for second place. Irina Bogacheva of Kyrgyzstan appeared to pass the fading Fatuma Roba of Ethiopia at the line. Or did she?

The crowd at the finish line, those watching on TV or listening on radio, and especially the two women for whom prize money and prestige were on the line all wanted to know: Who was second?

Roba’s foot actually crossed the line first, but under the rules of track and field, the runner whose torso - as distinguished from the head, neck, arms, hands, legs, or feet - crosses the line first is the winner, and Bogacheva got the nod, though both timed in 2:26:27.

“I can remember [race official] Tommy Meagher running up to us at the finish line and wanting to know who was second,’’ said Kevin O’Malley, 66, of Gloucester, a retired track and cross country coach at Needham and Somerville high schools who has worked the marathon since 1974 and will be a timer for the men‘s open division Monday.

“My recollection is that we all picked the right woman,’’ said John “Tinker’’ Connelly, 84, of Needham, a former Northeastern baseball coach who has been working the marathon since 1984. “Later on, they found a photo confirming we had it right.’’

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Dave Ryan of Billerica, 77, a third member of the timing crew, a veteran of 45 BAA marathons, and a former Northeastern runner who worked in security at New England Medical Center, is less sure.

“I recall it as a split decision, but the majority ruled, and we did it get right, as the photo later showed.’’

O’Malley, Connelly, and Ryan, longtime members of the Mass. Track and Field Officials Association, have seen myriad changes, including electronic timing and an explosion in the size of the field. There were 1,014 runners in 1968, the first year the field was more than 1,000. This year there will be about 27,000 official runners.

Two of the officials - O’Malley and Ryan - were at the finish line for the marathon’s most infamous finish in 1980, when Rosie Ruiz emerged seemingly from nowhere to be the first woman to cross the finish line. It took several days before it was determined that Jacqueline Gareau of Canada has actually won the race in 2:34.28. Ruiz had dropped out early, took a trolley to a spot about a mile from the finish, then jogged in.

“I was standing at the finish line when she came in and then the state troopers escorted her over to the awards stand,’’ said Ryan.

“She was scared stiff - she thought she was being arrested. She had no idea she had won.’’

Ryan theorized that Ruiz had just intended to get a high finish without attracting a lot of scrutiny and actually overshot her mark.

The incident spurred many changes, including visual checkpoints of the leaders all along the race course to make sure a similar incident couldn’t happen again.

Connelly, who coached the Northeastern baseball team for 35 years and is a member of both the NU Hall of Fame and the College Baseball Hall of Fame, grew up as an all-around athlete in Newton and has fond memories of watching the marathon as a young boy, including Ellison (Tarzan) Brown storming down Commonwealth Avenue in 1939 on his way to a course record.

“I can remember everyone waiting for the great Clarence DeMar to come by,’’ said Connelly about the seven-time winner of the race.

After he retired from NU in 1981, watching his daughter run track in high school rekindled his interest in the sport.

He began working the marathon in 1984. He enjoys the excitement and the chaos, and he learned quickly how to call the finishers correctly.

“You can’t be off at an angle,’’ he said. “You have to be right even with the finish line.’’

All three officials go back to the days when officials would give out the numbers on the morning of the race, jump on a bus to get ahead of the runners after the start, then stop at designated checkpoints such as Ashland, Framingham, and the Wellesley Center fire station.

Electronic timing and microchips planted in running shoes have made it possible to track any runner along the route.

The human element has largely been removed, although race rules still require the use of hand-held timers as a back-up to the electronic timing.

With technology has come certitude and the ability for many thousands of people to enjoy the experience of the Boston Marathon, but at times Ryan still longs for the simplicity of bygone days.

“I really enjoyed it when we gave out the numbers that morning, when we stopped at the checkpoints, and our times were the ones that counted.’’

Rich Fahey can be reached at fahey.rich2@gmail.com

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