After 30 years, the memories don’t flood back. They flash by in random snapshots. As 1983 Boston Marathon champion Greg Meyer said, “Most of what I remember is weird stuff.”
Meyer vividly recalls how a German shepherd and Doberman pinscher nearly fought in front of the lead pack. He still can see the German shepherd’s owner letting go of the leash as the leaders approached the 10-mile mark. To avoid the dog, the lead pack swerved to the right. Also, Meyer remembers his overexcited training partner, Tim Donovan, charging out of the crowd around 24.5 miles pointing east and shouting, “You’ve got to [expletive] run that a way!”
Before setting a world record of 2 hours 22 minutes 43 seconds in the 1983 women’s race, Joan Benoit Samuelson remembers looking at a pace chart and thinking 2:26 was challenging. During the race, Samuelson recalls seeing her 10-mile split of 51:38 and thinking, “Whoa, I’m feeling this good and I’m running that fast.” Then, there was the Boston University track team she coached cheering from the roof of a T station in Brookline.
Samuelson doesn’t remember much about the finish because she was “so shocked” by her time. Meyer recalls turning onto Ring Road and having “a sense that in some ways your life would never be the same again.” It would be true for both winners.
Celebrating the 30th anniversaries of their 1983 Boston Marathon victories, Meyer and Samuelson will run the race again Monday morning, joining the masses at the Hopkinton start. And as they cover the course, Meyer and Samuelson will remind spectators and fellow runners of a much different era in Marathon history. The last time two Americans reigned as the men’s and women’s champions was in 1983. Meyer remains the last American man to win Boston.
Looking back, Meyer calls the 1983 race “the high water mark of American male distance running” and cites 84 mostly American runners under 2:20. Today, it’s tough to imagine a time when two local runners who lived and trained in the Boston area stood atop the podium.
“It’s hard to put into words what it means to win Boston,” says Meyer. “You can’t even dream that 30 years later that’s what people will remember. I could have gone on to be President, but they’d say, ‘Yeah, but he won the Boston Marathon.’ It’s the strangest thing, but it’s the power of the race. I don’t think the Americans fully understand its power. If they did, they would dedicate more of their life to winning this.”
When the gun goes off Monday morning, Meyer and Samuelson will take very different approaches to Boylston Street. Meyer, 57, will run with his two sons at a comfortable pace, while Samuelson, 55, will try for a fast finish. Or, as Meyer says, “Joanie’s always got to have a time in mind. I just want to be done by dinner.”
Samuelson does have an ambitious time in mind. The decades since she set the world record in Boston haven’t diminished her competitive intensity.
“For me, marathoning is all about the story,” says Samuelson. “If I can tell a story, then I’ll go out and run a marathon. So, it’s the 30th anniversary. To go out there and run within 30 minutes of my world-record time 30 years later tells a story. Obviously, I’d love to do that. That’s a tall order for me.
“In 2008 at the Olympic trials, which I thought was going to be my last competitive race, I said, ‘All I want to do is break 2:50 at the age of 50.’ I was able to achieve that goal. It’s five years later and I’m trying to run within two minutes of that time. Obviously, I’d love to tell that story, but I know when you look at everything on paper and where I’ve been in the last couple weeks with my training, trying to push it as hard as I can without going over the edge, I was taking a risk. We’ll see what happens. But I realize that [30-minute difference] is almost a pipe dream.”
To her advantage, Samuelson feels at home on the course, just as she did 30 years ago. In 1983, she started out at a 2:17 marathon pace, setting checkpoint records all along the way. Samuelson reached the finish more than two minutes ahead of the previous world record and nearly seven minutes ahead of runner-up Jacqueline Gareau of Canada. She would follow her record-setting Boston with a gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and become an icon of women’s distance running.
Meyer’s 1983 Boston win and his life afterward unfolded differently than Samuelson’s. Meyer ran away from Benji Durden on Heartbreak Hill and covered the final 5 miles alone. Meyer won in 2:09:00, then the third-fastest time ever on the course. Like Samuelson, Meyer seemed poised for more distance running success. But his Boston victory tripped up his career, rather than set the stage for future marathon glory.
“The immediate aftermath was everybody thought I was a marathoner,” says Meyer, who is now vice president for institutional advancement at Aquinas College in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich. “So, I’m getting invited to all these marathons. It was the kiss of death for me athletically. I wasn’t a marathoner. I ran a couple of good ones, but I was big. I was 150 pounds. Billy [Rodgers] was 126 pounds soaking wet. And the Kenyans are 115, 120 pounds. The marathon and the marathon training beat me up differently than it beat them up.
“Once I got on this marathon merry-go-round, it beat me up to the point where I wasn’t as good a runner as I used to be. Had I taken a break after Boston, and it’s all hindsight, I would have done much better and possibly could have come back some year and won again. But you don’t know any better back then. You have to be careful with the marathon. I learned that too late.”
But like Samuelson, Meyer formed great friendships through running and continues to enjoy the sport. He just limits his marathons to every five years on the major anniversaries of his Boston win. The past two years, Meyer has taken time to coach John Hancock’s charity runners. And this winter they helped keep his training for today’s race on track with scheduled long runs on the Boston course. And he hopes to be back running Boston five, 10, 15 years from now.
But while Meyer appreciates the opportunities that come with the mantle of last American man to win Boston, he hopes to shed that title soon. He believes current marathoners Ryan Hall and Dathan Ritzenhein have the talent to win in Boston. He looks forward to when Galen Rupp transitions from the 10,000 meters to the marathon.
“My close friends tease me and say, ‘Oh, it’s part of his name now. Greg ‘the last American to win Boston’ Meyer,” says Meyer. “I’m so looking forward to an American winning again. I would love to see somebody win Boston. And it will be great for our sport. I think it will motivate the next generation of young runners who will say, ‘Yeah, we can do it. We can run with the Kenyans.’ I can’t wait for the day.”
Samuelson is excited by the prospects of Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher. The 1983 champ would love to watch what transpires with the elite women’s field Monday.
As for her future, Samuelson will be back on the Boston course again. She hopes to return for her 35th and 40th anniversaries. Eight years from now, she would like to run in the 125th Boston.
“I consider myself blessed and fortunate to have been able to enjoy the longevity of my career,” said Samuelson. “I never dreamed I’d ever be around running 26.2 miles somewhat competitively 30 years later. But I really think this will be the last time I’ll try to beat the clock. The marathon is truly a metaphor for life and you never know what’s around the next bend.”Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.