10 former Boston Marathon champions talk about their wins and what they’re up to now
Since the Boston Marathon first was staged in 1897, the world’s most fabled footrace has gone through numerous transitions and has had significant breakthroughs. With the 122nd edition starting Monday morning, the Globe asked 10 notable former champions about how they remember their triumphant moments here and what they’re doing now.
It took 25 years, but the actual winner of the 1980 women’s race formally received the recognition and rewards that she’d been deprived of on the day — the laurel wreath, the gold medal, the Canadian anthem, and the roar of the crowd at the finish. “This is like closure,” Jacqueline Gareau said in 2005 after she was honored as the race’s grand marshal and covered the course in an automobile.
By now, the 65-year-old Gareau is a bit surprised that people still are talking about the “Rosie Ruiz” race and the fraudster who was mistakenly crowned champion instead of Gareau, who’d set a course record that day. “Sometimes I think people don’t want to hear about it any more,” she says. “But it’s good that people remember that story because they do remember that I won Boston. So that’s kind of nice.”
The former respiratory therapist who began running to stop smoking went on to have a notable career with two runner-up efforts in Boston, a fifth place at the 1983 world championships, and an Olympic appearance in Los Angeles. Her career ended at 39 when she became pregnant with son Yannick. “He’s still my baby,” she says. “It goes quick.”
While she still runs for exercise and enjoyment, it’s just one part of her varied exercise regimen. “It is my happy time — when I train, when I bike, when I snowshoe, when I cross-country ski, when I swim in my lake,” says Gareau, who lives in the Laurentides, the Quebec region where she was born. “Every time I’m outside I’m a happy girl.”
Her vocation now is massage therapy, which she took up in 2005. “I love it,” says Gareau. “It’s a way for me to help people achieve wellness. It’s a way to feel connected — the spirit, the heart, the body. Everything goes together.”
Besides conducting running and walking clinics, Gareau also gives lectures on the theme “Balancing for Global Health.” “All my secrets and wisdom,” she says. “It’s important for people to know what I did good, what I didn’t do good, so that they can go forward better.”
For the first century, the men’s victors here came from every corner of the globe but one. But when Kenya’s Ibrahim Hussein nipped Tanzania’s Juma Ikangaa in 1988 by one second in what was then the closest finish in race history, Africa made an emphatic statement that still is resonating three decades later.
Since Hussein crossed the line in Copley Square, Africans have won here all but three times. In 20 of those years, the winner, including defending champion Geoffrey Kirui, has come from Kenya. His Boston breakthrough “introduced the Kenyans into serious marathoning,” says Hussein, who ran the steeplechase at the University of New Mexico. “There were some Kenyans who had been good before but they had not won a race like Boston or New York. So when I won, the Kenyans really believed that we could run the marathon. We were good in cross-country, 5K, 10K, steeplechase, so none of them were really serious about the marathon. I think I brought that revolution.”
After their photo finish, Hussein and Ikangaa were determined to break the world record in 1990. “But in the middle of the race I tore my Achilles’ and I dropped out of the race,” Hussein says. “The doctor told me I’ll never run again. I went home and I was so sad.”
After three months of recuperating he resumed training and by winter was back on track. Still, he returned in 1991 with modest expectations. “I went to the start line and I wanted to finish and do well,” he says, “but not to win.”
Hussein won by 16 seconds and returned the following year to win by more than two minutes in the second-fastest time (2:08:14) in race annals and burst into tears on the podium. “It was very satisfying and very emotional because I think now I am back,” he recalls. “It was an Olympic year. It was maybe the most satisfying for me.”
Since Hussein first showed the way to the Back Bay, the prestige of winning here has become paramount for his countrymen. “Boston is the ultimate marathon so for me to have the honor of winning it, it was something that really changed my life,” says Hussein, who now heads an international training center in Nairobi. “Everybody respects Boston. It is a marathon which began almost the same time as the Olympics and it has continued all those years. For people in Kenya, when you talk about marathons, Boston is No. 1.”
He had won the Olympic silver medal in Atlanta in the closest finish ever and was voted No. 1 in the world in 1996. But it was his startling victory in Boston in 2001 that put Lee Bong-Ju on the global map.
The Kenyans had won in Boston for so long that the race could have been considered their intramural championship. So when Lee broke the tape in Copley Square and ended their 10-year hammerlock on the men’s title it was a breakthrough that reverberated around the planet.
“I have profound memories of winning the Boston Marathon,” Lee, the first Korean victor in more than a half-century and the first Asian winner in 14 years, said through interpreter James Lee. “I was not prepared well physically for the race because my father passed away not long before. I was emotionally drained but mentally strong and wanted to offer my winning medal to my deceased father.”
Lee’s triumph at 30 was a catalyst for a late-career surge. He competed in two more Olympics and won the Seoul Marathon at 37 in 2 hours, 8 minutes, and 4 seconds. At 47, his race card still is full — this year he’ll run marathons in Guam, Macau, Taipei, Amsterdam, and New York. Besides working as a radio and TV broadcaster and a writer for sports journals, Lee also coaches, lectures, and runs weekend races to help promote those events.
“I treasure both the Boston Marathon and Atlanta Olympics and I consider them equally important,” Lee says. “Because I will not be where I am right now without these two races.”
ROB de CASTELLA
The Los Angeles Olympics had not gone the way that he’d hoped they would, with Rob de Castella placing fifth after coming in as world champion and favorite. Boston seemed an attractive place for a bit of redemption in 1986, particularly since the world’s most fabled footrace was offering cash prizes for the first time. So the sturdy and affable Australian turned up in Hopkinton, demolished Alberto Salazar’s course record by more than a minute, and initiated the race’s professional era with a thunderclap.
“It was an amazing experience for me,” says de Castella, who won by more than three minutes in 2 hours, 7 minutes, and 51 seconds, the third-fastest global time ever. “To come back and run so well in Boston was an incredibly proud experience for me. And I was proud that I could be involved in the revitalization of the Boston Marathon.”
Like most of the world’s elite distance runners, de Castella had seen little point in competing in a race, however storied, that offered its victors only a laurel wreath, a medal, and a bowl of beef stew.
“Through the Seventies and Eighties you had Billy Rodgers and Joanie running so well there but Boston had slipped in terms of its significance because the other city marathons had embraced the commercial realities of the sport, the modern era,” he says. “Boston was still in the past.”
De Castella’s triumph, which reportedly brought him more than $200,000 in prize money and sponsor bonuses plus a Mercedes-Benz, ushered in the race’s global era and prompted the arrival of the Africans who’ve dominated the race for three decades. “Deek,” as he was universally known, ran for another half-dozen years, competed in two more Olympics, then labored through the 1993 London race and retired. “I’m still recovering from London,” he jokes.
His running focus now is the Indigenous Marathon Foundation, a project that he began eight years ago as a search for the country’s next great distance runner, preparing four Aboriginal men to compete in the New York race. It since has evolved into a program that uses running as a vehicle to celebrate indigenous achievement and resilience and to promote pride and self-worth in the athletes, their families, and their communities. One of those runners, Zibeon Fielding, will compete in Boston on Monday.
De Castella also owns a health food company (“Deeks”) that promotes a grain-free “ancestral” diet. While he still runs daily, it’s just one part of his health and fitness regimen. His athletic passion now is Okinawan Goju karate, where he’s a fourth-level black belt who runs his own dojo.
“I grew up in the Bruce Lee era,” the 61-year-old de Castella says. “I loved racing in Japan. I had some of my best races there. I loved the samurai commitment and values and culture, the bushido way of living. That resonated with me. When I retired from running my body was pretty beaten up. I needed to do something to find a bit more balance and work more on flexibility and agility and upper-body strength and movement. It connected with me and I’ve been very passionate about it for nearly 20 years.”
She was at the forefront when women’s marathoning went global. Portugal’s Rosa Mota won the first international race, the European title, on the original Marathon-to-Athens course in 1982. She was the bronze medalist in the inaugural Olympic event in 1984. “Boston was the academic degree I lacked as an international marathon expert,” she says. So Mota did it in triplicate, becoming the first female in the official era to win here three times.
“Apart from the major championships my achievement in Boston is probably the most pleasant and important memory of my career,” says Mota, who also collected the 1987 world crown and the Olympic gold medal in 1988 as well as three European titles and the London and Chicago laurels.
Mota’s 1987 victory here produced the third-fastest time (2 hours, 25 minutes, 21 seconds) in race history. Her triumphs in 1988 and 1990 were by margins of 4:56 (2:24:30) and 2:39 (2:25:24).
“Although in my entire career I have always run exclusively to win and have never cared about the times, my performances in Boston have been better than at first sight may seem,” she observes. “Not if we simply look at the chrono.”
Mota won 14 of 21 marathons in her decade-long career and her overflowing trophy case makes her one of the all-time top five at the distance. But she has special fondness for the Boston experience. “It is its history since 1897,” she says. “It is the affection and the knowledge that the people of Boston have for the marathon. It is the girls of Wellesley. It is the Portuguese who have always supported me from Hopkinton to the finish line.”
Mota, known as “A nossa Rosinha” (“Our little Rose”) in her homeland, still serves as a role model for her fellow citizens. “I have tried to do what I have always done,” she says. “To promote the well-being of the Portuguese through physical exercise and some warnings about health in general.”
After years of participating in charity races or fun runs with friends and a couple of competitive efforts last year, the 59-year-old Mota now enjoys competing against herself and recently broke 40 minutes for 10K. “I was very, very happy — and injured,” she says. “One day when I recover I’ll have to run Boston again.”
Before she became Catherine The Great, she was a 26-mile rookie on the starting line in Hopkinton at the end of the millennium, wondering whether or not she could go the distance. “It’s not like I don’t respect any other race,” Catherine Ndereba says. “I respect all of them but I respect Boston with a special aspect because that is where I did my debut marathon. That is where I was given a chance to exercise my talent and I was able to prove that, yes, I can be a good marathoner.”
Ndereba, who halted Fatuma Roba’s three-year reign in 2000, went on to win Boston a record four times, adding titles in 2001, 2004, and 2005. She also collected a pair of world crowns, a brace of Olympic silver medals, and set a world record (2 hours, 18 minutes, and 47 seconds) in Chicago. “But Boston has its own place in my heart,” she says.
While her countrymen had dominated here for more than a dozen years, no Kenyan woman had broken the tape in Copley Square until Ndereba did. “I thank God that He used me as an example to others,” she says. “Because they got a lot of confidence that, yes, if Catherine can be able to do it then I can be able to do it also.”
Seven of Ndereba’s countrywomen have prevailed here since her initial victory, most recently Edna Kiplagat last year. While her margins customarily were comfortable, a couple of her triumphs weren’t decided until the final mile. “I can’t count that I was the very best person because each and every year when I used to come I believed that there were so many others,” she says. “But it is just by God’s grace and favor that I was able to win.”
The 45-year-old Ndereba, who lives in Nairobi, ran her last competitive marathon three years ago. “I didn’t fare very well,” she says. “I was coming back from an injury.” These days she runs between 5 and 10 kilometers every other day but would like to return to the roads for a good cause.
“It’s possible that I’ll come to Boston and many other races that I used to do, for charity,” she says. “I want to have a foundation whereby I am going to do something for the society. That is what I am looking to do now.”
The first female to officially win here three times in a row defers to the first woman who unofficially did it. “In my humble opinion, Bobbi Gibb (1966-68) was the first to win three consecutive Boston Marathons,” says Uta Pippig. “I am honored to have followed in her footsteps.” When Pippig, the daughter of East German physicians, claimed the laurel wreath in Copley Square each year from 1994-96, women’s marathoning had come to full flower and Pippig, voted No. 1 in the world in two of those years, was the sport’s smiling face.
Though she broke Joan Benoit Samuelson’s course record with her first victory (2 hours, 21 minutes, and 45 seconds), Pippig is particularly proud of her third one in the 1996 race centennial, where she ran down leader Tegla Loroupe despite visibly suffering from ischemic colitis that put her in the hospital after the race. “I really did not think I still could win,” she recalls. “But you know the enthusiastic, most supportive New England fans . . . they helped me to overcome my adversity that day.”
While the 52-year-old Pippig still can go the distance — she completed Boston on two days’ notice in 2016 and ran Berlin last year — she prefers shorter outings these days. “It is such a joy to run a race here and there,” she says. “Not much planned, depending where I am.”
Pippig’s main focus in her post-competitive days has been her “Take The Magic Step” Foundation, which promotes gradual lifestyle changes and whose local charity partners include the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Team Hoyt. “Our events take us to beautiful people and places in support of children in need that these charities work with,” she says. Her “Running to Freedom” lectures describe her journey from medical student to champion marathoner after the Berlin Wall came down in 1990.
Pippig remains peripatetic, spending time in Berlin, Colorado, and the Boston area. “My life feels often like a busy travel schedule — with a break in New Zealand,” she says.
It wasn’t uncommon for an American woman to win the Boston Marathon when Lisa (Larsen Weidenbach) Rainsberger did it in 1985. But few might have predicted then that it would be 32 years and counting since one of her countrywomen has managed it. “I think this is the year,” predicts the 56-year-old Rainsberger, now the mother of four. “We say that, but I firmly believe it this year.”
Rainsberger, who’d been an All-America swimmer at Michigan before she switched to the roads, was an unknown when she won here by more than eight minutes, still the third-largest margin in race history.
“It validated me as a professional athlete,” says Rainsberger, who was the last female champion before the awarding of prize money. “When you said, well, I won the Twin Cities Marathon, people said, ‘Oh, what’s a marathon?’ When you said I won the Boston Marathon, they’re ‘ohh’ . . . because people had heard of the Boston Marathon.”
Rainsberger went on to win Chicago twice and was the alternate on three Olympic marathon teams before switching to triathlon. Now she runs Training Goals, which offers coaching and personal training, has a youth racing team (Kokopelli Kids) in Colorado Springs, and directs events. While Rainsberger still runs for charity, her competitive days are over. “I’m at the point now where it’s all about other runners,” she says. “As a coach and an event director it’s really about them. I’ve been through it all. Now I just love to try to encourage other people to experience what I was able to do when I was young.”
Rainsberger’s last marathon here was in 2010 to mark the 25th anniversity of her victory. After firing the gun for the elite women’s race, she covered the distance with her husband and eldest daughter. Five years ago, she ran the 5K through the Back Bay before the 26-miler. “You can’t fake a marathon,” Rainsberger says. “You can fake a 10K. Maybe in 2020 I’ll pin a number on and give it a go.”
Growing up in Ethiopia her running role model was Abebe Bikila, the first African to win the Olympic marathon. Until Fatuma Roba collected the gold medal in 1996, no woman from the continent ever had done it. And until she prevailed in Boston the following year, no African female had managed it. “In our country it’s always mentioned,” says Roba, who won three straight times here. “It makes me very proud.”
When Roba ended Uta Pippig’s three-year reign in 1997, she viewed her victory as legitimizing her five-ringed triumph. “When I won in Atlanta some athletes from other countries said that I won by luck because nobody expected that I would go away and finish the race,” she said through husband Abiy. “So when I came to Boston I said I wanted to do it again. It gave me a big motivation. I would have to show that I could be a winner.”
Roba went on to dominate the next two races here, winning by nearly four minutes in 1998 and by nearly two and a half in 1999 when she finished 24th overall, the highest placement ever by a female.
By then she already was a heroine back home and since has become the inspiration for a generation of Ethiopian female marathoners who’ve won Boston four times in the last decade as well as another Olympic gold. “Many athletes are mentioning me as a role model, particularly Tiki Gelana (2012 Games victor),” she says. “She said because of Fatuma Roba she was motivated to run the marathon.”
Roba, who finished among the top five in all five of her Boston appearances, hasn’t run a marathon since 2004 but still does charity road races. While she’s living now in Washington, D.C. with her son and daughter, she still gets front-row treatment in her homeland. “Everywhere I go people respect me,” Roba says. “If there are people in line they call me and let me pass. They will not allow me to be in queue.”
There was a time when he ran against the clock, to make an Olympic team or try to break the world record. That time was nearly three decades ago. When Geoff Smith runs these days he runs for enjoyment and he runs for free, as he did when he won Boston by enormous margins in the last two years before cash was offered.
“I’m comfortable going slow,” says the 64-year-old Smith, who lives in Mattapoisett and has had both hips replaced. “I’m happy where I am. It’s a mind-set. Everything was about running fast. That’s not my makeup any more. I let go of that. My makeup now is to go out, feel good, and enjoy the fresh air.”
Had his father not passed away recently, Smith would be taking the line Monday with daughter Lindsey and son Edward, his first running appearance here in a quarter-century.
In 1984, the Providence College product ran Boston in order to make the British team for Los Angeles. The next year he was running for a global mark. “Prize money had taken over and Boston was hanging on to being an amateur event,” he says. “I believed you could break the world record at Boston and I wanted to give it a shot so I gambled big-time. I won the race (by more than five minutes in 2 hours, 14 minutes, 5 seconds) but I didn’t break the world record so my gamble didn’t pay off. Would I have been better off going to another event? Financially, yes. But the flip side is I did get to win Boston twice.”
Smith opted not to defend in 1986 and ran the New Jersey Waterfront Marathon, which offered a $20,000 appearance fee. He returned to Boston in 1987 and collected a $15,000 check for placing third. But after he fell and wrecked a hip while training for the 1992 Olympic trials his competitive career was finished. “I walked away completely,” he says. “I didn’t want anything to do with running.” After “looking in the mirror and seeing an overweight guy,” Smith resumed six years ago. “Until I started running again I didn’t realize that I missed running,” he says.
After mini-careers as a Liverpool firefighter, stockbroker, schoolteacher, and race director, Smith now works for a Rhode Island firm selling medals to races. He still puts on small events in his hometown and New Bedford as well as the Narragansett Bay Half Marathon, but his competitive days are long over. “I usually get a number and start at the back,” he says. “I don’t go there to race. I’ve washed that right out of my system. I run within myself. There’s no need to chase time.”