Once a year on Patriots' Day, the amateur athlete, weekend warrior, and
recreational runner, share a bit of the glory and a lot of the road with the world's top competitors (The Boston Herald, April 15, 1996). In a typical year 9,500 runners qualify for Boston. This year there were 38,706 registered runners and 2,000 bandits (unofficial runners), making the 100th Boston Marathon the world's largest marathon in history.
Throughout the 100-year long period that encompasses the Boston Marathon (the world's oldest continuous annual marathon), the historic race has served as a proving ground for the young and old, as well as men and women. The 26-mile 385-yard course which starts on Main Street in the rural New England town of Hopkinton and ends on Boylston Street in downtown Boston, has arguably provided the standard by which all other marathon performances are measured.
A standard of a different sort-but certainly just as important-was established on April 20, 1970, when Vietnam veteran Eugene Roberts* of Baltimore, who lost his legs to a landmine, became the first (unofficial) wheelchair athlete to complete the Boston Marathon. Almost an hour before noon (the starting time for the Marathon) Roberts began pushing his wheelchair toward Boston on a cold and rainy day. He finished the course in just over seven hours using a hospital-issued wheelchair (The Boston Globe, April 21, 1970). Roberts' achievement is comparable to that of Roberta Gibb* who was the first woman to run (unofficially) the Boston Marathon officially in 1966.
Five years later (1975), 24-year-old Bob Hall of Belmont, Massachusetts, became the first sanctioned wheelchair entrant finishing with a time of 2:58. Thus, the Boston Marathon became the world's first major marathon to permit wheelchair racers to compete. Not since the admission of women as official entrants in 1972 had the Boston Marathon experienced such a significant change.
In 1977 Hall smashed his course record to win with a time of 2:40: 10. This was also the year the Boston Athletic Association (BAA), the organization that sponsors the marathon, started the tradition of having the wheelchair athletes start 15 minutes (11 : 45am) ahead of the non-disabled runners, thus avoiding the crowded start and possible injuries to non-disabled runners. Hall did not run the l00th Boston; however, last year he recorded a personal best of 1:47:41 on the 20th anniversary of his historic breakthrough. Hall has worked for over 20 years as a political activist for wheelchair athletics and currently serves as the coordinator of the wheelchair division for the BAA.
Also in 1977, Sharon Rahn of Champaign, Ilinois, became the first woman to complete the course in a wheelchair. She finished fifth in 3:48:51 over a field of six men.
In the following year the wheelchair field expanded to include 18 men and two women. George Murray of Tampa. Florida, broke Hall's 1977 record by 13:13.
The 1980 Boston Marathon reached a significant turning point. Curt Brinkman of Orem, Utah, became the first male to break two hours (1:55:00) and the first wheelchair athlete ever to outpace nondisabled runners by beating Bill Rogers (2:12:11). The same year Sharon Limpert of Minneapolis, Minnesota, became the first woman to break three hours at Boston (2:49:04).
During the 1980s wheelchair athletes established themselves as an important part of the Boston Marathon tradition. Several records and events have focused world-wide attention on the wheelchair division, especially:
Over the 100 years of marathon history there are so many stories to tell, but the living legends of the wheelchair division over the past 21 years are Cable, Knaub, and Driscoll. Combined, they have won 17 times while setting 11 world records. All three participated in Boston's centennial marathon. Their names and accomplishments command respect.
Candace Cable, 41, of Truckee, California, dominated Boston throughout the '80s with six victories, including four in a row from 1985-88. She has the distinction of having won every Boston Marathon in which she competed except for 1996. Cable came out of retirement for the sheer honor and privilege of competing in the centennial marathon. During the 1987 marathon to avoid hitting another wheelchair during a chain reaction spill, Cable lost a tire off the right rim of her wheelchair. She used a CO2 cartridge and a bicycle pump to inflate a spare tire to get back in the race. Cable took the lead again eight miles into the race and went on to win the women's wheelchair division (Sports 'N Spokes, September/ October 1987).
Jim Knaub, 40, of Long Beach, California, has won Boston a record five times since 1982. He won three consecutive races from 1991-93, setting a course record each time. Knaub's Boston Marathon odyssey includes the closest ever wheelchair finish. In 1982, Knaub won (1:51:31) by a mere two seconds over George Murray.
Knaub went out a little too fast in 1987 and was involved in the chain reaction spill at the bottom of the first hill. He had to drop out of the marathon after 12 miles. Throughout his career, Knaub has won a total of 28 marathons.
Jean Driscoll, 29, of Champaign, Illinois, became the first wheelchair athlete to win the Boston Marathon seven times. Her time of 1:52:56 was 18:34 off her world best of 1:34:22 set at Boston in 1994. Louise Sauvage of Australia was second in 1:54:39, followed by Deanna Sodoma of Carlsbad, California (1 :56: 17), and Candace Cable (1 :56: 18).
This year's victory places Driscoll ahead of Candace Cable for most career wins in the women's wheelchair division and equals the seven wins by Clarence DeMar in the men's open division. DeMar won his seventh Boston Marathon at age 41 in 1930 (2:3:48). DeMar's seven wins occurred over 19 years (1911-1930) while Driscoll's feat was unprecedented because she accomplished her record in seven consecutive years (1990-1996). Driscoll's win is even more amazing because she fractured her leg in a July tubing accident and was unable to get into her racing chair until November.
At the 1992 Paralympic Games in Barcelona, Driscoll was a part of the USA's gold medal4xl00 m relay team with Candace Cable, Ann Cody-Morris, and Carol Hetherington. The Women's Sports Foundation named her the Amateur Sportswoman of the Year in 1991, making her the first wheelchair athlete to receive this honor.
This year, Heinz Frei, a 38-year-old citizen of Etziken, Switzerland, won the men's wheelchair division for the second time in three years. His time of 1:30:14 was 8:51 off his world best of 1:21:23 set at Boston in 1994. Philippe Coupie of Pontoise, France, was second (1:34:00) and Tom Sellers of Ormond Beach, Florida, was third (1 :35:59).
In preparation for the 100th Boston, Frei relied heavily on cross-country sledging, an activity that is comparable to cross-country skiing on a snowboard. In 1994, Frei competed in the Winter Paralympics in Norway and last year placed second at Boston (1:27:49), before adding victories at both the Berlin Marathon (1:22:48), a race he has won eight times, and the Oita (Japan) Marathon (1:22:38).
Boston remains the oldest continuous marathon in history and holds the world's unchallenged standard for excellence, and is most beloved of all road races. In a lasting tribute to all athletes and champions who have taken part in the Boston Marathon, a centennial monument was dedicated this year in Copley Square Park which lies near the finish line. The centerpiece of the granite monument is a medallion surrounded by four granite posts. The medallion consists of a sculpted concentric ring. At the sculpted center of the medallion is an elevation profile of the course and a map arranged in eight colors of granite-each granite stone representing one of the eight cities and towns along the historic route. The concentric ring includes the names of all male and female champions, including the wheelchair division. In addition, one of the four granite posts represents a figure of a wheelchair athlete in honor of all those who have run Boston since 1970. Included on the monument is an inscription taken from the last three lines of Tennyson's classic poem Ulysses:
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Concannon, J. (1990, April 21). Determined legless Vietnam vet completes Marathon in wheelchair. The Boston Globe, p. 29.
Huber, J. H., & LaDuke, A. (1987). Marathon mess: Wheelchair athletes overcome a major mishap that could have become a disaster. Sports 'N Spokes, 13 (September/ October), 36-38.
Running into history. (1996, April 15). The Boston Herald, p. 20.