In 1896, the first modern Olympics in Athens staged a marathon. The next year the Boston Athletic Association followed suit. Just 18 men ran that day, and the winner finished in about three hours – something office workers can beat today.
Most people thought they were crazy – if they thought of them at all. Many people probably still do.
Marathoners don’t care.
“We are different, in essence, from other men,” said Czechoslovakian star Emil Zatopek – and he would know. After winning the 1952 Helsinki Olympic gold medals in the 5K and 10K, he decided at the last minute to enter the marathon – and won that, too. “If you want to win something, run 100 meters. If you want to experience something, run a marathon.”
Greg Meyer knows exactly what Zatopek was talking about. Like Zatopek, Meyer wasn’t made to run the marathon – but he couldn’t resist it.
Meyer grew up in Grand Rapids, and enrolled at the University of Michigan in 1973. Before his sophomore year, Michigan hired a new cross-country coach named Ron Warhurst, another unlikely figure in this drama. Warhurst had returned from Vietnam with two Purple Hearts, and a hard-won lesson: “The world doesn’t stop because you’re scared.”
Warhurst had been a good runner, but was a great coach. He had an uncanny ability to get inside his runners’ heads, and get more out of them.
The duo’s first season together ended at the Big Ten meet in Iowa City, where Meyer had a disappointing finish in the steeplechase. “Right in front of my parents,” Meyer recalls, “Ronnie said, ‘You sucked. You blew it. And I want you to think about that all summer long.’ My dad said, ‘Yep!’ And I did.”
But Warhurst had a soft side, too. The next season Warhurst picked Meyer to go running together every morning, when they talked less about running than about life. “Some of the best talks I’ve ever had,” Meyer says. “He’d give me a book like Siddhartha, and say, ‘Read this.’ And I would. He became one of the most important people in my life.”
After graduating in 1977 with Big Ten titles in the 10K and steeplechase, Meyer stayed two more years in Ann Arbor – working as Bo Schembechler’s janitor – and winning races. In 1979, he was about to accept a high school teaching job, when Bill Rodgers invited him to come to Boston to train with him. Rodgers was on his way to winning four Boston Marathons, four New York marathons, and four others, establishing himself as the Marathon Man.
Meyer debated it, until Warhurst said, “You need to go. There’s nothing left for you to prove here – you’re already kicking everyone’s ass – and you can’t stop now. I think you’re just scratching the surface of what you’ve got.”
“I give him a lot of credit for that,” Meyer says. “I owe a lot to Ronnie. And to Billy.”
Meyer started cleaning up at just about every distance. He ran a sub-four minute mile, and set American records in the 8 kilometers, 10K, 15K, 25K and the 10 mile. He had the respect of his peers, if not the public, which focused on marathons, not 10Ks.
Even after he moved to Boston, Meyer had no interest in running marathons. He just wanted to get better at what he did best – until one day, at the Eliot Lounge, a runners’ hangout, the bartender told him, “Keep running, and some day you’ll be as good as Vinny Fleming.”
Who’s Vinny Fleming? Good question. If you weren’t a hardcore running fan – and I mean hard core – you’d probably not know that Fleming’s claim to fame was an 8th place finish in the Boston Marathon.
Meyer said nothing, but thought, “Screw you,” or words to that effect. “Looks like I’ve got to run a marathon! If the best do this, I better see if I can do this, too.
“That was it. At that moment, I decided to become a marathoner.”
Problem was, legends like Rodgers weigh 128 pounds. The Kenyans dominating the event the past two decades run 10 pounds lighter than that. At his leanest, Meyer weighed 155. If he was serious about winning the Boston Marathon, he had some work to do – so he went to work.
After he won the Detroit Marathon in the fall of 1980, Meyer thought he was ready to take Boston that spring. After about 15 miles, Meyer still had the lead. He thought, I’ve got this.
Not so fast.
“And that’s when Boston showed me what it was made of. The thing about Boston, you never know when it’s gonna get you. You just don’t know. You hit the wall when your glycogen is all used up, and you start burning fat – right around the two-hour mark, which is right when you hit Heartbreak Hill,” the fourth and biggest of a series of inclines that run roughly from mile 16 to 20.
“If you’re off at Boston – and I mean, just a little off – it’ll eat you up. I got my ass kicked [finishing tenth]. That’s when I realized I really had no idea what kind of shape you have to be in to win that race.”
Two seasons later, Meyer won all but two events he entered, cleaning up at almost every distance he ran, including the Chicago Marathon in the fall of 1982. But it was Boston he wanted. He lived a mile from the half-way point, and ran part of the course every day for six months leading up to the 1983 race.
By race day, he had no doubts. At the pre-race press conference, he said, “I see myself in front at 20 miles.” One of his competitors, Benji Durden, didn’t like hearing that, and decided to challenge Meyer by taking the lead early on.
Meyer followed up. At the halfway mark, Durden tried to break away again, and Meyer reeled him in once more.
Right before Heartbreak Hill, around mile 20, Meyer pulled up alongside Durden again.
“Is he done?” Meyer recalled wondering. “I wasn’t sure. I was going to ask him a question to find out. Didn’t matter what. I just wanted to see how he was breathing, where his head was. I can’t even recall what I asked him. But I can recall his answer, after a couple breaths: ‘Looks like rain.’ I sensed something, maybe just a crack. But you just know.
“There’s a little voice inside you that says, ‘Hit ‘im now!’ So I ran ahead, to see if he could follow. And when you do that, you get a little adrenaline shot, you get positive thoughts, and he deflates.”
Durden couldn’t keep up, and started learning the lesson Meyer learned in 1981: Boston can pull you down whenever it likes.
“At the top of Heartbreak, I was all alone, just like I’d envisioned it.”
He was running a little over five-minute miles, but when he heard the guy in the press truck rolling in front of him say, “You’ve got this,” Meyer coasted the rest of the way at a 5:20 clip. Only when he finished did he realize he had missed the record by eight seconds.
Meyer ran a few more marathons, but he never won another. He simply was not built for that distance, but he was talented enough – and determined enough – to will himself to win.
Meyer stood as the last American champion for more than three decades, until this week, when another unlikely winner, Meb Keflezighi – who is a couple weeks shy of his 39th birthday, which is ancient by marathon standards – ran 2:08:37. That’s just 23 seconds faster than Meyer’s time 31 years earlier.
True, Keflezighi was born in Ethiopia, moved to the U.S. when he was 12, and became a U.S. citizen in 1998. But the Boston fans didn’t seem to care, cheering for him heartily, and chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!” After all, if Meb isn’t an American, most of us aren’t, either.
At the finish line, Meyer was there to announce the historic moment, then give his successor a big hug – one unlikely champion paying homage to another.
About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of the national bestsellers “Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,” “Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at johnubacon.com.
The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our publication of columnists like John U. Bacon. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!