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Geoff Smith Wins Boston Marathon; Record Bid Fails

Times Staff Writer

Defending Boston Marathon champion Geoff Smith of Great Britain predicted just before this year’s race that his toughest competitor was going to be Geoff Smith.

And, after flying by himself on a world-record pace for the first 20 miles of the 26-mile 385-yard race Monday, he found out the hard way that he had been right.

Smith, the overwhelming favorite, won the marathon as expected. But, in a sense, he lost his race.

“I was going for it,” Smith said. “I don’t think there was any doubt I was going for the world record. Of course, I’m disappointed. I came to run a record and I didn’t do what I came here to do. But I’m pleased I won.”

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His time was the slowest of the four marathons he has finished--2 hours 14 minutes 5 seconds--nowhere near the 2:08:05 world record set by Welshman Steve Jones at Chicago last October.

Gary Tuttle, of Ventura, was second in 2:19:11. Mark Helgeson, of Cincinnati, was third in 2:21:15. The women’s winner was Lisa Larsen Weidenbach, who just missed a spot on the women’s Olympic marathon team when she finished fourth in the trial last year, in 2:34:06. Second was Lynne Huntington, originally from England, now living in Houston, in 2:42:14. Karen Elizabeth Dunn, of Durham, N.H., was third in 2:42:27.

It was the most depleted Boston Marathon field ever in a non-Olympic year. So, Smith knew that if he wanted to run a record, he would have to do it alone. There would be no one to push him.

He tried. And for 20 miles, he came achingly close. He ran consistent sub-five-minute miles until mile 10, reaching the halfway point in 1:02:51--well under the 1:04:20 half-marathon run by Jones in the record-setting race. Smith passed the 19th mile in 1:32:46, still on world-record pace and more than a mile ahead of the rest of the field.

But the day was warm and humid, with temperatures in the mid-60s and hazy sunshine--difficult conditions in which to set a record. And Smith had gone out hard. “I went out too fast,” he said later.

The cramps hit him in both legs at the top of a steep hill just after the 20-mile mark and right before the infamous Heartbreak Hill. Suddenly, he grabbed at the back of his right leg, threw his hands into the air in a gesture of frustration and desperation, and began to walk. He walked for several seconds, started to jog, and then began to run again.

But by then, he knew the record was gone.

“It was sheer hell,” he said. “I had to stop. I thought then it was going to be all over. Then I said, ‘Let’s concentrate. Jog. Try to get going again.’ I was just hanging in as long as I could. The last five miles, I don’t know how I kept going. I just put one foot in front of the other. At mile 25, I grit my teeth. I don’t know what caused the problem. I hurt my ego more than anything.”

He still managed to win, despite an obvious, painful struggle. He limped part of the last 385 yards, grabbed his leg again, waved to the crowd and glanced behind him to make sure no one else was there.

“I kept saying to myself, ‘Just relax. Take things easy. Keep moving, it’ll go. I’ve got to keep moving.’ And I kept moving.”

In some ways, his race reminded observers of his first marathon, in 1983 at New York, where he led for the first 26 miles but tired near the end and was overtaken by New Zealand’s Rod Dixon. This time, however, there was no Rod Dixon to catch him.

“It was going through my mind--is somebody going to go past me going down the straights?” he said. “I looked over my shoulder and, luckily, no one was there.”

Tuttle, who said he lost sight of Smith after the first five minutes, said that members of the crowd began shouting at him after 20 miles that Smith was in trouble.

“I got a little excited when the crowd told me he was having cramps,” Tuttle said. “But I had survivor’s shuffle. But I knew after 24 miles, I was running for second.”

Eighth-place finisher Dan Dillon, from Wellesley, Mass., who had run in the second pack behind Smith, said Smith’s front-running tactics had come as no surprise.

“Everybody knew he would go out hard and everybody was hoping he would tie up,” Dillon said. “Unfortunately, no one was close enough when he did. Everybody else tied up, especially me. He didn’t have as much to gain from another Boston win--not as much as from a fast time.”

Smith, a one-time firefighter from Liverpool and graduate of Providence College, won the Boston Marathon last year in 2:10:34, but he lost his shoe company contract after he dropped out of the Olympic marathon. While many world-class runners avoided Boston this year, choosing instead to run marathons offering prize money, Smith decided that a swift time here could prove more lucrative.

Weidenbach, who had hoped to break 2:30 for the first time, said she knew it wouldn’t happen when she realized how warm the weather was going to be.

“I’m just happy I can go out there and win,” she said. “When I woke up this morning and stepped outside, I was immediately sweating.

“It was the hardest marathon I’ve ever run. The slowest, too. I’ve been thinking I was invincible. I’ve been doing a lot of racing lately and it caught up to me. But I won.”

Surrounded by the crowd of male runners, she said she knew she was ahead but had no idea of her lead until “an old friend of mine and coach said, ‘You’ve got six minutes.’ I took a deep breath and said, ‘I’m going to walk home.’ ”

This year’s Boston Marathon--the 89th running of the race--has been plagued with problems, not only over its refusal offer prize money. Earlier in the week, controversy arose over two of its entered runners.

One, Mark Plaatjes, a 2:15 marathoner seeded fifth, was ruled ineligible to run by The Athletics Congress under a 10-year rule by the International Amateur Athletic Federation banning South African athletes from international competition because of that country’s racial policy of apartheid. Another runner, Colombian Carlos Pilo Godoy, seeded sixth, was removed after questions arose over data he submitted regarding his qualifying time.

Smith--with a second Boston title but without the record he sought--was unwilling to discuss his plans Monday afternoon beyond the next hour.

“I’m going to lay in the tub,” he said, “and get my legs better.”


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