Twenty miles into the Boston Marathon last month, Gary Tuttle's heart leaped.
He was in Boston only because his girlfriend was there, having promised her last summer when she qualified at the San Francisco Marathon that he would accompany her to New England.
But now, as Tuttle moved into second place, word came from the crowd that leader Geoff Smith was in trouble, suffering from cramps in both of his legs. Two motorcycle cops came back to escort Tuttle.
"I had never even considered winning until that point," said Tuttle, standing the other day in the running-apparel store he owns in Ventura. "I got really excited. I thought, 'Wow, this could be like a dream come true.'
"I started thinking about my parents, who I knew were back home watching on ESPN, and how they must be reacting. And that got me even more excited. I kind of got carried away. I think I went out after him too hard. I had a real adrenalin surge."
And then reality set in.
The 37-year-old Tuttle hadn't seen Smith since about the six-mile mark and trailed at that point by about five minutes. His legs got heavy. He got nauseated. He realized that, at his accelerated pace, he might blow second place. And then the crowd, which had been roaring a few minutes earlier, quieted. Somebody in the crowd told him Smith was running again.
Tuttle slowed down and coasted, finishing in 2 hours 19 minutes 11 seconds, more than five minutes behind Smith.
Still, it had been a good day for Tuttle. His girlfriend, Ruth Vomund, ran a personal best of 3:13.
As for Tuttle, he said he was running for second place all the way in a field that, except for Smith, was devoid of big-name runners. And he had accomplished his goal. Maybe he could have stayed a little closer to Smith. Maybe not. "I might not have been able to hold on. . . . I'd do it the same way in hindsight."
His finish was the highest by a Californian at Boston since Jon Anderson, a hospital orderly from San Mateo, won the race in 1973. It was worth a $3,500 bonus from the shoe company he runs for. He also received offers from other shoe companies and a free trip to a 30-kilometer race next February in Ohme, Japan.
A friend from the Army whom he hadn't seen in 12 years called from San Antonio. A customer, vacationing in France, sent him a postcard, congratulating him.
"It's been fun," Tuttle said. "Boston has lost some of its mystique to some of the better runners this year and to maybe even some of the East Coast people. But to the West Coast people, Boston is Boston. It's been a long dry spell for California runners."
Tuttle didn't exactly come out of nowhere, although in Ventura he probably is not as well known as his father, Bob, who coached the basketball team at Ventura High for 17 years and twice won Southern Section championships.
Gary was reared, literally, with a basket in his crib. "I shot baskets when I was a baby," he said, laughing. Until he was 13, he said, he was probably the best basketball player among his age group in all of Ventura. "I won all the skills contests basically because I had such a head start on everybody," he said.
As a freshman at Buena High, he was running laps with the baseball team one afternoon when he came upon several of the school's distance runners and stayed with them stride for stride through a lap. The cross-country coach, Jim Hunt, got wind of his ability and asked him to come out for the team. For the next three years, he ran cross-country in the fall and played basketball in the winter. He didn't go out for track until his senior year because the longest race until then was the mile.
At Humboldt State, where he was reunited with Hunt, he was a three-time small college All-American in the steeplechase and a two-time All-American in cross-country.
Drafted into the Army, he continued running. As a conscientious objector who refused to carry a weapon, he said his two-year tour of duty included picking up a lot of trash and sweeping a lot of floors. On leave one weekend, he finished second in his first marathon. His second marathon, he won.
Still, he didn't consider himself a marathoner. In fact, to this day, he said, he hates marathons.
"They're too far, and I don't run them well," he said.
In 1976, he was seventh in the world cross-country championships and seventh in the 10,000 meters at the U.S. Olympic trials. He also won the first of his two AAU national marathon championships, running a personal best of 2:15:15, which he called the worst thing he ever did. "I thought I was a marathoner for a while," he said.
He has since found out, he said, that the marathon is not his best distance. His best time of 28:26 in the 10,000, he said, should equate to a 2:10 or 2:11 marathon.
But at 5-9 1/2 and 133 pounds, he said: "I'm so thin that I think I have a tendency to run out of fat reserves and kind of hit the wall.
"At Boston, I was running real easy. I was 1:07 at the half and was cruising, running right with a group of about 10 shooting for second. And when it came time to make a move, my speed was the best out there. Geoff Smith maybe can run a faster 10K--I don't know. I'd be willing to race him.
"But I made a nice move and I was going really well, running really strong at 21 (miles), and by 22 I was just surviving. I just can't carry the distance through. I'm just not efficient as a marathoner."
He has run Boston only three times seriously, finishing seventh one year.
"The other times, I just had a good time, drinking beers along the route," he said.
Of last month's race, he said: "Smith was gone from the beginning. He ran that first mile 10 or 15 seconds faster than anybody else cared to, including myself." Tuttle said he could see the leader "for about six or seven miles on long straightaways, but he was the furthest thing from my mind."
Until the crowd got him excited, of course.
But Tuttle, a self-effacing type with longish hair and a diamond earring in his left ear, said he has no regrets.
"I've run 20 years and I've been very consistent but I've never been a hard-core runner," said Tuttle, who ran his personal best in the 10,000 last year. "I've always looked at it as fun and I've always done fun things, so I don't think I've ever hit my potential.
"I run twice a day and I don't miss much but I live a normal life. I've never been a one-track-minded person. I don't sleep, eat and drink running. It's just part of me. It's not all of me.
"I've run a lot of good stuff and never got any credit, so it's kind of nice now, after 20 years, to run a race for which I'm probably getting more credit than I deserve."
Even if it could have been a little better.