by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

BOSTON — He was running alone before it was halfway over. No one breathing down his neck. No footsteps to worry about. The other 4,738 runners in the Boston Marathon were all behind Rob de Castella, way behind him. So for the last hour of the race, right to the finish line, his only companions were the police motorcycles and the press truck. It was a sterile victory. But then, the whole thing was sterile, wasn’t it?

This used to be an event where winning was glory enough, it had to be enough, because there was no money. You crossed the finish line after 26.2 miles and entered a parking garage under the Prudential Building. They gave you a laurel wreath and a cup of yogurt. Only if you won. Otherwise, no laurel wreath.

But, you know, change, change. So when de Castella came across Monday in 2:07:51, first place, a Boston Marathon record, he was marched around the corner where a new blue Mercedes Benz was waiting. Prize No. 1. He sat in it while photographers snapped away. Then he got out, and headed for Prize No. 2. A $60,000 check. He walked across the street, past a massive outdoor TV screen, and a massive sound system, and giant inflatable yellow Nike shoes hanging from the side of the Westin Hotel, none of which had ever been at a Boston Marathon before.

Coming the other way was a man named Bill Rodgers, who has won this race a few times — back before the $30,000 winner’s check, and the $25,000 bonus for breaking the course record, and the $5,000 additional bonus for finishing under 2:10:00. Rodgers is probably too old to win here anymore. But he ran. And now he gazed at de Castella, the toast of the Australian sports scene, and said, “Fantastic, fantastic.”

“Where did you finish?” de Castella asked.

“Fourth,” Rodgers said.

“Great race,” said de Castella.

And he kept walking. Tradition was first victim

So much for memories of the past. This event tastes corporate now, sweetly coated, marshmallow-filled. De Castella, 29, is maybe the biggest name in marathoning — he has won in the World Championships, in Rotterdam, in Fukoka
— but he never ran here before because there wasn’t any money. He felt a marathoner only gets two or three races a year, and why blow yourself on one that doesn’t pay when there are so many that do?

Tradition wasn’t enough. Not for him, and ultimately not for the race organizers. So the Boston Marathon finally went modern this spring, adopting prize money and a corporate daddy — John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co. — after 89 years of pure amateurism. And hel-lo. Along came Rob de Castella. World-class champion. His time Monday was more than six minutes faster than last year’s victory by Geoff Smith (2:14:05).

You get what you pay for.

De Castella, a trained biophysicist who looks like a cross between Clark Gable and Sean Connery, ran an intelligent, steady race. And after he’d run through Hopkinton and Framingham, past the Wellesley co-eds and the Boston College crazies, after he’d streaked past the leafless trees and curled into downtown Boston and broke the tape and the course record, he was ushered not into the garage but into a grand ballroom in the Copley Plaza hotel, where the ceilings were trimmed with something gold and eight chandeliers gazed down from above.

There weren’t any chandeliers in the garage, if I remember correctly. Never enough wheels

De Castella talked about his race. It was a fine race. An impressive time.
“My legs were sore during the last few miles.” That was about it.

His wife, Gaye, sat in the front row, watching. She is a triathlete, as well as a commentator for Australian television.

“Do you need the Mercedes?” she was asked.

“Well, yes,” she said. “We have a Subaru here in America. And he has an Alfa Romeo back in Australia. But we could use it.”

OK. It’s not that de Castella did anything wrong. Of course not. He won. It’s not that Ingrid Kristiansen, who won the women’s title, $30,000 and a Mercedes, did anything wrong.

It’s simply that this event has changed. Anyone who’s ever been here before could feel it. It has jumped up in class, maybe insured its survival. But it has traded in the idea that someone could endure 26.2 agonizing miles of running just to say he’d won it. And it got chandeliers in exchange.

Toward the end of de Castella’s press conference, someone pulled a fire alarm and a horn-like screeching made the ballroom sound like a submarine on red alert.

De Castella looked around, confused. The horn kept screeching. Finally, de Castella laughed for what seemed like the first time all day. “I hope we don’t have to make a run for it,” he said.

It was the only moment of spirit in this suddenly plastic environment. The only moment anybody really let go. You know what I think? I think the ghosts of Boston Marathons past pulled that fire alarm. That’s what I think.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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