Sports Commentary
10:39 am
Fri April 25, 2014

A runner's long journey to Boston

Greg Meyers, running at Michigan. Before Meb Keflezighi's win at this year's Boston Marathon, Meyers was the last American male to finish first at the marathon.
Credit Bentley Historical Library / University of Michigan

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, with the winner finishing in about three hours – something office workers can beat today.

Most people thought the runners were crazy – if they thought of them at all.

Marathoners don’t care. After winning the 1952 Olympic marathon, Czechoslovakian Emil Zatopek said, “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. Meyer grew up in Grand Rapids, and enrolled at Michigan in 1973. That spring, Michigan got a new cross-country coach, Ron Warhust, a Vietnam vet with two Purple Hearts, and a hard-earned lesson: “The world doesn't stop because you’re scared.”

Warhurst had an uncanny ability to get the most out of his athletes. At their first Big Ten meet together, Meyer had a disappointing finish in the steeplechase. Right in front of his parents, Warhurst told his star, “You blew it. And I want you to think about that all summer long.” He did.

But Warhurst had a softer side, too. The two ran together every morning, talking about life. The coach lent Meyer books that inspired him, and became one of the most important people in his life.

After Meyer graduated in 1977 with Big Ten titles in the 5K, 10K and steeplechase, he went on to set American records at every distance from 8 kilometers to 25. Meyer was about to accept a job teaching high school, when Bill Rodgers told him to come to Boston. Rodgers was on his way to winning four Boston Marathons, four New York marathons, and four others, establishing himself as the Marathon Man. 

Warhurst told Meyer, “You need to go. There’s nothing left for you to prove here. I think you’re just scratching the surface of what you’ve got.”

Meyer went, but he had no interest in marathons. He just wanted to get better – until one day at a runners’ hangout, the bartender told him, “Keep running, and some day you’ll be as good as Vinny Fleming.”

Fleming’s best finish in the Boston Marathon was 8th. Meyer said nothing, but thought, ‘Screw you. Looks like I’ve got to run a marathon!’ If the best do this, I better see if I can do this, too.”

The problem was, the best marathon runners weigh 125 pounds – or less. At Meyer’s best, he weighed 155. He simply was not built for the marathon. He had some work to do.

After he won the 1980 Detroit Marathon, he thought he was ready for Boston. After 15 miles, Meyers had the lead. He thought, I’ve got this.

Not so fast. That’s when Boston showed him what it was made of, and kicked his butt. Only then did he realize how much he had to learn.

Two seasons later, he won all but two of the events he entered, but it was the 1983 Boston Marathon he wanted. He lived a mile from the half-way point, and ran part of the course every day.

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 that, and took the lead early on. Meyer followed him.

Right before Heartbreak Hill, around mile 20, Meyer pulled up alongside Durden again. He wanted to see what he had left. Meyer can’t recall what he asked, but he does remember Durden’s answer, after a couple breaths: “Looks like rain.”

Meyer ran ahead to test him. Durden broke. At the top of Heartbreak Hill, Meyer was all alone, just like he’d envisioned it. He was running a little over five-minute miles, but coasted the rest of the way. Only when he finished did he realize he had missed the record by eight seconds.

Meyer stood as the last American male champion until this week, when the 38-year old Meb Keflezighi, who is ancient, by champion standards – took the crown. 

Meyer announced Meb’s achievement at the finish line, then gave him a big hug – one unlikely American champion paying homage to another.