It’s all my Uncle Mike’s fault, this obsession I have with running.
It started on a warm, sunny morning in April 1990. I was standing on some hill in the suburbs of Boston. I was 5. Family members were chatting about how this “Heartbreak Hill” that we’d trekked out to could be such a killer.
Somewhere out there, Uncle Mike Freeman — my godfather, no less! — was hammering out mile after mile between the town of Hopkinton and where we were cheering. When he got to us, I recall him zipping by, looking pretty relaxed all things considered. He even turned and waived!
It was a rush for me. I knew even then that this Boston Marathon had some special lore to it. What I didn’t realize — until I reached out and asked him for tips this past week — is that it was Mike’s first time racing the thing.
And so, with three weeks until we here at RunnerPub make the pilgrimage to Boston, I decided to ask Mike about his running career, his favorite race, and what we can learn from his experiences.
RunnerPub: Thanks for chatting with us today. Growing up, I remember you always being a big runner. But when exactly did you get into the sport? And what got you into it?
Mike: I played team sports growing up but found running a good way to stay in shape as an adult. I got hooked on road racing after watching a friend finish the Freedom Trail Road Race in Boston. I think it was in 1980. In those days I ran alone after work and raced in local Rhode Island races every weekend. On a few occasions I’d race Saturday and Sunday, and once I raced in the morning and again later in the day. There should have been an intervention after that one.
RunnerPub: Hardcore! That’s the sort of obsession we at RunnerPub love. So when was your first marathon, then?
Mike: My first marathon was in 1981, the East Lyme Marathon in Connecticut. I just wanted to finish. I enjoyed the scenery and the company of my fellow runners. I probably should have socialized less and run faster. My finishing time was 4:18.
RunnerPub: Did you have any running heroes in those days?
Mike: Running heroes in those days were Bill Rodgers and Joanie Benoit. They were both New England locals and incredible talents. I’ve met them both and they are wonderful people.
RunnerPub: When was your first Boston Marathon?
Mike: My first unofficial Boston was in 1984 when I paced a running buddy for the second half of the race. He was running sub-6 pace (around 5:40 a mile). I ran a personal best for the half just trying to stay with him. In 1984, Boston was also the Los Angeles Olympic qualifier for many countries. Running at that pace, we were running with some legends. I recall passing Rodolfo Gomez, a three-time Olympian from Mexico at Mile 22. We also ran a few miles with Ingrid Kristiansen. But my first official Boston was in 1990.
RunnerPub: Ahh yes — I recall the day. Before we get to that, can you tell us about your training leading up to it?
Mike: I had qualified the previous fall back at the East Lyme Marathon with a time of 3:11. A lot less socializing that day. My training, starting in January 1990, consisted of base building (averaged 40 miles a week, increasing the distance of the long runs on weekends). By February I was averaging in the high 40s per week due to longer runs of 18 miles. By the end of the month I started double workouts — six miles at lunch, four miles after work. But that quickly took a toll on me and I had to stop the doubles.
While I cut back on mileage, I added some hard runs a couple days a week. By the end of March I was running in the high 50s and added a track workout of repeat miles (4 x mile at around 5:50 pace). Beginning of April I started tapering by reducing my long runs to 15 miles then 11 miles a week before the race.
RunnerPub: Okay, and how’d the Big Day play out?
Mike: Race weekend was awesome. I drove up on Saturday to Fred and Casey’s house (editor’s note: that’s Mike’s parents and my grandparents), went to the Hynes Auditorium to pick up my number and wander around the exhibition hall. On Monday morning, Fred drove me to the start. He clearly enjoyed the whole thing. I can remember how excited he was; one our best rides together for sure.
I was very nervous at the start. They didn’t have waves in those days or seeding, except for the elite runners. The crowd of runners was massive and it took a long time for us to be able to start running. At the mile mark my time was just under 10 minutes, so of course I made my first mistake of the day trying to weave through the crowd to get to a place where I could run my pace. Miles 2 and 3 were both at 6:47 pace, followed by the next 6 miles at sub 7 pace (way too fast for a 3:11 qualifier). I ran the Hills okay, but heading into Cleveland Circle I was in great difficulty running 8’s and then 9-minute miles. I finished in 3:25.
The 1990 Boston Marathon, courtesy of the BAA:
With the largest group of runners ever entered (9,412), the 94th running of the Boston Marathon boasted one of the most competitive fields in the history of the race. Gelindo Bordin of Italy became the first Olympic gold medalist to win the men’s race (2:08:19); Olympic champion Rosa Mota of Portugal became the first official three-time women’s champion (2:25:24); John Campbell of New Zealand returned for a second consecutive win in the masters division, setting a course and world mark (2:11:04). In her Boston debut, Uta Pippig was runner-up.
RunnerPub: Pretty solid! Nonetheless, I recall you looking pretty good on Heartbreak. I seem to recall it being sunny that day, but how’d it feel out there for a runner?
Mike: The weather was warm and sunny. I recall Fred finding me after the race and pointing out that I had a pretty bad sunburn. So my tip, wear sunscreen!
RunnerPub: Duly noted. So let’s cut right to the chase — just how bad was it running up Heartbreak Hill?
Mike: Heartbreak Hill is overrated unless you go out too fast, are really racing and trying to drop someone, or hanging on to someone. It’s actually the last of three hills. None of them are too long or steep but, at 20 Miles, it doesn’t take much. I found the run down to Cleveland Circle after the hills much harder than the climb.
How’s your Italian? Here’s some footage from Gelindo Bordin’s victory that day:
RunnerPub: Ouch. That’s scary to hear! What’d you do afterwards?
Mike: As I mentioned above, it was a tough day for me but it was my fault. Fred found me after the race and we headed back to Milton like a conquering hero. Didn’t do much the rest of the day but watch the Sox laying on the couch.
RunnerPub: Ah, yes, that other Boston sports institution, the Red Sox. Have you done Boston again?
Mike: Yes, in 1994.
RunnerPub: What’s the best part of the race?
Mike: Running down the to the finish line is the most unbelievable experience you will ever have in running, guaranteed.
RunnerPub: Wow, I’ll try to keep that in mind on the dreaded downhill portion toward Cleveland Circle! So what, in your opinion, makes Boston so unique?
Mike: Boston is the biggest race in the sport for runners and fans alike. Personal opinion, it’s bigger than the Olympics.
RunnerPub: Since I’ll never make the Olympics, I’ll go right ahead and agree with you on that. Got any final tips?
Mike: In addition to the sun screen thing, train smart, go out easy and enjoy the day. Even though it’s a net downhill course it is not a PR course. Have fun and look for us out there at Mile 24 — we’ll be there, cheering for you and Les!