The Rise Of The Boston Marathon, A Runner's 'Holy Grail'

Ahead of next week's Boston Marathon, Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon talks with running coach and author Tom Derderian about the heightened expectations for this year's race and how the Boston Marathon earned its distinction as the "Holy Grail" for serious runners. Derderian is a member of the committee that set new qualifying standards for this year's marathon.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Boston will be closed on Monday - more or less - for the 117th Boston Marathon. It's the Super Bowl for serious runners. For more, we turn now to running coach and marathon man Tom Derderian. He's the author of "Boston Marathon: The First Century of the World's Premier Running Event," and "The Boston Marathon: A Century of Blood, Sweat and Cheer." Tom, thanks for being with us.

TOM DERDERIAN: A pleasure to be with you.

SIMON: Tom, may I put you on the spot and ask what your best time - ever - was?

DERDERIAN: I ran 2:19 in 1975 - a long time ago, on a galaxy far away now.

SIMON: And what, for example, was the winning time last year?

DERDERIAN: Two-twelve, but it was very hot. And so the year before was 2:03 - very fast, and cool.

SIMON: And times have been getting quicker through the years anyway.

DERDERIAN: Yes because the stakes are much higher. Now, the first-place prize is $150,000. That's a lot of money, in most parts of the world. For East Africans, for example, it buys a farm. For people in Boston, it doesn't even buy a house.

SIMON: There are a fair amount of prominent marathons these days, just in the United States. I mean, there are several in Washington, D.C. Of course, there's the New York City Marathon. What keeps the Boston Marathon distinctive?

DERDERIAN: Oh, the Boston Marathon is very old. And when it became necessary to keep the field small at Boston - small, like thousands and 20,000 people instead of 50- 60,000 - the people at the Boston Marathon decided to stick with their origins and make entry into the marathon be according to marathon ability, according to speed; and install qualifying times rather than - as many races have done - have a lottery. I mean, there's nothing particularly fair about a lottery. The other thing still exists. It is still a good time. It's still a celebration of fitness. It does raise money for charity. But it has not lost its premier function, to be a footrace.

SIMON: Tom, when people come to you and say, Mr. Derderian, I've heard about you. I want to run the Boston Marathon. What do you tell them?

DERDERIAN: I suggest people start with the shorter, faster races; and learn how to race first. It's really not that hard for a healthy person to move his or her body over 26 miles. The real trick, and the real challenge, is to do so quickly.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Yes, that's it.

DERDERIAN: And that remains the fascination.

SIMON: Well, it's a wonderful event, so good luck to all the runners; and good talking to you, Tom.

DERDERIAN: Been a pleasure to talk with you, Scott.

SIMON: Tom Derderian, running coach and author, joining us from Boston. The Boston Marathon is Monday.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEME SONG, "CHARIOTS OF FIRE")

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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