Franklin Mint Almanac

January 1980 Vol. 11 Number 1

 

The long road to the games.

Athletes go to any lengths—even a 26-mile jog—preparing for the 1980 Olympics

On a windy October morning in Buffalo N.Y., some 3,000 runners crowd on to a bridge next to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. They’re an exuberant crew, these engineers, lawyers, housewives, bankers and students who are about to shuffle off through Buffalo, across the Peace Bridge and up Niagara Parkway to the falls-26 miles 385 yards away.

It’s the beginning of the sixth annual Skylon International Marathon, one of North Americas premier running events. It is also a preview of the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trial, to be held on this course some seven months hence, an event that promises to be one of the fastest, most hell-for-leather contests in the history of sport.

The swiftest runners lean and intense, are closest to the starting line. They will cover the distance at between five and six minutes per mile, some hoping to come in under 2 hours 21 minutes, 54 seconds, the qualifying time for the Olympic Trial. Ever since a wiry Yale graduate named Frank Shorter won the Olympic Marathon at Munich in 1972, with American Kenny Moore and Jack Bacheler finishing fourth and ninth, American track athletes have been crowding into this longest of all Olympic running events. In fact so numerous are North Americas world class distance runners that major marathons held on this side of the Atlantic usually feature at least a half dozen entrants who are capable of turning in Olympic-caliber performances.

Skylon is no exception. In fact the fastest man in today’s field based on his third place finish in the 1979 Boston Marathon is a favorite "dark horse" candidate, behind Boston’s Bill Rodgers and Texan Jeff Wells, for the three man U.S. marathon team that will compete in Moscow. His name is Bob Hodge, and according to the Skylon Program he will be wearing number 987 in the race.

However a scan of the front ranks reveals no number 987. At last Hodge is located, but well back in the crowd, his number pinned to the outside of his warm-ups. Running a marathon in a bulky warm-up suit is akin to W.C. Fields’, in The Fatal Glass of Beer, playing a zither with his mittens on. At best, it inhibits performance. Whatever his reason Hodge seems intent on running in this wind -catching encumbrance.

At noon a gun goes off and in moments a sea of bobbing heads undulates down Lincoln Parkway, then past the home of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, whose tympanist, Jesse Kregal, is also Skylon’s race director. After crossing the Peace Bridge and snaking through some residential streets of Fort Erie, the runners turn up Niagara Parkway, a pretty, winding road that ventures along the tree lined banks of the Niagara River.

Gradually the marathon field thins out, until, by the midway point, more than two hours separates leaders from stragglers. Hodge is among the first hundred but well back. And that’s where he finishes-in 2 hours, 42minutes. Had this been the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, Hodge’s time would have earned him a gold medal by a margin of some 45 minutes. Today at Skylon, however, his effort is good for no better than 76th .

As he sips a Coke at the finish line and talks with the press, it’s difficult to tell from his fresh, relaxed appearance that Bob Hodge has covered even 100 yards, not to mention 26 miles. It turns out he’s run the Skylon Marathon just for practice. For a variety of reasons-climactic and topographical similarities to the Olympic course in Moscow enthusiastic and competent race organizers and generous sponsorship by a Buffalo based division of the Carborundum Company-the Skylon site has been selected for the 1980 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trial. "A friend of mine was coming up to compete Hodge says, "so I thought I’d have a look at the trial course and get in a training run at the same time." Evidently breezing over the Skylon course in his warm-up suit at close to 6 minutes per mile is no great feat in Hodge’s estimation.. It is merely part of an extensive, self-imposed training regimen he has designed in hopes of winning a berth on the U.S. Olympic Team.

Hodge, 24, has been running for ten years, though only recently, with his third place finish at Boston, has he come into national prominence. He achieved further recognition when in 1979 by winning San Francisco’s mammoth Bay-to-Breakers Race, a mad scramble that attracted some 12,000 competitors. Despite his comparative youth on the U.S. distance running scene, he appears a veteran. And in Hodge’s sport, that can be half the battle.

For Bob Hodge training involves running between 110 and 140 miles per week. That’s an average of some 15 to 20 miles per day, which Hodge usually covers in two sessions. "It’s really a full-time job," he says. "It might take only three hours a day to put in those miles, but the energy involve is much more intense than the average eight hour workday. And in some ways the rest between training sessions is just as important as the time spent running, so you have to have sufficient time for that as well.

"There’s also the time spent getting to and from races. Say you’re scheduled to compete on the West Coast on Saturday; you’ve got to fly out on Thursday-or Friday at the latest. If you’re holding down a regular 40 hour-a-week job, that’s nearly impossible." That is why Hodge sacrificed his full-time position with a New England electronics firm. He now works an abbreviated schedule at a sporting goods store in Hanover, re-soling shoes for other runners.

One reason Hodge appears so fresh after running Skylon is that the course is almost entirely flat., whereas much of his hard training is in the hills-including the infamous incline on the Boston Marathon course that culminates in Heartbreak hill. But for all his grueling workouts he is restrained when it comes to racing flat out in a marathon. "I only run hard in one marathon a year-two at the most," he says. This is remarkable in view of the many tempting offers that race promoters make to top distance runners. For many young athlete, it is nearly impossible to say no.

But Hodge seems intent on developing gradually, not rushing into the limelight at the risk of physical injury or losing his enthusiasm by attempting too much too soon. If Bob Hodge has an edge over his fellow marathoners whose sights are set on Moscow, it could be his innate good sense to know when to hold back-as at Skylon-and when to pour it on, as he no doubt intends to do in the trial.

What are Hodge’s chances of competing in Moscow? Of the 170 or so marathoners who will duel over the Skylon course next May, will he be one of those first three finishers who will make the team?

Hodge shrugs. "You never know. Weather will play a big part at the trial. Heat, rain, wind all affect runners in different ways. One thing I’m pretty sure of: The first three will have to run 2:10 or 2:11." That’s a blistering time, very close to the world record of 2:08.

And if Hodge doesn’t make the team? "Well I’m pretty young as distance runners go. There’s always Los Angeles in 1984."

It’s obvious from Hodge’s quiet, determined manner that he’ll persist. At the trial nest May24, he’ll give it his best shot. But if he’s not one of the top three, hell keep right on going down the long Olympic road.

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