The Metric Marathon: where kilometers count

Race: Runners face long-distance challenges in today's event, including The Hill II.

October 07, 2001|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

Tim Beaty has memories of the first Columbia Metric Marathon ingrained in his brain. In 1977, Beaty had been into running a mere eight weeks, and the inaugural Metric was his first long event - 16-plus miles, starting in Columbia, winding through Ellicott City, and back.

Early this morning, Columbian Beaty and 300 or more runners take part again in what has become a Howard County athletic tradition in the fall; today's race is the Metric Marathon's 25th anniversary.

What began as the then-neophyte Howard County Striders' big race, sponsored initially by the old Stromberg Publications weekly newspaper chain based in Ellicott City, has become the county's oldest continuously held running event.

The Metric Marathon stretches 26-kilometers - hence, the name - instead of the traditional marathon's 26-plus miles.

These days, Beaty does ultra-marathons, pointing especially to the annual JFK 50-miler in Western Maryland. But 25 years ago, he recalled, "I was walking after a mile."

He and some others in the rear of the pack alternately walked and ran, determined to not give up - even at the base of The Hill. Beaty finished 144th out of 148.

Most marathons seem to include an extended climb to remember. The early Metric Marathons' hill - well, just say that even experienced runners didn't soon forget it.

The course required a twisting, one-mile climb from Ellicott City's Main Street, up Old Columbia Pike toward Old Montgomery Road (Route 103).

These days, The Hill II lurks in mid-race but is on the more moderate and less-traveled Tollhouse Road, a switch that was one of several re-routings for safety - U.S. 29 also was dropped from the regimen years ago.

Even so, hills have been a constant over the years. According to Striders' lore, no one has averaged less than five minutes a mile during a Metric Marathon, testimony to the race's difficulty, said race director Brad Speirerman.

But that's part of the draw for some runners who return year after year to torture themselves, to the point where Nadia Wasserman, a former Striders president, describes them as being "like a cult."

Columbian Wasserman, a veteran runner competing in what she thinks may be her 10th Metric this morning, no doubt spoke for many participants when she said, "I always find myself muttering, `Why am I doing this?' It's the challenge, of course, finding out something about myself. But it's a very hilly course - very hard."

The Metric Marathon was born in a time when marathoning was a much higher-profile element of life for Americans than it seems today. It also happened to be Columbia's birthday - in June. And there was a move on to get Americans in step with the rest of the world in using the metric system of measurement.

The man who proposed the idea was Ellicott City's Donald E. Heinicke, now 88 and no longer competing. Twice, he had been a second-place finisher in the famed Boston Marathon and for many years had been accustomed to running about 15 miles almost daily.

He said he and the late Ken Denson, among the Striders' founders, laid out that first course, adding: "It wasn't hard to do. It was just an out-and-back course."

Columbian Rick Belz, then a young sports reporter at Stromberg's Howard County and Columbia Times weekly newspapers and now a high school sports writer at The Sun, was the first race director.

"We had about 250 people," Belz said, remembering that Heinicke had pushed the metric concept "because nobody had ever done that length of race before. It was a natural promotion for the papers, tying Ellicott City and Columbia together. And we really liked the hill."

The Metric Marathon has had ups and downs off course, too. Its start in summertime - the mercury hit 90 degrees for that first race, at 2 p.m. on June 29 - was moved to the cooler fall.

Its length has varied, as well, although since Columbia's 16th birthday, Beaty said, it has been the true metric version of 26 miles, 385 yards.

Nearly moribund by the end of the 1980s, the race got an energy boost in 1989 and 1990, when Nadia Wasserman's husband, Joe, was race director.

From a low of about 185 runners, participants rebounded sharply to about 700 in 1990 before drifting downward again. The varying levels of participation reflect, in some ways, trends in American running.

Nadia Wasserman said that these days, far fewer people are competing even in 10-kilometer runs than was the case a few years ago. A more popular distance - and today's Metric Marathon includes a separate event at the distance - is 5 kilometers.

Another problem in recent years, when the race was conducted in early November, became competition from several marathons - the high-profile Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, another marathon in Philadelphia, and the Chicago Marathon. This year, Baltimore has added its own marathon at the end of this month.

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