17 years of races built foundation for renewal here

From '73 through '89, Maryland Marathon had a proud record


October 19, 2001|By Michael Reeb | Michael Reeb,SUN STAFF

Thanks to the organization of tomorrow's Comcast Baltimore Marathon, distance running has a future in a city seemingly obsessed with baseball and football. But like its sporting siblings, marathon running in and around the city is not without a colorful past.

Propelled by an increased popularity of recreational sports and President John F. Kennedy's emphasis on physical fitness, marathoning had a presence in Maryland in the 1960s in the Washington's Birthday Marathon in Greenbelt and the JFK 50 ultramarathon in Western Maryland. It was not until 1970, however, that it got its biggest push.

Returning from the 1970 Boston Marathon, Les Kinion - a Baltimore City firefighter who had co-founded the Baltimore Road Runners Club out of the trunk of his car - and Joe Holland - a manufacturing executive, BRRC co-founder and first chairman of the Maryland Marathon Commission - turned to each other and said: Why not Baltimore?

When they were able to enlist the support of Hy Levasseur, executive director of the Maryland Council on Physical Fitness, in 1973, the Maryland Marathon was off and running, a run that would continue - with a few detours - for 17 years.

"I can't help but feel a little proud of what we did and what we had to work with," Holland said this week. "I was taking on a responsibility of reviving an old race because there was an old race here at one time in the '30s that came up from Annapolis to Baltimore. I knew whatever we were going to do had to be better than the past."

Each year, the Maryland Marathon began in the shadows of now-demolished Memorial Stadium and continued to its turnaround at Peerce's Plantation near Lock Raven Reservoir - a culinary landmark that no longer is in business.

In between, it tested the best of runners, including 1972 and 1976 Olympic marathoners Ron Hill and Bill Rodgers, with a relatively flat stretch on Perring Parkway that lured inexperienced runners into "What's so tough about this?" thinking. Then it descended down Satyr Hill, through the Loch Raven watershed and back.

It was Satyr Hill, a 330-foot rise in a half-mile that came 18 miles into the race, that proved to be many a runner's Achilles' heel.

"I was expecting to come back two minutes slower than I went, not five minutes slower," Hill told The Evening Sun after traveling from England to win the 1974 race.

Hill finished second, third and fourth in successive years, then said in 1977 that he wouldn't be back. "I'm not going to keep this progression going until I finish last," he said.

But back he was in 1978 and, at age 39, recorded another second-place finish.

"The thing that really made the marathon," Kinion said last week, "was Ron Hill coming over and winning the race. He was supposed to win the 1972 [Olympic] marathon in Munich, which Frank Shorter won."

If Hill gave the marathon a boost, Rodgers - a four-time winner of both the Boston and New York City marathons - gave it increased credibility with his victory in 2 hours, 14 minutes, 23 seconds in 1976.

But the marathon excelled in other areas, as well. In its inaugural year, there were 400 participants, at the time a record for a first-time marathon. By contrast, the New York City Marathon had 126 in its first running.

"That tells you how things have changed," Kinion said last week. "The crazy thing with the Maryland Marathon was all the runners knew each other from other marathons - Philadelphia, Washington's Birthday Marathon and, of course, Boston."

In 1974, Maryland had more than 600 runners while New York drew 500. By 1980, there were 3,500 runners in the Maryland Marathon.

"The big thing is we wanted to get the local runners," Holland said this week, "but we wanted to get people from out of the country and we did - Ron Hill, [1975 winner] Liane Winter on the women's side."

One of Holland's proudest achievements in his six years as commissioner was to make Maryland the first marathon to pay the expenses of women runners.

But that did not deter local runners from holding their own. Area favorite Marilyn Bevans won in 1977 and 1979 after finishing second in 1975. Marge Rosasco, the founder of the popular Lady Equitable women's downtown race, won in 1983.

The marathon took detours in 1980, when it started at Memorial Stadium, but finished inside the then-Civic Center (now the Baltimore Arena); in 1981, when it adopted a completely inside-the-city course; in 1982, when it was postponed until the spring by a 7-inch snowfall; and, in 1988 and 1989, when in its final years it was moved to the Inner Harbor.

The race had its share of color and pageantry. Hill wore shorts emblazoned with the Union Jack and evoked cheers from spectators along the course.

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