Boston Voices From the Past
By Gordon Cherr
The Boston Marathon was last week, and Boston, a mecca of running, has been on my mind. I hear some old voices calling to me. Runners from long ago.
I was a walk-on in a college where running scholarships were rare. Most of the track runners at Boston University were strictly working class like me. All of the cross country runners certainly were.
The first runner I met at BU was Peter Stipe (rhymes with “pipe”). The Stiper, as he was called by Coach Smith, took all of the freshman runners under his wing. The Stiper wasn’t especially fast for a mile or two, but he could run all day and night long, and he was one of the best road runners in New England in those days. Interestingly, the Stiper was built like Popeye from the waist down. He had big thighs and even bigger calves. His calves were so enormous that his slacks had to be altered to fit, otherwise they were too tight. This was very impressive to me because in my family, calves are regarded as nothing more than a rumor.
The Stiper’s favorite workout for us (he was the captain) was to race the Commonwealth Avenue trolley from Boston University, up to Cleveland Circle and Boston College. It was about 5 miles from BU to BC and very much uphill. The trolley was obviously faster, but had to stop periodically to pick up and let off passengers, and it had to stop for red lights too. We didn’t stop for anything if we could help it, and Commonwealth Avenue, six lanes wide and always full of traffic, was not a fun place to run but back then we were too dumb to realize this. The run back was a leisurely one on Beacon Street. If you beat the trolley to BC you drank beer for free. If you didn’t, you bought the beer. Suffice it to say that I was usually broke that freshman year.
The best runner on the team was Peter Hoss. Hossy had a twin brother who ran for UMass, Paul. Paul used to abandon his UMass teammates, who were a bunch of eggheads, and train with us. Regardless of what we were, we certainly were not eggheads. Peter and Paul were ferocious competitors and they were probably the third and fourth best college distance runners in all of New England at that time. The best was Art Delong, who ran for Holy Cross, and who was the first high school runner in the USA to break 9 minutes for two miles. The second was Sebsibe Mamo, who ran for Colby College, and who was among the first great African runners from the Rift Valley to come to the United States to compete after Kip Keino. I guess Amby Burfoot was in there somewhere too, he ran for Wesleyan and could crank out a 13:50 for three miles, and in fact he won the Boston Marathon in 1968.
Anyway, Dulong ran like a runaway locomotive, in comparison to Mamo, whose feet barely skimmed over the ground. Mamo made no noise when he ran and it was truly spooky…and breathtaking at the same time. I always expected either Peter or Paul to bust an artery chasing those guys. They never busted an artery and never caught them either, but very few other people did, too. They also got both BU and UMass DQ’d one year at a big race by switching jerseys and running for the other’s college. Some people have no sense of humor…
Peter and Paul did have a sense of humor but not when we were on the roads. Their favorite workout was to run “telephone poles”. In a city like Boston the telephone poles are set along the roadway at regular intervals. The entire team would line up two by two, and after a warm up, the front pair would sprint the distance of two telephone poles while the rest of the team just ran at a reasonable pace. The two sprinters would then slow down after sprinting the two telephone poles, a distance of about 300 yards, and wait for the rest of the team to catch up. They would go to the rear of the pack and the next pair in the front would get to sprint two telephone poles, then go to the rear. This was repeated for about 10 miles and by the end you had done a lot of sprinting and surging, and a lot of slower paced running. This was a tough workout when you had about 7-8 pairs of runners. When you had only 3-4 pair, well, that really sucked. This is why we were always injured.
Sometime before my freshman year someone at BU got serious about recruiting and in my freshman class was John Naughton and Jack Westergom. Naughton was as obnoxious and pompous as they come. He was the Irish national high school champion who had run a 4:09 mile. Westergom was from Connecticut and was that state’s high school mile and cross country champion, with a 4:16 mile to his credit. Naughton and Westergom were complete opposites and took an immediate dislike to each other. Westergom couldn’t beat Naughton no matter what he did and he tried everything from tying knots in Naughton’s shoe laces to urinating in them (no joke). Naughton teased Westergom about being a weakling, and it was nasty stuff, not good natured. He was merciless.
Being Irish (at least in those days), Naughton eschewed the use of deodorant (he said that it was for sissies). Soon Westergom had the entire cross country team boycotting training with Naughton because almost no one could beat Naughton at any distance, and running behind him for miles on end was nauseating. But there was one thing that united Naughton and Westergom, and that was David. David was a senior who decided to come out for cross country for the very first time. David was decidedly no cross country runner. He was tall, lanky and appeared rather uncoordinated. He was British and the Irish hated the Brits, so Naughton hated David from the start. David was sort of funny looking too, with a great big shock of blond hair and an even bigger nose that stuck out from under all that hair, and Westergom hated him because somehow David had the finest girlfriend that any of us could imagine, and Westergom thought that he, much more than any other runner on the team, was the studliest and most handsome. But Patty ignored him entirely.
When David began to run with us, well, he wasn’t around for long. He might hang for a mile or two, then begin to flag and drop off the pace, and Naughton and Westergom would always go back and bust him about being British, about his big nose, about anything they could think of. David never got angry, he never lost his cool, and every now and then David would absolutely hammer Naughton and Westergom into the pavement on 400 meter repeats or during telephone poles. That infuriated them even more. But it made me wonder just who this guy really might be under all that hair and behind that nose.
One day the coach said that we were going to Scituate
(“sit-chew-it”) on Sunday to run on the beach. That sounded like a swell idea to me, but a collective groan immediately was heard from all of the upperclassmen on the team. The coach reminded everyone to not eat anything that Sunday morning. As frosh on the team, neither Naughton nor Westergom nor I took that advice seriously. Besides, Scituate was several hours drive from Boston and what could it hurt?
Scituate, as it turned out, had the biggest sand dunes I have ever seen. The dunes were about 80 yards long from bottom to top, but at an impossible angle to run. The coach said that all you had to do was run 10 and you were done for the day. Ten, as it turned out, was an impossible task for most of us. Because not only was it sand, and not only was the sand at an impossibly steep angle, the sand was soft and for every step you took upwards, you slid down backwards, almost all the way down. The key was to hit these as hard as possible because slow meant instant slippage backwards. You might be running for 1-2 minutes as hard as possible just to reach the top, 80 yards away.
This was where that warning about breakfast came in. Or rather, this is where breakfast came out, for after one or two reps Naughton and Westergom and I were having the biggest barfout imaginable. This was the most killer workout of all time, and there never was once in all my running at BU that I was ever able to complete ten reps in a row. No one could, it was impossible. No one but David, that is. He ran one. He ran five. He ran ten. Coach Smith said that he could stop, but he ran twenty and called it a day. It was the most incredible effort I had ever seen. He didn’t just run these, he blasted up that hill time after time. He never took a break, never begged for mercy, he just fixed his eyes at the top of the dune and somehow transported himself up there. It wasn’t magic, it was power and effort and heart and drive. Who was this guy? I was soon to find out.
I remember my first college cross country race at Brown University a few weeks later. David ran in the varsity event and finished about dead last. I recall Brown’s coach laughing at him, saying that he wouldn’t amount to anything. Maybe if he worked at it, he might become a back-of-the-pack runner someday, the coach said. Our coach, Billy Smith, and The Stiper and Hossy all just laughed and walked away. I asked David why he bothered with this and he said that he was trying to get stronger. Stronger for what I wanted to know, but he had already left to jog a few more miles. Naughton said something smart aleckie, Westergom ignored it all, lost in the thought of chasing our rather foul smelling teammate for another 3 miles in the freshman race, and I got ready for a lot of pain.
Cross country season ended and with it came the start of indoor track. And there I saw just who David was. In his element, the 110 meter high hurdles or maybe the 400 meter run, he was as graceful as a gazelle and faster than a cheetah. And he was mean. The British gent with the long legs which came up to your chest, became all elbows on a tight turn and it was not unusual to see someone with a bloody nose in a close race indoors. And he never lost. Never.
Spring came in 1968 and David disappeared for a while. He said that he had to return to England to work something out. But he said that we might see him again soon and that he would write. He was correct on both counts. He wrote. And when we next saw David he was in the blocks for the finals of the 400 meter hurdles in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. The Stiper, Peter, Paul, Naughton, Westergom and I all cheered him lustily as he obliterated the field and was awarded the gold medal. Our friend and a gentleman always, was David Hemery.
Time erodes all memories and what has become of my friends? The Stiper graduated in 1968 and went to Oregon to work for a new upstart company that none of us had never heard of. It was named “Nike”. I know that he has done well.
The last time I saw Peter and Paul Hoss, they were driving in Peter’s old VW bug. It had no brakes and both of them were dragging their feet on the ground, outside the open doors, trying to stop it before it ran into a tree in The Stiper’s front yard in Brockton. I hope that they are still running, they were so good at it.
Naughton was thoroughly obsessed with breaking four minutes in the mile and after running a 4:05 our freshman year, he ran himself out both physically and emotionally and eventually returned to Ireland. Jack Westergom ran himself out too, trying to compete with Naughton (who he never did beat at any distance), but believe it or not, he and Naughton roomed together their sophomore year on the condition that Naughton bathe more frequently and use deodorant. He did and they did become the closest of friends for a while.
And David Hemery, after winning his gold medal in Mexico City, won bronze in 1972 in the Munich Olympics, and in 1998, was elected the Chairman of Athletics in the UK. As Yogi Berra might say, “if you don’t believe me, you could look it up.