- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 17, 2005

BOSTON — They call it the Champions’ Breakfast, and as far back as I can remember, the Boston Athletic Association has held this special hour-long reunion on Boston Marathon weekend.

As far back goes to 1983, the first year I covered the world’s oldest and most prestigious marathon in person.

The guests usually are winners from previous years, typically 10, 20 or 25 years before or typically people who have altered the course of Boston Marathon history. On hand, too, are dozens of media representatives who over the years have penned their fascinating stories and brought the race to millions who could not be in Boston themselves.

Ever since I can remember, Johnny A. Kelley was among us. He was a two-time winner (1935 and 1945) and a 61-time starter with 58 Boston Marathon completions. He finished his last one in 1992 at the incredible age of 84, but he never stopped entertaining the Champions’ Breakfast crowd by singing “Young at Heart.”

It felt strange being at the breakfast yesterday morning, searching for Johnny and not finding him. The man who was runner-up a record seven times and who with his late-race collapse in the 40th running inspired a Boston Globe reporter to coin the phrase “Heartbreak Hill” died last October at 97.

Now we are celebrating the 109th Boston Marathon. I remember like yesterday when it was the 100th anniversary we were celebrating.

I remember like yesterday when Bill Rodgers won four times here in the late ‘70s, and when Rosie Ruiz stole the victory from Jacqueline Gareau in 1980. I remember the gutsy Bob Hall, who persuaded stodgy marathon officials to allow him to fly his wheelchair from Hopkinton to Boston, just like the able-bodied athletes, for the first time in 1975. I was still in college then, covering the races from afar for the student paper.

I remember like yesterday when Lisa Rainsberger (then Lisa Larsen Weidenbach) burst onto the scene as a 23-year-old from Michigan, and I relished in her 1985 victory — the last time an American woman has been victorious at Boston. I was here then.

I don’t remember when Keizo Yamada, at 24, came over from Japan to grab his day of glory. That was 1953, and I was not yet born.

Yamada came back in 1995 after a long absence and has run every year since, including a 3:56 clocking last year at 76. Yesterday he attended the Champions’ Breakfast before he attempts yet another Boston completion tomorrow.

All these legendary people were honored yesterday for their piece of Boston’s history. They all were given the opportunity to run down Memory Lane. While that trip is a glorious one, rehashing some of the best times in a life full of great times, it can be dangerous, too, because each Champions’ Breakfast marks a passing of time.

For all these great runners, the past is just that — past. The times they ran way back when will never be eclipsed. Never again will they feel that overwhelming rush you experience when you are the first person down Boylston Avenue, the crowd screaming deliriously as you break the finish tape, and it finally dawns on you that you have won the Boston Marathon.

As Rodgers spoke about his memories of Boston, his eyes welled up. This is the man the city affectionately adopted back then as “Boston Billy” for his determination in his glory years of 1975, 1976, 1979 and 1980.

The passage of time, for Rodgers, was 25, 30 years. Although he has accomplished a great deal since, as a masters runner who travels the country 12 months of the year inspiring others to run, nothing can replace the high of those glory years.

But more so, nothing makes us feel older than when we look way back to a time when we were so much younger. While these legends on whom we reported oh so long ago are aging, what are we doing?

It seemed like I was just a kid when young Uta Pippig, darling of the Boston Marathon with a string of victories from 1994 to 1996, was blowing kissing to her tens of thousands of adoring fans.

We sat beside each other at the Champions’ Breakfast yesterday. It felt just like the old days here in Boston. We reminisced about her illustrious career and about how I heard the radio announce her victory as she crossed the tape in the 1996 race while I was just passing the 21-mile mark in the Heartbreak Hills.

We laughed and all was good, until she told me she turns 40 this year, and I suddenly felt very old.

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