There was little in life that journalist George Plimpton did not do. Unfortunately, when he died Thursday night in his sleep at 76, he had not yet begun on his memoirs, which he had contracted to do last month.
That book might have been his best.
Plimpton’s exploits are far too many to include here, but it is important to know that his career was greatly influenced by running.
I had the great honor of inviting Plimpton to dinner in 1981 in my capacity as sports editor of the college daily newspaper at the University of Rochester. He was on campus to give a speech, something he had perfected over the years.
He captivated me with three hours of stories about Muhammad Ali and Archie Moore and his games between the pipes for the Boston Bruins and on the parquet floor with the Boston Celtics and in the huddle with the Detroit Lions, plus how he had written magazine articles and books about his experiences.
Then I asked him what inspired him to practice what he termed “participatory journalism,” and his answer stunned me: the Boston Marathon.
Turns out Plimpton was elected editor of the Harvard Lampoon in 1947, when he was majoring in English. Each new editor was given a somewhat outrageous initiation. Being that it was April in Beantown, the other editors got the idea that the 6-foot-4, 190-pound Plimpton would have to run the entire Boston Marathon.
“I thought of a better idea,” Plimpton told me. “I thought it would be interesting to jump into the race behind the leader near the end, to see what it feels like to run that last mile on the way to winning the Boston Marathon.”
Sure it was a funny idea, except it wasn’t so funny to eventual winner Yun Bok Suh from Korea, Plimpton conceded. The 24-year-old Korean had been leading for miles with no runners in sight, only to look back in the last mile and much to his surprise and dismay, to see Plimpton sprinting from behind.
“When he was told at the finish that I was an imposter, he must have said every swear word in the Korean language,” Plimpton said.
Plimpton obviously believed in the philosophy of the late writer Paul Gallico, who would say that you “can’t criticize an athlete unless you are in his shoes.”
He wore many shoes in his life. He told me in 1981 that there were two things he truly wanted to do: travel in space and sing in a rock group like Kiss. The Challenger disaster ended one dream, and I don’t know if he kissed off the other.
Get me to the airport on time — Courtney Babcock proved twice yesterday that she is very quick. She started by outkicking a group of highly talented milers in the last 400 meters to win the ninth edition of the Pennsylvania Avenue Mile. Then she immediately raced to the airport to get back home to Missoula, Mont.
Why the rush? She is getting married to Miles Kui in six days.
Babcock has been on a roll lately. She ran a Canadian record 14:54.98 for eighth place in the 5,000 meters at the World Championships in Paris last month and then set a personal best 4:01.99 for 1,500 at the Brussels Grand Prix, third best ever for a Canadian.
She hung back in yesterday’s race and let former champ Breeda Dennehy-Willis of Ireland bring the leaders through 800 meters and the turnaround in 2:16. The 1996 University of Michigan grad moved into the lead at 1,200 meters and nobody could chase her down, crossing the line in an unofficial race record time of 4:32.08.
Carmen Douma (4:35.54) and Babcock’s training partner Vicki Lynch-Pounds (4:36.68) made it a Canadian sweep. The Canadian Embassy, coincidentally, was at the turnaround point on the course.
“I was happy with my race,” said Douma, who is coached by former Villanova miler Marcus O’Sullivan and who was third last year in 4:41.3. “I finished my season today. My legs have been feeling heavy the last few weeks.”
John Itati of Kenya won the men’s competition for the third consecutive year, hanging back through a slow third quarter-mile before unleashing a powerful kick for the $2,000 first prize. His time of 4:02.88 was slow compared with last year’s record 3:58.7.
“I knew that I was strong,” said the 29-year-old prolific and successful road racer. He mentioned he will return to Kenya until spring, after defending his title in next Sunday’s Syracuse Festival of Races 5K. “The first 1,200 (3:07) was slow for me, so I knew I was going to close fast.”
Great Britain’s John Mayock earned $1,000 for his runner-up effort in 4:03.31 and Kenya’s Joseph Mwai, winner of the Fifth Avenue Mile earlier this month, was third in 4:03.77, good for $500.