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A game girl in a man's game

Boston was unprepared for the shapely blonde housewife who came out of the bushes to crush male egos and steal the show from the Japanese

For centuries the city of Boston has lived comfortably with its unchallenged reputation as the Land of Stodge, but for all its bans and blue laws the town also plays host to one of the most forward-looking sporting festivals in the world, the 70-year-old Boston Marathon. It is about the only major sporting event that anyone can enter—anyone, that is, but a woman. Now, even that last barrier, unofficially at least, has fallen. Last week a tidy-looking and pretty 23-year-old blonde named Roberta Gibb Bingay not only started but also covered the 26-mile, 385-yard course at a clip fast enough to finish ahead of no fewer than 290 of the event's 415 starters. Her remarkable feat all but eclipsed another turned in by an astonishing four-man delegation from Japan that swept the first four places in the race. How jarring an effect Mrs. Bingay's example of feminine endurance had on countless male egos can easily be guessed. But even if she fails to convince a single housewife that she is as capable as her husband of spading up the garden, the performance should do much to phase out the old-fashioned notion that a female is too frail for distance running.

I was just in. it for the fun," says Roberta, who takes her crusading very casually, "but I did want to make people see something different that would shake them up a little bit, maybe change some traditional attitudes."

Not that anyone should imagine that the lady simply stepped out on the road at the start of the race in exurban Hopkinton entirely lacking in preparation. Mrs. Bingay, in fact, trains almost as rigorously as any top male distance runner. The daughter of a professor of chemistry at Tufts University, she is from the Boston suburb of Winchester. Even before she married him last February, she used to work out with a Tufts distance runner named William Bingay. Now the Bingays live in San Diego, where husband Bill is stationed at the naval base. Roberta trains in the hills and on the golf courses around town, two hours a day, seven days a week, with an occasional five-hour tour thrown into the schedule to keep her from getting lazy. Oddly, until last week she had never before run in a race, even for girls only.

"Competition never interested me," she says. "I liked running just as a way of relaxing and of absorbing the beauties of nature."

The idea of running in a marathon first began to tickle Roberta's esthetic fancy only a year ago when she watched the Boston race for the first time. "I liked it," she says. "I saw all those men running along the road, and they seemed like such exotic animals. I began to wonder about what sort of person would run in such a race."

Since she is now living almost 3,000 miles away, finding out at firsthand this year did not occur to Mrs. Bingay until she discovered that the race date coincided with an already scheduled trip back home to visit her parents. A sailor's salary leaves little room in the budget for transcontinental plane fares, so Roberta took the bus. It was a cramped, four-day trip that brought her to Winchester at 6 p.m. Monday night, just 18 hours before the marathon was to begin. She was up early, ate a breakfast of cheese, milk and orange juice and persuaded her mother to drive her out to the starting line. Women are not permitted to enter the race officially, so, wearing a pair of white Bermuda shorts and a hooded blue sweat shirt over a black, one-piece bathing suit, Roberta hid behind bushes in Hopkinton Common and then jumped out to join the huge throng of runners after all the official cars and buses had churned by. Her early pace was slow, but she shed the sweat shirt after three miles and settled into a brisk, comfortable stride which she stuck with until the end.

"The pavement hurt my feet a little," Roberta confessed after the race, which she finished in 3 hours, 21 minutes, "because I'd never run on pavement before, but I was never really tired. The only thing that bothered me was that I felt like I'd eaten too much breakfast."

Her sudden appearance, however, had quite an unsettling effect on most of the runners who saw her in action.

"I was humming The Girl from Ipanema to myself, trying to get hopped up with a little rhythm," said a competitor who saw her first about 11 miles into the race. "Then this girl scooted by. I thought I must be hallucinating."

Nothing about the long run surprised Roberta, who never doubted that she, or any other woman for that matter, could easily complete a marathon. "It's silly that there aren't more distance races for women," she says. "They may not be as fast as men, but I think it's been proved many times that they have just as much endurance and stamina."

Roberta Bingay's personal triumph unfortunately took some of the luster from the group triumph of the Japanese, who were truly exceptional. Last year the Boston Marathon was won by Japan's Morio Shigematsu, and his countrymen finished second, third, fifth and sixth behind him. This year none of the five could even qualify for the trip to Boston. Shigematsu himself finished ninth in the tryout held last February in Beppu, Japan, even though he bettered his Boston time by 17 seconds.

The Japanese seem as enthusiastic about roadrunning as Australians are about tennis, and they are threatening to build just as powerful a dynasty. All schools from junior high on up include distance running as a compulsory part of the physical-education program. Seventh-graders regularly go out on 2½-mile jaunts, and from the ninth to 12th grades the distance is stepped up to over five miles. Given this as a foundation, it is not surprising that Japan holds approximately 20 major marathons each year or that it goes slightly gaga over its ekidens, which are long-distance relay races in which teams cover a distance of up to 375 miles.

There is also an emotional as well as environmental factor involved in Japan's enthusiasm for the grind of the long-distance road race. "The Japanese have strong physical endurance," reports a Tokyo journalist, "but it is based a great deal on strong spiritual fortitude. The marathon is mainly an endurance test with the mental phase playing a greater role near the end of the race when the runner must fight exhaustion. Japanese by nature love a challenge and hate to lose, especially where it concerns their physical endurance."

Since the element of luck plays a distinctly minor role in marathon running, it was not likely that any of this year's Japanese contingent was going to lose the challenge. Judging from their times in the February tryout, Tooru Terasawa, 31, Hirokazo Okabe, 24, Kenji Kimihara, 25 (a member of Japan's 1964 Olympic team) and Seiichiro Sasaki, a youthful 20, seemed unbeatable. Terasawa had won the Beppu race in 2:14:35, an average of under 5:10 per mile, and all four had finished well under the Boston record set last year by Shigematsu.

At Boston the Japanese strategy was simplicity itself. "We will run together for 20 miles," said the team's runner-manager, Terasawa, "and then it is every man for himself."

That is just about how it went, though the Japanese stuck together in front of the pack for over 25 miles. The race course heads due east from Hopkinton all the way into midtown Boston, and the runners wrestled with a 15-to-20-mph head wind the whole way. Until tiring at the end, however, the leaders set new best times at five of the six official checking stations en route. Then, with less than a mile to go, Kimihara, apparently only slightly less tired than the rest, spurted ahead to win by 13 seconds over Sasaki in 2:17:11.

For Americans who take their marathoning seriously, some consolation could be found in the showing made by the fifth-place finisher, gray-haired Norm Higgins, a 6-foot-3, 29-year-old native of New London, Conn. who now attends Los Angeles City College. If an athlete pushing 30 can be said to be very promising, then Higgins is that in the marathon. He has been running for 20 years and is a protégé of New London's Johnny Kelley, whose win in 1957 is the only American first at Boston in the last 21 years. For three years now Higgins has been training in California with the Hungarian distance-running wizard, Mihaly Igloi, who also helped put Jim Beatty and Jim Grelle on the world-class map. Being so tall makes Higgins a rarity among the marathon's fast set—only one runner over 6 feet has ever won the Boston Marathon—but his time of 2:18:26 last week was the fastest yet posted by a U.S. runner at Boston. Looking somewhat like an elderly scoutmaster escorting a troop of tiny scouts on a camping trip, Higgins stayed with the Japanese until the halfway point near Wellesley College, fell back a bit, then came on strong toward the end to pull within 15 seconds of Okabe.

"I had trouble getting my tempo at the start," was Higgins' assessment, "but then I began to feel really good. I tried very hard to get a U.S. runner in front of at least one of the Japanese, but I guess they just got a little too far ahead."

Thus there was no surprise to match the one Roberta Bingay provided meet officials, who nevertheless remained quite stubborn about assigning her a place in history.

"Mrs. Bingay did not run in the Boston Marathon," insists Will Cloney, the genial maître d' of the marathon. "She merely covered the same route as the official race while it was in progress. No girl has ever run in the Boston Marathon," he concluded, remaining a staid New Englander to the last codfish.

Careful, Will. There may be a dozen young ladies crouching in the bushes of Hopkinton Common come the start of next year's race.