Greg Meyer is in the medical fight against the global COVID-19 pandemic.
The 1983 B.A.A. Boston Marathon champion currently serves as the chief community officer at Metro Health-University of Michigan Health, an affiliate of the University of Michigan Medical Center.
The 124th running of the Boston Marathon on April 20 was a coronavirus casualty; the annual event typically draws over a million spectators to the 26.2-mile course.
Meyer makes an annual pilgrimage to Boston for the Patriots’ Day spectacle and serves as a reminder of a bygone era before commercialization changed the structure and essence of the race. The trappings of victory back then were an olive wreath and a bowl of beef stew.
The Friday before Marathon Monday, the B.A.A. holds a gala ceremony in the media room at the Fairmont Copley Hotel. That’s where low bib numbers are awarded to the elite runners and past champions are celebrated.
The three individuals who garner the most attention are the marathon’s elders: Meyer; four-time champion Bill “Boston Billy” Rodgers; and two-time winner and Olympic champion Joan Benoit-Samuelson.
“People have a soft spot for Joanie, which is wonderful, and the same for Billy,” said Meyer. “I always feel very welcome in Boston and it’s humbling, but at the same time it makes me feel really good inside. I still feel a part of all of those folks. “
The participating runners exit the stage and move to their interview stations in an adjoining room to field questions from the international media. A few notepads and cameras stick around to get Meyer’s recollections and insights on the coming race.
It’s always a good idea to take a look back with Greg Meyer.
At the dawn of the 1970s, Boston was gripped in an economic malaise and a close-knit multi-ethnic neighborhood in the West End was demolished by urban renewal.
Boston was a house divided over court-ordered busing; its downtown had become a graying façade of a once-prosperous destination.
From those dark days emerged an enlightened nationwide running boom that attracted millions of health-conscious Americans. The boom would prove to be more than a fad.
Running was an inexpensive stress-reducing commitment to fitness that encompassed all age groups and could be had for the cost of a pair of New Balance running shoes.
Running clubs began popping up everywhere, and municipalities began staging road races. Some, like the prestigious Falmouth Road Race, have lived to this day.
All this occurred before the advent of lightweight rainbow-accented nylon running suits and designer sunglasses. The uniform of the day consisted of droopy white socks, gym shorts, a nondescript t-shirt and a rolled up red-bandana to hold back all that long hair.
“The Arnold Palmer of our sport was Billy and road races began springing up all over the place,” said Meyer. “People first started running for exercise and it took a personality like Billy to make them feel special about what they were doing.”
Meyer migrated to Boston following a hall of fame running career at Michigan. He was a four time All-American and became the first Wolverine to run a sub four-minute mile.
Meyer moved east to attend graduate school at Boston University and compete for the Greater Boston Track Club.
Former Boston College miler Jack McDonald was the GBTC’s first president and the crew was coached by the idiosyncratic Billy Squires; a master race tactician often described as “out there.”
“He was the mad scientist of the group,” said Meyer. “His training skills were spot on and his communication skills, well … they were interesting at best and always made us laugh.”
After winning the 1975 Boston Marathon, Rodgers became the face of the GBTC. The roster was loaded with accomplished collegiate harriers and track runners who transformed the GBTC into a national force.
The early group included 1982 Boston champion Alberto Salazar of Wayland and former UMass All-American Randy Thomas, the current women’s cross-country and track coach at BC. Thomas placed fifth in the 1978 Boston Marathon with a time of 2:11:25.
The pack included Mike Roche, Bruce Bickford, Bobby Hodge, Cynthia Hastings and Bob Hall, a pioneer who brought wheelchair racing into the marathon mainstream.
They trained together, battled on the course and partied at their favorite watering hole. The GBTC and other top clubs formed a subculture within the running boom and their hangout was the famed Eliot Lounge.
The Eliot was located on the corner of Massachusetts and Commonwealth avenues, situated adjacent to the race course and in the shadow of Fenway Park.
The Eliot overflowed on marathon week and was managed by charismatic bartender Tommy Leonard, a tabloid character who was the inspiration behind the Falmouth Road Race.
“I think we had a hell of a lot more fun than the current group of runners,” said Meyer. “For them, it’s a business, and for us, we created the business and I think every club back then had a strong bond with one another.”
The GBTC nurtured a mystique and Boston became a running mecca comparable to Eugene, Oregon.
The COVID-19 pandemic postponed the XXXII Olympiad, which was scheduled to take place in Tokyo from July 23-Aug. 8. The Olympics have been rescheduled for 2021.
Meyer feels bad for the American athletes who had their timetables scrambled and left with no place to train. But for the most part, the only real fallout is delayed gratification.
That wasn’t the case for Meyer, who had hoped to represent the U.S. in the 10,000-meters in the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow.
Unfortunately for Meyer, Cold War politics dashed the Olympic ideal. President Jimmy Carter, on the advice of White House press secretary Jody Powell, unilaterally declared an American boycott of the Moscow Olympics.
Carter’s actions were in response to the Red Army’s occupation of Afghanistan, an act of aggression that led to a protracted armed resistance. Carter’s directive felt like a gut punch and many, like Meyer, lashed out.
“I got interviewed on the Today Show by Jane Pauley because I was criticizing Jimmy Carter for canning the Olympics,” said Meyer. “I met Jimmy Carter years later and I went to apologize because I didn’t say good things about Jimmy.
“He laughed and said, “That wasn’t me, that was Powell. He’s the one that had that idea.””
With his Olympics hopes dashed, Meyer focused full-time on the marathon and would become the dominant American in the early 1980s.
Meyer won Detroit in 1980 with a course record 2:13:07. He followed with a victory at Chicago in 1981 with a time of 2:10:59. Meyer was at the height of his powers on April 18, 1983, when he advanced to the starting line in Hopkinton for the 87th running of the Boston Marathon.
Meyer theorized that he would have to be the pace-setter — an arduous undertaking in a 26.2-mile race. Meyer was surprised when Benji Durden of Georgia opened a 100-meter lead on the downhill into Newton Lower Falls. Meyer settled into his stride, made a decisive surge on the Newton hills and cruised to victory in 2:09:00.
“I made a surge just before Heartbreak (Hill) and when he didn’t respond I kept going,” said Meyer. “I knew the course so well and all my long runs were on the course.
“When you run you also visualize what’s going to happen in a race and be ready for what goes on. I give a lot of credit to Benji for how he raced that day, he went after it.”
Meyer was partially upstaged by Benoit-Samuelson, who completed the trip in a world record 2:22:43. It would be the last time two Americans would share the winner’s podium.
“Joanie had won before so this was old hat for her,” said Meyer. “But I knew it was going to change my life, nothing was going to be the same.”
APRIL 15, 2013
Meyer was enjoying a recreational run with his sons Jacob and Danny in the 117th Boston Marathon. Danny had developed a stitch after 18 miles and they were reduced to walking a portion of the race.
While Meyer and sons were on the course, two brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, joined the throng of well-wishers at the finish line.
The terrorists departed the scene, leaving behind two backpacks that contained homemade pressure-cooker bombs. The explosives went off 14 seconds apart at 2:49 p.m., minutes after the Meyers reached Copley Square.
“With a mile to go Danny said, ‘Let’s run it in’ and it happened about four minutes after we reached the finish line,” recalled Meyer. “I remember standing next to a cop just outside the medical tent when it happened.
“We heard the first boom and I looked at him and said ‘it sounds like they blew a transformer.’ Then the second one happened and he got something in his earphone. He turned to me and said, ‘Get the .… out of here.’”
Boston police and a unit of the National Guard were the heroic first responders. They rushed to the affected areas and moved the wounded to the medical tent to await transport to local hospitals.
The tragedy marked the marathon’s darkest hour.
The bombers succeeded in killing three people that day and injured hundreds more but failed in their mission. The terror attack met with defiance and inspired the Boston Strong movement, a collective rally cry that swept the nation.
“Boston is a tough town and I think that came out so well afterwards,” said Meyer. “After this happened everybody thought road racing was going to shrink because nobody was going to feel safe and just the opposite happened.
“Road racing boomed that year with people wanting to show ‘you’re not going to make me stay away, you’re not going to win.’ The 2014 marathon had a record number of applicants and record number of volunteers. They were just incredible.”
Meyer can’t imagine Patriots Day without the Boston Marathon. The organizers rescheduled the 2020 race for Sept. 14, putting it at loggerheads with the New York Marathon on Nov. 1.
The Boston Marathon is world-class endurance race that tests the metlle and character of those who participate. Finishing the race is a reward in and of itself. Meyer conquered the race in 1983 and saw it arise like a phoenix in the aftermath of 2013.
That’s what keeps him coming back.