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I once watched history as it was made.

By this I don't mean the small, everyday acts we all engage in that eventually are regarded as history, or at least as a momentary trend.  By that standard, each moment we live and breathe, each beat of our hearts, each meal we eat, each book we read or letter we write or word we speak is history in the making.  No, tonight I mean something that was as close to a shot fired across the bow as anything I've ever personally witnessed.

It was April of 1983, and I was living in Cleveland Circle, the part of Boston at the intersection of Allston-Brighton (home of Boston University students), Brookline (home of professionals), and Chestnut Hill (home of Boston College).  It's a small, interesting, reasonably safe neighborhood with banks, shops, a movie theater, several T tops, a notorious dive, and one of the best pizzerias in Boston.  I had a little studio apartment one block in from Beacon Street, within spitting distance of the Green Line, a small secondhand bookstore, and if the occasional homeless person took shelter in my vestibule, the building itself was clean, safe, and newly renovated.  In so many ways, it was a perfect place for a first apartment.  

Even better, Cleveland Circle was also on the Boston Marathon route.

I didn't know that when I moved in, nor was I fully aware of it until I read the special section in the Globe the day before the 1983 Marathon.  I was surprised and delighted to realize that Cleveland Circle was the next leg of the race after Heartbreak Hill, the legendary rise where the course goes uphill just as the runners' store of glycogen runs out.  Heartbreak Hill has been the nemesis of many a would-be champion, and since the Marathon itself ran right down Beacon Street on the final approach to the Prudential Center four and a half miles away, I'd have a perfect view of the men and women who'd pushed past their limits and were in an excellent position to win.

It was cool and cloudy, perfect racing weather, when my boyfriend and I headed out to the T stop to watch the race leaders speed past on their way to the finish line.  The wheelchair racers came first, zipping around the corner by the trolley tracks almost too fast to hear the cheers from the spectators waiting to greet them, and if I hadn't appreciated their hard work and athleticism before, I certainly did after seeing fly past in a flash of steel and displaced air and canted wheels.

A few minutes later a news van turned the corner, just ahead of a knot of running men.  It was just before 1:00 pm, and the leaders were on pace to hit the Pru only a few minutes off the world record pace.  I wasn't familiar with the favorites that day, but I applauded and cheered as the eventual winner, Greg Meyer, and the men chasing him pounded past, faces set, arms pumping, legs lifting and falling as they drove themselves those last few miles.

More racers, all male, poured down the hill and onto Beacon Street.  We watched, fascinated, but after a few minutes one lean, wiry runner looks much like another.  That's why when my boyfriend suggested we catch the next train into Boston and grab some lunch, I agreed, took his hand, and fell into step beside him as we crossed the street to wait for the C train.

That was when another news van came into view, cameraman facing backwards to film a single small figure in white.

I glanced at my watch, double taked, and looked back up at the van and the runner.  

"Honey?"  I tugged at my much-taller boyfriend's sleeve.  "Is that who I think it is?"

He squinted slightly and shaded his eyes with one long hand.  "Looks like Joan Benoit.  She's really in the zone."

By now the runner was close enough that I could see the finest female distance runner in America, face drawn as if in pain, eyes focused on something only she could see.  There were men to her side and her rear, some pacing, one or two passing, but it's doubtful she either saw or heard anything but the road ahead and the trip hammer beat of her own heart.

I looked down at my watch again.  "You know - she's five minutes ahead of the world record."

My boyfriend frowned.  "There must be something wrong with your watch.  Five minutes?"

"It worked fine yesterday," I said, lifting my wrist so he could see the time.  Benoit was even with us now, whip-thin and determined, and despite what my boyfriend said, I knew that something very special was happening.  "Wingding - "

At that moment the train pulled in, and we surged forward as the doors opened so we'd have a chance of getting good seats instead of having to stand on our trip into time.  I grabbed a place by the window and stared at the runners only a few feet away, all male except for Benoit, and then the train gathered speed and they were behind us, running in the footsteps of the Kelleys and Boston Billy and Kathy Switzer and all the others who'd made Boston the greatest road race in the country.

It wasn't until we'd had lunch, shopped a bit, and gotten back to my apartment that we heard the news:  Joan Benoit had won the Marathon in an astonishing time of      2:22:43, only 13 minutes behind Greg Meyer.  It was a course record that stood for almost thirty years, a full three minutes ahead of the world record set only the day before in London, and was so far beyond what women were thought to be capable of that sportswriters compared it to Roger Bannister's sub-four minute mile, or Bob Beamon's epic long jump in Mexico City.

It was astonishing.  It was historic.  And, as I pointed out to Wingding with unseemly pride, it was almost five minutes ahead of the previous world record.

Looks like there was nothing wrong with my watch after all.

Distance running is scarcely the only sport I've enjoyed watching.  I rarely miss the ice skating competition at the Olympics, adore hockey (especially when played outdoors), appreciate gymnastics and track, and was so obsessed with Secretariat that I refused to be taken to the hospital for treatment of a strangulated hernia until after Big Red had triumphed in the 1973 Preakness.  I've been to Fenway Park and the Civic Arena, Beehive Field and the old Boston Garden, and if I have never participated in sports myself, blame a combination of bad eyesight, a pre-Title IX mother who didn't see the need for a bookish child to waste time on such nonsense, and an arthritic left knee caused by my youthful attempt to jump across my aunt's foyer that ended when I hit the corner of a wall leg-first.

Tonight I bring you two books about sports that I loved as a child, and one movie that I enjoyed as a teenager.  The books, one a classic horse story, one a British mountaineering tale with an unusual twist, fired my imagination and made me dream of pushing my body to the limits.  The movie, originally made for television, was a feminist take on an old story:

The Black Stallion, by Walter Farley - dramatic, romantic in the old sense, exciting, and heartfelt – these are only some of the words that describe this classic tale of a teenager, Alec Ramsey, and the magnificent black racehorse he first encounters on a tramp steamer somewhere in the Middle East.  The steamer is shipwrecked and Alec finds himself washed ashore on a desert island with the horse, which he tames and names The Black, then brings back to his home in Flushing.  Eventually The Black wins a match race with two racing champions, Sun Raider and Cyclone, and after several equally addictive sequels, is both a race winner and a first-class sire.

As ludicrous as this sounds, Farley's vivid prose, sharp characterizations, and obvious knowledge of horses and racing make it work.  A journalist by training, he wrote The Black Stallion around the time war broke out in Europe, but there's nary a hint of U-boats, bombs, or battle.  No, this is an old-fashioned adventure story that ignores geopolitical realities in favor of the drama surrounding a middle class boy whose parents only want the best for him (there's a major subplot in one of the sequels where Alec's involvement in racing is contingent on him going to college) who comes back from a visit abroad with a half-ton, half-tamed companion that is as much a soul mate as a horse.

The Black Stallion may be best known for the gorgeous but less than faithful movie of 1979, but trust me:  the book is miles better.  For all the beauty on the screen, the scriptwriters made several crucial decisions that changed the story in dramatic and not necessarily good ways.  Alec's father, who both supports his son's love of racing and wants him to get an education, is killed off early in the movie, while the small island where both Alec and The Black must subsist on edible moss becomes a tropical seascape with magnificent beaches that all but beg for the Baywatch theme to play in the background.  Worst of all, Alec himself is not a teenager on the cusp of adulthood, but child so small and so young that he could not possibly control any horse at full gallop, let alone a half-tamed stallion.  It's very disappointing for anyone who read and loved the book as it was, not as movie tradition and the suits would have it be.

So if you love horses – or old-fashioned adventure – or just a good, fast read – curl up in your favorite chair with a cup of cider and a copy of The Black Stallion.  This is one horse story that holds up far better than anyone might expect.

Scratch and Co:  The Great Cat Expedition, by Molly Lefebure - Molly Lefebure deserves to be much, much better known, both for her writing and for her colorful, unconventional life.  Reporter, mortuary attendant, scholar, children's book writer – this mid-century Briton lived a life that would make an epic novel or film.

Originally a reporter in East London during the Blitz, Lefebure was hired by renowned pathologist Dr. Keith Simpson as his secretary/assistant.  Known to the police as “Miss Molly of the Morgue,” she was indispensable to Simpson as he investigated the murders, accidental deaths, criminal abortions, suicides, and infanticides that continued unabated even as London coped with German bombs and V-2 rockets.  “You can eat anywhere once you’ve eaten a ham sandwich in a mortuary,” she said when asked how she stood the constant presence of the dead, and went about her business.

She married after the war and moved to Kingston-upon-Thames, then divided her time between there and Cumbria starting in the 1950s when her family purchased a weekend home in the gorgeous countryside.  There Lefebure helped organize conferences on Wordsworth and became an expert on Britain's finest romantic poet and his life.  She also befriended Alfred Wainwright, a local artist and illustrator who provided the colorful illustrations for Scratch and Co and at least one more of Lefebure's twenty books.

Lefebure's output ranged from a biography of Wordsworth to several novels under the name of “Mary Blandy” (an ancestor who had poisoned her father), but this little children's book is a real standout.  Exciting, wonderfully written, and frequently hilarious, Scratch and Co. is a neat little parody of that peculiarly English subgenre of adventure fiction where manly men pit themselves against mighty mountains, determined to scale the peaks “because they're there” even if it costs them life and limb.  There's a noble hero, a couple of competing journalists, porters and Sherpas and devious allies, all playing their parts just as they had in dozens of previous books.  

The major difference is that in Lefebure's world, the explorers aren't human.  Not at all.  

They're cats.

That's right.  This affectionate take-off on the British obsession with mountaineering stars domestic cats as the noble explorers, rabbits as the terrified lowland porters, terriers as the experienced Sherpas (except for one, a poetry-obsessed fox terrier who works as a journalist), and foxes as the sneaky, sly, amoral bandits who are determined to thwart Scratch's expedition to climb the Highest Known Peak (HKP, known to us humans as Scafell Pike).  An unexpected ally, the journalist's McGonagallesque poetry about mighty clouds (or possibly potatoes?), rabbits constantly demanding “danger pay!” whenever there's the slightest hint of discomfort, knighthoods signified by sashes and cravats rather than swords – this is child-safe adventure at its very best.  A bonus are Alfred Wainwright's witty illustrations, which bring Scratch and his friends to vibrant life.

See How She Runs - I last saw this made for TV movie almost forty years ago, and truly, it shouldn't have burned itself into my memory the way it did.  The story (a divorced woman with annoying teenagers, an annoying ex-husband, and annoying co-workers finds herself by taking up a new hobby) was a cliché even in the 1970s, and critics both before and since have agreed that if Joanne Woodward hadn't played the lead, this film would have sunk without a trace.

Fortunately for the viewer, and for my youthful imagination, Joanne Woodward did play the lead.

Woodward's character, a teacher struggling to support her daughters after her divorce, decides to take up running after realizing that she's put on a few pounds.  She quickly falls in love with the sport, and as her runs escalate from jogs around the block to serious training, she rediscovers her love of life and her joy in her own body.  By the time she commits to training for the Boston Marathon itself, she's reclaimed her sense of self, turned down her annoying ex's attempts at reconciliation, and is her own person in ways she hasn't been since her marriage.

Two scenes in particularly are engraved in my memory:

- Woodward's character is attacked by a would-be rapist while out on a late-night run...and instead of folding up and letting him have his way with her, or screaming for help that might or might not come, she punches him in the nose and screams “Get away from me, you son of a bitch!”  It was a great, small moment showing a woman relying on herself to get out of trouble rather than waiting for help, and I was grinning like a fiend as she shoved her attacker off and tore off through the park for home.

It's Patriot's Day, and Woodward is all set to run the Marathon...only her ex, her friends, and even her children are so convinced she'll fail that none of them are there to watch her run.  She's not properly dressed or equipped, and when she injures her leg, she's on her own when it comes to finishing the race.  There's a harrowing series of quick cuts showing her limping along as the other runners pass her, one by one, the sky getting darker and darker as the day passes, until she's basically hobbling down Beacon Street after dark, almost ten hours after she set off from Hopkintown.  She's alone, and she knows she's alone, yet she's absolutely determined that despite the pain, despite the lack of support, despite everything, she is going to finish the Marathon if it kills her.  

And then, as she limps toward the deserted finish line at the Pru, she sees people...and hears her name...and there they are, her friends and her daughters and even her ex, who've been faithfully waiting all day for her.  Two of her loved ones snatch up a piece of yellow police tape and hold it aloft, and with a last burst of strength she straightens up, eyes alight, and forces her legs to work for those last few agonizing yards.

She hits the finish line, tape snapping as her chest strikes it, and throws up her arms in triumph - and the camera freezes on her exultant cry as she proves that even an out of shape divorcee with an unsympathetic family and a boring job can triumph.

I'm getting goosebumps just thinking about this.

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What tales of sport and athletic achievement have fired your imagination and stolen  your heart?  Did you ever read about The Black?  See the movie?  Hiked up a mountain?  Dreamed of running a marathon?  The floor is yours....

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat Sep 14, 2013 at 06:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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