I once saw Jock Semple chase a runner out of a lavatory stall in the boys locker room at Hopkinton High School. I remember this because it was the only time in my life I ever saw anyone chased out of a lavatory stall anywhere.
The occasion was the start of another Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Mass., a small town located 26 miles, 385 yards from downtown Boston. The date was the third Monday in April, sometime in the ’70s.
Jock was a perpetual marathon presence at the time. He had gained a lot of notoriety back in 1967 when he jumped from the press truck during the race to try to remove Kathrine Switzer, a woman who had crashed the restricted all-male field. He lunged to rip off her number and was intercepted by her boyfriend, a hammer thrower, who knocked him to the ground. The pictures of this confrontation, snapped in sequence, were sort of a comic Zapruder film that was published in newspapers around the world.
Switzer finished the race and struck her successful blow for equality. She was famous. Women were allowed in the race in 1972. Jock? He was the villain in the show, but took it well. Jock was Jock.
He was maybe 70 years old by now, unchanged, a caricature Scotsman with the caricature burr, funny and friendly for most of the year, good friends with Kathrine Switzer, for instance, but on race day he still walked his personal dogs. The marathon, Boston version, was his baby, his child. He had appointed himself the caretaker. Rules were rules. He was the enforcer.
That was what the runner in the lavatory stall soon discovered.
The boys locker room at Hopkinton High was the locker room for the elite male runners. The scene on the Hopkinton Green next to the start was a freak show filled with runners, families, news crews and pancake breakfasts, a couple of helicopters hovering overhead. The regular runners were supposed to prepare for the race in that setting. Those preparations were supposed to include trips to the porta-potties on the grounds. The locker room, again, was for the elite runners.
I was talking with Jock, interviewing him about the race to come, when the regular runner brushed past us to use the facilities. He entered the stall, locked the door behind him. I could see Jock thinking, probably reviewing the names and faces of the elite runners, who he all knew. I could see, oops, that the regular runner did not have a file card in this memory system. Trouble followed.
“Why you $%#^^&*,” Jock shouted as he kicked in the door. “You get out of here, you %$^^^*#, you &*^^%$ ...”
The guy was in there, not only minding his own business, but presumably doing his own business when the door was crashed in and this angry old Scotsman stood in front of him, calling him a succession of awful names. I would bet that to this day he has no idea what line he crossed. I do know that he was immediately convinced he had crossed some line. He fled from the stall with his running shorts down around his Nikes. Terrified.
“That &*^^%***,” Jock said, back to the interview. “Now where were we?”
I am reminded of this story by the current marathon contretemps involving Mr. Paul Ryan, 42-year-old congressman from Wisconsin and newly nominated Republican vice presidential candidate. Mr. Ryan, a noted physical fitness devotee, admitted, aw shucks, in a radio interview recently that he had run a marathon in his youth, before disc problems in his back slowed him down. The interviewer, Hugh Hewitt, asked the usual marathon question: What was your time?
“Under three, high twos,” Ryan responded. “I had a two-hour and 50-something.”
“Holy smokes …” Hugh Hewitt exclaimed.
“I was fast when I was younger, yeah,” Ryan said.
The time was so good that when the interview went public, runners were intrigued, if not downright skeptical. A 2:50-something was a front-of-the-pack time. If Mr. Ryan had run a second marathon, based on that first time, he would have been given a low number and a chance to start with the other good runners at most marathons.
Could he really have run that fast? The answer, researched by Runner’s World magazine, quickly arrived: No, he couldn’t. The magazine reported that his finish in his one marathon, the venerable Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minn., in June 1990 was 4:01:25. Mr. Ryan finished 1,990th in a field of 3,277 male runners.
The fallout from all of this has been interesting. Mr. Ryan has said that he misspoke, that he didn’t remember his time, that the race was 20 years ago. “My bad.” Runners of all dimension, anyone who ever has run a marathon, myself included, have pointed out that after all that work preparing the race, everyone remembers the time, especially if it is the only marathon he ever ran. This was a little more than “my bad.”
The person I would like to hear talk about the subject, of course, is Jock Semple, who died in 1988 at the age of 84. He was always protective of those runners at the front. They were the true athletes. They were the ones who put in the time and effort, who built their bodies over long periods to be able to do what they do. The runners at the back, myself included, were no more than dressing on the table, inconveniences. They were college undergraduates running on a dare, housewives trying to lose a few pounds, old men trying for a last burst at feeling young, jokers, tokers, fraud politicians looking to get their names in the paper.
“This %^$$#^ guy,” I bet Semple would say. “Doesn’t remember his &^%*^ time? Who’s he kidding?”
I can say that Mr. Ryan would not have been invited to that special bathroom at Hopkinton High School. No, he wouldn’t.