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The monster of Boston
By Ron McCracken
As featured in the JanFeb 2009 issue of Running Times Magazine
The photo hangs alone at the Bill Rodgers Running Center in Boston. To a runner familiar with marathon history, it offers a fading glimpse at the kings of the first running boom of the 1970s. A chance meeting brings the old image to life.
"Yes, Fukuoka 1978!" booms an excited Yuri Laptev of Russia, one of the marathoners in the photo taken at the turnaround of the out-and-back course. "We ran 1:04:30 at halfway point."
His memory is crystal clear as he points to each of his old rivals. "[Toshihiko] Seko first place, [Leonid] Moiseyev fifth, [Bill] Rodgers sixth. I finished eleventh."
Before one has a chance to think this is just some old runner reliving his glory days, Laptev animatedly details his race strategy for the 2008 Boston Marathon, just four days away. "I want to run 2:55. Every kilometer I hit 4:06 [about a 6:40 mile]. Next kilometer 4:06. Every one 4:06. Going out too fast is no good," explains the young-looking 59-year-old, recalling the mistake he made at his first Boston in 1992. "I ran the first 5,000 meters in 15:00. No good! I ran very slow the last 10,000 meters."
Laptev lets out a thundering laugh. He loves the company of other runners as much as he loves the sport, a fact made clear during a postrace toast celebrating his 2:58:53 finish this year. The obvious affection between Laptev and former rival Bill Rodgers grows contagious as the drinks flow and the hours fly by, punctuated often by Laptev's room-shaking laugh. Their affection reminds one of Jesse Owens' quote on the bonds forged during such battles: "Friendships born on the field of athletic strife are the real gold of competition. Awards become corroded. Friends gather no dust."
"Before Fukuoka, we knew each other only from newspapers," Laptev recalls. "But there we met and became friends."
Charlie Rodgers, Bill's brother and co-owner of their retail venture, still laughs about his first meeting in 1992 with the Kazakhstan native. Charlie relates, "I was downstairs in the store and I was talking to Leonid Moiseyev [one of the all-time great Soviet runners] when I heard this booming Russian voice coming down the stairs. Yuri comes down and starts unpacking his bag. He takes out six bottles of vodka, breaks out a six-inch knife, some Russian brown bread and smoked salmon and starts cutting it up and eating it right there. He's talking very loudly and Leonid is saying 'Yuri, quiet, quiet.'"
Laptev affirms that his free-spirited ways drew him to running. "I like freedom. Living, not depending on others."
His career as a beekeeper and fisherman meshes with his simple, common sense diet and training regimen. "Just running and good food," he responds when asked if he does anything special to fight aging. "[I eat] any kind of food, mostly light." His training peaks at 60--75 miles per week, with 3-hour long runs of 18--20 miles when prepping for a marathon.
Like many of the old--time greats, Laptev has earned a nickname. "We call him 'The Monster,'" Rodgers explains, "because it seems with little preparation, he's able to do monstrous feats. With two months training, he's able to run well. You always knew he wasn't going to fail, regardless of the conditions." This included a 3:04:38 in the horrifying heat of the 2004 Boston, at age 55. "It's astounding that he did that," Rodgers says.
More astonishing is Laptev's clockwork-like record at Boston. Beginning with a 2:41:15 in 1992 (his Beantown PR on his first attempt on the course at age 42), his 17 consecutive Boston finishes include 10 sub-2:50 performances and five sub-3:00 runs (with a near-miss of 3:00:35 in 2002). He won the 50–59 division in 1999 in 2:42:11.
Laptev's times from ages 43-59 compare closely to the most prolific Boston marathoner ever, John "the Elder" Kelley. Yuri's 2008 finish gives him a 9-8 advantage over Kelley, one of his heroes. Their hypothetical age-58 matchup would have been a dandy. Kelley blazed a 2:55:00 in 1966. Laptev, in 2007, crossed the line a mere 11 seconds later.
Laptev has been strong for a very long time. In 1975, he ran a 2:25:27 to win the Athens, Greece, marathon in Texas-like heat that reached nearly 100 degrees. He scored another major victory at the 1982 Moscow Peace Marathon, covering his home turf in 2:19:01. And his 11th-place finish at the 1978 Fukuoka race gave him a personal marathon best of 2:14:14.
For about a month before the 2009 Boston, "The Monster" will train in the mountains of Kirghizstan, a yearly ritual. Laptev turns 60 on December 5. Asked if he would like to race Bill Rodgers (also 60) again next Patriots' Day, Laptev responds gracefully. "Well, Bill is my best friend and I'd like him to run the marathon with me."
By Jesse Owens' gold standard, this friendship shines brightly 30 years after it was "born on the field of athletic strife." Now that's something to toast.