Tom Derderian keeps running in perspective
Published: Thursday April 14, 2011
Winthrop, Mass. - In this complex world of road running, Tom Derderian is like an Armenian in orbit. He keeps going and going with the world beneath his nimble feet.
When the Boston Marathon kicks off April 18, the 62-year-old juggernaut won't be among the 20,000-odd entries. Instead, you'll find him working behind the scenes as a venerable coach, organizer and senior writer for New England Runner magazine.
Rest assured, he'll be somewhere along the 26-mile route from Hopkinton to Boston on this Patriots' Day.
Perhaps you may have expected a more visible role for the man, often regarded as the greatest Armenian distance runner to come before us. One may recall his accolades in the 1970s when he ripped off a time of 2:19:04 for the Boston Marathon and ran in the Olympic Trials in 1972 and 1976. His best mile time was a 4:17.
Putting it into perspective, his time continues to reign supreme among Armenian marathoners which earned him an 18th spot among the world's best. In 1944, one J. Kashishian placed 18th with a time of 3:10.42.
In March, Derderian ran three half-marathons, winning his age group (60-plus) in two of them in just over 90 minutes.
"I see the marathon as a worthwhile test for any athlete in their prime," he points out. "To keep running it out of habit is not interesting to me. I can run that far with no difficulty but I cannot race it. If I want to run 26 miles, I can do so in the woods for free. When I pin a number on m jersey, I want to race. Would you go to a concert to listen to a musician who did not practice?"
Derderian runs to the beat of his own drum. He struts 50-70 miles a week for shorter distance races, sometimes twice-a-day workouts. If he doesn't win his age class, he comes mighty close. Ask him how many races he's entered over his lifetime and a smile crosses his face. It's almost mind-boggling or robotic.
"Several thousand, I would guess," he says unabashedly. "Although marathons were the longest, I tried a 50-miler and a 50-kilometer but got bored. I prefer shorter distance events."
The flip side is Derderian the writer. He's the guy who wrote the history book on the Boston Marathon. He's covered every race for New England Runner and continues to coach the Greater Boston Track Club which has won the team prize in past years.
As he has chronicled in his book, the numbers increased from a handful in that 1897 inaugural race to a few hundred one decade later, a thousand runners in 1969 to a top field of 40,000 runners for the centennial in 1996.
Not all bodes well with Derderian.
"My concern is that fast runners be guaranteed entry and not be tossed into a lottery or be rushed to make a deadline," he feels. "Athletic competition is not a democracy. Faster runners should be privileged. The Boston Marathon was conceived in the tradition of the Olympic Marathon to be a footrace to see who's fastest."
His history is venerable. As a high school senior in Milford, Derderian was accepted to Boston University, Northeastern and UMass. Having run his school championship in the mile, he was a logical candidate for a spot on the cross country and track teams at any of the three institutions.
He chose the Amherst campus, graduated there in 1973 with a degree in English Literature and Journalistic Studies, and competed in the ever-so-grueling steeplechase.
"My goal in the steeplechase was to finish with one dry foot," he recalled. "One time a Boston Globe photographer caught me with only my eyes above the water as a Holy Cross runner jumped by and a Boston College runner going past and looking at me. The race was far from over. I did beat them both and was refreshed."
Derderian's interest in the Armenian Genocide led him to organizing an all-night relay around the campus pond to promote awareness. Several runners took part in the run, most of them non-Armenians, hitting their stride for human rights recognition.
The incident hit the Armenian press and made Derderian somewhat of an ambassador for his people. He often teams up with Dave Kazanjian, another sub-4:20 miler from Methuen who operates the Whirl-Away Golf & Running Center.
The two serve on a committee for the New England Association of the United States Track & Field organization to plan for the annual awards dinner.
"If they don't watch us, we're apt to serve up all Armenian foods," he smiles.
Not all has been on course with Derderian. He was third at the 1981 Portsmouth (NH) 10-kilomer, only because he had taken a wrong turn and brought a large pack of several hundred runners off course with him that day, adding about two minutes to the course.
When the pack had approached the finish line from the wrong direction, race officials were forced to reverse the finish line after the first two runners had long finished.
Derderian worked for Nike in the 1970s and 80s in product development and design. He earned several U.S. patents for his creative work in footwear and apparel.
He has been cross-country chairman and vice-president for the USA Track and Field New England Association and coached the sport at Amherst High School and Salem State College.
Since 1994, Derderian has coached the Greater Boston Track Club men to excellence in track, cross-country and distance running. The team has won countless indoor and outdoor championships since 1998. Two of his teams placed first in the 2004 and 2005 Boston Marathons.
"The world is a conspiracy to keep you from training," he believes. "As a running organization, we fight that conspiracy."
Daughters Jane and Hattie are college students in Entomology/English/Spanish, both at UMass schools, while wife Cynthia Hastings is an editor and runner herself. When not meandering around the roads of New England, Derderian serves on the tree committee in his home town of Winthrop and studies classical guitar.