April in Boston: it's Marathon time, full of camaraderie and spectacle
Another April. Boston on my mind. Images of Boston: a silent explosion of bloom filling the Public Garden. Strollers on the Common. A gleaming new skyline jutting above the still-majestic old. The North Atlantic's stinging breath.Skip to next paragraph
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And the world's most famous footrace, the event that brings me back each April.
I've been coming back now for over a quarter of a century. A few years before I began my pilgrimages, writer called the Boston Athletic Association Marathon "America's biggest, freest spectacle."
That was four decades before running captivated the American imagination. The writer probably meant "spectacle" to be read two ways. Because, while those '30s and '40s Boston Marathon runners commanded brief newspaper attention and a curious kind of "I can't believe anybody runs 26 miles!" admiration, to the majority of viewers, theirs was a contest verging on the ludicrous.
The race imposed no qualifying standards then. Of the 200 or so who annually answered Mr. Brown's gun at Hopkinton's Lucky Rock Manor each Patriot's Day, fewer than 20 regularly broke three hours. (In 1980, 3,700 of the event's 8,000 starters finished under three and a half hours!)
Pre-standards winners and leaders were easily identifiable. Heroes weren't lost in the year's turning. Names like Clarence DeMar, Jimmy Henigan, Leslie Pawson, and Ellison (Tarzan) Brown needed no re-introductions.
On the tag end, plodders countered anonymity with idiosyncrasy. One might run in flowered, jockey-style underwear, another brandish a three-foot shillelagh to ward off dogs. Some shuffled oversize midriffs incredibly past the early checkpoints, only to disappear long before the halfway mark around Wellesley.
Front-runners looked mildly askance on "the lunatic fringe" (as Boston writers facetiously tabbed the stock comic contenders). Yet, despite their desire for something like professional respectability, the DeMars and Pawsons and Henigans were part of a sport more democratic, if possible, than America itself.
Without superstar status, they had little use for snobbery within their thin ranks. They enjoyed what transplanted Scot Johnny Semple, who placed seventh in 1930, called "camaraderie." If Jake wanted to carry a stick, so what? If the folks in Wellesley had never seen a pair of flowered shorts jog by, maybe they needed to, at least once a year.
"America's biggest, freest spectacle!" -- almost more democratic than America. Then, ironically, as the '30s turned into the '40s, the event began losing its American identity.
Yes, the race whose proper Bostonian name was "The American Marathon," the race which had, since its birth in 1897, come to symbolize athletic purity in America's Athens, had, by 1946, fallen into foreign hands . . . or feet.
Then years later, having watched a succession of Greek, Korean, Canadian, Swedish, Japanese, and Finnish jersey emblems breeze across the finish line, Boston's sidewalk superintendents chafed through their cheers. "Where have our American winners gone?"
It was a valid question. Whoever thought two-time former winner John A. Kelley's gallant, exhaust-fume-baffled attempt to outlast Greek Stylianos Kyriakides in 1946 would set a pattern (of doomed effort) that would be broken only twice over the next 26 years?
Nonetheless, that's how things went. (From "Nice try" to "What happened?" to "What else is new?", if you happened --Hope" at any time during those years when infidels held marathoning's Holy Land.)
Picture 1980 winner Bill Rodgers facing the mikes to relate how he captured the unicorn. Remember Bill articulately fielding a barrage of questions posed in English?
How many readers recall the days when a portly, trenchcoated fellow stood between the reporters and a "tired but happy" little fellow on a cot, and processed English into Finnish, Finnish back into english?