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.

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?

("He says he ran very hard, but he could have run faster," the portly fellow tells his audience. Ball points ziss across notepad pages.

"Ask him, please, did he fear Jim Peters?" a reporter asks.

The question is duly processed, and the answer comes back: "He did not fear Peters. He respected him, but he was confident he could win.")

That was 1954, the year Finland's Veikko Karvonen won and Britain's Jim Peters finished second. We'll hop back to that race, to illustrate a point. But, first, let's play a little pronouncing and recognizing game.

Run these names through once, orally: Kyriakides, Suh, Leandersson, Ham, Tanaka, Flores, Yamada, Hamamura, Viskari, Mihalic, Oksanen, Vandendreissche, Shigematsu, Kimihara, McKenzie, Unetani, Hill, Mejia, Suomalainen.

Now the pronouncing game turns into the recognizing game. How about it?

OK. If you didn't mis-identify the list as the cast of "World War II," you almost surely recognized it as a roster of winners of "The American Marathon," 1946 through 1972 (omitting Canadian Gerard Cote and the aforementioned Finn Karvonen).

Yank sharpshooters will spot two further omissions. Yes, they're the names of the two American winners to punctuate a 26-year sentence requiring no fewer than seven interpreters.

One of those two winners, this writer, ventured onto the Boston Marathon scene in 1953 and managed to give the interpreters one day off in 12, that in 1957.

The other, Amby Burfoot, who happened to have been a student of mine at Fitch Senior High School, Groton, Conn., gave them their next break; 11 years later.

Though Amby and I did our best, neither of us wrote "Finis" to the foreign onslaught. It would take five more years of Americans storming Boston's Marathon Mountain for Oregonian Jon Anderson to sprint to the summit, in 1973.

Since Anderson's victory, Americans have caught all but one of Boston's laurel wreaths. (Canadian Jerome Drayton won in 1977.)

Looking back over my own Boston Marathoning career --1981 will see my 27th start -- I feel a bit like a pioneer who hacked out his swatch of wilderness only to see the wilderness return; but who lived to witness a new generation of settlers found whole cities.

I can't even phrase a comparison between Bill Rodgers and myself, or even between Bill and Amby. (It would be something like apples and pears and apples and peaches, I guess).

I can recall vividly the anxious anticipation that grew in me each April during the '50s. Something was happening in world marathoning, I knew. I was part of it. And, in Boston, I was somehow expected to make it happen, or, at very least, to help it happen.

And that brings me back to Jim Peters. Peters, the world's then-fastest marathoner (2:17-plus), had all he could do to hang on for second place in 1954 's "race of champions."

As for "America's Only Fifties Hope," on the five occasions when I found my self in the "bridesmaid's" role, I also found myself defending the honor.

"So, what happened, Kel?" they badgered, after each ceremony.

Luckily for me, John Semple had lately traded his racing flats for his Boston Marathon Defender's megaphone. And how eloquently, with what finality, he defended my five runner-up efforts: "He just finished second in the world's greatest footrace, that's all, you bloomin' imbeciles!"

Yes, it's April again, and Boston is on my mind. Boston of old and new sounds, sights, and scents. Cradle of American democracy. Home of the Boston Athletic Association's American Marathon.

Have mega-fields and magna-performances undercut the Boston Marathon's democratic foundation?

I really don't know. All I know is that it's great to be going back to Boston for another April.

And that getting there is more than half the fun!

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