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The Amazing Race

One hundred and eleven years of the world's greatest footrace has produced no shortage of odd, ridiculous, and magical stories: Boston Billy, Heartbreak Hill, Jock Semple attempting to wrestle Kathrine Switzer off the course, the sprint down Boylston Street. The Boston Marathon has certainly had its golden moments, its heroes and villains. But behind the mystique of it all are hundreds of lesser-known characters, more obscure dramas, and just plain bizarre occurrences. Here are a few of our favorites.

The 1955 Mayoral “Race”

One of the Boston Marathon’s many endearing traditions is the use of laurel wreaths for the winners, made from leaves picked in Greece, the legendary home of the marathon. Today, the wreaths are presented in a post-race ceremony. In the past, however, the “crowning” of the winner used to happen on the run.

For a time, that job of placing the laurel on a moving target was done by politicians. It didn’t always make for the photo opportunity they had anticipated, however. In the 1955 Marathon, Mayor John Hynes could not catch Hideo Hamamura, a 26-year-old Japanese civil servant, as he crossed the finish line. A photo of Hynes, holding the wreath high and calling out (in English?) to a beaming Hamamura as he soared across the line, appeared in newspapers all over the world. “The symbol of victory – and the mayor – didn’t catch the Japanese government clerk until he was five yards past the finish line,” noted one reporter dryly.

. . . 26.2! Um, Not Exactly

“Boston Marathon Route Too Short For 30 Years.”

That was the headline in one newspaper in April 1957, when it was announced by the Boston Athletic Association that a measurement of the course had revealed it was 1,187 yards short of 26.2 miles. The surprising finding supported the contention of many Marathon observers, who had felt the course had to be short to allow the then-record time of two hours, 14 minutes and 14 seconds run the previous year at Boston by Finland’s Antti Viskari. While the course was indeed short, the headline was wrong: According to race historian Tom Derderian, road reconstruction in the growing suburbs of Boston had eliminated curves, which accounted for the missing yards. But that construction occurred between 1951 and 1957, so only six races were impacted.

After the shortfall was discovered, some wanted to leave the course as it was. But the athletic association decided that every yard of the 26.2 miles should be run, and it moved the start up the hill to the Hopkinton Town Green.

Train in Vain

The 1907 Marathon was interrupted by a passing freight train in Natick. About a dozen competitors, including the eventual winner, Ontario runner Tom Longboat, managed to scoot across before the gates went down. But the rest of the pack had to run in circles for about a minute until the train crossed.

It’s hard to say what’s stranger: The fact that the Boston Marathon was interrupted by a train – or that newspaper accounts of the day barely mentioned it, declaring that the race was “well conducted” (with no pun intended, apparently).

Today’s Boston Marathon, by comparison, is under a microscope. The city, sponsors, media, and the field of 20,000 expect a mistake-free race from the organizers. “If a freight train came by in the middle of the race this year, my only chance of survival would be to hop on that train and hope it never stops . . . at least not on this continent,” race director Dave McGillivray says.

If You Do, I Do

In 1913, Andrew Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian from Old Town, Maine, was the favorite to win Boston, having finished fourth in the Olympic Marathon the previous year in Stockholm. But Sockalexis had other things on his mind the day of the race. His girlfriend, a young woman named Pauline Shay, had promised to marry him if he won. Shay was an eager participant in the challenge – she drove alongside Sockalexis in a car and threw rose petals at him as he ran. Despite her enthusiastic support, Sockalexis finished second. Shay married him anyway.

The other first Lady of Boston

Seven years before the first woman officially ran Boston, the first women’s running advocate made waves at the race. In 1960, Christine McKenzie was on the course, visibly and vocally, to support her husband, US Olympian Gordon McKenzie. At one point, Tom Derderian writes in his 1994 book, Boston Marathon: The History of the World’s Premier Running Event, Christine McKenzie “kicked off her shoes and ran alongside her husband in her nylon-stockinged feet.” McKenzie, attractive and outspoken, was a hit with the male press that day. “The reporters called her good-looking, shapely, and feminine and wished that fetching blondes would run the marathon more often,” wrote Derderian.

In her native Britain, Christine McKenzie held records at distances from a quarter mile to 3 miles. She was also an early advocate for women’s distance running at a time when the term was an oxymoron in the United States. The year before her husband ran Boston (where he would finish second), McKenzie – pregnant with their first child – had competed alongside him in a 10-mile race in Washington, wearing a T-shirt that said, “If I Can Have a Baby, I Can Run 10 Miles.”

She never did run Boston, but McKenzie eventually helped persuade the Amateur Athletic Union to recognize women in some longer distance events. However, an on-track collision during the US Olympic trials in 1968 ended her career. Years later, she looked back happily on the women’s running boom that she had helped pioneer. The impact is evident in Boston, where, last year, 7,621 finishers (out of 19,682) were female. “Women have come so far, in terms of numbers and participants,” she said. “I think it’s wonderful.”

Horse on the Carousel

Ten minutes before the start of the wheelchair division of the Marathon, race director Dave McGillivray couldn’t believe what he was hearing: “I’m getting reports from our people on the course – ‘There’s horse manure all over the street in Ashland.’ ”

Maybe that wouldn’t have been a big deal in the 1902 race. But this was 2001, and the wheelchair competitors were ready to roll. “I’m thinking, ‘Horse manure!’ I’m imagining all these chairs going sliding down the street. . . . It could have been a train wreck.”

McGillivray quickly alerted the Ashland police chief, who dispatched an officer to the scene. It turned out that there was indeed horse manure on Route 135 – there’s a stable in Ashland near the scene. Workers were rushed to the roadway to clear it off. As the seconds ticked by, McGillivray – back at the start in Hopkinton – was envisioning himself in front of a television camera trying to explain that the race was delayed because of horse manure.

But with just five minutes left, he got the call: The road was clean, the wheelchairs could start on time. And McGillivray was told that, in the future, Ashland authorities would make certain no one would be riding his or her horse across the highway on Patriots Day. “I was assured by one of the police officers that this situation would never happen again,” he says. “And it hasn’t.”

Cramped Quarters for Kelley
Johnny Kelley was running Boston for the 42d time in 1973, and he was feeling his age. Two days before, he’d pulled a muscle in his leg. As soon as he started the race, the muscle tightened up. “I stopped four times in the first mile to try and loosen the cramp, but it wouldn’t ease up,” he told Frederick Lewis and Dick Johnson, who recount the incident in their 1992 book Young at Heart: The Story of Johnny Kelley, Boston’s Marathon Man. “I went over to a guy who was watching the race and asked if he’d help me rub my calf. He didn’t want anything to do with it.”

Kelley limped off the course in Ashland and collapsed on the front lawn of the Stone family, which was watching the race. As luck would have it, Jeff Stone was the student athletic trainer at Ashland High School. Stone sent his dad into the house to get some Bengay. “The father was walking kinda slow,” Kelley recalled. “I’m saying to myself, ‘Jeepers, could you hurry it up? I got 23 miles to go to get to Boston.’ ”

Jeff Stone began working on Kelley’s calf. As he was lying on the lawn, the runner looked up and saw two Doberman pinschers come bounding out of the house toward him. “I’m saying, ‘God help me, I’m going to die,’ ” Kelley recounted. Instead, the dogs lapped his face, and Kelley, his calf soothed, got back on the course and finished without having to stop again.

Caught Between A Wife And A Fast Pace

In 2003, Amby Burfoot was running with actor Will Ferrell for a story in Runner’s World magazine. But Burfoot’s wife and daughter were planning to run the last five miles with him to celebrate the 35th anniversary of Burfoot’s winning Boston. He thought he could do both by having the women join him and Ferrell at mile 21. He had promised a 9:10 per-mile pace, slow enough for his wife, daughter, and a movie actor – who had joked several nights before that he was “confident I can complete the full 14-mile distance” – to keep up.

On race day, the women were at the top of Heartbreak Hill, as planned, to meet Burfoot. But at that point, Ferrell, who had dropped behind Burfoot, came roaring by at 8:45. “I fell into step,” Burfoot says. “I didn’t want the Hollywood guy to beat me.”

His wife, Cristina, wasn’t happy. “You promised 9:10s!” she said, trying to keep up with her husband. “And you’d better stick to your word. It’s [Ferrell] or us.”

“I slowed down,” Burfoot says. “But I had to think about it a moment or two.”