Former Marathon Champ Amby Burfoot Returns to Run Boston

Amby Burfoot won the Boston Marathon at age 21 in 1968; he was unable to finish in 2013 due to the bombings, but is back for 2014.
Amby Burfoot won the Boston Marathon at age 21 in 1968; he was unable to finish in 2013 due to the bombings, but is back for 2014.
Paul J. Connell/Globe Staff (left photo), Brita Meng Outzen (right photo)

As spring returns to New England, one of the surest signs that warmer times are ahead is the Boston Marathon is now just days away.

The thousands that will descend upon the city for the 118th race features elite and casual runners alike, including running legend and Runner’s World Editor-at-Large Amby Burfoot, who cemented his legacy in marathoning history with his 1968 Boston Marathon win at just 21 years old.

“I’m very, very excited about this year’s race,” the now 67-year-old said on Monday. “I’ve been here all of 24 hours, but there’s a good vibe already. I walked down to the finish line, and saw everything going up there this morning ... I think there’s a great feeling of expectation and excitement among all the runners.”

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Burfoot was a two-time All-American in cross country at Wesleyan University and ran Boston for the first time in 1965 as an 18-year-old college freshman, finishing 25th.

“My father drove me up here,” he said. “We drove into Hopkinton, and I remember the white picket fences and the old homes, and the crocuses and daffodils and forsythia in bloom, and the first two things I saw were ‘Old’ John Kelley warming up and the Japanese in their spanking white Rising Sun uniforms and I was like ‘Wow, I’ve reached the holy land. This is the international stage; it’s not high school or college cross country anymore, it’s really the Boston Marathon.’ It was what I had been reading about for years and what I had been dreaming about.”

After missing ‘66 due to injury and finishing 17th in ’67, Burfoot’s breakthrough came in ’68, when he took to the course for the third time, now a 21-year-old senior at Wesleyan.

“About two weeks before Boston, I just got into this ‘flow,’ you read about it in the psychology textbooks: every day I felt great; every run was just easy,” he said. “I got into the race and I felt I was just jogging the first half marathon; there were about 12 of us together at the halfway mark. And I thought ‘Well, maybe I’ll just try one little surge to see if anybody will drop away from the pack,’ so I did this one little surge, which felt like next to nothing, and it dropped everybody except for one other runner.”

Burfoot dueled with Bill Clark, who had just set a course record at the Philadelphia Marathon, from the midway point through Heartbreak Hill, and it was only on the descent past Boston College that Burfoot broke away.

“He’s right with me at the top of Heartbreak, and I practically wanted to stop and walk off the road,” Burfoot said. “We started down the hill, and he cramped right away on the downhill, in the way that people do on the downhill past BC, the ‘Cemetery Mile’ I think it’s been called. So he cramped, but I was dying because I had been pushing so hard to drop him.

“Beacon Street was just jammed full of people, and it was like Moses and the Red Sea: they’d open and let me through, and then they’d jam all the way into the middle of the road afterwards. I felt like I was running so slowly that probably 500 people were going to catch me, but fortunately it wasn’t quite that slow and nobody caught me and I held onto the finish line.”

Burfoot’s Boston connection extends past his win in ’68 to his friendship with local running legend Bill Rodgers, who he first ran with at Wesleyan, along with future US Olympian Jeff Galloway, long before Rodgers became the four-time Boston Marathon champion and wrote his chapter into Boston sports lore.

“Jeff was very focused and motivated and knew what he wanted,” Burfoot said. “Bill was the flaky guy that we all talk about, and so he needed someone to be a mentor to him and to sort of set the path and get him on the straight and narrow since he wasn’t overly focused at that point in his life. So he kind of tagged along with me for a lot of my hardest workouts; my senior year at Wesleyan I might run 25 miles on a Sunday morning, and he might sleep in late and run the last 10 to pace me.

“I always knew [Bill] was a great talent, you could never say that I realized he would become as good as he was, because nobody could possibly have foreseen that. It took a few years for him to really dedicate himself to the sport, and then his talent showed itself.”

With just under 900 runners the year Burfoot won in 1968, the Boston Marathon entry list has swelled to tens of thousands in the past couple of decades, with around 36,000 expected for this year’s race, a trend that Burfoot attributes to the inclusion of women, as well as the prolonged careers of runners who might have otherwise retired earlier.

The entry list for the Marathon peaked in 1996 for the event’s 100th anniversary, which saw over 38,000 enter the 26.2 mile journey.

“I was lucky enough to run in 100th Boston Marathon, which we all wanted to run in, and that’s why they had 38,000 runners that year,” Burfoot said. “I always tell everyone it was the most important and significant race in the history of marathoning, until April 21, 2014.

“This race dwarfs all others because of its symbolic nature; its rebirth, its resiliency that the runners are going to show coming back, but even more than the runners, more important to this race is the fans, who have always been such a great support to us.”

Burfoot was one of the 5,000 runners who were unable to finish the Marathon in 2013 due to the tragedy at the finish line, but is returning in 2014 to complete the entire race. He is running for Team MR8, the team dedicated to honoring 8-year-old Martin Richard, who was killed in the blasts last year.

“We all knew of Martin last spring immediately when that photo of him and his painting was released for all of us, and his words struck a chord with me immediately,” Burfoot said. “And so in January of this year, when I started thinking of the race, I tried to get in touch with his parents to ask if I could make a t-shirt with that photo on it to run with this year.

“At that time serendipitously I found out that there was a team, Team Martin Richard, running, so I got signed up to run on the team, and I’m very, very excited to be a part of that this year, because I just love the simple message he gave us this year.”

Burfoot says he will also be handing out 200 “Thank You” business cards to spectators during the race to say “Thank you for your support, thank you for being out here for 118 years. You, the people at the side of the road, cheering for all of us on the course, are what make this race so special.”

Even though the race has grown in size, Burfoot believes that the beauty of running is still the small-knit and caring community that the sport has built throughout the years.

“The wonderful thing about this sport is that even though it has grown big, it’s still a small pond, and all of us in this sport respect everybody else,” he said. “We all know some people are going to run the course in two hours and some people are going to run the course in six hours, but we respect everybody’s efforts, and we know that some of the people don’t have a lot of athletic talent and are running with all of their heart and all of their courage, and probably running for charity and running for some other great causes.

“The marathon has really become a metaphor for whatever story a person wants to write on the marathon by running 26.2 miles. And those stories, those individual stories, are what makes the sport not just about the winners, but also about the other incredible individuals who have gone through so much, and go through so much, and help themselves and help others so much by running this race.”