Many turns on the road to runaway popularity

By John Powers
Globe Staff / April 14, 2009
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In 1897, Tom Burke, the starter of the "BAA Road Race," drew a line with his shoe across the dirt road at Metcalf's old mill in Ashland, called out the names of the 15 contestants, and the Boston Marathon was born.

In the 112 years since, the world's most fabled road race has undergone a profound evolution. The start and finish have been changed multiple times. The distance has been increased by nearly 2 miles. The dirt roads have become paved highways. The field has soared to nearly 24,000 (40 percent of them women) and requires entrants to meet a qualifying time.

The race begins in the morning instead of at noon, with separate starts for the elite women and men and two waves for everyone else, their times clocked by computer chips in their shoes. The winner's prize, once a marble clock, now is $150,000. And for the past quarter-century, the victors have been foreigners.

The initial race was an intramural battle between Bostonians and New Yorkers, all of them white males. The survivor was John J. McDermott, a New York lithographer who won by nearly seven minutes despite walking several times.

For its first nine decades, the marathon was for amateurs, for students and workers who took time off to push themselves into exhaustion for a medal and a bowl of beef stew. The best of them was Clarence DeMar, a Melrose printer who won seven times between 1911 and 1930.

There was an Everyman quality to the field, which numbered as few as 200 contestants as late as 1960, and the serious contenders were so few that most spectators were familiar with their backgrounds. There was Gerard Cote, the cigar-chomping Canadian commando who claimed four titles. Leslie Pawson, the Pawtucket weaver who won three. Ellison "Tarzan" Brown, the penniless but tireless Narragansett Indian from Rhode Island who was the first domestic marathoner to break 2:30.

And for more than six decades between 1928 and 1992 (at 84), there was Johnny Kelley, the Arlington florist's assistant who became the race's heartbreak kid, finishing second five times between his two victories a decade apart. The second win, in 1945, was the last by a domestic runner for a dozen years. After the war, a succession of foreigners - from Greece, Korea, Canada, Sweden, Japan, Guatemala, and Finland - were first to the finish.

It was John (The Younger and unrelated) Kelley, a Connecticut schoolteacher, who finally broke through in 1957, but it was another 11 years before another US male (Kelley's former pupil, Amby Burfoot) would win. By then the marathon had become coed, if unofficially. Bobbi Gibb jumped into the 1966 race and beat several hundred men and Kathrine Switzer (entered as a gender-neutral "K.V.") outran outraged race guardian Jock Semple the next year.

By 1972, women were officially welcome; all eight starters finished, with Nina Kuscsik winning. Later that year, Frank Shorter won the Olympic gold medal in Munich and the running boom soon followed. In three years, the Boston entry list doubled to nearly 2,400, then doubled again by 1978. Yet the race retained its Everyman (and Everywoman) character, helped enormously by the emergence of Bill Rodgers, who was an unknown Boston College grad student when he set the American record in 1975.

Rodgers, who won four times in six years, was the affable, approachable face of the sport. His female counterpart was Joan Benoit, who was a Bowdoin student from Maine when she shattered the American record in 1979. Her second tri umph in 1983 (in 2:22:43) smashed the world mark and set the stage for Benoit's runaway jaunt in the inaugural Olympic women's marathon the next year.

Benoit's second Boston victory, along with Greg Meyer's in the men's race, marked the most recent time that Americans wore both laurel wreaths. Once the BAA reluctantly began offering prize money in 1986 through sponsor John Hancock Financial Services, a flood of overseas runners turned up to cash in.

The first of them were Australia's Rob de Castella and Norway's Ingrid Kristiansen, who both won by healthy margins and collected a combined $90,000 and two Mercedes-Benzes for breaking the tape at the new finish in Copley Square. With the Olympic year in 1988 came the arrival of the Africans.

Once Kenya's Ibrahim Hussein outkicked Tanzania's Juma Ikangaa by one second in what was then the closest finish in history, he began his nation's domination of the event. Since then Kenyans have won all but four men's races, plus six women's titles.

When the first contestants headed down the dusty road from Ashland, few would have predicted that Americans would go 25 years without a winner, that the entry list would have to be capped at 25,000, that prize money would go from zero to six figures, that wheelchair athletes would race. Some things, though, haven't changed in 113 years. The race still is held on Patriots Day, the Wellesley College women still serenade their favorites, and the hills still break hearts.

"We came back and back and back," the younger Kelley mused, nearly half a century after his victory, still the only one by a BAA runner. "It was a magnet to us, like our journey to Mecca."