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Going the distance
By Richard A. Johnson and Robert Hamilton Johnson   - 04/12/2009

Boston Herald

Editor’s note: With the 113th running of the Boston Marathon scheduled for one week from tomorrow, the Herald offers readers selected text and photos excerpted from the new illustrated history of America’s greatest race, “The Boston Marathon,” by Richard A. Johnson and Robert Hamilton Johnson -- from Arcadia Publishing, part of the “Images of Sports” series (all photos displayed here were provided to the publishers courtesy of the Herald):

Since 1897, the Patriots [team stats] Day holiday in Massachusetts has been celebrated with the running of the Boston Marathon, the world’s most honored road race and the oldest continually run marathon in America. Not only has the race served as the showcase for such talents as Clarence DeMar, Tarzan Brown, Gerard Cote, Joan Benoit-Samuelson, Jean Driscoll, Ron Hill, Bill Rodgers, Cosmas Ndeti, Fatuma Roba and two remarkable men named John Kelley, but the race has also become the Mecca for every runner.

Imagine being allowed to golf on the Masters course on the same day Tiger Woods teed up for the championship, or getting to bat at Fenway Park [map] on the day of a World Series game and you come close to duplicating the sensation experienced by those runners fortunate enough to make it to Hopkinton on Patriots Day.

Long before the running boom, the race established itself as the showcase for numerous working class heroes, bound until the 1980s by a strict amateur code that allowed runners to receive only their medals or trophies, a bowl of beef stew and a pat on the back.

Among this rare breed were men like “Bricklayer” Bill Kennedy, who, short of cash following his train trip from New York, spent the night prior to his 1917 Boston Marathon victory sleeping on a local billiard table. In later years, school teacher and 1957 champion John J. Kelley, considered by many the most important marathoner in American running history, had to request a day off from school in Connecticut to make the trip to Boston.

Seven-time champion Clarence DeMar may have been the ultimate working class hero, as he’d depart the medal ceremony and jog his race warm-down on his way to the Boston Herald, where he worked as a type-setter. Legend has it , that on several occasions, DeMar was granted the privilege of setting the bold type proclaiming his victory in one of the many extra editions the newspaper printed on Patriots Day. Such was the tale of just one of the many champions whose inspiring stories have helped make Boston the greatest marathon of them all.

Other compelling features of the race are its hilly topography and unpredictable climate. The course starts with several deceptively fast downhill stretches and leads to a series of hills, collectively nicknamed Heartbreak Hill by sports writer Jerry Nason in the 1930s. These hills rise to greet runners just as their glycogen supplies are dwindling and the sight of Boston’s skyscrapers tempt them to push the pace from the 17th to the 20th miles. Most races are won and lost on this undulating ribbon of roadway.

Perhaps the most challenging segment of the race is the pothole-pocked downhill run from Newton through Brookline. It is here that the crowds become increasingly dense and loud, and the urge to surge has cost many runners a chance at a laurel wreath or personal best as calves cramp and thighs tighten after miles of pounding.

Runners must also brace for conditions as apt to bring snow and hail as readily as the oppressive heat that marked the infamous “Inferno” of 1909 or the “Run for the Hoses” of 1976. If runners are lucky, they get the perfect conditions and the kind of tailwind that helped Bill Rodgers charge to an American and course record in his first Boston victory in 1975.

Over the years the Boston Marathon has also served as the tableau for a multitude of causes and social issues. In 1946, on the occasion of the race’s 50th anniversary, Stylianos Kyriakides’ dramatic victory allowed him to become nothing less than a one-man Marshall Plan for his war-stricken homeland of Greece. After traveling across America to raise funds, he was greeted by more than a million Athenians upon his triumphant return home slightly more than a month after winning the race of a lifetime.

Likewise, in the late ’60s, marathon pioneers Roberta Gibb and Katherine Switzer proved to race officials and the public alike that the 26-mile trek was as suited to women as men. They helped lead a movement that included the likes of Billie Jean King and the women’s rowing team from Yale that created the climate in which both Title IX and the expanded women’s Olympic program were born.

In the same spirit, wheelchair competitors such as Eugene Roberts, Bob Hall, Jean Driscoll, Jim Knaub, Franz Nietelspach and Candace Cable-Brooks -- as well as the incredible father-son team of Dick and Rick Hoyt -- have proven that physical challenges are just one more fact of the race to be conquered on the road to Boston.

It is our hope that we have captured the spirit of the unmatched history of the Boston Marathon within these pages. We’ve tried to locate as many hitherto unpublished photographs as possible, while calling in a multitude of favors along the way. If anything, we hope this book will illuminate the heritage of one of the sporting world’s last great democratic events. We also hope it will inspire runners to consider adding their name to the roster of those who’ve run in the footsteps of the immortals.

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