One-time Boston Marathon winner plans on finishing what he started last year
(Please enjoy another installment in our series at FOXSports.com on what the Boston bombing means to more than two dozen people directly affected at last year’s marathon. So 2014 is the comeback, because 2013 was the knockdown. This is our next installment. Read their stories.)
Amby Burfoot could almost see the finish line. He was the first to cross it 45 years earlier, but in 2013 it would have been good enough to merely arrive.
Burfoot was about a half-mile from Copley Square. Within a matter of steps, everything stopped and he felt like a driver stuck in an infuriating traffic jam.
"Oh, dammit!" Burfoot thought. "It’s those drunk Boston students just running in the middle of the road and clogging things up for all of us."
When he found out what really happened, Burfoot felt more than the usual shock. He’d loved the Boston Marathon since first reading about it as a kid. But he’d never really appreciated how much the marathon loved him.
"I had survivor’s guilt," Burfoot said. "I was thinking about how wonderful it was going to be. And here was the real story of what happened."
Three people were dead and more than 200 injured, but almost none were actual runners. The shrapnel had been absorbed by people cheering them on.
That’s why Burfoot has been pushing his 67-year-old bones up and down hills past few months. He wants to say a 26.1-mile thank you to the people of Hopkington, Ashland, Natick and the other towns along the marathon route.
"They appreciate us like no other," Burfoot said. "Other races have a lot spectators, but Boston has a history and they all want to be a part of it."
There was a time in America when somebody running down the road was considered either weird or a bank robber. But long before marathoning became chic, Boston understood.
The official estimate is that 500,000 spectators line the streets, though it’s probably more. Whatever the number, the Boston Marathon is undoubtedly New England’s most widely viewed sporting event.
It was probably that in 1896, when 18 runners lined up at the starting line. It was definitely that in 1996, when 36,748 people ran the centennial race.
Burfoot was there wearing his usual bib number — 68. The low-digit numbers are given to the fastest runners and ex-winners, and carry a lot of prestige.
Burfoot earned his in 1968. He was a 21-year-old steeplechaser for Wesleyan University who secretly believed he could win.
"I didn’t tell anyone," he said, "because it was such a stupid and outlandish thought to have."
He was inspired by John J. Kelley, his high school coach who’d won in 1957. The race had a mystical appeal to Burfoot, who could probably have rattled off the names and finishing times of every winner since John J. McDermott ran the first race in 2:55:10.
I read every single article I could. I knew everything about it. Winning was an impossible dream.
Amby Burfoot, 1968 Boston Marathon winner
"I read every single article I could," Burfoot said. "I knew everything about it. Winning was an impossible dream."
The race drew almost 1,000 runners in 1968. They were all men. Boston wouldn’t officially allow women to enter for another four years.
Burfoot was nobody’s favorite, but he had been feeling great. It was "a flow," as Burfoot put it. Sort of an extended runner’s high that sets in for no apparent reason and can vanish the same way.
Burfoot’s never been able to recapture it. But the spring of 1968 was magic.
"It was like I was floating on air," he said.
Burfoot broke away from the pack halfway through. One runner stuck with him but cramped after the Newton hills.
"I staggered the last few miles," Burfoot said. "I had nothing left. Absolutely nothing."
He won by 22 seconds in 2:22:17. The prize last year was $150,000. In 1968, it was a bowl of beef stew.
Burfoot was a vegetarian, but he wasn’t going to complain. Winning Boston is like becoming a made man in the mob. Ambrose "Amby" Burfoot joined the running hierarchy and helped shape the 1970s running boom.
His old college roommate, Bill Rodgers, won Boston four times. Burfoot became editor-in-chief of "Runner’s World" magazine. He became a running Yoda to thousands of people who were discovering the strange allure of the road.
"It gives me tingles to think about it," Burfoot said. "Running is a very egocentric activity. You wrap yourself in your own cocoon and know what you have to do to be successful, and try not to get caught up in anyone else’s pace."
As the years piled up and his body slowed down, Burfoot decided to run Boston on five-year intervals that coincided with his 1968 win. As he lined up last April, Burfoot could not recall a more perfect day for a race.
His goal was to finish in just over four hours. So he got in his cocoon and took off.
"I thought it was all about me," Burfoot said. "I was going to make it, and have my 45th anniversary celebration."
It wasn’t quite like 1968, but he made it through Ashland and Framingham and the hills where he’d broken away so long ago. The 2013 version of victory was almost in sight, then everything stopped.
Burfoot’s cell phone rang. It was his wife.
"Don’t you dare try to run to the finish line!" she said.
Word quickly spread a bomb had gone off and there would be no finish line. Burfoot made his way back to his hotel. He couldn’t turn on the TV quickly enough.
"At first I thought, ‘Oh my God, the Boston Marathon has been attacked,’" he said. "But it became quite clear that entire city of Boston had been attacked."
He thought of all the people who’d cheered over the years. Not just for bib No. 68, but for thousands and thousands of less-prestigious numbers. That’s all the people wanted to do that day, and hundreds of them were maimed for their efforts.
Burfoot didn’t know what to do, but he felt he had to do something. He’s decided to run every Boston Marathon until at least 2018, the 50th anniversary of his win.
Over the past few months, he’s endured a serious blood infection and plenty of other aches. But he can’t wait to return to the starting line on April 21.
"This year the runners will be clapping for the spectators just as much as the other way around, particularly in the final stretch," Burfoot said. "I picture virtually every runner zig-zagging and slapping high-fives and saying thank you."
It will probably feel as if he’s floating on air.