It’s Patriots Day 1985, and the vaunted Boston Marathon is clinging to a life preserver. Race entries have dropped 22 percent in three years, and fewer than 4,000 runners will finish. Local hero Bill Rodgers, an Olympian and four-time winner, won’t participate. And at the finish below the Prudential Center, all that awaits the winner will be a medal and wreath.
There will be no prize money. And there will be no stirring sprint to the tape. Instead, there will be the painful sight of Geoff Smith of Great Britain cramping on the Newton hills — and then stopping, jogging, and limping over the final few miles, struggling merely to finish in 2 hours, 14 minutes, and 5 seconds.
The runner-up will not cross the line for 5 more minutes, exposing a strikingly weak field for the world’s oldest active marathon.
“It’s becoming a race with a million-dollar audience and a 25-cent field,” running guru Tommy Leonard, who tended bar at the fabled Eliot Lounge in the Back Bay, complained to Sports Illustrated at the time.
The women’s winner, Lisa Larsen Weidenbach of Marblehead, wanted to compete at Boston “before it became a fun run,” according to the magazine. Weidenbach (2:34:06) will be the only woman that year to break 2 hours, 40 minutes, a distant cry from Joan Benoit’s world record of 2:22:43 at Boston only two years earlier.
Rodgers, who also won the New York Marathon four times, recalls that his decision to bypass the race was difficult because “I like the Boston Marathon, and it means a lot to me. The problem was that the BAA people were not runners,” a reference to the Boston Athletic Association, the nonprofit organization that has been staging the race since 1897.
On Patriots Day 2023, more than 30,000 runners will set off from Hopkinton for Copley Square, and few of the hundreds of thousands of spectators will realize how close this unique Massachusetts institution came to toppling from its lofty perch. How a toxic combination of greed, neglect, and an arrogant opposition to prize money — at a time when other major marathons began offering purses — nearly did it in.
“The race almost came to an end,” says Tim Kilduff, a former Bank of New England senior vice president, who in 1983 and 1984 volunteered to be race director. “It almost ceased to exist.”
Problems had been percolating for several years before the gloom of 1985. Kilduff took control in 1982 amid an unprecedented crisis within the clubby confines of the BAA, which had been rocked by an expose by Boston Globe sportswriter Will McDonough, who reported that BAA president Will Cloney had signed a secretive deal with Boston attorney Marshall Medoff to attract sponsors for the Marathon.
The 1981 agreement, which sought to crack open the door to prize money, figured to be a personal windfall for Medoff: the BAA’s benefit from any funding would be capped at $400,000, with Medoff’s company keeping any money raised above that number.
Medoff ultimately secured a total of about $700,000 for the race, and news of the deal infuriated the BAA governors, who said they had not been consulted.
“Marshall Medoff, in my opinion, was an opportunist who saw a chance to make money,” says Chris Lane, a longtime track-and-field official who founded the Boston College women’s track program and was affiliated with the Marathon for more than 50 years. Medoff, who died in 2021, denied any wrongdoing and threatened to sue for libel. “I have been made to feel like the most hated man in Boston, like a redcoat at the Boston Massacre,” he said at the time.
Cloney resigned under pressure in June 1982; the contract eventually was voided in court, leaving Kilduff and others scrambling to find the funds to stage the 1983 race. The BAA was burdened with mounting legal fees and even the Prudential Insurance Co., which had been the Marathon’s prime benefactor, said the company would withdraw its support.
“The Boston Marathon, after 86 years, will change its ‘noncommercial’ character,” a Prudential spokesperson said in the aftermath of the Medoff bombshell. “And as such, it will no longer serve the goals and objectives of the Prudential’s public service purposes.”
And those were only the administrative miseries. On the racecourse, the logistics smacked of a traditional hodgepodge of good intentions that underscored how the Marathon, managed and staffed by volunteers, often seemed to be an operational miracle.
“I don’t think there’s probably more than a handful of people who have any idea of what this race went through, and the toll it took on a lot of people to get it stabilized,” says Fred Treseler, a top-flight track coach whom Kilduff brought on board to help right the race.
Before the mid-’80s, there hadn’t even been medallions or T-shirts offered to the exhausted field of finishers, and the BAA did not have a single full-time employee devoted to organizing a race that, despite an adoring public, seemed held together by little more than a shoestring.
A race that had reveled in the victories of icons such as Rodgers, Johnny Kelley, and Clarence DeMar had begun to decline, and whether it could change direction was in serious question.
“We went into the 1983 race blind,” Kilduff recalls. “Everyone was howling. The Pru says we’re done. We didn’t have the money to pull it off. It really was a perfect storm.”
Top runners who had previously competed at Boston, drawn to the race because of its unique standing, were grumbling about the BAA’s stubborn refusal to offer cash prizes. And those grumbles were getting only louder.
In the BAA’s eyes, the Boston Marathon stood apart for its prestige and history, and for celebrating an old-school virtue of athletics untainted by commerce. But by this time, many international runners, particularly those from Communist countries, were being bankrolled by their governments.
American runners, on the other hand, “had been struggling to make ends meet for years, saying how complicated and difficult it was as the level of competition got higher and higher,” Rodgers says. “You might be racing against state-supported athletes. Why shouldn’t we be paid for what we were good at? I could never understand the rationale.”
As Patriots Day 1983 approached, Kilduff scoured the region for any help he could find — recruiting track-and-field veterans who knew how to manage a big running event, and lobbying for the cash needed to make those logistics work.
He found some guardian angels. New Balance, the Boston running apparel company, threw the Marathon a lifeline with a $50,000, no-strings-attached donation. Other sponsors helped, as well. And even Prudential reconsidered and returned to the fold.
The result was a classic Marathon with sensational performances by men’s winner Greg Meyer (2:09:00) and Benoit, the women’s victor. But despite the deep and talented field — the 1983 Marathon also served as the US trials for the world championships — that year’s temporary success was only a blip in a downward trajectory. The race needed a serious overhaul, and the BAA’s continued intransigence on prize money did not bode well for the future.
Kilduff stepped down as race director after the 1984 Marathon, and the BAA turned to Guy Morse, a former Prudential marketing executive who became the BAA’s first full-time employee — ever. And at 33 years old, working out of BAA trainer Jock Semple’s cramped offices at the old Boston Garden, Morse took the reins of an “amateur” race with a waning appeal for the stars.
Heading into 1985, Morse realized there was more work to do.
“I thought it could be relegated to a second-tier race,” Morse says. “The prestige had to be restored. The respect had to be restored.”
The first step was bringing prize money to the table.
“The BAA and the board itself were not made up of a lot of young and progressive people,” Morse recalls. “That was changing, though. Rodgers was one of several athletes, local and otherwise, who voiced their opinions strongly and respectfully.”
After watching the wilted and watered-down product in 1985, the BAA finally accelerated its move to reward the runners. The size of the purse would be determined “by how much sponsorship support we could get,” Morse says. “We also were able to increase the organization, hire a small team, and upgrade everything — course management, communications, all that support — and involve other partners.”
John Hancock, the Boston-based life insurance company, stepped aboard in 1986 as the race’s principal corporate sponsor. That bedrock of support, which will end after this year’s race, provided the Marathon with a solid financial foundation that has cemented its historic standing among the world’s top marathons.
And winning brings more than a laurel wreath now. The men’s and women’s victors in the open division this year will each take home $150,000 in prize money, plus an additional $50,000 if they break the course record.
With Hancock at the helm, the top finishers have received a total of more than $20 million in prize money and course-record bonuses, and Marathon-related charity programs connected with the BAA and the company have raised nearly $490 million.
Hancock will be succeeded next year by Bank of America Corp., which recently agreed to a decade-long sponsorship deal. Morse, who was race director from 1985 to 2000 and remains on the BAA Board of Governors, says he is confident about the Marathon’s future. But unlike most of the spectators, he knows how this world-class event once teetered on the precipice. “Unless you lived through it, you don’t even realize what could have been,” Morse says. “We take it all for granted today.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.