MYSTIC, Conn. — Amby Burfoot’s enchantment with the race began in 1965 when his father drove him to the Hopkinton starting line in the family Nash Rambler. “The first thing I saw was old John Kelley running around the town common in a Harvard sweatshirt,” he recalls. “I was in love with the Boston Marathon right away. It just all opened up right in front of me.”
Fifty years after he became the first collegian to win here and the first American in 11 years, the 71-year-old Burfoot will be back Monday morning for an anniversary run, his 24th attempt at the planet’s most fabled road race. “The fact that he won as a young kid is pretty astounding in itself,” says four-time champion Bill Rodgers. “To come back 50 years later — maybe only Kelley has done that.”
Burfoot reckons that he has covered more than 100,000 miles since he first laced up running shoes more than half a century ago. “When you’re young you think that there are secret workouts and if you do the secret workout you’ll get fast,” says Burfoot, whose “Run Forever” guide has just been published. “As you get older and maybe wiser you realize that lifetime running is all about motivation.”
Burfoot, who has competed in the Manchester (Conn.) Road Race on Thanksgiving for 55 consecutive years and won it nine times, is an old-school New England road runner, part of the thread that goes back to Clarence DeMar more than a century ago. DeMar, who won Boston a record seven times, competed alongside both John A. (The Elder) and John J. (The Younger) Kelley in the ’50s. The Kelleys ran it with Burfoot and Rodgers in the ’70s. Among them they claimed the laurel wreath 15 times in eight consecutive decades.
The most intimate link is the Connecticut connection among the younger Kelley, Rodgers, and Burfoot. Kelley was Burfoot’s cross-country coach at Fitch High School in Groton and Rodgers was his teammate and roommate at Wesleyan. “It was a literal passing of the torch,” says Burfoot.
Burfoot had been a JV benchwarmer in basketball. “Coach put me in once when we were behind by 40 points,” he recalls. “One day he got mad at us and made us run the cross-country course because we were having a lousy practice, and I beat all the guys. So I thought I’d rather switch and try and be good than be the worst guy on the team. Totally by chance I try out for cross-country and here’s this little guy who’s the coach who’s half my height but who happens to be the country’s greatest marathoner.”
Distance running quickly hooked him. “It appealed to my introspective nature,” Burfoot says. “It was totally individual. I could be as good as I was willing to try to be, and I was willing to train harder than anybody else to try and be good at the sport. So I got the payback from my obsessiveness directly in running.”
He also found a model and mentor in Kelley, who himself approached running with what he called “a neurotic sense of urgency.” “John was the reason why I did everything,” says Burfoot. “I’m a vegetarian because of him. I’m an organic gardener because of him. I love the written word because of him. I was just entranced by the figure.”
Kelley, who’d won Boston in 1957, still was the top American contender during the early ’60s. “We’d be sitting in class and hear, ‘English teacher John Kelley is running with the leaders at Framingham,’ ” Burfoot remembers.
Thus was he drawn to Hopkinton, where he finished 25th in his 1965 debut. After missing the next year’s race with an injury Burfoot came back to finish a creditable 17th in 1967 despite spending five minutes inside portable toilets after injudiciously having eaten a bottle of apple butter the previous night. “So I was moving up,” he says. “But only in one’s wildest dreams could you ever hope to actually win the Boston Marathon.”
Yet as the subsequent April drew closer Burfoot found himself pondering the possibility. He was coming off a terrific cross-country season and had run an eye-opening 8:44 2-mile at the Knights of Columbus meet at the Garden. After two 175-mile training weeks with the Wesleyan track team in Quantico, Va., Burfoot found himself energized.
“Rather than being completely crashed I was suddenly at another level,” he says. “It was the only time in my life I entered this state that we now call ‘flow.’ Day after day, week after week every run was easy, every run was fast. I was, wow, this could be a good day for me.”
Since it was an Olympic year the top domestic runners skipped Boston to focus on the August trials in Colorado. “I’m a New Englander, I’m a Kelley disciple, I can’t skip the Boston Marathon,” Burfoot says. “So I’m on the starting line with a diminished American field and a modest foreign field.”
Globe columnist Jerry Nason suggested that it could be “The Year of the Mystery Marathoner.” “Who do you watch now?” wondered race director Will Cloney. Why not the tall, skinny kid with a painter’s cap, glasses, and college singlet who Nason said was “as thin as a 20-cent sandwich?”
When the morning came up sunny and 70 (but not humid), Burfoot figured that it might indeed be his day. “I’m the best heat runner I’ve ever met,” he says. “I think that’s just lucky genetics. For some reason I can run with a high temperature and extreme dehydration.”
The pace for the first half of the race was so easy that it felt like jogging. So Burfoot tossed in a surge at Wellesley and shed the entire lead pack except for Marine lieutenant Bill Clark.
“I was shocked and stunned and horrified by that development because I wanted to run with the pack until late in the race,” he says. “And suddenly it was mano a mano, one on one. Everyone else was gone. Clark and I knew each other and we both knew that he was a better finisher than me, he was a better miler. In my head that meant I had to drop him on the hills. So hill after hill after hill I just killed myself. I ran as hard as I could to drop him.”
Clark was half a stride behind, but with the sun dropping his shadow was ahead of Burfoot. “It was like a ghost, stalking me,” he recalls. “I remember getting to the top of Heartbreak and thinking, what’s the point? And then I got it together and kept going and he cramped on the downhill, as so many have.”
Burfoot was alone on the Brookline flats but couldn’t be sure since the crowds on Beacon Street that had parted for him quickly closed behind him. So he kept looking over his shoulder even as Jock Semple, the Scottish race “guardian,” barked at him from the bus to stop.
“I expected hundreds of runners to pass me in the last 5 miles, and of course they were all suffering as much as I was, I guess, so it didn’t happen,” says Burfoot, who beat Clark by 32 seconds in 2 hours 22 minutes 17 seconds while dropping nearly 10 pounds from his 138-pound frame. “Bill [Rodgers] used to talk after some of his good races of savoring the victory. I didn’t savor a second of it. I ran in terror every step of the way. I remember collapsing in Jock’s arms at the finish. I would have gone down if he wasn’t there to hold me up. I was like a wet noodle.”
Since those were still the amateur days Burfoot received a laurel wreath, a medal, and a bowl of beef stew. “And I’m a vegetarian,” he says. His priceless reward was a locker-room photo with the younger Kelley, who finished 15th, and the elder Kelley, who’d rooted for Burfoot from the bus because he was recovering from hernia surgery.
Life goes on
Then it was back to Middletown and the collegiate outdoor season. “When Amby came back I never recalled him wearing his medal,” says Rodgers. “I never saw the medal. He didn’t talk about it too much. Amby is like that.”
Burfoot went on to win both the 3-mile and the steeplechase at the New England championships, where he pulled a muscle that wrecked his chances at the Olympic marathon trials, where he dropped out after 15 miles. “Then I sat on the beach for two weeks and as soon as I did that I was healed,” says Burfoot, who went on to place sixth at Fukuoka in December, missing Buddy Edelen’s American record (2:14:28) by less than a second.
From there it was five years of teaching school, a year with the Peace Corps in El Salvador, and a couple more of writing lesson plans for an educational publisher. “I went back to Boston other years when I was in as good shape as 1968 and hoped to run really strongly, but I never had the great day again,” says Burfoot, who has worked for Runner’s World magazine for four decades, first as an editor and now as a senior writer. “I never had the effortless perfect day. I can bemoan all the years that I didn’t win the Boston Marathon but I’m awfully thankful for the one year that I did.”
Burfoot, who’d collect $150,000 if he won here now, belonged to the era when the top runners competed for loving cups and plaques and collected kitchen appliances instead of money. “I’m still looking for a cash payment because I want to be a professional runner,” he says. “I’ve won gift certificates, but never won a dollar in running.”
Burfoot was more than a decade too soon for the prize money era, but he has no regrets. “Never a moment,” he says. “I’ve been so lucky and so blessed. Everything that happened in my life seemed to happen in a way that perfectly suited me and my goals and needs and wants at the time. To still be doing what I’m doing at this point . . . sometimes I have to slow down and tell myself, be sure to appreciate every minute and every mile.”
After running Boston every five years Burfoot has done it annually since 2013, when the Boylston Street bombings halted him on Commonwealth Avenue, a mile from completion. “All of us wanted to come back and finish the job and do it right,” he says, “and thank the people of Boston for supporting us for so long.”
Burfoot was all alone when he broke the tape in front of the Prudential Center 50 years ago this week. Now he enjoys having plenty of company. “In the old days you always sprinted as fast as you could across the finish line because your time at Boston was your résumé for the year,” Burfoot muses. “Boston was everything, it was the only thing that counted. Now when I get to the final stretch I walk, I enjoy, I say thank you. I turn around and applaud the people who are coming back to me and I pay honor to the wondrous miracle of being at the finish of the Boston Marathon.”John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.