Clarence DeMar survived a Dickensian childhood and bad medical advice to win the Boston Marathon seven times, despite taking two long breaks from running while he was in his twenties.
He was a man of few words, high principle, wry wit and independence – a frosty New Englander much like Calvin Coolidge, president during several of DeMar’s marathon victories. He was so stern that marathoner Johnny Kelley’s wife said she’d hide in a corner when he was in the room.
By following his own instincts rather than his doctor’s advice, he helped to change the course of medical science.
Clarence DeMar was born in Madeira, Ohio, on June 7, 1888, one of six children. When he was 11 his family moved east to the Boston area.
His widowed mother couldn’t support all her children, so she placed Clarence at the Farm and Trades School, a residential vocational school, on Thompson Island in Boston Harbor. There he learned the printing trade.
He ran his first Boston Marathon in 1910, at 22, and came in second. The next year he won the race, breaking the course record by three minutes. In 1912, he ran the marathon at the Stockholm Olympics, finishing twelfth.
Clarence DeMar stopped running for the next five years. In his autobiography, he gave three reasons. First were his religious beliefs. "As a member of the Baptist church I had a suspicion that the whole game of running was a selfish vain-glorious search for praise and honor,” he wrote.
Second, he was studying for an associates degree at the Harvard Extension School in his spare time. Third, his doctor detected a slight heart murmur and warned him not to run. He told DeMar he’d start feeling weak going up and down stairs. Back then, doctors didn’t know that exercise strengthens the cardiovascular system, lowers cholesterol and clears the arteries. They thought it weakened the heart.
DeMar never noticed those symptoms -- and the doctor died of a heart attack two years later. “I’ve often wondered if he wasn’t listening to his own heart by mistake,” DeMar wrote.
When the United States entered World War I, he was drafted into the service. He didn’t like the war, but knew if he resisted he’d go to jail and wouldn’t be able to help his mother. Since he might get killed in the war, he decided to have a little fun before shipping off to Europe. Though he hadn't trained much, he ran the Boston Marathon in 1917 and finished third.
Lemonade and Ice Cream
During the war he was part of the Army of Occupation and saw almost no action. In Paris, he wrote to a friend, there was little to do but drink lemonade and eat ice cream.
In 1922, after another five-year hiatus, he ran again – and won. The next year, when the course was extended to the standard 26.2 miles, he won again. In 1924 he won a bronze medal in the Olympic marathon event.. In 1925 he finished second in the Boston Marathon, third in 1926 and first in in 1927 and 1928. People started calling it the Boston DeMarathon.
Clarence DeMar won his last Boston Marathon in 1930 at the age of 41.
“I sometimes feel that the whole word is divided,” he wrote, “into those who pay attention and accomplish things and those who distract attention and are infernal nuisances. The runners are paying attention and the rest of the world is mostly trying to distract them.”
Just before that 1930 victory, he got married, moved to Keene, N.H., and started working toward a master’s degree at Boston University. He ran, walked and hitchhiked the 90 miles to class.
He continued to run throughout his life and taught printing and industrial history at the Keene Normal School. He also taught Sunday school and led a Boy Scout troop.
“Teaching is a very happy way to earn a living,” he told a local reporter. “I like it very much.”
He ran his last Boston Marathon at the age of 65. At 69, he ran a 15 km race in Bath, Maine.
Clarence DeMar died on June 11, 1958 of stomach cancer. After his death, the results of his autopsy were reported in the New England Journal of Medicine. His arteries were two to three times the diameter of normal arteries, which allowed blood to flow freely around a slight blockage.
That finding encouraged further scientific research into the relationship between fitness and heart health.
Since 1978, the Clarence DeMar Marathon has been held every year in the fall in Keene.
With thanks to The B.A.A. at 125: The Official History of the Boston Athletic Association, 1887-2012, by John Hanc. This story was updated in 2017.