Boston Marathon Trivia, or Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About the Big Race

Like so many New England sports traditions, the Boston Marathon is surrounded by lore and legend.

Boston Marathon, circa 1930. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones collection.

Boston Marathon, circa 1930. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones collection.

What Bostonian doesn’t know about Heartbreak Hill, Johnny Kelley and Rosie Ruiz?

But a few things can escape a fan’s attention, especially when the event has hosted hundreds of thousands of runners over its 122 years.

Boston Marathon Facts

Here are seven things you may not know about the big race:

  • Tarzan Brown wouldn’t have run the 1939 Boston Marathon if someone hadn’t given him a dollar. The chronically unemployed runner showed up in Hopkinton without the $1 entrance fee. Walter Brown, who fired the starting gun, gave the Narragansett the dollar. Tarzan Brown won the race.
  • There were two Johnny Kelleys, Johnny Kelley the Elder and John J. Kelley the Younger, the Boston Marathon’s Connecticut connection. Johnny Kelley, born in Norwich, Conn., won the Boston Marathon in 1957. He became a successful running coach at Fitch High School in Groton, Conn., where he coached the 1968 Boston Marathon winter, Amby Burfoot. Burfoot roomed with Bill Rodgers, four-time Marathon winner, at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. Rodgers, born in Hartford, invited runner Greg Meyer to move to Boston, where Meyer won the Marathon in 1983.
  • Prize money wasn’t awarded until 1986, due to the sponsorship of John Hancock Financial Services.
  • Clarence DeMar won seven Boston Marathons despite a five-year layoff on his doctor’s advice. His doctor detected a slight heart murmur and advised him to stop running because, he believed, running weakened the heart. DeMar’s doctor wasn’t alone in believing that running was dangerous. For many years the marathon required a pre-race physical, and doctors decided whether runners were fit to race. In 1958, three runners declared unfit finished in the top 10. Medical science has advanced since then.

Choice Epithets

  • Roberta ‘Bobbi’ Gibb was the first woman to run the entire Boston Marathon. She was a spiritualist who discovered inner peace while running up to 40 miles a day. In 1966 she put on a black bathing suit and her brother’s big Bermuda shorts and hid in the bushes near the start. She finished in three hours, 21 minutes and 40 seconds. The crowd cheered her wildly along the way, but not everyone approved. Celtics coach Red Auerbach was perplexed. “I can’t get guys to run around the floor and a small broad goes out there and runs a marathon,” Auerbach said. “I don’t know what the world is coming to.”
  • The Boston Marathon for many years was run by two old friends, Will Cloney, a sportswriter, and Jock Semple, a trainer for the Celtics and Bruins. Semple had a penchant for physically attacking non-serious runners. In 1959 he chased a runner wearing a clown mask, tackled him from behind and beat him until police pulled him off. “He hurls not only his body at them, but also a rather choice array of epithets,” Cloney said. “Jock’s method of attack is apt to vary.” In 1967, before women could run officially, Kathrine Switzer evaded Semple’s radar by entering under “K. V. Switzer.” When he discovered a woman running the marathon, he tried to rip her number off. “Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers,” he shouted, according to Switzer. Her boyfriend shoved Semple out of the way, but photos of Semple grabbing Switzer’s numbers made world news.

One Beer, One Cigar

  • Gerard Cote, the ‘fabulous Frenchman,’ wouldn’t talk to reporters immediately after winning the race in 1948. He told them, “Gentlemens, gentlemens! One beer! One cigar! Then we talk about the race, eh!” He won three other Boston Marathons, in 1940, 1943 and 1944.

BONUS ITEM: Thanks to reader Don Mathesen, we’re adding “The Run for the Hoses.” One hour before the noon start in 1976, the temperature reached an unseasonable 100 degrees. Race fans sprayed water from garden hoses on the runners to cool them off. Jack Fultz, a Georgetown University graduate student, first crossed the finish line — sopping wet — that year.

This story about the Boston Marathon was updated in 2021.


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