boston

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

1. Boston Marathon Entry Fee

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.

tarzan-brown-1939

Tarzan Brown running the 1939 Boston Marathon. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones collection.

The eccentric, mercurial Brown had won the race before, in 1936. He dominated the sport of long-distance running in America along with John A. Kelley and Les Pawson throughout the 1930s.

Between races he worked as a stonemason and a shell fisherman, but sometimes had to sell his trophies and medals to feed his wife and four children. He died in 1975 when a van hit him outside a tavern.

2. Two Johnny Kelleys

There were two Johnny Kelleys, Johnny Kelley the Elder and John J. Kelley the Younger. Johnny Kelley the Younger, born in Norwich, Conn., in 1930, 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.

Johnny Kelley the Younger

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.

Johnny Kelley the Elder, born in 1907, won the marathon in 1935 and 1945, came in second seven times and ran the race 61 times. He ran his last full marathon in 1992 at the age of 84. For the next two years he ran the last seven miles.

Johnny Kelley the Elder in 1996

A statue of Johnny Kelley the Elder stands near Newton City Hall near Heartbreak Hill, so named because of something he did in 1936. He overtook Tarzan Brown on the hill, and gave him a conciliatory pat on the shoulder as he passed him. That aggravated Brown, who then speeded up and beat Kelley. Hence the name “Heartbreak Hill.”

At 65, 19 years before his last marathon, Johnny Kelley said, “For me, the race these days is to try to beat the girls to the finish and to wave to all my old friends along the course.”

3. Winningest Boston Marathon Runner

Clarence DeMar won seven Boston Marathons despite a five-year layoff on his doctor’s advice. He won more of the men’s open division than any other runner. DeMar won in 1911, 1922-24, 1927-28 and 1930.

His doctor detected a slight heart murmur and advised him to stop running because, he believed, running weakened the heart.

Clarence DeMar

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.

One competitor has won more races than DeMar, though: Ernst van Dyk has won 10 times in the wheelchair division.

Ernst van Dyk

4. The Prizes Got Better

Prize money wasn’t awarded until 1986, due to the sponsorship of John Hancock Financial Services. But over the past 20 years, runners have received more than $20 million. Winners of the open division get $150,000, and competitors who set a course record in both the open and wheelchair divisions will receive $50,000 bonuses.

5. A Small Broad

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, ahead of two-thirds of the runners.

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.”

Bobbi Gibb in 2016

6. Choice Epithets

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.

Jock Semple

“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. He and Switzer later became friends.

In a 1968 Sports Illustrated interview, he  complained about the runners he didn’t like. “These screwballs! These weirdies!” he said. “These MIT boys! These Tufts characters! These Harvard guys! They write me askin’ should they put on spiked shoes for the marathon!”

7. 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.

Gerard Cote winning the 1940 Boston Marathon

 

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 2022.

Image: Bobbi Gibb By HCAM (Hopkinton Community Access and Media, Inc.) – HCAM News Focus: 26.2 Foundation Hosts Bobbi Gibb at approximately 50:30, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73403151. Ernst van Dyk By Gr5 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32311476. Jock Semple By unknown – Original publication: unknownImmediate source: http://www.carlyjyll.com/2018/05/the-first-women-to-finish-boston_2.html, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63615160. Johnny Kelley in 1996 By unknown – Original publication: unknownImmediate source: https://archive.boston.com/sports/specials/obituaries/kelley/kelley_pictures?pg=9, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=68969198.

 

To Top

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest artciles from the New England Historical Society

Thanks for Signing Up!

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join Now and Get The Latest Articles. 

It's Free!

You have Successfully Subscribed!