50 years after winning the Boston Marathon, Amby gives it another go
Ambrose "Amby" Burfoot’s most joyous moment of the 1968 Boston Marathon certainly didn’t occur while running the fabled 26.2-mile foot race.
“I was absolutely terrified the whole way,” he recalled the other day. “I kept waiting for other guys to pass me.”
Amby also didn’t celebrate with fist pumps when he dashed down Boylston Street toward Copley Square amid cheering throngs and burst across the finish line in 2 hours, 22 minutes and 17 seconds. Even when the mayor placed the signature laurel wreath on his head — no reaction.
“I didn’t savor it for a second,” Amby said. “I was completely wasted, a wet noodle.”
He didn’t rejoice until exactly 14 minutes and 46 seconds after his victory. That’s when the 15th-place runner came in: Johnny Kelley, his mentor and former cross-country coach at Fitch Senior High School in Groton who had served as an inspiration by winning at Boston 11 years earlier.
At last a smile, as Amby pushed through a mob to embrace an exhausted but elated Kelley. “We hugged, and I said, ‘Thank you,’” Amby remembered. “That was the best part.”
On Monday, Amby, now 71, will set out to achieve something only a handful of former Boston Marathon champions have ever attempted: run the race 50 years after his triumph.
“At this point I’m not trying to set records,” he said, acknowledging that his competitive times have slowed due to “that aging thing.” The sport would be a whole lot more fun “if we didn’t have our damn watches,” he noted.
As much as he tries to resist, though, Amby’s running continues to be ruled by the clock. This was particularly evident during a 9-mile training run last week, his final long ramble before Monday’s race.
The workout, which I joined along with a small group of friends and family, adhered to a regimen developed by Jeff Galloway, one of Amby’s former cross-country teammates at Wesleyan University in Middletown. It calls for cycles of four minutes of running followed by one minute of walking and another four minutes of running; repeat until finished.
“OK, let’s go!” Amby called, pressing the timer on his watch.
We began loping down Groton Long Point Road in Noank near Esker Point Beach. Not long after turning left on Duryea Drive, Amby glanced at his wrist and announced, “Stop!” We dutifully slowed to a stroll. After a minute of sauntering: “Go!” We took off again.
For more than a decade Amby has been a devotee of Galloway’s run-walk-run system, saying it reduces injuries by minimizing continuous pounding, and for some can produce faster overall times.
Incidentally, Galloway, a former American record-holder at 10 miles who went on to compete in the 10,000-meter race in the 1972 Olympics, was only one of Amby’s celebrated teammates. The other, Bill Rodgers, his former college roommate who also is known as “Boston Billy,” is best known for his four victories in both the Boston and New York City marathons.
Two-man race in '68
Amby talked about Galloway, Rodgers, Kelley and other marathon icons as we trotted through the quiet streets of Groton Long Point and Noank on a brisk and breezy morning. Joining us were Amby’s younger brother, Gary; longtime friend John Valentine; and Michelle Hamilton, who worked with Amby as a writer and editor at Runner’s World when he was executive editor. Amby retired as top editor and now is a senior writer for the magazine, as well as an author whose sixth book on running has just been released.
Fishers Island Sound sparkled in cloud-filtered sunlight as we jogged past Groton Long Point’s Main Beach. Occasionally a car would honk in greeting — Amby and Gary grew up a few blocks away on Sound Breeze Avenue. Gary now has his own house on Groton Long Point while Amby moved to Mystic a few years ago after leaving Runner’s World headquarters in Emmaus, Pa.
The water views may have been dazzling but the conversation became a less-than-scintillating series of grunts and gasps when Amby decided to push the pace during the final couple of miles. He still has a disarmingly quick, shuffling stride — feet barely rising above the pavement — so many runners have witnessed from behind as he slowly pulled away.
One competitor who realized this all too well was Bill Clark, then a 24-year-old track star whose shadow loomed over Amby when the pair approached Heartbreak Hill nearly 21 miles into the race on April 19, 1968. Aware that Clark had a powerful finishing kick, Amby thought the only way to win would be to charge up the steep slope and leave his challenger in the dust.
Amby, then 21, had been training up to 175 miles a week and felt strong. Clad in black shorts, a white singlet and a trademark Pittsburgh Paint white cap to ward off the sun, the beanpole-thin (138 pounds stretched over a 6-foot frame) runner summoned all his strength and picked up the pace.
There was one problem with this strategy, though: Clark initially refused to cave in.
Amby wrote about the race in the May 2008 issue of Runner’s World:
"One hundred yards to the top of Heartbreak Hill, and my vision closed to a narrow slit. There were no more sidewalks, lawns, trees, or houses. No more cheering spectators. No more blue sky overhead. No sound, no colors. Just driving arms, leaden legs, stinging salt, a thin patch of asphalt dead ahead. And two shadows. I gave a final big heave."
"It didn’t work. I hit the top of Heartbreak, and my tormentor was still there. I almost stopped on the spot. What was the point? I felt my body sag, deflated and depressed. I stumbled briefly, but caught myself and staggered on. We were heading downhill now, beyond the Boston College spires and toward Evergreen Cemetery on our right. I knew it was only a matter of time before Clark stormed past."
"And then the shadow was gone. I blinked a couple of times and rubbed my eyes. This made no sense. I was a lousy downhill runner, Clark a fast finisher. Where was he? In 1968, I didn’t know this stretch of the course was named 'Cemetery Mile' because it had buried the hopes of many Boston runners. Here the stiff downhill slope forces the quadriceps muscles to contract eccentrically, opposite to the concentric work demanded by Heartbreak Hill. The abrupt change often induces muscle cramping, and that’s exactly what happened to Clark. His spirit, heart, and lungs were willing — perhaps more willing than mine — but his legs were not.”
No crowd control
After our 9-mile workout Amby and I sipped tea in the kitchen of the Mystic home he shares with his wife, Cristina Negron, also a writer and runner. He resumed his narrative of the 1968 marathon in which he and Clark pounded out the final few miles.
Amby remembered legendary trainer Jock Semple hanging from the front door of the press bus as it zoomed by, bellowing in his Scottish brogue, “Give it hell on the downhills, Ammmby! Give it hell on the downhills!”
He pushed harder.
“Back then there was zero crowd control,” Amby recalled. Unencumbered by fences or ropes, the mob compressed to form a narrow lane barely wide enough for one runner at a time to squeeze through.
“It was like Moses parting the Red Sea,” he said. The crowd also blocked Amby’s view.
“Every time I dared to look back to check where Clark was, all I could see was a crowd of drunken college students,” he said. Amby had no idea that Clark had faded to 32 seconds behind, and continuously dreaded a last-second charge from his challenger.
In his 2008 magazine article he wrote, “I’ve seen video of my last 100 yards in front of the Prudential Center, where we finished in 1968. I don’t look at all like a marathon champ. I look more like the tottering Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz after he’s lost all his stuffing.”
No matter. He won, a tribute to his dogged determination and to the heartfelt encouragement from Kelley, one of America’s most influential, gregarious and beloved distance runners of his generation. He died in 2011 at age 80.
No doubt Amby, and countless others, will be thinking about his old coach on Monday.
He will walk at the end
Amby hopes he won’t look quite as wasted after the race as he did 50 years ago.
“But you never know with a marathon. A lot of things can go wrong,” he said.
One thing is certain, though: Amby won’t be sprinting toward the finish line.
“I plan to do what I’ve done for the past few years: Walk the last few blocks,” he said — not because of fatigue, but so he can make the jubilant moment last.
This will be Amby’s 23rd Boston Marathon; after his 1968 victory he raced for the next three years, finishing in 17th, 16th and 39th places, before scaling back from international competition.
After he was hired by Runner’s World in 1978, Amby went back every year to report on the race. He planned to return as a runner every five years, but the 2013 bombing “changed everything,” he said.
Amby was about three quarters of a mile from the finish when the blasts went off; I was about a quarter-mile behind him.
Like most runners whose race was cut short in 2013, we both returned to run Boston in 2014, in what was supposed to have been an off-year for Amby (and me). Amby, who has run more than 110,000 miles in his lifetime, ditched his every-five-years plan for Boston and has gone back to run the marathon on Patriot's Day every year since then.
If You Go
What: Amby Burfoot will talk about his new book, "Run Forever: Your Complete Guide to Healthy Lifetime Running," and Michele Hamilton will speak about her book "Let Your Mind Run: A Memoir of Thinking My Way to Victory."
When: 6-8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Olde Mistick Village, Meeting House
Sponsors: Bank Square Books and Kelley's Pace running store