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Jogging his memory

Burfoot reflects on his surprise triumph in '68

By Ron Indrisano, Globe Staff, 4/18/2003

In 1968, Ambrose (Amby) Burfoot was a 21-year-old senior at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., and, while a fine runner, he was far from the favorite to win the Boston Marathon. But something happened in the month prior to the event, something that would change the outcome. Burfoot found himself in "perfect flow." "I had very high expectations for myself. I had finished 17th the year before," said Burfoot. "But it went beyond that when, three or four weeks before the marathon, I was in perfect flow. When I went out and trained, it was like I was running on air. And that had not always been my experience. I told a couple of my best friends that I had a real chance to win. I didn't crow it from the rooftops, because that would have been ludicrous.

"When we got to Wellesley, I felt so good I was just jogging. I was in the lead pack of six, and then it was just me and the fellow who finished second [William Clark from Virginia]. It was an intensely bright and sunny day, and, when you run from Hopkinton to Boston, you run from west to east and the sun is behind you. The thing I remember most is that, when we got to Heartbreak Hill, it was just me and the guy [Clark], and all I could see was his shadow chasing me. It was a frightening sight to me. It was terrifying. But when I got to the bottom of the hill, the shadow was gone, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I won by a margin that was comfortable [32 seconds]."

For Burfoot, who is from Charlottesville, Va., and describes himself as "a failed basketball player," running has been a big part of his life since attending Robert E. Fitch High School in Groton, Conn. The key moment in his career came when he tried out for the cross-country team, which was coached by John J. Kelley, who won the Boston Marathon in 1957. Burfoot developed into an elite road runner and an outstanding marathoner.

"My meeting John was truly important," said Burfoot, now executive editor of Runner's World magazine. "He was the main influence on my life, both in running and other areas. He's always been a very private man and he does his walking and running in the woods these days. But he still visits Boston."

Burfoot has long been immersed in the Boston Marathon, and has competed 17 times. Bill Rodgers, who won the first of his four Bostons in 1975, was Burfoot's roommate at Wesleyan.

"From 1957, when John won, until 1968, when I won, all the winners had been foreign," said Burfoot. "The three of us passed the torch for a few decades. I was 21 when I won, which is certainly young in marathoning. But I had run my first marathon when I was 18 and finished 25th. The Boston Marathon was in my blood. Having gone to school in New England and having been coached by John, I knew how important Boston was. Winning Boston was just as important to me as it would have been to win the Olympics. I really had been training to win the race for four years. My last two years before I won, I ran 120 miles a week, which was a lot in those days."

This year marks the 35th anniversary of Burfoot's victory, and the most obvious change in the sport since is that runners are now handsomely paid. But Burfoot, whose magazine has 540,000 subscribers and 2 million readers in the United States alone sees more subtle changes.

"There is such a difference in the number of people who run today," he said. "When I won, there were about 1,000 runners in the marathon [1,014, then a record]. And this year they are expecting around 20,000, the second biggest year [behind the centennial running in 1996]. And Boston isn't like other marathons, such as in London. You have to qualify for Boston.

"Running has become a phenomenon around the world. The only two sports I can think of that you can find everywhere are running and soccer. And remember, the big change is women, women, women. When I won in 1968, there were no official women runners. They weren't allowed in officially until 1972. Now, women approach 40 percent of the field, and for women under 40, they are 50 percent of the field. That's an immense social change, and it reflects the fact that people now run for fitness."

Burfoot, who was inducted into the American Long Distance Running Hall of Fame in 1994, enters the marathon every five years, and runs with a group of family and friends, with the emphasis on fun more than run.

"I'm not running for medals anymore," he said. "I'm running just to prove that I can do it. I'm not the least bit ashamed to say that I now run for fitness and social reasons. My family and friends are all runners, and when we run it's a reunion."

For those who recall Burfoot's victory, it may seem 35 years have gone by in a flash. But the truth is that it was so long ago he was a true amateur. "All I got when I won was a bowl of beef stew, and I'm a vegetarian," he said with a chuckle. "But nothing beats the exhilaration of breaking the tape in the Boston Marathon."

This story ran on page SPT906 of the Boston Globe on 4/18/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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