A key mile marker in DeMar story came 100 years ago
The man with the stethoscope predicted that he’d be a dead man running if he were foolish enough to go 26 miles again. “You have a bad heart,’’ an examining physician told Clarence Harrison DeMar after he ran his first Boston Marathon in 1910. “You shouldn’t even walk upstairs.’’
DeMar, who made a point of ignoring advice, shrugged off the warning, went on to win the next year, and kept running for decades after the doctor had died of cardiac arrest. “I’ve always insisted that the physician had been listening to his own heart, not mine,’’ DeMar was fond of saying.
The man who became known as Mr. DeMarathon ran himself into immortality. The Melrose resident won Boston a record seven times between 1911 and 1930, despite skipping the race nine times, and lined up for his 33d in 1954, when he was 65. He participated in three Olympic Games, winning the bronze medal in 1924. Across nearly half a century DeMar competed in nearly a hundred 26-milers, finishing all of them, and in more than a thousand road races at every conceivable distance, running his last only a few months before he died in 1958 at 70 after battling cancer.
For longevity, durability and primacy only Johnny “The Elder’’ Kelley, who ran Boston 61 times and still was lacing up at 86, came close to matching DeMar, who won his first Boston title 100 years ago when Kelley still was a toddler. “Like Johnny, Clarence was an original,’’ testifies John “The Younger’’ Kelley, who raced against DeMar several times. “There’ll never be another like him.’’
DeMar ran to work and back. He ran marathons at the Brockton Fair, 44-milers from Providence to Boston on St. Patrick’s Day, 10-mile handicaps in Lynn, scratch races in Haverhill. In New Hampshire, where the annual Gilsum-to-Keene marathon is named for him, DeMar once ran and hitchhiked 110 miles to a 10-miler only to find that he was a week early. So DeMar ran and hitchhiked his way back. “He ran everywhere,’’ says Ted Vogel, who first competed against the man when he was 16 and DeMar was 53. “Everywhere.’’
DeMar ran for the love of it because there was no money in a day when a runner could be banned for accepting a suit of clothes for a prize. “Lots of people ask, ‘Why haven’t you turned professional and made a lot of money?’, DeMar wrote in “Marathon’’, his 1937 memoir. “One answer is simply because I never had a chance.’’
He was an amateur in the true Olympian sense, a printer by craft and a runner by calling. “Clarence had manifold talents,’’ says Kelley, who was a Connecticut schoolteacher when he won Boston in 1957. “He was a typesetter, a preacher, a scoutmaster, family farmer, and a scholar. He had a Harvard degree.’’
DeMar also was a virtual orphan who was sent to the Farm School on Thompson Island in Boston Harbor after his father died and his mother moved from Ohio to Massachusetts with six children. It was, DeMar said, “a hard and somewhat squelched life,’’ and he once tried to escape by swimming to Savin Hill.
“He hated the place,’’ his son Robert once related in a letter to Gloria Ratti at the Boston Athletic Association. “I once, in my youth, asked him about it. He flew into a three-day rage from which I got the message that if I were lucky I wouldn’t end up there.’’
DeMar finally was sent to work for a Vermont fruit farmer and ended up attending UVM, where he went out for cross-country because he knew he had no talent for football, baseball, or boxing. After moving to Melrose, he won a silver tea set at a 10-mile handicap race in 1910 and discovered that he had an aptitude for roadwork. Two months later DeMar finished second in his Boston debut and concluded that he had both the heart and soul for the marathon.
Two years later he was running in the Olympics in Stockholm, where Jim Thorpe and George S. Patton were among his US teammates. But DeMar didn’t compete again at Boston until 1917, when he reckoned that he might get killed in World War I. “Why not have a little fun at marathoning first?’’, he figured.
After he returned from duty in France, DeMar’s time was absorbed by typesetting, scouting, and church. He didn’t take the line in Hopkinton again until 1922 but he easily won three Bostons in a row (it was, he noted “The Big Surprise’’), then made the Olympic podium in Paris, the last American to do it until Frank Shorter won in 1972. Then Demar switched his boat ticket to steerage for the trip home in order to pocket $100 and help make up for 10 weeks of lost wages.
There would be three more Boston victories in 1927, 1928, and 1930, when he finished second to golfer Bobby Jones in the voting for the Sullivan Award as the country’s best amateur athlete. By then he’d been already been anointed as “DeMarvelous’’. “His legs may not be as shapely as Claudette Colbert’s,’’ wrote the Globe’s Dave Egan, “but they are equally famous.’’
The fame he could do without, DeMar had decided after his first victory. Despite the glamour, he wrote “there had been a shallowness and insincerity about much of the honor which came my way.’’ If he could have run the route without spectators, DeMar would have. “Any word or deed aimed to get my attention would be like throwing a monkey wrench into a fine piece of machinery,’’ he wrote. “Just a personal word like “Step on it there’’ or “Get going, Clarence’’ and I felt furious.’’
When a drunken spectator jumped out at Chestnut Hill one year to shake hands with him, DeMar socked him on the chin and skinned his knuckles. Once, when he was running alongside DeMar in a 20-miler, Vogel was brushed by a car. “She just tapped me, but DeMar had a hemorrhage,’’ he recalls. “He memorized the woman’s car and license plate and turned the number over to a state trooper.’’
Yet DeMar was unfailingly courteous to his competitors, whom he considered fellow travelers. “When I was running in the Salem-to-Lawrence race in 1941 my father said, ‘Why don’t you ask Mr. DeMar if he has any objection to your running along with him,’ ’’ says Vogel, who was 16 at the time. “Clarence was kind of flattered. He said, ‘I’d be glad to have the company.’ ’’
In a day when distance runners were considered to be somewhere between silly and suicidal, they formed a fraternity of the footsore. “There were about 40 or 50 runners who showed up every week for whatever the race was,’’ says Vogel, who finished second to Gerard Cote in Boston in 1948 and ran in that summer’s London Olympics. “Anywhere they could bum a ride to get to.’’
On a whim, Kelley the younger and running buddy George Terry wrote DeMar in 1948, inviting him to run in a 12-miler in New London. “He came down and he shuffled through the race,’’ Kelley recalls. “Then he got on the train and went back to Boston.’’
By then, Globe columnist Jerry Nason noted, DeMar was “a gaunt, almost biblical figure whose shuffling appearance along the course brought roars of admiration from thousands who had watched him since their childhood.’’
Like Johnny The Elder after him, DeMar was an April icon. At 49, he finished seventh at Boston. At 54, he still was in the top 20; at 61, in the top 45. In his final appearance in 1954, the 65-year-old DeMar still broke four hours. “Clarence was a marvel,’’ says Kelley the younger. “All the runners called him Old Man DeMar. He was an institution.’’
The man who was born with a crooked foot, who was warned that his heart would stop if he kept going, kept running even after the clock no longer was relevant. The summer before he died at 70, DeMar ran a 15-kilometer race in Bath, Maine, and finished 14th. Father Time was his rival and DeMar went shoulder-to-shoulder with him until the finish line.
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.