More than two decades later, strangers keep putting the laurel wreath on Patti Dillon's head. "They'll say, `how many times did you win Boston?' " she says. "And I'll say, `'Well, I never won it.' "
But Dillon, who ran as Patti Lyons and Patti Catalano, did become a Trivial Pursuit question: Which woman finished second in the Boston Marathon three straight times? "I'm happy that people remember I finished second," says Dillon, who played the runner-up role to three different rivals from 1979-81.
But do they remember that Dillon broke the course record on a bad foot? That she also set an American record? Do they know that only two countrywomen (Joan Benoit Samuelson and Kim Jones) have run Boston faster?
Everybody remembers the multiple victors, such as Clarence DeMar and Bill Rodgers, Eino Oksanen and Cosmas Ndeti, Gerard Cote and Ibrahim Hussein, Rosa Mota and Uta Pippig and Fatuma Roba.
But what about Juma Ikangaa and Tom Fleming, Victor Dyrgall and Andrew Sockalexis, Elana Meyer and Jones, whose pursuits across 26 miles were anything but trivial?
Finishing second in Boston is "like drinking vinegar," says John "The Younger" Kelley, the 1957 victor who was runner-up five times. John "The Elder" Kelley won the race twice and finished second a record seven times between 1934 and 1946. "Heartbreak Hill is named after me," says Kelley.
Most of the time, Kelley lost the race during the "haunted mile" after the hills, when his spindly 124-pound frame had run out of fuel. Other members of the heartbreak club lost it during the final sprint, with the tape just out of reach.
Tanzania's Ikangaa, who finished second three straight times between 1988-90, lost to Hussein by one second in the last 100 yards. Ethiopia's Gezahegne Abera lost a photo finish to Elijah Lagat in 2000, with Moses Tanui just three seconds behind them. Dick Beardsley lost by two seconds to Alberto Salazar in 1982 in a toe-to-toe grinder that essentially finished him.
"Later on, people will ask you, why couldn't you have won?," says the younger Kelley, who lost one race by 19 seconds and another by 25. "But if you could possibly do it, you'd do it. You give it everything you have; you can't give more than that. You have to let the thing come down as it will."
So much of the race comes down to chance -- the whimsical April weather (40 degrees or 80?), the variable winds, an untimely injury, a freak happening on the course.
Sammy Mellor won the 1902 race after two-time defending champion John Caffery came down with dysentery and pulled out at the starting line. In 1907, a freight train crossing the course in Framingham cut off the six leaders from the rest of the field. The younger Kelley was knocked over by a dog just before the Newton hills in 1961.
Dillon ran into a horse's rear at Cleveland Circle in 1981. "What are you going to do?," she shrugs. "That's the beauty of marathoning. You run with what you're dealt. Just like life."
It isn't so much about victory -- Kelley went a decade between his two -- as it is about persistence. "Keep going, keep going, keep going," says Kelley, who ran the race 61 times and finished all but three. "Determination."
When the middle school near his East Dennis home asked Kelley to drop by and chat with the students, that was the requested theme. Not the triumph as much as the tenacity.
"You just want to do the thing for some obscure reason of your own," says the younger Kelley, now 73, who kept turning up at the Hopkinton starting line well after his contending years. "We came back and back and back to this race. It was a magnet to us, like our journey to Mecca. I can't tell you why. I can't tell myself why."
That's what kept the elder Kelley, a florist's assistant from Arlington, coming back after he dropped out of the 1932 race, after he finished 37th in 1933. "People asked me, `Why do you do it?' " says Kelley, now 96 and the race's grand marshal. "I fell in love with the marathon from the very beginning. It's the greatest footrace in the world, outside of the Olympics."
For a decade, the elder Kelley was in its forefront, the lead actor in a springtime drama that kept the city enthralled. He won the race easily in 1935 (despite stopping to vomit in Kenmore Square), but impatience and a series of sturdier challengers kept the laurel wreath out of reach.
He was second to Walter Young in 1937, second to Cote in 1940, second to Leslie Pawson in 1941, then to Cote again in 1943 and '44. It took 10 years, Kelley says now, to figure out how to win: Run his own race and let the leaders come back to him.
So he did in 1945, when Kelley ran alone from Coolidge Corner to the finish, blowing kisses to the cheering crowds along the way. "I had chills going up and down my spine and tears in my eyes," he recalls. "I knew I was going to get there, and there was a wonderful feeling of joy. I'd made it. When I turned the corner at Exeter Street and went to the finish, it was full of love. My father kissed me and put his arms around me and told me it was the happiest moment of his life."
Not for another 12 years, when the younger Kelley (no relation) won by nearly four minutes, did another American manage it. "Johnny [the elder] says, `Kid, you're going to win it more than I did,' " the younger Kelley says.
Kelley never did. In 1958, the thermometer soared to 84 and Franjo Mihalic ran away from him in the hills. In 1959, after running alongside Oksanen down the avenues, Kelley made his move at a temporary wooden footbridge just before Kenmore Square. "Bad judgment," he says. "I thought I'd take the steam out of him and go. I took the steam out of me -- and he went."
In 1961, Kelley was running with Oksanen and Fred Norris when he found himself sprawling, courtesy of a random canine. Norris, in an extraordinary gesture of sportsmanship, stopped and helped Kelley to his feet. "I tried to reel Oksanen back, but it was a costly effort," says Kelley, who was outkicked by the barrel-chested Finn down the stretch.
That was his last, best chance. In 1963, Kelley turned up at the starting line with a strep throat on a raw and clammy day and ran his most courageous race, passing the reigning (Abebe Bikila) and future (Mamo Wolde) Olympic champions to finish second to Aurele Vandendriessche. "I don't know how the hell it happened," Kelley says.
It was a personal triumph, which is what sustains those who come in second at Boston and keeps them coming back. Dillon, who led the 1979 race until the hills, was running on a foot throbbing with bursitis. It took an American record by Benoit to beat her.
"I got a PR with a sore foot," says Dillon, whose second-place time (2:38:22) literally would have won all previous races by a mile. "That was a big thing. It helped me become a marathoner."
In 1980, Dillon thought she was leading the race at Cleveland Circle until someone told her Jacqueline Gareau was up ahead. "I went like the dickens to catch her," says Dillon, who was officially third until imposter Rosie Ruiz was disqualified. "But I ran out of room."
In 1981, Dillon was ahead until the crowds at Cleveland Circle nudged a police horse into her path and sent her reeling into the arms of runner/author Tom Derderian. "I don't know if I would have won," concedes Dillon, who finished behind onrushing Allison Roe by more than a minute. "But it would have been a heck of a race."
As it was, Dillon set an American record (2:27:51), beating both Benoit and Gareau. But there was no Trivial Pursuit question for that, and Dillon isn't looking for one. "I've always wanted to win," she says. "The point is that you run to win. I did my best. I ran my heart out all the time."
Fleming, who was second to Jon Anderson in 1973 and Neil Cusack in 1974, burst into tears the second time after struggling in gamely on a sprained ankle with a time (2:14:25) that would have won the previous three races and two of the next three. "You took three minutes off your best time," a friend reminded him. "But I lost," Fleming sobbed. "I was so close, so really close."
Fleming never got closer. Nor did Jeff Wells, who came within two seconds of catching Rodgers in 1978. Nor did Ikangaa, whose 1988 time (2:08:44) would have won all but one previous race.
The thing about finishing second, those who've done it say, is that it hurts more later than it does at the time. "It's more galling in reflection," muses the younger Kelley, "than it is in the unfolding."
The fortunate few never know the pangs. Rodgers, who won Boston four times, never finished second. He was third, fourth, and 10th, but he never saw just one man between himself and the tape. "You get to like vinegar after a while," says the younger Kelley.
Nobody swallowed more of it than the elder Kelley, but his legend and his longevity come with privileges. As grand marshal, he covers the route in a car these days. Then the Heartbreak Kid steps out just before the finish and walks across the line as honorary victor. Forever first.