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Martin Duffy, 70; Marathon fixture went extra mile

While battling cancer, Martin Duffy (with daughter Brianna) ran his 40th Boston Marathon. While battling cancer, Martin Duffy (with daughter Brianna) ran his 40th Boston Marathon. (John Natale/File 2009)
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / January 25, 2011

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The morning he died, during what turned out to be his last hour or so of life, Martin Duffy got up and ran through his daily regimen of stretching, push-ups, and sit-ups. Several months before, cancer had kept him from adding to his extraordinary streak of 40 consecutive Boston Marathons, but he was used to forging ahead when his body said stop.

Take one particular Marathon, probably his 26th. Afterward, he learned he had competed with a broken foot. Realizing at the 2-mile mark that something was amiss, “I divided that race into sections of 6 miles, with each segment a challenge to get through,’’ he told the Globe in 2000. “And somehow I did.’’

In 2009, Mr. Duffy’s string of consecutive completed Boston Marathons was recorded as the third-longest in history when he ran his 40th and final race a few months after being diagnosed with tongue cancer induced by the human papillomavirus. He was 70 when he died Nov. 29 in his Belmont home.

Runners often sought advice from Mr. Duffy, given his experience, and he didn’t stop at simply offering tips on how and where to train. An economist who advised businesses and helped them develop strategies, he was still in touch with friends and clients in his final days.

“He went in to work the week before he passed away,’’ said his wife, Rusty Stieff.

And that was after treatment had left Mr. Duffy no longer able to speak. Instead, he carried an index card with bold lettering that said:

Please Excuse Me For Not Speaking. I have throat Cancer And have lost my Voice. Rejoice in your own!

Mr. Duffy never stopped rejoicing in life and in helping others, bidden or unbidden.

“His nickname was Father Martin, and believe me, he wasn’t a priest, but Martin sincerely believed that he could help you with all your problems,’’ said his longtime friend Jim Johnston of the Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia, adding with a laugh: “Sometimes he defined problems you didn’t think you had. He stubbornly had answers, and frequently he was right.’’

Martin E. Duffy was born at home in Fall River, where he was the youngest of five siblings and liked to say that he started running as a child, to and from stores when he was sent on errands. He was captain of the track team at Durfee High School and set aside running at Tufts University, which he attended on an academic scholarship. He graduated in 1963 with a bachelor of arts in history and a bachelor of science in electrical engineering.

“He was such a renaissance man,’’ his wife said. “I mean, who majors in engineering and history?’’

Mr. Duffy served in the US Navy as a lieutenant with a Seabee battalion with the Civil Engineer Corps, then went to the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, graduating in 1967 with a master’s in business administration.

He continued his graduate studies at the university in applied and general economics, finishing everything but his dissertation while serving as an assistant dean and as associate director of the Fels Institute of Government. In recent years, Mr. Duffy was on the adjunct faculty at Emmanuel College and Suffolk University, teaching management and economics.

Returning to the Boston area in 1973, Mr. Duffy was director of financial analysis at Harvard University and assistant to the financial vice president, jumping two years later to McGraw-Hill, where he was a vice president and chief consumer economist. In 1986, he founded the Perseus Group, an economic research and consulting firm for which he specialized in forensic analysis.

His first marriage, to Irene Maxx Duffy of Monrovia, Calif., ended in divorce.

Katie Daley Duffy of Winchester, Mr. Duffy’s daughter from his first marriage, wrote about her father’s running for the Globe in 1997, just before his 28th Boston Marathon.

“For the last few years, my father has claimed at the end of the race that this is his last Boston,’’ she wrote, “but at 56, he still hits his feet to pavement and finds that place within himself where the running literally becomes the rhythm of balance in his life.’’

In 1988, Mr. Duffy married Stieff, whom he had helped train to qualify for the first women’s Olympic marathon trials in 1984. Their daughter, Brianna of Belmont, is also a runner.

For many years, Mr. Duffy coached girls’ soccer and was known for inspirational e-mail that he sent to players and their parents. He also was for many years a Town Meeting member in Belmont.

“He really was an exceptional guy,’’ Johnston said. “In many ways, he was better than the rest of us.’’

A service has been held for Mr. Duffy, who in addition to his wife, two daughters, and former wife, leaves two sisters, Janice Kirkman of Swansea and Anne Kenney of Hancock, N.H.; two brothers, Arthur of Stonington, Conn., and Tom of Rocky Point, N.Y.; and two grandchildren.

“He wasn’t afraid of death, but he loved life so much,’’ Stieff said. “He embraced it and exalted in it. Even as his cancer grew, he found new ways of engaging in life.’’

The uphills and downhills that the decades bring, Mr. Duffy said, are reflected in the 26.2 miles runners travel from Hopkinton to Copley Square.

“Life is a little like the Boston Marathon,’’ he told M. Nicole Nazzaro for Runner’s World magazine. “It is an allegory from bucolic Hopkinton through Natick, Wellesley, and Newton to the City on the Hill, Boston. And in the beginning, you get lulled by its ease. From Hopkinton Green, the course opens downhill. It starts easy — maybe way too easy. And so you overdo and thrill in the fast miles. The hills and the challenges are down the road and way in the future [‘and I’ll even feel better then!’].’’

As with life’s twists and turns, he added, the Marathon course can at times be misleading.

“After that last long downhill in Wellesley, the course starts uphill at Mile 16, crossing over Route 128. You thought you paced yourself conservatively, but now you find out. And then even as the crest of Heartbreak falls behind you at Mile 21, you discover another test, the downhills past Boston College that tear up your quads. You look at the CITGO sign on Boylston Street, but it just seems to stay in the same place until finally the last mile opens up to you.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.

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