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More than 70 years ago, then 17-year-old Michael Dukakis set out to run the Boston Marathon. After all, as a senior in high school, it was his last chance to compete in the historic race before leaving for Swarthmore College.
“I ran the race in 1951 as a high school senior at Brookline High,” Dukakis said in an interview with Boston.com. “The marathon itself comes right through Brookline. So from the time us kids were 3 or 4, Marathon day was a big, big thing. And I remember watching that race when I was 4 or 5 or 6 years of age.”
And ran it he did — in low-top Keds, without drinking very much water.
Dukakis, who went on to become a three-term Massachusetts governor and the Democratic Party’s 1988 candidate for president, ended up finishing the race in about three and a half hours, and, after a night of rest, tried to compete in a tennis match.
He decided to enter the race with one of his good friends. The pair were “in pretty good shape,” Dukakis said — they had run cross country in the fall and Dukakis played basketball in the winter. In the less than two months between the end of basketball season and the Boston Marathon, Dukakis trained for the race — while also gearing up for the tennis season.
The most he remembers running before embarking on the 26.2-mile course was about 14 miles.
“I happened to be the captain of the tennis team and the tennis coach was a wonderful guy named Monty Wells, who had been a world class hurdler at Dartmouth. He pleaded with us not to run,” Dukakis said. “And we said, ‘But coach, it’s our last chance, we are both going away to school and will probably never have this chance again, it’s our hometown.’ We proceeded to sign up to run and get on a bus and headed for Hopkinton first thing in the morning.”
Dukakis’s excitement about the prospect of running the Boston Marathon was matched by his friends and family; after all, it’s hard to live on the marathon route and not be invested.
“They were all really excited about it. If they grew up in this town, they were marathon fans,” Dukakis said. “The fact that I was running was important, but they didn’t tell me about the importance of drinking water.”
Dukakis noted that 71 years ago very little was known about exercise science or how to safely and efficiently run a marathon. The brightly colored and ergonomically correct racing shoes that thousands of athletes will don this year also didn’t exist yet, so Dukakis ran the race in Ked sneakers.
“You’ve got to understand how primitive things were at the time,” Dukakis said. “There was no shoe made for running on hard surfaces. They didn’t exist at the time. So we had to run that race in low Ked sneakers, which was the closest thing we got to a pair of shoes that you could run on.”
Used to running much shorter distances, Dukakis remembers not drinking enough water throughout the race.
“We knew nothing about exercise science. I was a cross country runner … and in those days high school cross country was a two and a half mile race. And we were running 26,” Dukakis said. “By the time we hit the Newton Hills, we were dying of thirst.”
Now, the marathon route has at least 25 hydration stations, but in 1951 that wasn’t the case.
“There weren’t a lot of stations along the way giving out oranges or whatever. There was one I remember which was the most delicious orange I ever tasted,” Dukakis said.
What would turn out to be perhaps the most important part of the race came as they headed into Brookline, near the end of the course. A group of high schoolers was out cheering and supporting the athletes. They asked Dukakis how he was doing and his answer was definitive: he needed water.
“In those days, drugstores had soda fountains. So there was a drugstore on Beacon Street, they had a soda fountain and when the high school kids said, ‘How’re you doing? How’re you doing?’ I said, get me [water],” Dukakis said. “In Brookline, there was a very pretty young freshman girl who was standing in front of a Brigham’s fairly close to Washington Square. And she was nice enough to go in and get me a cup of water and give it to me.”
Little did he know it, but that was the first time he met his future wife — Kitty.
“I’d heard of her but didn’t know her. Nor do I remember her giving me a cup of water,” Dukakis said. “She remembers it, I don’t. But it kept me going.”
The pair went to the same high school but, at the time, Dukakis was a senior and had a girlfriend. (His girlfriend would later officially introduce Dukakis to his wife-to-be and has remained a close friend of the couple.)
After the bright spot of getting some water, Dukakis went on to finish the race. He placed 57th overall in a field of 191. The next big hurdle came the next day: a tennis match.
His girlfriend of the time drove him home after the race; he got a good night’s sleep and then dragged himself out of bed.
“I get out of bed, I kind of hobbled to the bathroom and then I [got to] the stairs from the second floor to the first floor of our house, and I can’t walk down the stairs. I’m sitting there saying ‘Dukakis, Coach Wells is going to be very upset,’ and I was the number one guy on the team,” Dukakis said.
This was the same tennis coach who had originally begged Dukakis not to run the marathon, so Dukakis had to show up to the match.
“I finally sat on my rump, bounced down the stairs, ate some breakfast that my mother prepared for me and went off to the Dean Law Playground to play on the tennis courts,” Dukakis said. “Fortunately, Malden Catholic [High School] was not a tennis power. We won eight to one and I don’t have to tell you who the one was. All I could do was serve and come to the net — I couldn’t move laterally at all.”
Dukakis said it took him about a week to get back to normal and be able to play tennis fully again.
Though growing up watching the Boston Marathon inspired Dukakis to run it, he said he was also inspired by his Greek heritage.
“Greeks were runners from ancient times, and I was very much aware of that,” Dukakis said, noting it was part of “the history and the romance of the race itself.”
The years leading up to Dukakis’s chance in the race were marked by a few notable Greek athletes traveling to Boston for the marathon. When Dukakis was 12, the Greek national marathon champion Stylianos Kyriakides had come in first in the 1946 Boston Marathon.
“I, at the age of 12, was in Kenmore Square with some of my buddies. [There were] no transistor radios, no TV, obviously and so on and so forth, so we didn’t know who was ahead until the word would come down. ‘Who is it? Who is it? Who’s ahead?’” Dukakis said.
Though now spectators can track participants in any number of ways, in 1951 they were left in suspense until the runners came into view. Kyriakides was running stride to stride with John Kelley — a marathoning legend who competed in the Boston Marathon over 50 times and had won the year prior — for most of the race.
“The word comes back. ‘It’s Kelley and the Greek,’” Dukakis said. “As they approach Kenmore Square, Kyriakides moves out about 10 yards ahead of Kelley and goes on to win the race. The Greek community in the Boston area went nuts.”
Though Dukakis’s marathon running days were over after the 1951 Boston Marathon, his marathon days were far from done.
Much like the rest of the city of Boston, Dukakis, who is now 88 years old, and Kitty will be out watching the athletes come Monday.
“We go to the marathon every year. Now it’s not 300 people, it’s 30,000. And they come in in droves,” Dukakis said. “We happen to live a 10-minute walk from Beacon Street. So, Kitty and I will walk down to the race and watch it for a while, but it really is different because of the numbers.”
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