The 1968 Boston Marathon champion still contests his hometown race.
(c) 2012 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission.
In 1963 a 17 year-old high school kid from Groton, Conn., lined up for the Manchester Road Race, the hilly 4.748-mile footrace which will be held for the 76th time tomorrow just outside of Hartford, Conn. Little did he know that he would begin one of the greatest competitive streaks in all of road running which would include nine victories and, tomorrow, 50 straight finishes at America’s most prestigious Thanksgiving Day race.
“It was my first road race and I felt like someone who had graduated from the bucolic high school running scene on Connecticut’s well-tended golf courses to the wild, wooly, furious and thrilling road racing scene,” recalled Amby Burfoot, 66, in a telephone interview with Race Results Weekly. “It was like going from high school cross country to the Olympics. I remember that it felt like I had marched into the Olympic opening ceremony when I went to the starting line. From that moment, I knew that road racing was what I wanted to do the rest of my life.”
Burfoot, the longtime executive editor of Runner’s World magazine who now has the title of editor-at-large, would run Manchester four more times before notching his first win in 1968, the same year he won the Boston Marathon as a senior at Wesleyan University. Burfoot recalled that he went to Manchester that year with every intention of winning.
“I absolutely was dead-set on winning Manchester to complete the double which had started in April,” Burfoot recalled. “People who weren’t around in that age can’t appreciate that Manchester was the complete second citadel of the running season. It was absolutely to New England road runners, Boston in the spring and Manchester in the fall. It was absolutely the second-most prestigious road race in New England at the time.”
Burfoot would never win Boston again, but would win at Manchester eight more times. He won in 1969, then every year from 1971 through ’77. Burfoot said he would always give Manchester an over-the-top effort because the race had become so important to him.
“Every single Manchester that I ran in that period I ran to 110% of my ability,” Burfoot explained. “In 1974 I beat Bill Rodgers in Manchester, and three months later he’s third at the World Cross Country Championships, and then he runs 2:09 at Boston. So, I should not have been beating him at Manchester, but I just ran out of my head at Manchester. It became the one race that I was truly willing to run outside of my body to win.”
After Burfoot’s last victory, his focus on Manchester started to turn to maintaining his streak. Year after year he would return to the event to compete, and he said that his appreciation for the race only grew after he knew he could no longer win it.
“I would like to believe that I treasured all of my Manchester wins, and also that I’ve also treasured every mid-pack finish since,” Burfoot said. “But at the point where I am looking back for 50 years I just shake myself in wonderment over the fact that I won so many years and ran almost identical times many years in a row in Manchester. Then, somehow (I) kept my life and my act and my fitness together enough to come back and do it another 40 times, and reach the edge of 50 for this year. It’s a miracle; you have to be very, very lucky.”
The streak was almost upended when it was just eight years-old. An early-season blizzard hit Connecticut in November of 1971 making driving to the race treacherous.
“The road driving was treacherous from Mystic to Hartford,” Burfoot recounted. “And halfway, in Colchester, I pulled off and seriously thought about not continuing. Fortunately, we just kind of slowed down and slid our way into town and made it there. It was a miserable, slushy, sleety day, but in retrospect I’m glad I made it and the drive back was much better. The rains had come and cleared the roads by then.”
Burfoot will not be the first person to run Manchester 50 consecutive times. Charlie “Doc” Robbins, who died in 2006 at age 85 and was a two-time winner, ran his 50th consecutive race in 2001. He always ran the race barefoot, telling the New York Times in 2002, “running barefoot seemed natural.” Another runner, Charlie Dyson, reached the 50 race mark at Manchester in 2002.
For Burfoot, a man who has dedicated his life to distance running, the victories and the participation streak at Manchester is more valuable to him than even his Boston Marathon win.
“It’s a different achievement as we all know,” he reasoned. “In my mind, it is a greater achievement. I think one could say that there are more Boston Marathon winners than there are runners who have run the same road race 50 years in a row. There’s only a handful of us. To me the spirit and ethic of endurance running is not just doing it one day, but doing it for a lifetime.”