This piece is on Amby Burfoot and his fifty year love affair with a road race.
A Diamond Run For Amby
Burfoot’s 50th Consecutive Manchester Road Race This Thanksgiving
On Thanksgiving morning in 1963, our country was reeling from the shock of the fatal shooting of President Kennedy only six days earlier. His untimely death, quickly followed only days later by the live telecast of the murder of his purported assassin, had thrown the nation into mourning and disbelief. Nonetheless, the country soldiered onward. In the immediate aftermath, little in the country was halted or altered. All regularly-scheduled NFL games were played and broadcast less than 48 hours after the assassination, workplaces remained open and active, and markets maintained trading. Life went on. Given the recently-witnessed sequence of responses that followed in the wake of super storm Sandy, such uninterrupted activity seems odd in comparison. Those were different times.
One such undisturbed event that went on as usual that Thanksgiving morning was the 27th running of the Manchester Road Race. Among the 200 some starters who lined up to compete in the quaint 4.748 mile event was 16 year-old high school senior Ambrose Burfoot. “I remember everything about the President being shot, as we all do. I don’t remember anything about making a connection between the race and the President’s shooting,” admits Burfoot. “There was so little running in those days, and it was so distinct from all the rest of life, and such an aberration, that we didn’t even attempt to make the kind of global connection that we all do these days every time there is an historic event like what occurred just recently with Hurricane Sandy and the New York City Marathon cancellation. So it was just my first road race and it was completely independent of the President’s shooting and nobody thought about whether it should be cancelled or not. It was a just a little strange, bizarre event that went forward.”
Burfoot’s 25:59 performance in the ’63 Manchester Road Race that day propelled the schoolboy to victory in the high school division. It was an auspicious road racing debut, but hardly a premonition of the prodigious racing accomplishments Amby Burfoot would ring up in the years that would follow: a victory in the 1968 Boston Marathon, a later marathon PR of 2:14:28 in Japan’s prestigious Fukuoka Marathon [missing the then-existing American record by a mere second], and — of course — 9 outright victories in the Manchester Road Race.
And now, decades from that inaugural road race, Amby Burfoot looks back on 49 straight years of Manchester participation and looks ahead to November 22, 2012: the day he will run his 50th consecutive Manchester Road Race.
Amby Burfoot has traveled a long way during those 5 decades. But it appears to be a journey he was destined to make. Even before he ran that first race in ’63, Amby knew the Thanksgiving Day road race was his gateway to the path he was eager to follow. “I wanted to run that road race, because, even in high school, I knew there was a world bigger than 3-mile cross country races. I knew there was a Boston Marathon,” reveals Burfoot. “I knew that I had a somewhat adventurous soul. I wanted to bite into this larger world that existed beyond cross country. And I couldn’t get to my first 5-mile road race fast enough,” he smiles. “I was just hungering to get from 3 miles to 5 miles. So I was excited beyond all belief to go and run my first 5-mile road race.”
The initial taste that Thanksgiving Day whetted his appetite — an experience that ultimately steered his life’s direction. “I felt very much like I had gone from the small pond of high school to the larger world beyond,” he notes. “It revealed a world I found to be very attractive, which drew me in, and which I wanted to pursue afterwards.”
But even as Amby’s career blossomed and his racing opportunities became more far-flung, there was a magic to Manchester, a certain something that proved to be quite special about this little New England road race that drew him back year after year without fail. “This race always was, and still is, the second biggest road race in New England, Boston being number one. But Manchester has been the New England road running event,” explains Burfoot. “From the beginning, it has had the most amazing community support of anything I have ever seen. Even then, people lined every inch of the route in 1963. And that is one of things that made the race so memorable immediately for me and one of the things that kept me coming back.”
And come back he did. Every year. Without fail. And as the years rolled by and as the gangly upstart grew to become the stronger and more experienced young man, the victories came. Before long, Amby Burfoot — in the tradition of race domination and longevity exhibited by Clarence DeMar and Grete Waitz — had won the Manchester Road Race a record 9 times, including a string of 7 victories in a row. Burfoot had hoped to add a missing laurel to his school division win and his multiple open victories. “I wanted more than anything to go and win the Master’s Division sometime,” he admits. “But Runners World and other things took my focus away from competitive running and I never won another division until I hit 60. And then I got lucky enough to win the ‘over 60’ division a few times,” he notes with a smile. And with a hint of wistful reflection he adds, “So I have a kind of hat trick, even if it is not the cherished hat trick I would have liked.”
And now with a spotless record of 49 consecutive Thanksgiving Day races in Manchester, Burfoot stands at the threshold of achieving a most impressive accomplishment — 50 consecutive Manchester Road Race appearances. And as the big day approaches, he allowed himself to offer up some observations about the race that has guided his life:
On the offbeat race course distance of 4.748 miles: “Historically, somebody made a loop around town. It started and finished on Main Street. What it was is what it was. Back then, nobody bothered to measure things. We just called it the Manchester 5-Miler. Many years later when certification became important, they got somebody to certify it. That immediately raised the question, ‘Should we extend this and make it an official course of 8K or 5 miles?’ I was not on the inner circle of that decision, but being an old-time tradition-bound New Englander myself, I think it was a great decision to start and finish at the same point and whatever the damn distance was, we would run our guts out covering that loop around town.”
On the expanding size of the race field: “It is now a 15,000-person mass participation celebration race where the first 1000 or so run pretty hard and everybody else wears a turkey outfit or a Hawaiian skirt or something silly and jogs around with their family members. And it is just spectacular that it has evolved in this manner. To me, the sport of road-racing should be big enough for the whole spectrum of participants.”
On the race’s growing pains over the years: “It exactly parallels the Boston Marathon, I think. The race struggled with the lack of recognition of women, race organization, the increasing numbers of runners, and the grumbling. But then came the greater intelligence that the race could, in fact, be transformed into a bigger, celebratory race.
On overcoming obstacles to keep his Manchester streak alive: “Over the years, I have run this race while struggling with the crackling breathing of walking pneumonia, the crackling sounds of tender and inflamed Achilles tendons, the stresses of a pending divorce, the concerns for a hospitalized child, and the recovery from meniscus surgery. The race has been a rudder to my life that has kept me on course when other things threatened to thro
w me off.”
The 9-time champion works to reconcile his several feelings as his 50th race day approaches. “There are two warring parts to that. Like every other runner, there is a little spark of competitive fire in me after all these years.” His voice reflects the sincerity of his struggle. “Sometimes I wish I could extinguish it and just totally cherish what I have, which is wonderful.” Explaining further, he notes, “On Thanksgiving Day, there will be two things going on. I’ll be thinking about my time slowing down inexorably and how I would like to be fitter this year. So I’ll be a little disappointed in myself that I didn’t rise to the occasion a little more. But I hope that I will celebrate that I’m still there, I’m still healthy, I’m still going the 5 miles.” And with a laugh, he adds, “I may last a few more years yet, who knows?”
Allowing himself a moment tinged with a trace of nostalgic reflection, Amby reveals what clearly, for him, has been a guiding principle. “I always tell people that 50 years at one race is much more important than a Boston Marathon gold medal or anything else that I have done in my running career. Sticking with it, sticking it out, enduring through the highs and lows I believe is the essence of running. Whether you run two hours or four hours in the marathon is not so important, but staying with it, staying vibrant, staying healthy, and staying energized are really the keys.”
Offering a final observation about the simplistic beauty of running, Amby adds, “Some people think that running is about their leg length, their waist size, or their VO2 max, but in the end, it is really about the gray matter between the ears. That is where all of the significant effort takes place. And if you can keep your head in good shape, then the rest kind of follows along pretty well most of the time.”
As one who has experienced impressive levels of success as a runner, as a journalist, and more recently as an emerging philosopher for our sport, Amby Burfoot is a man who likely gives thanks every day — including Thanksgiving Day. And on this year’s national holiday of gratitude — after he rings up #50 in Manchester earlier in the morning — this gracefully-aging and gentle man who has accomplished much, adapted well, and maintained his focus will have yet one more reason for thanksgiving.