In the wake of last week’s depressing news that reigning Olympic marathon champ Jemima Sumgong tested positive for EPO, it’s tempting for distance-running fans to yearn for another, ostensibly more innocent, era of the sport. From a U.S. perspective, the early 1970s through the early ’80s would be a good place to look. It was a golden age of sorts, a time when the scourge of blood doping was still in its infancy, and American marathoners like Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, and Joan Benoit were among the best in the world.
It was also the heyday of Boston’s Eliot Lounge, the Back Bay drinking establishment and community hub that had become an inseparable part of Boston Marathon lore by the time it closed in 1996. (The adjoining Eliot Hotel, which leased out the space, apparently wanted something more upscale at the time.) If the Eliot Lounge were around today, it would be the place for distraught Sumgong fans to get together and commiserate over a few pints of Sam Adams.
This week, the Boston-based running apparel brand Tracksmith is looking to temporarily recreate a little Eliot Lounge magic to celebrate the opening of its first brick-and-mortar store, called Trackhouse. Located at 285 Newbury Street, the shop will have a bar installed on its second floor from Thursday, April 13, through Marathon Monday. This makeshift Eliot Lounge will be flanked with throwback running paraphernalia—a nod to the adornments of the original. Newburyport Brewing Company will provide the beer, and many of the old Eliot Lounge faithful are expected to drop by for a reunion. On Saturday, April 15, the venue will host a club night for running teams in town for the city’s historic race.
“The idea was to bring together the old and the new Boston running community and provide a central location for Bostonians, but also for people coming from all over the country and the world,” says Tracksmith co-founder and CEO Matt Taylor. The hope, Taylor explains, is that they will be able to remain true to the feel of the old Eliot Lounge.
“We wanted to recreate that [feeling], at least for the extended Boston Marathon weekend,” Taylor says, adding that today’s professional scene should do more to engage a larger community of runners. Asked to elaborate, Taylor pointed out that many elites now train in seclusion and only “come down from altitude” for the big races. It’s an approach that, according to Taylor, makes it difficult to foster the story lines, rivalries, and personalities that gave the sport its appeal in the past.
Against this backdrop, it’s easy to see how the former Eliot Lounge represents a lost paragon. Bill Rodgers, the star runner of the Greater Boston Track Club, was a regular in his day. Like countless others, the four-time winner of the New York City and Boston Marathons was drawn in by the hospitality of Tommy Leonard, the gregarious ex-Marine and distance-running enthusiast who tended bar at the Eliot from 1972 until its closing.
“The GBTC would do their training runs in the middle of the afternoon, and they’d all come running in to get water or say hello to Tommy,” says Doug Brown, who worked at the Eliot Lounge from 1977 until 1996.
“All the regulars would be in the bar and wondering what the hell just happened, but after a while, it became commonplace, so even those who hadn’t been off the barstool in quite some time felt they were part of the running scene, and especially the Boston Marathon,” Brown says.
After Tommy Leonard took over the day shift in 1972 (the year Frank Shorter won the Olympic Marathon and arguably started the first U.S. running boom), his decorative touch and effortless joie de vivre would transform the Eliot Lounge from a nondescript watering hole on the corner of Commonwealth and Massachusetts Avenues into a landmark sports bar.
“It was the best sports bar because it never tried to be,” Brown says.
There was the 15-by-10-foot wall filled with photos of runners from all over the world. There were the national flags of all the past winners of the Boston Marathon that would be ceremoniously unfurled above the bar on the Thursday before the race. There was the tradition of feting the winner with a bottle of champagne. Gelindo Bordin, the Italian Olympic gold medalist and winner of the 1990 Boston Marathon, was so touched by his reception at the Eliot Lounge that he gave an impromptu speech to the gathered crowd. In 1980, Canadian Jacqueline Gareau was belatedly crowned the winner of the marathon at the bar after it was determined that Rosie Ruiz had cut the course. Tommy Leonard organized a special ceremony for Gareau, where everyone sang “O Canada,” and he presented her with two dozen yellow roses and a bottle of Dom Pérignon.
In the old days, if you went to Eliot Lounge after running the Boston Marathon, Tommy Leonard would make sure you got a free beer. Eventually, that became too difficult for logistical (not to mention legal) reasons, but for Leonard, a self-described “mushy Irishman” from Westfield, Massachusetts, it was always about making people feel welcome.
“I didn’t care if they came in dead last or they took five hours. I wanted everybody to be treated like Joan Benoit and Bill Rodgers,” Leonard says of his time at the Eliot.
Now in his eighties, Leonard still works part-time as a bartender in Falmouth on Cape Cod, where he founded the prestigious Falmouth Road Race in 1973. Although his mobility has been somewhat hampered recently—the veteran of more than 20 marathons now walks with a cane—Leonard says that he definitely plans to attend the Eliot Lounge reunion at Trackhouse, weather permitting.
“Every year at this time, I get sick. Every year,” Leonard says. “My blood pressure goes up. I just love it with a passion that would probably shatter the Bourne Bridge down here in Cape Cod. I’m serious. I love that weekend—walking along Newbury and Boylston and Beacon Street. Seeing the dogwoods and magnolias popping. Boston Marathon weekend…it’s a symphony of spring.”
Mushy Irishman, indeed.