Running Boston with Amby: The Legend, My Training Partner
After becoming training partners with Amby Burfoot, the hero of her youth, the author gets to share Boston with him on the 50th anniversary of his victory.
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Six in the morning and wind drove the rain sideways. It was not a day to run a marathon. But it was Patriot’s Day and the champion was waiting.
In a few hours, Amby Burfoot, me, and a small group of friends would run the Boston Marathon 50 years after he ran down Boylston Street at age 21, depleted, nearly delirious, to win the race in 1968. My dirty little running secret is that I hate running Boston, with its late start, the waiting, the noise, and in my three experiences, the heat. But Amby was running and so I would be there.
I met Amby before he met me. During college I was a gym-rat who one day pushed open the doors and began to run. I loved being outside, and there was a power that came from running I hadn’t found in the gym. I subscribed to Runner’s World and in its pages I found Amby Burfoot: writer, editor, runner, champion.
Running became central to my life, and the magazine became my bible, the word of the god Amby. When I landed a job at Runner’s World more than a decade later, the champion’s office was next to mine. The first time I spotted him in the hallway I walked in the opposite direction and called my husband. “Guess who I just saw?”
Eventually, I settled into the job and knocked on Amby’s office door almost daily, asking about a training tip or study. He was patient, kind. But to me he was still Amby Burfoot, winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon, editor of Runner’s World, exalted professor of running journalism.
Then, 10 years later, I moved to his hometown. My husband’s job took us to Mystic, Connecticut, where Amby had retired and bought a house four miles from where he’d grown up. Our first run together was in the dead of winter. We left our houses at a designated time, met on the road bundled in cold-weather gear, and headed south toward a peninsula on the Long Island Sound.
The champion runs slowly now, but his stride displays the ease and fluidity of speed. As we ran, he told me about his bout with depression, the strangeness of not feeling like running. We went over a small bridge into a woodsy area. “See that pond,” Amby said. “We used to skate there.”
Amby took me on a tour of the small town he grew up in, claiming his love for the name “Sound Breeze,” the street he grew up on. We ran by his childhood home. “See the top window,” he said. “That was my room. I could freeze water in it.”
Amby was unexpectedly open, and over the course of those 10 miles he started to move from god to man, from legend to friend. The clincher happened a few runs later when I hesitated to make a pit stop mid-run. I couldn’t pee in front of the champion. But then Amby said he was running into the woods and that was that.
We ran a few times a week, meeting on the road, going this way or that. We were chatty, switching topics easily from running to writing, marriage to movies and Amby’s favorite—industry gossip. There were no masks, no pretense, no competition. There was only the run, the pure pleasure and necessity of movement.
I thought running with Amby would be running with history. That over miles along the river, he’d regale me with stories about Bill Rodgers, Frank Shorter, Alberto Salazar, Joan Benoit Samuelson. He’d tell me about the time he ran with Eliud Kipchoge in Kenya, Oprah in New York, about the women who ran Boston the year he won, despite the fact that they were barred from entering.
But Amby was always in the moment. He talked about the study he was reading, where he could pitch it, and tossed out whatever was on his mind: “Want to hear the eternal training question I’ve thought about for decades?” “Did you read the new weight-loss piece in the Times?”
I sometimes steered the conversation back, though, wanting to know how he started running, why he kept running, why he wanted to win Boston so badly.
“Oh, Kelley,” he said, without missing a beat. John J Kelley was an American marathoner, Olympian, Boston champion (1957) and the cross-country coach at Fitch, where Amby went to high school.
When you are a fan of both the champion and the sport, and all the dots start connecting—Kelley was a Boston champ, Kelley was his coach, Amby’s dream was to win Boston—and you are running on the road where both men, separately and together, hammered tempo workouts and long runs, every run becomes something more.
One winter my husband and I housesat while Amby and his wife, Cristina, escaped to Mexico. Sometimes after work, I wandered the house, looking at snapshots of his kids, the portrait of him and wife jumping off a nearby pier on their wedding day, taking the leap into marriage. I sat on the floor of Amby’s office, looking at the paperwork scattered about: An invitation to a reunion of the first US Olympic Marathon Trials in 1968, which Amby had DNF’d; a print out of a photo of Amby and Kelley running in heavy cotton sweatshirts; a log book from his Boston training days, the pages revealing a runner obsessed with time, weight, and speed.
When Amby told me he would be running Boston on the 50th anniversary of his win, I invited myself along. We trained on River Road, climbed up Clift Street to Kelley’s house, ran down and around the peninsula on the sound.
I hadn’t thought that the race itself would reveal anything.
We—Amby, me, his brother Gary and four other friends—started in a tight pack. As we entered Ashland, the deluge hit. The champion, in rain pants and jacket with his hood up and his 1968 bib number pinned to his pants, was instantly drenched. We hunkered down. The battle had begun.
Ray Charbonneau, a steady upbeat man, became our timer, shouting “Run!” then “Walk!” at 4:1 intervals (4 minutes of running, one minute of walking), Amby’s go-to now for long runs and marathons. Megan Valentine, a sub-3:00 marathoner, was our foot soldier, disappearing and somehow reappearing with dry socks to replace wet mittens.
All of us were focused on staying warm, so we didn’t talk much. It was what I imagine running in a lead pack is like, everyone with their own thoughts, but aware of each other. I think now of eventual 2018 winner Des Linden. She had mentally conceded her race and waited for US teammate Shalane Flanagan while she took a bathroom break. Like her, we ran to make sure the others made it.
At the half, Megan found a big plastic jacket to help keep one teammate warm. At mile 16, the champion’s hands were red and cold. I gave him my mittens. We carried on.
When the Citco sign came into view and we crossed into Boston, the rain fell hard again. Amby turned his face to the sky, shouting, “Bring it on!” We all smiled.
We followed the course onto Hereford Street, made the left onto Boylston and the finish line came into view. What is it like to the see the place where, at least in one way, your life began? Where a single win would define who are you, or rather, you’d define it, and you’d elevate that joy and love and disbelief into a life dedicated to the sport.
If you are Amby Burfoot, you soak it in. After the turn onto Boylston, Amby stopped and walked. Unlike the 21-year-old who wanted to end the pain, the champion was in no hurry. He pushed his hood back, took off his hat, and waved to the die-hard fans in rain ponchos. The announcer began talking about Amby’s win and his life and the moment felt too personal, too intimate, so I dropped back. Amby eventually broke into a jog toward the finish, where his wife, Cristina, was waiting for him.
Across the finish line, Amby spoke to the press, then we all walked through the Fairmont Hotel drenched but elated. Later, we met for dinner, shared war stories, and raised glasses to Boston and running.
It took me awhile to understand that what I had the privilege of seeing was a life, the person behind the headline, the man underneath the title. I returned to Mystic filled with a strange sense of mortality and immortality, of the beauty of living, and of the profound and simple act of running with a friend. I rushed around the house, found my watch and gloves and got out the door. Out on the road, the champion was waiting.