Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to win the Boston Marathon? How about going back and winning it again and then, yet again. This is what happened in the early 1900’s. With little training, Clarence DeMar went to Boston to run the famed marathon. It was 1910 and he finished third. Before the 1911 race, he increased his weekly mileage to 100 for two months. This brought his first win. Then he won again. And he repeated it five more times for an unparalleled seven wins.
He would have won even more except for a five-year hiatus, mostly because of his doctor’s words. “You have a murmur. A bad heart. You must stop running races. You shouldn’t even walk upstairs.” The doctor died two years later of a heart attack. In his autobiography, DeMar said, “I had just run a 2:21 marathon and I wondered if that doctor wasn’t listening to his own heart by mistake.”
His five-year suspension from running and racing was also due to religious beliefs. He was a devout Baptist. Many church leaders denounced racing as “selfish victory” and the Olympics as a “carnival of flesh.” Despite the heart warning and the church statements, DeMar returned to the racing he loved
At the time, he was as popular as Charles Lindbergh. The press called him Mr. DeMarathon and DeMarvelous. He shunned fame and hid from the spotlight. He loved running and kept running Boston for decades. His last win, in 1930 at age 41, made him the oldest person to ever achieve this accomplishment. After his winning streak was over, his performances remained outstanding: at 49 he was seventh; at 54 he was still in the top 20; at 61 he was in the top 45. In his final Boston Marathon run, he finished under four hours at the amazing age of 65.
He was born very poor, and after his father died, when Clarence was ten, his mother sent him to a school for orphans. He found, like many future runners, that he was not very good at football, baseball or boxing. This led him to the cross-country team and his discovery of how much he loved to run. It became a lifelong love affair. He ran to work, to buy milk and bread, and just about everywhere he went, because it brought him so much joy.
He lived in Keene, NH and taught in the industrial engineering department of Keene Normal School, now called Keene State College. He wrote an autobiography in 1937 that was reprinted in 1981. It revealed he conducted a lot of experimentation with his running: the effects of vegetarian and alkaline-based diets; the influence of sleep and mega mileage on performance. He was once advised to run more on his toes than his heels. He found it to be slightly faster, but it made him feel fatigued, so he went back to landing on his heels.
The Boston Marathon is much more competitive now. Even in the early 1900’s it was the premier race in the country. DeMar’s record of seven wins has never been equaled. It would have been even more spectacular, if not for medical misdirection. At the time it was believed that any murmur was a sign of heart disease and an automatic disqualification from running. Today we know that many were innocent. Athletes in heavy training develop an enlarged muscular heart, and a murmur is not uncommon.
After his death in 1958 at age 70 from bowel cancer, an autopsy exhibited no heart disease. His coronary arteries showed only slight atherosclerosis. The New England Journal of Medicine published the heart findings. His doctor was dead wrong.
A testament of his character and strength was revealed by his wife who stated a day before his death, “Clarence crawled into the backyard and planted a garden. He simply refused to give up.”