The Boston Marathon

The Boston Marathon: An Indian Tradition

The gesture was ill-advised. Brown suddenly awakened to the fact that his competitor was now making his decisive move. This was the turning point in this famous marathon. Brown sped up, and Kelley could not keep up. Jerry Nason, the best-known newspaper reporter covering the Boston Marathon, later referred to the spot as “Heartbreak Hill” suggesting that “Tarzan” broke Kelley’s heart there. This famous site is now marked by a statue with two figures called Young at Heart. Strangely, both of the figures are of Kelley, as a young and old man. Brown, the winner of the contest, is missing.

Brown’s outstanding performance won him a place on the 1936 U.S. Olympic team, for the notorious Berlin Summer Olympics hosted by Germany’s new Nazi regime. The track-and-field contingent included African- Americans Jessie Owens and Ralph Metcalfe, as well as Marty Glickman, of the Jewish faith, at an event designed to bolster the host’s Aryan supremacist ideology.

On August 9 on a bright sunny day with the temperature around 71 degrees, Brown was one of the favorites to medal in the Marathon. At the 25-kilometer mark, he was in fourth place. Remarkable film clips of the race, available on YouTube, show him nonchalantly pausing for a drink at an aid station. However, at the 28-kilometer mark, he suffered a severe cramp in his right thigh and his leg knotted up, forcing him to stop and rub it. Allegedly, he was disqualified when a spectator came to his aid and when he veered off the course, clear violations of the rules.

In disbelief that “Tarzan,” a favorite to medal, had not finished the race, writers over the years have tried to explain what had happened. They blamed it on his taking a warm bath before the race, on his pulling a muscle fooling around imitating a British distance walker, on a chronic foot injury or on a hernia aggravated in the qualifying trials. A family tradition points to his alleged fight with a Nazi supporter of Hitler in a beer garden before the race and his subsequent arrest. According to the story, he was held in jail overnight and warned by authorities not to win the marathon.

After returning to the United States empty handed, he continued to run the marathon, seeking to redeem his reputation by claiming that he could run and win two marathons within 24 hours. In the fall of 1936, he delivered on his boast, winning marathons on back-to-back days, first in Port Chester, N.Y. on October 11, and in Manchester, N.H., more than 200 miles away on the following day! He also continued to run in the Boston Marathon for the next decade. He was a fan favorite not only because of his great athletic talent, but because he had a flair for being unpredictable. In 1937, Brown, somewhat out of condition, and suffering from problems with his feet, finished 31st. His 1938 race has entered Boston Marathon lore, although his wife Ethel Mae later claimed the incident happened the year before. Supposedly as a result of the sweltering conditions, Brown decided to abandon his quest for the championship. He ran off the course, waved to the crowd, and jumped into Lake Cochituate to cool off.

In 1939, Brown reached the pinnacle of his career. He began to take long-distance running seriously again. Training vigorously, he ran two practice marathons a week between Pawtucket, R.I. and Attleboro, Mass., and ran another 17 miles twice a week. That year, he won 20 of 22 long-distance races, setting records in nearly every event! In a ten-mile race in Cranston, R.I., he equaled the world record held by Pavlo Nurmi, the Flying Finn, perhaps the greatest long-distance runner of all time. Brown also won both the 15- and 20- kilometer races at the United States National Track and Field Championship and a well-publicized race at the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow Park in Queens, N.Y. On a chilly day in April 1939, Brown won the Boston Marathon again. In doing so, he eclipsed the race record by more than two minutes. According to several sources, he downed several hot dogs and several bottles of soda pop just prior to the race.

But his hopes for an Olympic rematch in Helsinki were crushed by the world war. Qualifying for the 1940 Olympic team and favored to win the marathon, Brown saw his plans came to a sudden end when Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. No Olympic games were held again until 1948, when Brown, then 36, was well past his prime.

Laurence Hauptman, a frequent contributor to American Indian magazine, is SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History. Heriberto Dixon is SUNY Lecturer Emeritus of Business and History.