Get to know Clarence DeMar, the most dominant American in the Boston Marathon’s history
It’s June 11th, 1958 and Clarence DeMar is dead. A husky physician is sitting in a medical examine room, probably smoking a cigarette, staring at America’s most decorated marathoner’s heart. He examines it with his rheumy eyes, prods it with a grubby finger, stares through its cavernous arteries. This is the engine that propelled DeMar to seven Boston Marathon victories, an Olympic Bronze medal to go with his three Olympic teams and most recently, a 3:58:24 finish at his 30th Boston Marathon at the age of 65.
Almost 50 years earlier, a doctor on the starting line of the 1911 Boston Marathon was doing the customary medical check. The doctor confirmed what another one told him after Demar finished 2nd at the 1910 Boston Marathon: DeMar had a heart murmur and he’d surely be a dead man if he was foolish enough to continue running. He went on to win in a course record of 2:21:39. A few months later he finished 12th at the Stockholm Olympic Marathon.
And then he quit.
Part of the reason was, as a devout Christian, he felt marathoning was a “vainglorious search for praise and honor.” The other part was self preservation–back then with so little known about the physical advantages of exercising, having two doctors tell you you’re going to die probably spooks you a little.
So for the next six years, he focused on getting degrees from Harvard Extension School and Boston University while working as a typesetter.
He didn’t run another Boston Marathon until 1917. With America declaring war on Germany, DeMar figured he’d run one last marathon to “have a little fun” before being shipped overseas. He finished 3rd in 2:31:05.
Not too long after that, he was drafted and spent most of his time in Paris as a member of the Army of Occupation. Despite World War I featuring things like the Spanish Flu, the advent of machine guns and trench warfare, DeMar’s time with the Allies was a walk in the park. Take a peek at this postcard he sent dated June 1919:
“And all the lemonade and ice cream you want = the best yet.” Not a bad way to spend your time in Paris.
When he got back from the war his career took off. He became the first runner to three-peat the Boston Marathon when he broke the tape in 1922, 1923 and 1924. By now he was regularly running 100 mile weeks, while continuing to run from home to work and back (long before East African lore of running to school and back was all the rage.)
In August of 1924, he won a bronze medal at the Paris Olympics. In 1925, he placed 2nd in the Boston Marathon, and in 1926, he was 3rd.
The next year he set the course record over the first full 26-mile Boston Marathon, his fifth crown and in 1928 he won his 6th by four full minutes. He followed that up by making his third Olympic team but then finished a disappointing 27th place at the 1928 Summer Games.
His final victory from Ashland to Hopkinton came two years later in 1930 at the age of 41. He remains the oldest Boston Marathon winner in the race’s history. Over the next 30 years of his life, Demar would run the Boston Marathon another 20 times, though never breaking the top 5 again. So much for having a bum ticker.
At the time of his death, DeMar is said to have ran over 1,000 races. His final one was a 15K just months before he passed away.
To many, this might seem super human. And coming from a man who trained for less than a year before winning his first Boston Marathon, it sure seems it. But from the 100-word news articles and short profiles featuring DeMar that are out there, you’ll find a few tidbits of relatable info: initially he compared running shorts to “running in BVDs”– a popular brand of men’s underwear at the time. Despite being one of the most famous runners of the era, he wasn’t immune to heckling while running and regularly cited annoyance when people would holler things like “Step on it, Clarence!” He even allegedly socked a drunk guy who lashed out at him during a marathon. A true people’s champ.
Three years after his death, the New England Journal of Medicine published an article declaring that DeMar’s heart had arteries that were two to thee times the size of a regular heart, which allowed blood to flow more freely. The notion held nearly 20 years before that physical exercise would enlarge the heart was true. However, (obviously) the hypothesis that this was detrimental to your health, was finally debunked, and the doctors who told DeMar he should give up running or die, were eating crow.
Though we’ve had Boston runners that have gone faster, and ones that have strung together impressive streaks, and ones that have broken his course records and world records, none have been quite like DeMar. Or as they called him, Mr. DeMarvelous.