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Amby Burfoot On Running Boston 50 Years After Win

In 1965, Amby Burfoot entered the Boston Marathon for the first time and finished in 25th place. Back then, to get a bib, runners only had to enter the race and pay the fee, there was no need to qualify beforehand. It was only a year later, that the runner met a young woman named Bobbi Gibb who would go on to become the first (unofficial) female to win the race. In 1968, the determined athlete made his way back to Hopkinton and broke the tape on Boylston Street at 2:22:17 to become the marathon’s newest champion.

Burfoot was also amongst the many marathoners inching their way toward Boylston street on that fateful day in 2013. At mile 25, he, along with 5,000 other runners, were asked to stop without being told what was going on. He later learned of the tragic events that happened just over a mile ahead of him. Following the bombings that year, the champion returned in 2014 to run again and has continued to do so ever since. He now runs for Team MR8 in memory of 8-year-old Martin Richard who was a victim of the bombings.

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This past March, Burfoot published Run Forever, Your Complete Guide to Healthy Lifetime Livingjust in time for his next Boston Marathon. The book shares practical tips and insights on how to stay running well and with joy throughout your lifetime.

To say that Burfoot and Boston have a storied past would be an understatement. It’s been there that the now 71-year-old has seen the best of times and the worst of times. This year’s run marked the 50th anniversary of his winning, and just like his history with the iconic race, it came during a year that was filled with ups and downs, camaraderie and plenty of tears. I caught up with Burfoot this week to hear his thoughts on the 2018 Boston Marathon, what training is like now and what’s changed in the running community since 1968.

Nicolle Monico: What was going through your head on Monday as you ran in those brutal conditions?

Amby Burfoot: I was mostly worried about hypothermia, because I figured that was one of the very few things that could derail me. I told my group that we were going to abandon all thoughts about hitting a certain pace, and instead focus on maintaining a manageable pace that would keep us going and keep us modestly warm through steady effort.

NM: Did you ever consider not finishing? If not, what pushed you forward? If so, describe your thoughts.

AB: No, I never considered stopping, but I got quite cold around 10 miles and was very concerned about hypothermia. My brother nearly dropped out at that point because he was getting dangerously cold. But one of our team found a discarded mid-calf poncho on the roadside, retrieved it, and put it on my brother. It warmed him enough that he could continue. He looked like someone wearing a well-dressed man’s overcoat.

I had plenty of motivation—wanting to finish my 50th anniversary race. I just needed to hope and plan that the cold, wet conditions wouldn’t get the better of me.

NM: What did you decide to wear for the run (which items of clothing and their brands)?

AB: Ha, I wore a $450 GORE-TEX jacket borrowed from Jonathan Beverly the day before the race, and a 20-year-old pair of GORE-TEX pants borrowed from Greg Meyer at the same time. I had packed a wide range of gear for Boston, but not enough. The borrowed apparel worked well. But among runners where I was at close to five hours, it seemed the ones who wore a $4.99 plastic, nonbreathable poncho were the ones who performed best.

NM: Have you ever run in similar conditions?

AB: Yes, on training runs, mostly back in the old days when I logged big mileage. But I’ve never run the Boston Marathon in anything as difficult. I remember dropping out of New York City’s Cherry Tree Marathon in the vicinity of Yankee Stadium, in 1966 or 1967 in very cold, hard rain conditions. As this link says, “The February race days were sometimes problematic.”

NM: What strategies do you use when running in weather conditions like that?

AB: In cold wet weather, I believe the key is to keep producing heat through your running. To guarantee that you keep producing heat, you have to run a pace you can maintain. That’s what we did on Monday.

NM: What’s your favorite mile at Boston?

AB: It’s always a great thrill to churn up Heartbreak Hill. When you reach the top, you know the toughest running is behind you. But you also have to be very careful not to cramp up in the last five miles.

NM: How did the marathon go and what did it mean to you to compete in it 50 years later?

AB: I ran scared and tense most of the way. I think others must have run tense, as well. I heard at least two elite runners say they were sore the next day in the face and jaws. We were tense because we never knew when the next wind gust or rain squall would strike.

When my group reached the top of Heartbreak Hill at 21 miles, we essentially knew we would finish. At that point, we actually slowed down a little to further guarantee our success, and to savor the last miles a little. I felt comfortable on Beacon Street the last four miles. That has rarely been the case at Boston. The worst rains struck us in Kenmore Square and on Boylston itself. By that time I was yelling, “Yes! Bring it on!” I was looking forward to seeing my wife at the finish line, and she was there waiting. It wasn’t the picture-perfect photo moment we had been visualizing for months (years?) but it was damn sweet.

NM: What are some of your favorite marathon courses?

AB: I would have to say that I like any marathon course that makes best advantage of the local town or city. I enjoy touring the place where I’m running. Boston is perhaps the most challenging. New York also has to be “managed” carefully. I really enjoyed Stockholm when I ran there about 40 years ago, and Big Sur is always spectacular.

NM: What is training like nowadays? How have you adapted your training schedule as you’ve aged?

AB: There really isn’t a choice. I now train about 25 percent as much as 50 years ago—30 miles a week instead of 140. And I run 40 percent slower in training. I do a lot of stationary cycling on my easy days. I don’t try to make it a workout. I just pedal and read.

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NM: Can you tell me more about brain training? And what you mean by running with your brain?

AB: I don’t mean that brain training will make you stronger and faster, though it might. I’m referring to the fact that as we get older, running gets more difficult. To keep going, we have to work constantly to motivate ourselves. There are hundreds of reasons to run, but everyone has to seek out the motivations–here’s where the brain training comes in—that work best for him or her. Without sufficient motivation, no one keeps moving forward.

NM: What are some techniques that you mention in your book to remain a “forever runner”?

AB: There are lots, as I was just saying, and I don’t think it’s my job to steer anyone in a certain direction. I just keep repeating: Focus on motivation. Engage your brain. Stay positive.

But I do have a favorite tip of sorts that I recommend, which I don’t think I’ve seen elsewhere. I believe every runner should literally write their own story. I call this “The Lifetime Runner’s Credo.” It can be very short, or as long as you want to make it. Oprah would say, “This I believe about myself and my commitment to fitness.” I say: Write it down, and keep it in front of you, on the refrigerator or nightstand. Answer life’s big questions: Why do you keep going? What do  you do when you get knocked down? Why is it all worthwhile?

I give a personal example that others can use as a template or guide. But it’s really important for every runner to write their own, and revisit it often. Life is full of zigs and zags, and they require a constantly updated “Credo.”

NM: Did you ever experience burnout? If so, how did you overcome it?

AB: Sure, everyone experiences some kind of burnout. Right now, I’ve run six Bostons in a row. I don’t really feel like marathon training for a stretch. I’m going to train like a miler instead. That’s not a big burnout, however. It’s just zigging when life zags. That’s what I try to do.

NM: How have you seen the running world change over the last 50 years?

AB: OMG. The biggest changes, and there are many, are: women, women, women. And: older runners, older runners, older runners. But in many ways, running hasn’t changed. Its essential appeal and basic rewards have remained the same. We run because we were born to run (and walk). We run because it takes us down a road filled with adventure, challenge, and learning.

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NM: What’s your go-to meal before a marathon?

AB: Marathon night, I eat pasta and bread in place of my normal salads. Marathon morning, a white bagel instead of an everything bagel. Easy carbs, little fiber.

NM: What’s your splurge meal afterwards?

AB: I like to return to the salads that I haven’t eaten for several days before the marathon. For replacement fluids, sugars, and fats, my favorite post-marathon drink has always been a root beer float.

NM: What are your favorite running shoes?

AB: I don’t have any. I’ve always been able to run in anything. Lucky me. For the last 15 years, I’ve been running in Mizunos because I had a friend there who shipped them to me, and because they were excellent shoes for me. Now I’m starting to experiment with Hoka One Ones. Who isn’t?

NM: Silence, music or podcasts on runs?

AB: My favorite mental stimulation while running has always been the random thoughts that rush through my head while I’m out there. Recently, slower and more leisurely than ever before, I’ve begun to listen to podcasts. My favorite for now is “Science Friday” from NPR.

NM: Which sports nutrition products do you take with you on marathon runs?

AB: I ran Boston on Monday without drinking an ounce of fluid or eating anything. I was so cold I thought that water or any ade would just make me colder. I sucked on four or five peppermint mints. I’ve never been the most talented runner, but I’ve always been able to go long without much fluid or energy intake. I’m not advising that for others. It just happens to work for me. I think I’m a better camel than I am a marathoner.

NM: What advice do you have for upcoming elites who are just now starting to really hone their craft and getting those podium finishes? How can they accomplish their goals without overdoing it and losing their love of running.

AB: I certainly don’t have any “secrets” for future elites. I think the only way to get to the top is the Deena Kastor, Meb Keflezighi, Shalane Flanagan, Desi Linden way—many years of consistent hard work. One great way to be like them is to surround yourself with great role models, mainly supportive coaches and training partners. I know that’s not easy for everyone, and obviously few are professional athletes like the names I just mentioned. But these days almost everyone can find one or two great training partners. Those people are golden. Seek them out, and stick with them.

NM: Do you have another race lined up or another marathon you’re planning to run next?

AB: I’ll probably run the Mystic Half Marathon next month here, in my home town. It will be purely for fun. In June we’re going to an Italian trail race with friends from New York and Georgia. Over the summer I run free fun-run 5Ks in Stonington Village where we finish an hour or so before the sun sets. A harborside restaurant gives us a free beer ticket, and we go to the back deck to visit with friends and watch the beautiful crimson sunsets. It can’t get any better. Don’t have a next marathon planned. I’m going to start training like a miler.