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Boston Marathon Greats Bill Rodgers Meets Clarence DeMar in Keene, New Hampshire

An innovative public art project gives Rodgers—and you—a chance to view one of his idols up close.

Clarence DeMar and Bill Rodgers reign as titans of the Boston Marathon with 11 victories between them, seven by DeMar. Yet the two never met in person, since DeMar died in 1958—when Rodgers was only 10 years old, and more than 15 years before his first Boston win in 1975.

However, they enjoyed a reunion of sorts last month in Keene, New Hampshire, where DeMar lived much of his adult life. Rodgers and his partner, Karen Gillespie, traveled there to view a new giant wall mural of DeMar. “We had a fun trip, the town is so beautiful,” says Rodgers. “And the DeMar mural was fantastic. I wish Boston could do something like that—maybe a bigger, more lasting extension of the Hancock banners that are raised every spring before the marathon.”

Bill Rodgers at Clarence DeMar mural
Bill Rodgers at Clarence DeMar mural / used with permission

The DeMar mural evolved out of a public art project termed Walldogs, which assembles designers and artists from around the country to small cities where they produce outdoor wall murals in an intensive four-to-five-day effort in late June this year.

Residents of Keene picked their favorite mural subjects in a public vote in September 2018. DeMar finished second among 20+ subjects, the top 15 of which became murals. The highest vote went to Jennie B. Powers, not a bad choice, given that she is described as “a maker of humane history. She fearlessly investigated, arrested, and prosecuted thousands of cases of abuse of children, women, and animals.” Powers followed her convictions in the 1920s and 1930s.

Jennie Powers mural Keene NH
Jennie Powers mural

The DeMar mural designer isn’t a runner or New Englander. Aaron Taylor lives in Pensacola, Florida, where he works for Brix Design. But Taylor traveled to Keene to oversee the mural creation, and quickly noted how much the locals admire DeMar’s story. “When we were working on the wall, quite a few people came up to me and told me that DeMar would run back and forth to Boston several times a month,” says Taylor. “I was impressed that they had such passion for him and his running.”

The 42nd running of the Clarence DeMar Marathon takes place Sunday in Keene. In person registration is available Friday and Saturday at Keene State College’s Spaulding Gym. The marathon (and accompanying half marathon) are both scenic and gently downhill. Dick Beardsley is speaking at a Saturday evening pasta event.

This is a unique opportunity to run a marathon and pay your respects to Clarence DeMar—while the mural is still fresh and unworn by the weather. Demar set an early model for lifetime running. He wrote in his autobiography: “Since I was forty and definitely slipping, I have won seven full marathons, got second six times, and third four times …. I’m wondering what I can do after I’m fifty.” Good inspiration, this guy.

Clarence DeMar book cover
Clarence DeMar’s autobiography

“We’re thrilled and honored to have the Walldogs’ murals,” says marathon race director Alan Stroshine. “We’ll be conducting mural tours over the weekend, and runners will have a chance to buy a DeMar t-shirt. We’ve already seen countless local runners take their photos in front of the DeMar mural.”

Clarence DeMar shirt
Clarence DeMar shirt

While strolling through Keene, and particularly when inspecting the DeMar wall mural, Rodgers couldn’t help but muse about similarities between the two great Boston champs. His modest list:

    1. “We’re both New Englanders, which means that you learn to be self reliant. You understand that you have to be resilient and depend on your inner strengths.”
    2. “The New England weather is so variable. It can be tough in both winter and summer. You figure out how to deal with the challenges, and do the best you can even when conditions aren’t optimal.”
    3. “We both come from tough backgrounds. I mean, my personal history wasn’t so tough–nothing like DeMar’s childhood and orphanage and the chores he had to complete every day. But I ran plenty of grueling marathons, and had to learn to deal with them, and to overcome. I’m sure DeMar’s racing was very similar. He must have had his bad days, but he still persevered.”