A Baptist in Boston—a minister—stood up at a banquet in 1924 and described a member of the audience as having “grit, gumption, gristle, and grace.” Other descriptors for this skinny fellow from Ohio—who stood 5’7” and weighed 137 pounds—were equally enigmatic: “stern, principled, friendly, courageous, courteous, surly, frosty, and cantankerous.” Clarence DeMar deserved and earned each of these adjectives.
And if I associated Clarence—dollars to donuts you’ve never heard of him—with Boston’s great sporting event, the upcoming Boston DeMarathon, you’d chuckle over the misprint. Excuse me, that’s no misprint, being a popular nickname for the great race for decades, dating back to the 1920s when Clarence DeMar dominated the event, winning three in a row and five out of seven between 1922 and 1928—and, for good measure, winning again for a record seventh time in 1930 at age 41, the oldest winner of all time, another DeMarathon record that still stands.
This small gritty, gristly runner—graceful, yes, he “ran like a thoroughbred,” even describing himself as a “fine piece of machinery” who “could run down a jackrabbit”—was born in Madeira, Ohio, a tiny village where my parents also grew up. My dad’s best friend was Howard DeMar, Clarence’s cousin and later the postmaster of Madeira.
Clarence DeMar’s life story mirrors his career, both infused with the “agony and ecstasy” that epitomizes competition—and the American spirit. His impoverished background only worsened when his father died, eventually forcing his mother to move to Boston with her six children when a relative offered them a rent-free place to live. But the mother still couldn’t support six children, sending Clarence—the oldest—to a former asylum on an island in Boston harbor that had become an orphanage and trade school. Clarence hated it—but loved his mother to the point that he later dropped out of college to move in with her and support her by working as a printer, the trade he had learned on the island.
Clarence deeply desired to excel in sports but had no aptitude for football, baseball, or boxing, the era’s major sports. However, he could run—as a boy in Ohio, he “dogtrotted” to school; as a printer in Boston, he ran the seven miles to work from his mother’s house in Melrose. So he decided to try the Boston Marathon in 1910—and to everyone’s surprise, this no-name finished second. But a doctor then discovered he had a heart murmur, “a bad heart—you shouldn’t even walk up stairs.”
But Clarence was not a quitter. When he took the starting line in Hopkinton for the 1911 Marathon, race doctors also advised him not to run, saying he was risking his life. Grit, gristle, and courage prevailed—Clarence won his first Boston Marathon and in record time. But then he stopped racing for five years, not only due to the heart murmur but because “striving for individual athletic glory was incompatible with the spirit of his religion.” After serving overseas at the end of WW I, he returned to living with his mother and working in a print shop described by journalist Steve Flynn as “a hot, dark cellar where molten lead pots spewed poisonous fumes.” The Boston Marathon was as remote as chasing jackrabbits back in Ohio.
Meanwhile, the doctor who had diagnosed DeMar’s heart murmur had himself died of a heart attack—“I’ve always insisted that the physician was listening to his own heart, not mine,“ Clarence quipped. And he was also now a Sunday School teacher, lay minister, and scout master, making him comfortable with competing and winning. But could he?
His Baptist minister proclaimed it a “wonderful comeback,” Clarence himself saying it was all “a big surprise.” He swept to victory in the 1922, 1923, and 1924 Boston Marathons and was an Olympic medalist in the marathon at Paris in 1924, a feat not repeated by an American until Frank Shorter took silver nearly a half century later.
A man who focused on his running like a laser beam and detested distractions—he punched a tipsy man who staggered into the street to shake hands during one marathon—made the Boston event his own, winning again in 1927, 1928, and 1930, the latter just two months shy of his 42nd birthday.
Once DeMar resumed running in 1922, he never stopped, running nearly a hundred marathons and over a thousand road races at various distances. He ran his last Boston Marathon at age 65 and his last road race just several months before dying of stomach cancer at age 70 in 1958. His wife—he had waited to age 41 to finally marry—said that just a day or two before his death, DeMar left his sickbed and “crawled into the backyard and planted a garden; he simply refused to give up.”
I have another link to the Boston Marathon besides my parents and Clarence being from Madeira, Ohio. My wife and I are from that same area and, like DeMar, later moved to Boston. And then in 2013 we had a family friend—Kris Biagiotti and her handicapped daughter, Kayla, running in the wheelchair division—get caught up in the Boston Marathon bombing. Grit and gristle got them across the line, despite shrapnel flying into people next to them.
As runners from all over the world line up to run the famous race again this year, the spirit of a man who advised the youth in his church “when you get in a race, never quit,” will be there with them. Clarence DeMar well knew the agony and the ecstasy of competition. He was a true American.
James F. Burns is a professor emeritus at the University of Florida.