A red-blooded American male can dream of playing in the Masters, the World Series or the Rose Bowl, but chances are he will never get any closer than Row E, Seat 5. One event he can enter, however, is the Boston Marathon. All it takes is an AAU membership—charge 50¢—and an entry blank. Last week, as the 67th Boston Marathon got under way (left), everybody and two or three of his brothers seemed to have entered the race.
There were doctors and clergymen, grandfathers and college students and even one man from the Peace Corps—245 entries in all, the most in the history of the marathon. Among them, as usual, was Kurt Steiner, a short, 42-year-old glass bender from Brooklyn, who was once in the French foreign legion and spent two years in a German prison camp.
"I like to start fast," Steiner said. "Not to get my picture in the papers, although I always do, but because I never think we're running fast enough at first. Later on I find out I'm wrong, but I always finish the race. I want to break three hours this year." (The man out ahead in the picture is Steiner.)
Another starter was Patrick E. Rudd, wearing a T shirt with "McDonalds Hamburgers" on it. A good marathoner has a lean and hungry look, but Rudd, weighing 228 pounds, looked more like a left tackle. The idea, Rudd explained cautiously, was that an associate was to hand him a hamburger just after the start, then take his picture as he ate it while running with the crowd. Rudd, too, hoped to finish.
April 28, 1963
There were, of course, others in Boston who had higher aspirations than merely to finish, among them some of the top marathon men in the world: Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia, Brian Kilby of England, Eino Oksanen of Finland and Johnny Kelley of Connecticut. But none of these was able to run the 26-mile 385-yard course from Hopkinton to Boston faster than a 30-year-old Belgian named Aurele Vandendriessche. A mere dot in the crowd at the start, he was all alone, two minutes ahead of the next runner, at the end. As he neared the finish line he raised his arms high and wide, and his face broke into a delighted grin. It should have. His time—2 hours, 18 minutes and 58 seconds—was the fastest ever recorded on the course.
That Vandendriessche (pronounced vendendreeyesh) won at all was remarkable. The favorite was Bikila, a 30-year-old guard in Haile Selassie's palace who had won the Olympic marathon in Rome running barefoot and had never been beaten at the distance. With him was a countryman, Mamo Wolde, the third fastest 10,000-meter man in the world today. Both had been training in the Boston area for a month. Oksanen, a detective back in Finland, had trained secretly in Rhode Island to defend the title he had won three times in the last four years; and the bushy-haired Kilby, the British Empire and European marathon champion, had arrived several days early and was rested. So was young Kelley, winner of the race in 1957. He had come up from Groton, Conn. to stay with his friend, Old John Kelley, 55, a two-time winner, who was competing for the 33rd time and trying to better his 25th-place finish of last year.
For Vandendriessche, a clerk in a spinning mill, there were no such luxuries. The day before the race he crawled out of bed at 2 a.m., tiptoed past his wife and three young sons and took a final practice run through the soft pine-needle forest near his home in Waregem, Belgium. Generally he runs for three hours early in the morning, then runs some more at noon and after work, 30 miles in all. But this day he quit early to catch a plane that put him down at noon, Boston time. He was smiling, as always, and wearing a bright-blue suit and brown shoes.
At 3 that afternoon he was in bed—"it was 9 o'clock in Belgium," he explained—and he slept until midnight. He then watched "a movie of love" on television, dozed and simply lay on his bed, thinking of the race and waiting for a decent hour to go down and get breakfast. At dawn he ate a steak, toast and honey and had two cups of tea, then boarded the athletes' bus to the starting line in Hopkinton. He slept most of the way out.
The race began sharply at noon in raw, gray weather. Oksanen, with a position in front, led for the first few feet, but he was quickly passed by Steiner, running as if the finish line were just around the bend. Behind him thundered the herd. By the two-mile mark, front runners like Steiner had disappeared into the pack and the lead was taken by the two Ethiopians, Bikila and Wolde. Farther back, running in a tight little knot behind Alex Breckenridge, were young Kelley, Oksanen, Kilby and Vandendriessche. At Auburndale, 17½ miles from the start, Bikila and Wolde were still moving effortlessly, and their lead was almost a third of a mile. The only question seemed to be which Ethiopian would win.
Outside of Auburndale, however, are three hills, sometimes called, collectively, Heartbreak Hill. Bikila seemed to take the hills as easily as any man could after running 20 miles. The same was true of Vandendriessche, who, with five miles to go, was running third. But the hills finished Wolde. His shoulders sagged and his legs moved heavily. He was through as a front runner. So was Bikila, it soon developed. Nearing Coolidge Corner, the last checking station and only two miles from the finish, he was still ahead. But coming fast over the rise behind him was the Belgian.
"I had give up," Vandendriessche said later. "But when I see Bikila ahead, I know I beat him."
The Belgian passed the Ethiopian right in Coolidge Corner. Each gave the other a quick glance, and then the Belgian was gone. Bikila, who later said he got a leg cramp, dropped back after that. Kelley passed him to finish second. Kilby was third, Oksanen fourth and, finally, the tired Bikila fifth.
For the next few hours there were periodic cheers along Exeter Street as runners jogged, walked and in some cases sprinted home. Old John Kelley finished, coming in 84th. Kurt Steiner, the front runner, failed to break three hours, but he did finish 91st, in 3:18:05. Nothing was ever heard from Pat Rudd, the hamburger man.
Aurele Vandendriessche listened to the cheers from his room overlooking the finish line. He answered questions and posed for pictures—no one had to ask him to smile—then took a hot bath and put on his bright-blue suit. He had enjoyed his visit, he said, but he was eager to get home, see his family and take a run through the forest.