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Marathoner Amby Burfoot: 'Every Mile Out There Is A Gift'


This is FRESH AIR. When the bombs went off Monday, my guest Amby Burfoot was seven-tenths of a mile from the finish line. Burfoot has a special place in the history of the Boston Marathon - he was the winner 45 years ago in 1968. To celebrate the anniversary of his win every five years he runs the Boston Marathon again. Many runners have turned to Burfoot for advice over the years.

He's written several books around running, and he's been an editor or writer at Runner's World magazine since 1978. We called him at his hotel room in Boston to talk about some of his Boston Marathon experiences and to reflect on the attack.

Amby Burfoot, thank you for taking a few minutes to talk with us. In all the years that you've been running in marathons did you ever think what if there's a terrorist attack?

AMBY BURFOOT: You know, the truth is while we have never spoken of that, of course we thought that. Because we know that as runners covering 26.2 miles of public spaces that we are vulnerable. And no one quite imagined what happened here in Boston, anything quite this horrific, but, you know, we're not naïve. We did realize that things can happen on public streets.

GROSS: The attack was around the finish line. It's where a lot of spectators and runners were and the finish line has great symbolic value. What does the finish line mean to you as somebody who actually won the Boston Marathon?

BURFOOT: The finish line has great symbolic meaning for everyone who wants to cross the marathon finish line. I have never experienced - I don't know that too many people have experienced - the race that suddenly closed down and which did not allow them the chance to finish it. I was literally about seven-tenths of a mile from the finish when the road was suddenly blocked and we had no place to go.

GROSS: How did you realize something had gone wrong?

BURFOOT: Yes. You know, at first I saw this congestion ahead of me on the road and I thought, well, more Boston drunken college students. Because that's what goes on on Patriot's Day. We'd seen a lot of it. But then I realized it was all the runners, my own kind, in the street ahead of me. And we just backed up against the barricades. People pulled out cell phones. We were all trying to figure out what happened.

And my wife called me quite quickly from the other side of town. She had received a text from my cousin and sister who were at the finish line directly across the explosion. And they witnessed it in real time, called my wife, and she called me and said you're not going to finish this race. Just try and get back to the hotel.

GROSS: Did your wife sound panicked?

BURFOOT: She didn't sound panicked because at that point there was, you know, the word, I think, explosion was being used but nobody knew what it meant and there was no full details of the story. So she was concerned and wanted me not to try and go towards the finish line which would be my natural inclination. But she didn't sound panicked.

GROSS: Because you've run the Boston Marathon so many times and because you've won it once in 1968, what is the importance of the Boston Marathon? What makes this marathon so special?

BURFOOT: The Boston Marathon is really the holy grail for marathoners. It starts with the history of it being the first and oldest annual marathon in the country from 1897. The fact that our grandfathers and fathers, and the greatest runners in the country and the world have always flocked to this location to run. Because it has the Wellesley girls screaming in the middle of the course followed by the treacherous Heartbreak Hill at the 21 mile mark.

There is just so much vaunted history to this race that every runner who can get themselves in shape to qualify - and it's very difficult. Only 10 percent of the marathon population actually is able to qualify for this race. But everyone who does qualify wants to come here and be part of it because it's the grand daddy and it's so special.

GROSS: Most of the people injured were spectators. Is it important to have people who you care about cheering for you when you're running?

BURFOOT: Oh, it's so important to have people that you care about cheering for you as you run, because people have this notion that running is about having long legs or big lungs or something. But it's really all emotional and all mental. And the people who are supporting you, be it at the course or knowing that your family and friends are going to be waiting for you at the finish line is a huge part of the drive to get there and be reunited with them and to celebrate what everybody's experienced on the day.

And the fact that that was so violently interrupted yesterday was a real tragedy.

GROSS: You trained for the Boston Marathon for a long time. It affects what you do physically, it affects what you eat, it affects when and how you sleep. And so, you know, this week you're running the marathon. You're very close to the finish line and there's, you know, two bombs that go off. You have to turn around. You don't get to finish. In the scheme of things, that's relatively - that's pretty insignificant in the scheme of things.

But still, I'm just wondering what it feels like to have worked so hard to be able to complete the race again and something horrible, tragic, happens. And not only don't you get to finish, which is pretty trivial by comparison, but also it's proven once again that life is so unpredictable, that no matter how much you prepare for something you never, ever know what's going to happen.

BURFOOT: Well, you've captured something that I actually experienced yesterday and I'm a little chagrined and embarrassed to admit that the first 15 seconds when we were turned around I was mad and angry. And it's like who's spoiling my party? You know, this was going to be my 45th anniversary celebration and now I'm not crossing the finish line.

And then when you gradually, over the next coming hours, learn the actual truth, you were reduced to loathing yourself that you ever had that thought. But I guess it's just human nature that that would happen. And I have been running this thing long enough - actually, my first Boston was in 1965. There was a time when my entire soul hungered for nothing but winning this race. And I was lucky enough for that to happen.

But now, you know, I run it with the full knowledge that every mile out there is a gift and every finish line is a gift and knowing that I don't know when it's going to end and be taken away from me or when it will be taken away from others as it was at this year's marathon. So it does teach you some lessons. Marathoning teaches you great humility because it is difficult and you are often defeated along the path.

But we do try to spring back and stay as positive and resilient as we can.

GROSS: Amby Burfoot, I wish you well. I thank you for your time and I'm glad you are safe.

BURFOOT: Well, thank you very much. I appreciate it.

GROSS: Amby Burfoot won the Boston Marathon in 1968 and has run it every five years since. He's an editor-at-large at Runner's World magazine. He spoke to us yesterday from his hotel room in Boston. You can download podcasts of our show on our website and you can follow us on Twitter at #nprfreshair and on Tumblr at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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