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The hero of the Marathon didn't win it
Gwilym Brown
May 01, 1961
England's Fred Norris took third in the Boston Marathon, but he won a victor's applause for sportsmanship
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May 01, 1961

The Hero Of The Marathon Didn't Win It

England's Fred Norris took third in the Boston Marathon, but he won a victor's applause for sportsmanship

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The Boston Marathon, which is to long distance running what the Tour de France is to bicycling, annually attracts such a strong foreign field that only one American in the last 16 years has been able to win it. It was, therefore, no surprise that the winner of last week's race, held on a wintry, windy day amid flurries of light snow, was a chunky, pink-skinned Finn named Eino Oksanen. Finns, including Oksanen in 1959, have won the race five times in the last eight years. It was hardly more surprising that New England's Johnny Kelley was runner-up. Kelley (who won in 1957) has played this role four other times since 1956. But what was surprising was that the hero of the 64th running of the marathon was neither the winner nor the runner-up but 39-year-old Fred Norris, the English freshman from McNeese State College in Louisiana (SI, Jan. 23). Norris finished a courageous third in his first Boston race and demonstrated through a fine act of sportsmanship that, while the killer instinct is a valuable asset in sports, there are other qualities equally important.

Norris' lesson came with about 10 miles of the 26-mile, 385-yard race left. He, Kelley and Oksanen were running in a bunch as they girded themselves for the assault on the tough, spirit-shattering Newton hills, where the route rises in an almost unbroken climb for five miles. Suddenly a black mongrel dog, which had paced the group through the last 10 miles, swerved from the left side of the road and into the runners. Oksanen jumped to avoid him, but the dog hit Kelley full across the legs and he went down violently. For an instant it looked as if the race was over for Kelley, that he would remain flat on the pavement. But Norris stopped abruptly, came back a stride and hoisted Kelley to his feet with both arms.

"It happened so fast," Norris said after the race, "that I hardly had time to think. He looked as if he was down to stay, and he'd been running such a good race. So I grabbed him and shouted, like a command, 'Get up!' It snapped him out of the shock, and he was running right away."

Norris' chances of winning, which had been excellent up to that moment, were lost, along with Kelley's. Distance runners settle into a strong, steady, almost trancelike tempo that seems to carry them on farther than their bodies should be able to endure. Once the spell is broken, they almost never recapture it.

The effort of stopping, returning a step, lifting Kelley's dead weight and setting him on the path again was doubly severe on Norris. He had been wincing from a stitch in his side, a common complaint of marathoners, and he was beginning to feel the effects of his lack of prerace preparations. Norris had been plagued by a painful muscle strain in his left side. To cure it he had reduced his training program from 90 to 40 miles a week. But on the morning of the race Norris was confident of doing well, even hopeful of winning.

Prerace nerves

"I've been so filled up with this Boston race I couldn't think of anything else," he said, over a breakfast of scrambled eggs and coffee. "It's a big event in Europe, it's always been a big event in my life, and I bet there'll be plenty of people at home waiting up to see how I do. It makes me a bit nervous just to think of the name of the race—Boston Marathon."

When the field of 165 runners broke from the starting line into the cold, biting wind Norris hung back in a group of 10 that included Kelley and Oksanen. By the time the race had passed Wellesley Hills, about 15 miles from the start, the leaders were a tight trio composed of Kelley, Norris and Oksanen. They were running so close together that it was almost comical. At any moment, it seemed, they must get tangled in each other's feet and all fall in a heap on the road. They sped out of Wellesley Hills and down into Newton through a sudden and heavy cloud of snow. But Kelley pushed the pace, and the others stuck to him like burrs. It was developing into a tremendously exciting race.

"It's difficult to know what to do in a race like this," Kelley said later. "If you push too fast a pace, a strong runner like Oksanen may beat you with sheer strength at the end. If you set a slow pace, hoping to outkick him at the end, you suddenly have to contend with 20 other good runners in the field who couldn't keep up with the fast pace."

But then came that dog. The accident happened so swiftly that Kelley was almost run over by the press bus following close behind. But, of course, it was Norris who also got slapped down. Oksanen only picked up 20 yards on the leaders after the accident, and for a short while Norris even took the lead. The effort, however, was too much. As the three climbed the steep Newton hills, Norris began, however reluctantly, to fall farther and farther back.

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