Run, Run and Remember

Stan Cottrell at starting line Boston Marathon 1964

#241 Stan Cottrell (L) at start of 1964 Boston Marathon – first runner from the South to finish the famous Boston run

Boston Marathon — Remembering The Run 1964

I watched the Boston Marathon this past Monday. The first American since 1983 won the race in 2:08. The participants numbered more than 36,000… As I look at the sea of people, all the heavy security, my mind goes back to the 1964 Boston Marathon… when I became the first Southerner to run the legendary course from Hopkington to the Prudential Building in downtown Boston.

Fifty years ago. My goodness. The headlines of those days touted the “Largest Marathon Field Ever.” I remember there being slightly under 400 of us who answered the starter’s gun that cold April 19 morning, Patriots’ Day.

Each one of us there had a unique story. In those days, if you were a long distance runner you were definitely labeled as “different.” I heard terms such as “gritty, moody, intense,” etc. Driving 6 to 8 hours to a race, if you could find one, then sleep in a Volkswagen Beetle, get up and compete the next morning was not unusual.

I am not so sure this was disrespectful. Long distance running, and especially ultra-distances, was unheard of in the South. People couldn’t frame the concept and categorize such an endeavor as you would in a typical track and field event. After all, it was during this era that some schools around the country were finally moving college cross country running to 4 miles instead of 2 miles.

Running Beginnings

Early in my life, I discovered I could run long distances. I was not a candidate to win the Boston Marathon. I didn’t really “race.” But even in those days, I knew I could run and continue running long after the marathon distance had been covered.

I was different. For instance, when I was 7 years old, I chased a wild rabbit for 5 hours and literally caught the little furry critter. In my world, I was odd. In a strange way, I didn’t mind.

Early on, I was a student of running. Intuitively, I reasoned some things out about running. I was my own experiment. I knew from chasing cows or horses that had to be rounded up…if I had certain foods, I couldn’t run as well. People still remind me of my having to run to school miles away because I couldn’t finish my chores on time to catch the school bus.

I often caught a lot of rebuff when I cut the fat off meat and pushed it to the side. More times than I can even begin to remember, I would take a rag and blot the grease from bacon or ham meat and redeye gravy, which was a southern staple, especially on a farm. Stan Cottrell ran and ran and ran….

On one Saturday evening in the summer of 1960, we were at a favorite gathering place for teen- agers, the A&W Root Beer Stand across from the drive-in theater. It was a magic time to be alive. We didn’t have issues akin to today’s world. We were doing crazy things such as loading kids in the trunk of a car to get into the movie. We danced in the parking lots.

On this night, some of the fellows started making fun of my running. It was not malicious nor vicious. One said, “I’ll bet you $5.00 you can’t run from Horse Cave to Munfordville.”

I took the bet. Now, mind you, that was a lot of money when you are only making 55 cents per hour. The criteria was I couldn’t walk a step. The run was on! I won the bet! There was a lot more drama involved than this brief paper can allow.

Amazing, isn’t it, how one event becomes a pivotal point in a life? Each victory is a stepping stone to the next level. There is a life motivational principle to success: “Discover what you do well and do more of it.” I could run long, keep going, and could come back the next day and do it again.

Running At School Back Then

In those days, and especially in the region of the world where I lived, there was no such thing as road races, marathons, etc. Our school system didn’t have cross country teams. Looking back, farming was survival. As soon as school was out, a lot of endless chores were waiting. Come to think of it, we never had a track team, either.

I was in my Junior year of High School when I heard of a track meet some 70 miles from my home. I skipped school and hitch-hiked rides to go and run. Running was like breathing to me. It was vital. I was in my own universe…and I felt significant, worthwhile, and worthy.

By the Grace of God (there is no other explanation), running opened a portal for me to go to college. I laugh about it now…not in a condescending way…as Gary Cooper said in the last scene of Sergeant York: “…The Lord shore do work in mysterious ways.”

I received a letter from Western Kentucky State College in April, 1961. The school offered me a one semester, partial, probationary scholarship to run on the cross country team. The scholarship consisted of me being able to go to “The Cage” in the Athletic Department to get used text books, if available, for my classes. I talked to my High School Principal, who told me immediately I was too dumb to think of such a notion as going to college.

I’ve always been one who rejected rejection
and would set a course to prove just the opposite to any naysayer….

I went to college and graduated 5 years later. During that time, I went to an All-Comer’s Track Meet in Louisville, Kentucky. I entered 4 events. One of those was a 10-K. I had never heard of such an event. I ran and won second place.

Discovering That Thing Called The Boston Marathon

While there, I listened to one of the runners. He had been to a place called Boston and had run in a “thing” called The Boston Marathon. He was from that area of the country. He sure had a funny accent. I was spell bound as he described the race. He talked about Heartbreak Hill and how it took its toll on him and many others who had to drop out.

I was ensnared… just as the rabbits I would catch in snares I had set during the winter for food.

I knew I could run for hours. I knew if I could run Gobbler’s Knob and the long hills in Hart County, I could conquer any hills in Massachusetts. No hills had ever broken my heart to date, and I didn’t reckon Boston had any which would do me in.

I researched all I could which was available to us during those days. I went to the World Book Encyclopedia, the Reader’s Guide to Periodic Literature, and found an address and name. Already, I had been corresponding with big names in coaching who were giving me advice…names life Fred Wilt, Ernst Van Aaken, and for some reason, I was not shy nor intimidated to ask.

Moving my story along, I received an entry form. It would cost me 50 Cents to enter the race. I would be given a bowl of beef stew upon completing the course. I sent the application in to the BAA, Boston, Massachusetts, with my entry fee Scotch taped at the bottom.

I was training 20 miles a day doing what later would become known as “LSD training.” Where I lived provided more than an ample supply of hills for me to do repeat quarter or half mile repeats. It was not unusual for me to be found doing 3 to 4 hour workouts daily.

I knew I was ready to run.

On The Road To Boston

But I had a bit of a minor glitch. I had no transportation, nor could I afford a plane, train or bus to Boston. So what does one do? I had a small suitcase with my running shorts and shirt inside. On the outside of my luggage, I had a sign:

 “Boston Marathon or Bust”

I was ahead of my time as to making a fashion statement. I was wearing my running flats. I had on a Western Cross Country tee shirt and a pair of Levi cut-off britches which came to the knees.

The term “Greener than Gourd Guts” describes me to a tee at this season of my life. It was warm in Kentucky when I left. To me, surely winter was over for everyone and the weather would be warm. Yes, warm….

My first ride was a man driving a big truck filled with cucumbers. He was taking the haul to a canning factory somewhere in Indiana. I rode on top of the truck.

For the next 3 days, it was a series of rides with a plethora of characters. One man wanted to talk about his honeymoon. I listened for 7 hours as he vividly described every little detail. I unloaded a tractor trailer of produce in Ithica, New York, with the promise from the driver he would talk to his buddies and get me on another east bound truck. He drove off and I was left standing in weather which was now dropping into the low 40’s.

A State Policeman picked me up and told me where I was standing was against the law to hitchhike. During the interview in the car, I told him what I was doing. I opened my suitcase, where I had a USMC shirt I would be wearing and be representing the Corps. He was in the Korean Military Action and we were “Fraternity Brothers”… He was slapping my hand saying, “Semper Fi.” He gave me a sweat shirt to help me stay warm and drove me some ten miles so I could resume hitch hiking.

The Final Stretch To Boston

It is now about 11 at night…Snow has started to fall. I am freezing and afraid. Cars are passing me one after another. No one would stop. Suddenly, one car does stop, and a man gets out and says, “Get in the middle.”

I looked, and I knew I was dead. Here were 5 people of color. Not a word was said for at least 10 minutes. Finally, one said, “Who’s going to ask him?” I just knew my throat was going to be cut or something horrible.

One said, “We are about to enter a toll road. We don’t have a nickel between us. The toll is 25 cents. We were praying someone would come along and give us this amount of money.” I had two quarters in change and gave them both. I rode more than a hundred miles with them. Good people.

Somehow, I got to Boston. I heard the YMCA was the place to go. You could get a room for $2.00. I was burning up with fever and tonsillitis was setting in with a vengeance. I wanted to die.

Next morning, I went to a Dunkin Donut store next door. I tried to talk…They couldn’t understand me, nor could I understand their accent. There were some students observing me and my trying to get a donut and coffee. I had a total of $12.00 to my name, and every penny counted. The group invited me to join them. For some reason, they found me unlike any human they had ever experienced. I didn’t mind. Three people Rick, Bonnie, and Veda were now my new best friends.

God was taking care of me in spite of myself. Rick took me to a free clinic. The doctor said, “You have 103 temperature and blisters all over your tonsils. You cannot run tomorrow.” He looked at me…there was silence…Finally, he said, “You’re going to run even though I am telling you not to.” I said, “I reckon so, Sir. I didn’t come all this way to let this ailment stop me.”

My three new friends were like Angels sent to look out for this stranger in a strange world.

The Cold 1964 Boston Marathon

The temperature was in the low 30’s. I am on the front row. The gun goes off and for me, the thought of dropping out was akin to committing the unpardonable sin. As I was running, people were calling out my name: “Go Stan…runstanrun.” How did they know my name? Later, I would learn the Boston Globe had published every runner’s number and name.

I was burning up with fever from the first step. I knew I must keep calm, keep an even flow of energy distribution. I was lucid enough to know I had to drink a few sips of water at every station. When I came to the hills, I would cut my pace to conserve energy.

Then the moment came. I was at mile 19 and here was the famed Heartbreak Hill which was a continuous upward climb of 1 mile. Even as delirious as I was, I was at the top before I realized it was now behind me.

I had now surpassed the fellow I had met a year ago who quit halfway into this landmark. At the top, someone said, “It’s all downhill from here.” You could see the Prudential Building in the distance. It seemed like it was twenty miles if it was a step.

The Finish Line

Stan Cottrell crossing Finish Line of Boston Marathon in 1964

A very sick Stan Cottrell crosses the Finish Line of the Boston Marathon 1964, the first Southerner ever.

The strep infection had now taken its toll. I am going in and out of consciousness. For a moment I think I am outside my body…It was surreal. I struggle…and I turn a corner… Up ahead is the finish line….

I cross the line and fall into the arms of someone who has a blanket and quickly wraps me in it. I pass out.

When I come to, here are my three friends congratulating me and saying what a miracle it was for me to not only run, but actually finish the race. The Doctor was a friend of Rick’s who talked with him about me several times since the office visit.  Rick had been very worried.

In those days there were no timing devices, digital tracking devices or microchips in your bibs. I recall there only being 3 trophies for the first 3 finishers. There were no certificates of participation or completion.

I was too sick to get my bowl of beef stew…

The Journey Home

Rick invited me to stay at his apartment for a couple of days while I recuperated.  Two days later, Rick, Bonnie, Veda and I met at a local restaurant. They gave me a gift which blew my mind. They had bought me a Greyhound Bus Ticket to Kentucky.

I never saw them again. I wonder if they remember me. I did some research and learned Rick died in the 1970’s of a heart attack. I wonder if Bonnie and Veda even faintly or vaguely ran a scan in their memory banks and remembered or even have a clue to the impact they had on one runner, and how they made an eternal difference in my life.

I think of them every year and celebrate their lives… The run was a milestone… Their friendship is forever to me.

Three days later and some 40 hours on a bus…I arrive back home in Munfordville, Kentucky. My Dad just said, “Get your work clothes on…You ain’t no guest here… There’s work to be done.”

My face goes into a faraway smile.
I sometimes ask why or how?

It doesn’t matter. After all, dreams, imaginations and shared moments are what’s truly real…aren’t they?

Oh, and the satisfaction of just knowing you did it.… the first Southerner ever to run the Boston Marathon… Yet at that time, I couldn’t have imagined how many more long distance runs, far longer “ultra distance runs” called “adventure runs” and true “friendship runs,” awaited…

How far the distances expanded since that pivotal bet about running from Horse Cave to Munfordville! … But I continued as a pioneer, a “human guinea pig” of sorts in runs around the world … even literally with breakthrough studies in human achievement by Dr. Hugo Greiner on my “Great European Adventure Run” –


2 thoughts on “Run, Run and Remember

  1. How the running world has changed over the past half century! In runner Stan Cottrell’s down-home Kentucky style, he shares glimpses of “the way it was” when he was the first Southerner to run the Boston Marathon… even though very sick. A testament to an indomitable spirit and fierce, overcoming determination!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The First Marathon in Kentucky | Real Stan Cottrell

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