Running’s Everyman

A tribute to a runner who made the sport better.

By Don Allison
December, 2003

It’s no secret that long distance running attracts achievers, those seeking to make their mark through effort, the hallmark of the sport. It’s one of the great allures and attributes of running, that one can reach great heights, not necessarily through superior innate talent and skill, but simply by trying harder than others. Not everyone is blessed with God-given talent, but anyone can work hard and reap results. So it is that thousands upon thousands of running achievements have been crafted through the years.

It’s also true that those who reach the finish first accrue most of the accolades and attention. But this article is not about a long distance runner who made a name by winning races. In fact, this runner did not do anything out of the ordinary that attracted the running world’s attention. This article is however, about a long distance runner who made the sport great; not through his amazing achievements, but rather through his effort, which was most graphically displayed by his contributions to the sport he loved.

Like most who grew up in eastern Massachusetts in the long shadow cast by the Boston Marathon, Walter Burgess never thought he would actually run in the race himself. As a youngster during the late 1960s and early 70s, he viewed those who ranBoston as distant heroes capable of the superhuman feat of running the 26 miles from Hopkinton to Boston. To youngsters of that era, the Boston Marathon was synonymous with Patriot’s Day, a strange Monday holiday that was all about the race, finishing on the heels of an early-starting Red Sox game. For a kid like Walter, the chances of his actually running in the marathon seemed about the same as his shot at patrolling center field for the Red Sox—remote, to say the least.

But a strange phenomenon occurred in the late 1970s. A running boom swept the nation, opening the door for many so-called “average” runners to actually run marathons themselves. And as the sport evolved further, many of those runners also trod the hallowed roads from Hopkinton to Boston.

So it was that Walter came to run the Boston Marathon himself in April of 1988, at age 24. Like many before him, he came to love the race and all that went with it: the training, the planning, and most of all the camaraderie with other marathoners. That kinship led Walter to immersing himself in the sport, primarily as a member of the Parkway Running Club in West Roxbury,Massachusetts. Typically, Walter threw himself into the organization, never missing a Saturday morning workout and gladly taking on the thankless task of producing the club’s newsletter. He became the club’s most ardent advocate, telling anyone who would listen what a great group of people the club was comprised of.

Walter’s passion for the sport did not end with the marathon or his running club. He soon broadened his horizons, traveling to faraway running destinations such as New Zealand and China. Even further, he immersed himself in the world of cycling and triathlon. He used his passion for these sports and trips as a vehicle for supporting charity. Typically, he did not do it for his own aggrandizement, but simply to help others, something he learned as a youth, when each January he could start collecting extra coins in a big jar, which filled by December, would be donated to the Boston Globe Santa Fund, a charity to support the downtrodden.

As Walter’s 40th birthday approached this past October, he decided to celebrate by attempting his most difficult athletic challenge yet: an Ironman triathlon. He was confident in his cycling and running abilities, and was even ready for the heat of central Florida where the race was to be held, but the 2.4-mile swim loomed as a daunting obstacle. “I just need to get through the swim and I will be all right,” he told anyone who would listen. He had no great aspirations of setting records or winning his age group; he only wanted to cross the finish line inside the 17-hour time limit.

Perhaps the finest tribute to Walter was the fact that eight members of his running club traveled from Boston to Florida to support his Ironman race. And after nearly 16 hours on a Saturday in late October, Walter Burgess saw his dream come true—he became an Ironman. He felt so good that he went out and ran three miles the next day.

As you may have intuited by now, this story does not have a happy ending. Or perhaps it does, depending upon your perspective. Walter Burgess passed away on November 10, suddenly, unexpectedly, and tragically, far too soon at just 40 years of age. And so, the world of running will be a lesser place for that loss. On the other hand, it became a better place for the years that he was here. That is not because of Walter’s achievements in running and triathlon, although they were considerable. Rather, what will be sorely missed, and what was greatly appreciated, was Walter’s passion for the sport and his contributions, which were more than considerable—they were extraordinary.

The world of running moves forward not though the accomplishments of its stars, but through efforts of the “everyman,” who does the little things that often go unnoticed but are crucial for the betterment of the sport. The everyman is the glue that keeps a diverse and decentralized assemblage of individuals, such as make up the unwieldy world of running, from falling apart. The everyman is anxious to take all he or she has received from the sport and pass it along to others, so they too can experience the joys of the sport. Walter Burgess was the ultimate “everyman” in running. You would never know that by reading race results or record books. You would easily learn it however, by asking anyone who came in contact with him during his years of running. Many of those people filled a church in Quincy, Massachusetts recently, their outpouring of love and tears showing just how much he meant to them. He was running’s everyman, and he will be missed.

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