A Marathon man remembered

A Marathon man remembered

Jeff Venables

On January 16, Will Cloney, Boston Marathon race director from 1946 to 1982, died at age 91. Cloney lifted the race from an amateur event to a world-class production, setting an example that all the top marathons now follow.

“Cloney was open and friendly with other race directors in an era when the sharing of information and ideas was crucial to the growth of road racing,” remembers Allan Steinfeld, race director of the New York City Marathon. As the first president of the Association of International Marathons (MMS), Cloney had a clear vision of where the sport was going and was able to direct it to ever greater professionalism.

Cloney graduated from Roxbury Latin in 1929 and Harvard College in 1933. His newspaper career began when the Boston Herald hired him as a 17-year-old Harvard freshman, who commuted from his Dorchester home and juggled school and work responsibilities.

At the Herald, Cloney moved from Harvard correspondent to copy editor to reporter. He eventually pursued a master’s degree in education at Harvard, and moved over to Northeastern University. Cloney taught English and Journalism there, and served as the school’s Sports Information Director. In 1953, he moved to the Boston Post as sports editor. When the Post folded in 1956, Cloney began a 20-year career with Keystone Custodian Funds.

But Will Cloney is best remembered as the man who directed the Boston Marathon for 37 years.

Cloney had a reputation for embracing change and newness far more readily than many of his younger colleagues. In the late 1970s Fred Lebow approached him about adding mile markers to Boston’s course, so that runners could calculate their pace en route. Cloney quickly implemented the change. A year or two later he was similarly receptive to the idea of placing large digital clocks at selected miles.

Cloney’s kindness and humility were traits all too rare among big-time race directors. At times his trust of people’s basic goodness got him into trouble, as in the Rosie Ruiz scandal of 1980, when he chose to present the winner’s trophy and laurel wreath to a woman others immediately suspected of cheating.

Two years later, Cloney was eased out of his job when his failure to convince the Boston Athletic Association to offer prize money led him to broker a private sponsorship deal that was later ruled illegal. But he had called attention to an important issue in competitive distance running at a time when the Boston Marathon was in danger of losing the best runners to other prize-offering races. Today, with John Hancock Financial Services as the major sponsor, Boston flourishes, each year attracting the very best elite field.

“Through it all, Cloney remained the most down to earth and approachable man you could imagine,” says Steinfeld. “Just about everyone–from athletes to colleagues to volunteers–called him Uncle Will. Certainly everyone knew him as a great guy. We’ll do well to remember him, and follow his example.”

In 1971, AMAA founder Ronald Lawrence, M.D., Ph.D., brought his fledgling organization to Boston for the first time. The medical talks held that year were only over the course of one day, and he had lured a small group of doctors into attending with the promise of admittance into the marathon. So Lawrence forged some numbers, and brought his 25 runners to the back of the pack to participate as bandits. Their conspicuous yellow singlets attracted the attention of viewers along the course, not the least of which was that of race director Cloney.

The man behind Boston betrayed a healthy curiosity, if no objections. Lawrence’s goal was to eventually legitimize the presence of physicians in the race, in exchange for what he perceived to be a much-needed medical presence along the course. He ended up defining the practices and procedures–not to mention the presence–of medical personnel at every organized road race around the world, thanks in no small part to a man whom Lawrence had viewed all along as a hard sell. “Cloney was a reserved, dignified man, and he seemed unapproachable,” he recalls. “But I eventually got through to him.”

By 1979, 775 doctors were running Boston, and Cloney held his stance against criticism that doctors were afforded an inappropriate privilege. He saw with great clarity what the medical community was giving back by donating its time and effort toward making Boston a safer, and therefore more world-class, race. And Lawrence had his own qualifying standards then: “Over the age of 40, Boston wanted a 3:30 finish,” he says. “[AMAA] required that you be able to finish in four hours. So we were really asking for 30 minutes. Cloney appreciated that.”

AMAA paid for all things medical, from IV solutions to the beds the patients laid upon. In 1972, Mary Adner, M.D., officially became something no one had before: medical director of a marathon. Lawrence helped facilitate the introduction between Adner and Cloney.

By 1976, things were well on their way to Lawrence’s long-coveted dream. That year he acquired Roger Bannister–a doctor famous in both the medical and running communities–as a speaker at the Boston Medical Symposium. Bannister was a hero of Cloney’s and he was invited to sit in the reviewing stand at the end of the race. The governor of Massachusetts was there, scheduled to place the laurel wreath on the heads of the marathon’s first finishers. When he saw Bannister, Lawrence reports, the statesman asked the esteemed athlete to do the honors, and the AMAA-BAA relationship was smooth sailing from that point forward.

If Lawrence’s vision and passion imposed AMAA onto the Boston Marathon, Cloney embraced and legitimized the process. Regarding the legions of physicians now running Boston each year, Lawrence says, “Cloney let us open the floodgates.”

In hindsight, the contributions of Will Cloney and Ron Lawrence to the modern marathon are astounding. From London to Tokyo, the world embraces Lawrence’s vision of medical tents and personnel, even the idea of medical directors. Along the way he hasn’t forgotten his core constituents. Since its modest beginning in 1969, AMAA has brought physicians to Boston, New York, London, D.C. and beyond for over 30 years. And Lawrence has been a runner nearly as often as an organizer and speaker. “We didn’t voice opinions and then avoid doing it ourselves,” he says. Retired and living in Malibu, CA, the author and medical consultant still puts in about three miles every other day on the roads. His monthly newsletter, Ronald Lawrence’s House Calls, has thousands of readers.

After retiring on Cape Cod, Will Cloney continued to surprise and delight. “Most people don’t know Cloney did a lot of painting,” Ron says. “I’ve seen some of his landscapes, and you know, they’re quite good.” Somehow, that seems par for the course.

COPYRIGHT 2003 American Running & Fitness Association

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group