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Original Issue

A Great Race for the morons

Thousands made it to Marblehead but nobody won. That's the rule

It did not have the drama of, say, the opening bell at a prizefight, nor the sheer class of an "√ätes-vous pr√™ts? Partez!" at the start of a proper crew regatta, but then The Great Race, which runs from Watertown to Marblehead and covers 20-odd miles of Massachusetts land and sea, is neither dramatic nor classy, but absurd and lovable. "O.K., all you morons—in the water!" seemed the absolutely perfect way to start it.

The eighth annual Great Race did have more than 2,000 entrants, most of them cyclists and canoeists, an impressive enough collection to be called Great, but it was not a race and it never has been. The winner is automatically disqualified, the official philosophy being that it is important to finish, but not first, and that what is important is to get to the beer party afterward on Marblehead's Devereux Beach.

What made the race this year, as in other years, were what everyone called "the contraptions." A case in point: enter, slowly, the Turtle. It was 3:45 a.m. in Watertown, at about the same time the late TV horror movies were featuring giant mutant spiders and such. But here was one lurching along dark Nonantum Road making strange sounds. It was green with yellow blotches and appeared to be at least eight feet high and almost twice that long, startling the sleepy motorists who encountered it.

Now the Turtle reached Soldiers Field Road, beside the Charles River, where hundreds of canoeists were heading down the stream in the predawn. There was a 34-foot, 14-man war canoe among them; a 13-man whaleboat; a seven-man lifeboat and a purple Volkswagen in the river, its long oars rising and falling, the name Louise painted in bright yellow letters on its hood.

By 5 a.m. the big canoes and boats had moved through the locks at Boston's Museum of Science, out of the Charles River and into the inner harbor. The small canoes were being portaged across nearby Leverett Circle as early-morning drivers blinked. And back at the start the few entrants who were runners were loosening up for a 7 a.m. start.

Meanwhile, along Boston's Storrow Drive truckloads of bicycles were moving toward the starting line. Those with five speeds or fewer would start at 7:30, those with more, at eight, the starts of all entrants having been staggered, as always, so that none would arrive too late for the beer. Last year there were roughly 900 bikes; this year, 1,800. In little Marblehead the town fathers, mindful that in past years there had been four visitors at the party for every entrant in the race, were hoping for the best. Someone joked that the town should outlaw betting, because that is how it had all begun.

In the winter of 1967, in a bar called Maddie's Sail Loft, a group of Marbleheaders were entertaining friends from Watertown and one of them said something like, "If I were to walk here I could drink all the beer I want and it wouldn't make me fat. I'll bet I could do it in four hours."

"I could canoe it faster than that," someone replied.

And that was the beginning. A local reporter heard about the bet, wrote a story, "and we were stuck with it," says Robert (Killer) Kane, 35, who dresses in a sweatshirt, a cigar and a can of beer. Kane replies to questions about his line of work with, "Oh, I get by," and his name is all but synonymous with The Great Race.

About 65 entrants turned out that first year, mostly walkers and canoeists, but the first to reach Marblehead were three runners from the Northeastern University track team. The finish line at the time was the first booth in the Sail Loft, but the runners were too young to enter a place that served drinks. The dilemma was solved by disqualifying them, establishing the rule that has been followed ever since.

Down through the years the entry list has grown and diversified, from bicyclists and war canoeists to roller skaters, men riding in wheelchairs and reclining on brass beds on wheels. The only restriction is that no entry is permitted that will cause air pollution.

The Great Race was never serious, and over the years it has become progressively less so. In 1968 three girls in a canoe were marooned on an island off Marblehead. A group of male canoeists went ashore after them. By actual count, the combined parties declined 27 separate offers of rescue by helpful outsiders.

There have been no serious accidents in The Great Race; the only problems have involved managing the crowds. When Killer Kane was in charge and collecting entry fees ($8 a head this year, $6 previously), some people asked why he should be "getting by," as he puts it, on public property. And when entry applications zoomed past an arbitrary maximum of 2,000 last month, the Marblehead town fathers finally voted not to allow the race at all. But then the Marblehead Elks Club was given a chance to run it, with the understanding that a third of the proceeds would go to town activities. "The town took it from Kane," the Elks were saying. "I gave it to them," said the Killer, who nevertheless sent off all the "morons" at the starts. But then, The Great Race is full of differing points of view, and little pockets of competitiveness.

There were the canoeists who sneaked away early in the dark and were two miles downriver at the time of the official start. And there was David Nazaroff, owner of the 14-man war canoe, second boat to make it into Boston Harbor. It had been the first entry to finish last year, in 3:56, and was of course disqualified, which frustrated Nazaroff, who said, "That's what makes the whole thing such a crock. You win, they say no, you're disqualified, and you feel like punching them in the mouth."

And now his big canoe was moving past the U.S.S. Constitution—Old Ironsides—between the piers of Charlestown and East Boston and into Chelsea Creek. At the Union Oil Terminal 28 arms and 28 legs dragged the craft up a rocky bank and over five railroad tracks and began a one-mile portage, up Route C-1, through the parking lot of Cerretani's Supermarket, to Revere Beach. There they tried to launch it in the surf and immediately it swamped, tipped over, almost broke in half and sank. By then it was 6 a.m. and Nazaroff and his crew were through for the day, so they loaded the war canoe in a truck and became the first partyers at Marblehead.

At 7:16, after a five o'clock start, a Marblehead runner named Jim Flynn finished the 23 miles of the land route and was disqualified. At 8:05 a six-man bike pulled in. It had started at four, as had a three-man, 16-foot Texas Light Dory, which took 15 minutes longer to cover the 24-mile ocean route. And at 8:25 a 13-man foot-powered scooter came across, with its siren wailing, trailing a thick cloud of smoke from an orange flare. It had a tiller man and 12 pushers, six of whom moved it while the others rested under a canopy, awaiting their turn.

Off the beach, a three-man canoe waited for a wave, aiming for a glorious Polynesian-style finish. But Devereux Beach is rocky and steep, and the canoe crunched bow first and tumbled over its occupants, one of whom stumbled ashore with a gash on his face. Moments later another canoe took a wave broadside in the surf and the two canoeists had to be dragged ashore.

The horizon by then was dotted with other canoes, and the strip of people along the water's edge began to deepen. When a big set of waves broke and those in front leaped back to escape, those behind fell like dominoes.

The place to stand was on the height over the beach, away from the crush at the water's edge, with a good view of the surf on one side and the finish line on the other. Observers who were there at 9:10 saw what looked like the skeleton of an immense something wheeling down the road—yes, at least eight feet high and almost twice that long. It was the Turtle, minus its skin—green plastic garbage bags that had blown off along the way. It had two wheels in front and four more along its rear. Four men had run inside the triangular framework for five hours and 25 minutes.

And that is how it would go for the rest of the morning: madness. A 10-man scooter came in; a surrey with a fringe on top; a 10-man, two-deck, 11½-foot high, 1,600-pound bicycle; and clouds of two-wheelers. The crowd spilled off the road and into the parking lot, where the finish line was, up over the rise to the beach and into the surf, where the armada of canoeists provided a shipwreck a minute. And where at 10:15 a little girl screamed, "Look, Mommy, a car in the water."

"I don't believe it," someone else said, "a Volkswagen, a purple Volkswagen."

The oar-propelled phenomenon bobbed there, 100 feet from shore. The men inside did not seem to know what to do; there was very little precedent to go by. Slowly the VW drifted shoreward. The waves seemed to cradle it, and finally it nestled at the water's edge, too high to be swamped. Pete Talmadge jumped out, 26 years old and boyfriend of Louise, and he held an impromptu press conference. It was a 1965 VW, he said, or rather the shell of one. It floated on seven inner tubes, and for speed it was no threat to the Harvard varsity crew. At 8 a.m. it had still been in the Charles River, 20 miles from Marblehead, so Talmadge and crew carried it ashore, put it on a trailer and drove it 19 more miles and put it to sea again. But no one really minded.

By noon 120 half barrels of beer had been consumed—1,800 gallons—so no one really minded anything. As Killer Kane was saying, "We're just a bunch of people having a good time. That's the bottom line." And it is.