Lawrence Brignolia

Lawrence Brignolia

Lawrence Joseph "Larry" Brignolia, sometimes Brignoli, (15 April 1876 – 13 February 1958) was an American long-distance runner and sculler of Italian descent. He won the 1899 Boston Marathon. A 161-pound blacksmith, he is the heaviest person ever to claim victory in the event.[1] He is also the only person to have finished all of the first three Boston Marathons,[2] and one of two runners (the other being Dick Grant) who participated in all of the first four marathons.

Lawrence Brignolia was born in 1876 at Boston, Massachusetts[3] to Italian immigrants, the second of seven surviving children.[4] His father worked as a street peddler, and the family lived at 35 Brookline Street,[5] and later at 13 Rockwell Street,[4] in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Brignolia attended school at St. Mary's of the Annunciation in Cambridgeport, and left school after the sixth grade.[6] He was apprenticed to a horseshoer until he turned fifteen, at which point he took up the trade on his own.[7]

In April 1897 he entered into the first ever Boston Marathon, along with eighteen other runners. Ten runners finished, including Brignolia, who came eighth in a time of 4:06:12, seventy-five minutes behind the winner, John McDermott. He had trained for only a few days for the event,[2] and had eaten a large breakfast before the race in preparation for the grind, and had gotten cramps while running.[7]

In April 1898 he again entered the race, and even though he was unable to spare the time or money to train longer than one month for the marathon he finished in fifth place out of twenty-five entrants. His time, at 2:55:49, was a seventy-five minute improvement over the previous year, and was less than fourteen minutes behind that of the winner, Ronald McDonald, who had run a time that was then considered a world best time for the marathon.[8]

The next year Bragnolia entered the race under the coaching of John Bowles of the Cambridgeport Gymnasium Association, who had handled McDonald's winning run the year before. The runners in the race had to contend with a significant gale-like headwind, a circumstance that suited Brignolia’s stocky frame. He wore special shoes with light leather uppers that laced nearly to the toes, rubber heels, and leather soles. From the beginning, Brignolia fought for the lead with Dick Grant, also a veteran of the two previous marathons. Brignolia finally established a lead of 200 yards at the top of the hill that would later be called Heartbreak Hill. By Coolidge Corner, the 22 ½ mile mark, Brignolia had an 11-minute lead on Grant and was five minutes ahead of McDonald’s year-old record. Here his handler, concerned about Brignolia’s lack of preparation, made him slow his pace in order to conserve his energy. At St. Mary’s Street, 1-½ miles from the finish, he stepped on a loose stone, turning his ankle, and he collapsed to the ground. He was immediately rubbed down by his handlers for five minutes, after which he walked and ran to the finish line in a time of 2:54:38 to win the race. Grant finished three minutes later.[9][10]

In 1900 Brignolia returned to defend his title, but the pace was furious from the beginning. Brignolia caught a side stitch after four miles. He was in fifteenth place after eight miles at West Natick, and dropped out after eleven miles. The race was won by Jack Caffery in a record time of 2:39:44.[11]

Brignolia was also an oarsman who rowed front for the Bradford Boat Club; he also rowed singles sculls. On Labor Day in 1898 he entered the New England Amateur Rowing Association regatta on the Charles River, winning a novice singles race, and then fifteen minutes later entering the intermediate race, finishing second by 1-1/2 boat lengths.[10]

Brignolia married his first wife, Nellie Eagan of Cambridge, in 1899.[12] The next year they had a child, Joseph, who died of gastro-enteritis at the age of two months.[13] Another child, Lawrence Gerard, was born in 1905.[14] He married his second wife, Annie Lynch (née Willard) in 1918;[15] she brought two children by a previous marriage to the family.[16] He continued living in Cambridge all his life, working as a master horseshoer until the 1930s when the need for that occupation fell into abeyance. He died in an automobile accident in 1958, at the age of 82. By that time he weighed about 300 pounds.[11]

In 2000, Brignolia was elected to the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame.[17]


  1. Krise, Raymond; Squires, Bill (1984). Fast Tracks: The History of Distance Running. Brattleboro, Vermont: Stephen Greene Press. p. 30. ISBN 0-8289-0482-0.
  2. 1 2 Martin, David E.; Gynn, Roger W. H. (1979). The Marathon Footrace: Performers and Performances. Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas. p. 15. ISBN 0-398-03883-X.
  3. (2013). "Massachusetts, Birth Records, 1840-1915". Operations, Inc. Retrieved 14 June 2016.
  4. 1 2 "1900 United States Federal Census". Year: 1900; Census Place: Cambridge Ward 4, Middlesex, Massachusetts; Roll: 657; Page: 1A; Enumeration District: 0717; FHL microfilm: 1240657. Retrieved 14 June 2016.
  5. "1880 United States Federal Census". Year: 1880; Census Place: Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts; Roll: 543; Family History Film: 1254543; Page: 180A; Enumeration District: 441. Retrieved 14 June 2016.
  6. "1940 United States Federal Census". Year: 1940; Census Place: Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts; Roll: T627_1684; Page: 11B; Enumeration District: 16-66. Retrieved 14 June 2016.
  7. 1 2 Derderian, Tom (1994). Boston Marathon: The History of the World's Premier Running Event. Champaign IL: Human Kinetics. p. 6. ISBN 0-87322-491-4.
  8. Derderian, Tom (1994). Boston Marathon: The History of the World's Premier Running Event. Champaign IL: Human Kinetics. p. 10. ISBN 0-87322-491-4.
  9. Derderian, Tom (1994). Boston Marathon: The History of the World's Premier Running Event. Champaign IL: Human Kinetics. pp. 11–12. ISBN 0-87322-491-4.
  10. 1 2 "PLUCKY BRIGNOLI. Wins Out the Marathon Race, Grant Second. Of 17 Starters Only 11 Finish --- Time of 25 Miles, 2h, 54m, 38s.". Boston Daily Globe. April 20, 1899. pp. 1, 3. Retrieved 21 June 2016.
  11. 1 2 Derderian, Tom (1994). Boston Marathon: The History of the World's Premier Running Event. Champaign IL: Human Kinetics. pp. 14–15. ISBN 0-87322-491-4.
  12. "Massachusetts, Marriage Records, 1840-1915". Retrieved 14 June 2016.
  13. "Massachusetts, Death Records, 1841-1915". Retrieved 14 June 2016.
  14. "Massachusetts, Birth Records, 1840-1915". Retrieved 14 June 2016.
  15. "Massachusetts, Marriage Index, 1901-1955 and 1966-1970". Retrieved 14 June 2016.
  16. "1920 United States Federal Census". Year: 1920; Census Place: Cambridge Ward 6, Middlesex, Massachusetts; Roll: T625_708; Page: 4A; Enumeration District: 354; Image: 753. Retrieved 14 June 2016.
  17. National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame. "Lawrence Brignolia". Inductees. Retrieved 14 June 2016.
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