In recognition of Black History Month, The Royal Gazette continues to publish articles throughout February on African American, Black Bermuda and African peoples around the world, events and institutions, and their contributions to history.
Stanley Burgess was one of the island’s most enduring and colorful sporting legends. A perennial competitor in the annual Bermuda Half Marathon derby on May 24, he has been a staple in road running for 60 years.
His racing prowess has earned him a litany of titles. The little champion, who was just 5ft 3in tall, was known as ‘The Iron Horse’, ‘Mr Marathon’ and ‘The Champ’. Later, as his popularity grew with age, he was referred to as the Marathon Derby’s “Grand Old Man” and even “Sir” Stanley.
One of his biggest fans was former manager Dale Butler, who became an MP. When Butler was principal of Dellwood School, he set aside May 23 as a day for his students to celebrate Burgess’ accomplishments.
Stanley Burgess, a legend of the Bermuda derby half-marathon
Burgess ran his first marathon in 1921 and his last in 1983 – 13 months before his death at 83. He always ran with his white handkerchief wrapped inside out around his head, which added to his appeal.
His talent and practical tips for winning contributed to the popularity of the Half Marathon Derby, which grew in spurts over the decades. It now attracts over 800 participants, thousands of spectators and is the flagship event of Bermuda Day.
Burgess smoked two packs of cigarettes a day – but claimed he did not inhale – and drank a ‘secret’ potion of honey and alcohol, but had a healthy lifestyle, literally living off the land and sea .
He was a mason, who went fishing almost every day in his beloved cedar sailboat, and a beekeeper who also cultivated a small plot. He always kept a pig. Residents of Flatts remember how he wheeled a large wheelbarrow up and down Flatts Hill, filled with “pork meat” or kitchen scraps for his pig.
It limited its run to the Half Marathon Derby, which dates back to 1909. The derby, which was first held on May 24, 1928, changed routes and dates several times, and even faced the competition of a competing race.
Burgess first made his mark in the unofficial race, which he won three years in a row, starting in his freshman year in 1926. Both races were held between 1926 and 1943.
When Burgess boasted in newspaper interviews that he had ten wins, 14 second places, five thirds and three quarters, he was counting his finishes in both races. Due to the zigzagging nature of the derby over the decades, some of its finishes cannot be independently verified.
He has won the half-marathon derby six times, according to official records, a feat that was equaled by Ed Sherlock and has since been surpassed by Kavin Smith, who has won eight times.
Burgess was born and raised in Flatts, where he has lived all his life. His parents were George and Odessa (Harvey) Burgess. He contracted typhoid fever twice as a child and credited his mother with curing him.
As a child, he ran five miles a day from Flatts to South Shore and back during school lunch hours to bring lunch to his father.
He was trained as a bricklayer by Eugene Harvey, one of the leading contractors of his time, but like many Bermudian tradesmen of his time, he could turn to anything, including carpentry, laying tile, brick and boat building.
For many years, Flatts landowners William S. Zuill and Henry Wilkinson, MD employed him to maintain their properties. Burgess lived with his wife, Rosalie, whom he married in 1927, in a small cottage in Flatts.
The first sport Burgess took up was boxing, but he gave it up in deference to his mother, who said the sport would damage his eyes. Neighbors who knew of his passion for running encouraged him to participate in his first marathon.
Burgess has often been asked about his racing secrets. He said he exercised regularly and didn’t eat “a lot of food” except for vegetables – beet greens, okra, papaya, spinach and cauliflower – which he grew. himself.
Burgess put honey he collected from his hives into cereals, tea, and drinks. The real secret to his success, he told reporters, was his runner’s honey cocktail. “I don’t tell anyone what I put in there,” he told the Bermuda Sun December 4, 1971. “It’s different kinds of liquor and honey.”
As a young man, he stocked up on custards made from goat’s milk and duck eggs, but when goats and ducks were scarce, he switched to cow’s milk and chicken eggs. He also drank a variety of fruit juices and took vitamins.
Burgess and his wife, whom he survived, had no children. People would pump her for her racing secrets, but “the woman” never told her, he said.
She helped him prepare his edible potions and other concoctions he invented to keep his limbs limber. He also bathed in a mixture of Radox bath salts, Dettol, soap, witch hazel and rum. According to a report, he even added kerosene to the mix.
He exercised regularly and trained three times a week in preparation for the race, reducing his regimen to twice a week as he got older. As a youth, he would start training two to three months before the race, but in the late 1960s he intensified his training a month in advance.
“Some younger guys train all year and they still can’t come,” he said.
Burgess holds the record for being the oldest man to win the Half Marathon Derby. He scored back-to-back victories in 1950 and 1951, when he was 49. He was still showing respectable finishes in the 1960s, but as his age caught up with him in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he had to produce a medical certificate to obtain official permission to race. Years later, derby officials drove him for part of the race.
Burgess and his contemporaries faced challenges that today’s racers don’t have to endure, including car exhaust. Spectators on bicycles and cars were allowed to ride alongside riders until 1971, when the practice was banned.
He recalled that at first some spectators, mostly bettors, also parked their horses and carriages on a road in an attempt to hinder his chances.
Burgess has encountered many contact disasters outside of his running career – the 1971 Bermuda Sun the interview listed 11 accidents, five near-drownings and five times blown away. He seemed unfazed by her many close calls.
In 1971, the year he received the Queen’s Certificate and Badge of Honour, he was honored for running the race for 50 years.
In a tribute written a few days after his death, Bermuda Sun Headline columnist Hobbles said: “By any measure, 60 years of running a half marathon – and many of them very successful years – is an amazing story.”
With his death, “an irreplaceable piece of Bermuda tradition and history is gone”.
Burgess was buried at St Mark’s Church in Smith’s. He leaves behind a brother and four sisters.
Burgess is an endearing symbol of a beloved Bermudian tradition and a representative of a special breed of athlete who raced at a time when road racing was embraced by a few hardy souls and without financial reward.
Six-time Half-Marathon Derby winner Ed Sherlock said: “He was a crowd pleaser. Everyone was looking for old man Stanley Burgess. They weren’t looking for the youngest boys, just the “Grand Old Man”. No one would leave until Stanley arrived. After the race, he put on a stunning display.
Legends such as Burgess have contributed to the sport’s popularity today.
• Courtesy of Meredith Ebbin, Don Burgess and bermudabiographies.bm. Source: The May 24 Bermuda Marathon Derby: All the Facts, Winners and Drama by Dale Butler