The end of an era: Meet the man who painted the starting line at the Boston Marathon for 36 years

Jack LeDuc has painted every Boston Marathon starting line since 1981. This year, he decided it was time to retire.

For years, LeDuc took that simple white stripe and painted vibrant images that he designed

Boston Marathon start line painter Jack LeDuc lifts the stencil for the letter "S" as he paints the line in Hopkinton, Mass. (Ken McGagh/The Metro West Daily News via Associated Press)
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After 36 years, Jack LeDuc is retiring from his job as Boston Marathon's line painter. (submitted by DMSE Sports)

As the 122nd Boston Marathon gets underway on Monday, there will be something different about the start of the race.

That's because after 36 years, Jack LeDuc has officially retired from his yearly tradition of painting the marathon's iconic starting line.

"It's been a long run and to be honest with, you as we speak, the line was being painted by someone different [now], so let them start on a 36-year career and I'd be happy to congratulate them," LeDuc says in an interview with Day 6.

LeDuc made his retirement announcement back in February on his 67th birthday, but his news came as a surprise to many.

"I told family and friends, 'I'm not sick, I'm not going anywhere, I'm just not going to paint the line anymore.' And [the reaction] was like 'wow.' It's like I stole someone's firstborn," he says.

"It's been sort of a whirlwind ever since."

Early beginnings

LeDuc's beginnings as a line painter happened by chance in 1981, when a friend volunteered him to paint a sign to celebrate marathon legend John A. Kelley.

The marathon committee liked his sign so much that they later asked LeDuc what else he could do.

"I said: 'Well, I've noticed the start line is only just a white stripe on the road. I'd be happy to embellish it,'" explains LeDuc. He added that it would provide a nice photo op for tourists and locals.

"In '82, I submitted my first design and they said, 'Look, whatever you do we're happy with it. Go for it.'"

From that point forward, LeDuc took it beyond that simple white stripe and painted vibrant images that he designed, often giving a nod to local history or events.

Runners cross the starting line for the 121st running of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, on April 17, 2017. (Lisa Hornak/Reuters)

On the 40th anniversary of women running the marathon, LeDuc expanded his talents by drawing a bib that read "F40." And on the race's 100th anniversary, he changed the starting line by painting it 100 inches (2.5 metres) wide.

As his designs grew more complicated each year, LeDuc's work also started to get noticed.

More and more people started coming to the race and taking photos at the start line. At one point, even the Associated Press came to town to take pictures of the starting line for newspapers all over the country.

However, the attention never phased LeDuc. 

"It's a thrill the first few years and after that, you know, not to sound blasé, you get used to just about anything and the novelty of doing the whole job went away a little bit."

Jack LeDuc paints the starting line for the 2016 Boston Marathon. (Ken McGagh/The Metro West Daily News via Associated Press)

Fond and painful memories

Despite his modesty, LeDuc looks back fondly at his his time preparing for the start of the Boston Marathon. His favourite memories include painting the line with his wife and daughters, and having picnics with his family as they waited for the various layers of paint to dry.

Among some of his happier memories, there have also been painful ones.

The marathon's 100th anniversary in 1996 was a stressful time. Not only did he have a new logo to recreate and include, that year the city received 10 inches of "wet heavy snow" right before he was to paint the line.

And in 2013, two bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring hundreds of others.

It's quite an honour to be recognized like that for something as simple as putting paint on the street.- Jack LeDuc , former painter of the Boston Marathon starting line

"You take something as innocent as the Boston Marathon and destroy it in an instant and kill people and maim people," he says.

However, what came out of that tragic incident was the outpouring of love for the community, says LeDuc.

"The support was unbelievable. And again, it affected everybody, not just in Boston and in the country, but anyone watching around the world." he says.

"It's not going to go away soon. The memory will last a long time."

The end of an era

Now, after more than three decades on the job, LeDuc says it's time to pass the torch over to someone else.

He admits he won't miss much from his job as Boston Marathon's starting line painter, but he's grateful to have had the opportunity.

"I just want to thank everybody that's supported me [and] given me accolades for whatever reason."

"It's quite an honour to be recognized like that for something as simple as putting paint on the street."

Runners approach the finish line carrying a Boston Strong banner during the 120th running of the Boston Marathon. (Gretchen Ertl /Action Images / Reuters)

To hear more from Jack LeDuc, download our podcast or click the Listen button at the top of this page.

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