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Why the Boston Marathon is Such a Big Deal

Why Marathon Monday is the most celebrated day in running.

(Editor’s note: Veteran running journalist and race commentator Toni Reavis penned this story for us in 2013, before the horrific terrorist bombing incident at the 2013 Boston Marathon. We’ve brought it back from our archives because the points he makes are so salient.)

Every sport has its crown jewel event. In horse racing it’s the Kentucky Derby; auto racing has the Indianapolis 500, though NASCAR fans may suggest the Daytona 500; and in golf it’s The Masters. But in the sport of distance running the ne plus ultra is the Boston Marathon, a race whose roots reach back to the very mist of myth from which the marathon itself sprang.

Every year, the Boston Marathon, which emerged out of the inaugural Olympic marathon of 1896, retains not only the quality of the sport’s oldest continuously conducted marathon, but since 1970 has added the distinction of being what some have called the people’s Olympics, as it is the only major marathon that requires its entrants to qualify. This combination of ancient heritage and abiding excellence can still bring people to tears upon qualifying and engender fulfillment beyond measure upon completion.

“Finishing the Boston Marathon is probably the athletic achievement of a lifetime for many people,” says Honolulu Marathon president Jim Barahal, a three-time Boston finisher with a best of 2:48. 

According the Association of Road Race Statisticians, there were 3,586 marathons conducted worldwide in 2012, including 881 in the U.S. Each of them measured 26.2 miles, each produced champions, each saluted finishers of all abilities. But in many ways each is an offspring of the Boston Marathon.

This, then, is the pull of Boston, a chance to drink from the same deep cup of history as every great marathoner who has come before, every great champion who has run on exactly these same streets, whose dreams similarly have come true or been dashed over the daunting distance. The roads that make up the Boston Marathon hold the ghosts which define the sport and which unite all runners in a community of suffering and triumph. Name, if you can, another such event in any other sport.

From its start in the sleepy western hamlet of Hopkinton all the way to its finish in bustling Copley Square in Boston’s Back Bay, the Boston Marathon course is lined with a special breed of spectator, some of who hold their grandchildren atop their shoulders at exactly the same place they were held by their own grandfathers 75 years ago.   

“It’s a feeling that makes you dizzy to think you are leading the Boston Marathon,” said Garry Bjorklund, a 1976 U.S. Olympian, after his fifth-place finish in Boston in 1979, a race he led through 19 miles. “Boston isn’t the course. It isn’t the people who run the race. I’m sincerely convinced it’s the people who line the course. At times the noise was deafening. You know, you don’t have people like those in Boston anywhere else.”   

There are now six World Marathon Majors as Tokyo has joined the original five of Boston, New York City, Chicago, Berlin and London. And though London unquestionably offers the highest professional payouts, and New York is a colossus now in its fifth decade, and Berlin is the world’s fastest marathon, Boston will always be special for its heritage and so many intangibles. 

“Boston is still the race that people want to be sure to do at least once in their career,” says top international running agent Brendan Reilly of Boulder Wave. “I remember one of my athletes, two-time Olympic medalist Yuki Aomori of Japan, instructing me to get her into Boston. She told me, ‘I don’t care what the appearance fee is. I just want to run Boston.’”

Aomori would go on to finish a close third at the 1998 Boston Marathon, fulfilling her goal of running the famous race before retirement.

Throughout the decades when the sport remained small and quirky, Boston kept the marathon’s light burning, at times more brightly than others. And though it has gone through both scandal and error — think Rosie Ruiz jumping in late and initially being awarded the women’s title in 1980 — the underlying majesty of its human output has never wavered.

And when Boston’s own Bill Rodgers was the undisputed No. 1 marathoner in the world in the late 1970s, the wattage was never more brilliant. In those halcyon days of the running boom when the open-division qualifying standard was significantly stricter than today’s, not just anybody could sign up or train hard for it — there was some measure of talent required. Back then you needed a sub-2:50, just under 6:30 per mile pace, to enter. 

I once asked 1997 New York City Marathon champion John Kagwe of Kenya what the difference between the Boston and New York City marathons was back home in a country that produces so many world-class distance runners.

A thoughtful man with a wry sense of humor who would go on to defend his title in New York in November of 1998, John thought for a second then turned and said, “Toni, if you win in New York they speak your name for two days on the radio. If you win Boston, they speak your name for seven days.”

But perhaps John Campbell, a record-setting masters runner from New Zealand, summed it up best.

“How can I not run the Boston Marathon?” he asked. “In Boston, you become a part of history, part of the making of the marathon.”