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Why The Boston Marathon Is So Special

A look at the race's—and Boston's—rich history and the achievement that qualifying for the world’s grandest marathon bestows on its runners.

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Photo: Courtesy of Boston Athletic Association

In times like these, races like the Boston Marathon bring people together. How? It’s a combination of not only the race’s rich history, but the area’s too. Plus the screaming locals, and the achievement that qualifying—and running—the world’s grandest marathon bestows on its runners.

All marathons may be 26.2 miles in length, but there is more contained within the 26.2 going from the small bedroom community of Hopkinton, Mass., to the big city of Boston each spring than in any other marathon in the world. The history of the sport runs this way, as does the founding of the nation and its freedoms itself.

This year Boston will celebrate its 121st running, and as throughout its century-plus time frame, regardless of what woes the nation is wrestling with, for that one day, Patriot’s Day, the marathon in Boston will illuminate the best in the human spirit as thousands of disparate impulses flow into close harmony along its historic route.

Patriot’s Day in Boston doesn’t just celebrate the finest runners in the world, it also commemorates the 1775 Battles of LexingtonConcord, the opening salvos in the U.S. War of Independence against Great Britain.

This overlay of historic reverence casts a special aura around the classic Patriots’ Day footrace. You hear it amid the nervous prerace patter on the Hopkinton town green with the cadence of the drum and fife corps before the start. You see it in the red, white and blue bunting draped along the starter’s podium on Main Street, and in the inward gaze of competitors zeroing in on a major effort beneath the World War I doughboy statue adjacent to the start line.

“This is the Mecca,” affirms official Boston Marathon greeter Tommy Leonard, founder of the Falmouth Road Race on Cape Cod, and former bartender at the legendary Eliot Lounge, the one-time Boston runner’s bar that stood on the corner of Mass and Comm avenues, a half-mile from the marathon finish line until the marathon’s 100th birthday in 1996. “There is nothing like the heartbeat in old Beantown on marathon day.”

C08AHA Runners at the finish of the 1981 Boston Marathon.
C08AHA Runners at the finish of the 1981 Boston Marathon. Photo: Courtesy of Alamy

First proclaimed a holiday in Massachusetts in 1894 by Governor Frederic T. Greenhalge, Patriots’ Day was originally celebrated on April 19, the actual anniversary of the Minutemen battles. Since 1969, the holiday has been marked on the third Monday of April, which coincides with the first day of a vacation week for public schools and a school holiday for many local public and private colleges and universities, too. The release of students adds to the boisterous nature of the marathon throngs lining both sides of the marathon route, most notably in Wellesley at halfway—where coeds from Wellesley College create a Tunnel of Screams that urge the racers on, but at times compel them to stay and absorb the affection.

The marathon, begun as connection between Athenian and American struggles for liberty, has woven its own historic tapestry as the race threads through eight cities and towns, drawing competitors and spectators alike into a unity of purpose.

“Boston isn’t the course. It’s not the people who run the race. I am thoroughly convinced it’s the people who line the course,” recalled Minnesota native Garry Bjorklund after leading the 1979 Boston Marathon until the hills of Newton before eventually finishing fifth. “It’s a feeling that makes you dizzy, knowing you are leading the Boston Marathon. You don’t have people like you have in Boston anywhere else.”

“And they don’t care if you win,” said threetime Boston women’s division runner-up and Quincy, Mass., native Patti Dillon. “They just want you to do good. They don’t want you to quit; they don’t like quitters. And it helps when you know they are rooting for you. I don’t know, it just gives you something extra.”

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Photo: Courtesy of Boston Athletic Association

There are bigger marathons in the world; faster ones, too. But there remains something seminal about Boston. Perhaps it is the long, hard winter that precedes it, and the promise of the coming rebirth that it heralds.

“The celebration of the Boston Marathon? Really, the rite of spring, right there,” was how former Brookline resident and marathon fan Paul Marshall always thinks of Patriots’ Day.

When the Boston Athletic Association instituted time qualifying standards in 1970 to control the size of the field after the race grew to more than 1,000 entrants, it unwittingly created a special “people’s Olympics” quality to the old race, a standard for runners to achieve. Today, runners from around the world dream of posting a Boston qualifier, knowing that only a special few will have earned the honor of pinning on a Boston number. And the people of Boston and the surrounding area feel just the same about the runners.

“It’s overwhelming. It’s the marathoner’s experience of a lifetime,” said 1968 Boston champion Amby Burfoot.

“There is a tremendous amount of energy floating around Boston on marathon weekend,” said Burfoot’s former Wesleyan University roommate and four-time Boston champion Bill Rodgers. “It’s the epitome of a true sporting event, in the classical sense.”

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From its humble start in 1897 when 15 runners toed the scratch line in Ashland, Mass.—back when the race was still measured at 24.5 miles (39.4 km)—the Boston Marathon has sheltered the flame of marathoning that first took form in the inaugural Olympic Games of the modern era a year earlier in Athens, in 1896. There, to commemorate the mythical run of army messenger Pheidippides bringing word of a great military victory over an invading Persian force to the capital in 492 B.C., Olympic fathers instituted a distance run of 40 kilometers from the plains of Marathon to the city of Athens. With 60,000 cheering Greeks in attendance, including their king, Greek shepherd Spyridon Louis arrived in the Olympic stadium as the first Olympic Marathon champion.

So moved were members of the U.S. team by that new event that members of the Boston Athletic Association in attendance decided on the boat ride home across the Atlantic to create just such a race back home the following spring.

“It has such deep roots, such tradition, it’s the race everyone wants to do,” said Californian Bob Molinatti, multiple-time wheelchair competitor. “You can run any other marathon and people will be impressed. But when you run Boston, it’s making a statement. When you look at the front row at Boston, you are looking at the cream of the crop.”

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Boston College track coach Randy Thomas finished fifth in Boston in 1978. The Fitchburg, Mass., native says it this way: “It’s a day that belongs to the runners, and a day that belongs to the spectators, the whole million of them. It’s the premier race in everyone’s mind, a great day for the city, one that gives it its reputation throughout the world.”

It took until the mid-1970s before distance running caught fire and became the social movement that continues to this day. In the decades before it was more of a quirky pastime practiced by young men with wiry frames and faraway gazes in out-of-the-way places. Yet there was something about its hard, flinty nature that appealed to the people in and around Boston. What is that old line—“If the Pilgrims had landed in California, New England would still be uninhabited”?

“At times the noise was deafening,” said Alberto Salazar of his 1982 Duel in the Sun victory over Beardsley.

“When you have a crowd that big, it’s almost physically impossible to control them if they don’t want to be controlled,” explained former longtime race director Will Cloney.

“This is the Kentucky Derby for all marathon runners,” said Jock Semple in his Scottish brogue. Semple finished seventh in 1930, but for decades after that, he handled all entries for the marathon from his physical therapy office in the Boston Garden where he worked on the Boston Celtics and Boston Bruins. His boss, Walter Brown, didn’t just own the Garden and the two Boston pro sports teams, he was a member of the founding family of the Boston Marathon as well.

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The importance of the Boston Marathon beyond the sporting realm revealed itself anew in 2014. Coming one year after the savage bombings along the Boylston Street finish by two radicalized Chechnyan brothers, Meb Keflezighi’s front-running, then hanging-on victory, the first by an American male since 1983, redeemed the hallowed ground not only for all runners, but in the name of all immigrants who had come to this country for the open-hearted welcome it has always represented.

In a country currently rife with division, this annual coming together is a reminder of those qualities that link us in a common bond and transcend those that separate us. The message of Boston is clear and unassailable: When thousands of runners from around the nation and world take on a daunting distance while being encouraged by huge, welcoming throngs on roads where history has been formed, the world becomes a better place.

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