BOSTON—In a marketing sense, the Boston Marathon finds itself somewhat between a rock and a hard place.
On the one hand, it takes rightful pride in being the oldest marathon in the world, and revels in and celebrates its history, bringing back past champions on the five-year anniversaries of their victories and pointing to a 119-year track record that no other race can match. But at the same time, while paying homage to and preserving its heritage, Boston must strive to remain relevant in a running world that is constantly evolving at a seemingly ever more rapid pace. Prize money, chip timing, wave starts, mile markers, a morning start time—these were all attributes of a large marathon that Boston was forced to adapt to avoid become a venerated but irrelevant fossil of an event.
Indeed, this year the race celebrates the half century anniversary of the first time a woman, Bobbi Gibb, ran the 26.2 miles from Hopkinton to Back Bay, an act that, like Kathrine Switzer’s run with a number the following year, was at the time excoriated by the organizers. Now, women make up half the field of the 31,000 who will toe the line on Monday, proving, like the old Virginia Slims cigarette commercial used to say, they’ve indeed come a long way, baby.
But besides the celebration of the advent and growth of distaff runners in the race, this year’s marathon seems to be lacking a real “hook,” a compelling story line to pique the interest of the casual fan of the sport. While the warm temperatures, predicted to reach 70 degrees on Monday, will certainly swell the crowds along the route, they may be cheering not for anyone in particular, but simply because it’s the thing you do in Boston on a sunny Patriot’s Day.
That is largely because 2016 is an Olympic year, and Boston has always suffered a bit every four years, when the top Americans have been rendered hors de combat by their recent Olympic trials race. There were some occasions when Kenya and Ethiopia would declare Boston to be their own Trials (after all, why not let the Boston Athletic Association pick up the tab for staging their trials and providing prize money to boot?) but now that’s been superseded by letting their runners post a fast time, wherever they choose. To be sure, the elite start list is awash with the abbreviations KEN and ETH, including the defending champs, Caroline Rotich and Lelisa Desisa, respectively, and Tiki Gelana, the 2012 Olympic champ and the fastest woman in the field at 2:18:58, although she had not arrived in Boston by Friday’s elite athlete press conference.
From an American point of view, there’s no huge story brewing either. In the women’s race, the long-awaited debut of Neely Spence Gracey is compelling and Sarah Crouch seems ready to run strong. But realistically, both are more likely to finish in the top 10 than they are to crack the top 5. On the men’s side, Ian Burrell, who works as an attorney in Colorado Springs, could be primed to run a good one in the last race of his career, but he’s a 2:13 guy running Boston for the first time. Girma Mecheso, a naturalized U.S. citizen who went to Oklahoma State University and hails from Ethiopia, is also making his marathon debut. He was the 2014 U.S. 20K champion and owns a 1:02 half marathon PR.
Still, this year’s marathon perhaps mirrors the hometown Red Sox, who will play their traditional morning game as the leaders race past Fenway Park on Monday: the possibility of good, possibly great performances, but as yet too many question marks to really invest a total rooting interest in.
Maybe by Monday afternoon questions on both those fronts will have been answered, with the Sox taking the series from the visiting Blue Jays, and the top runners forging a duel that will go down in the lengthy annals of the marathon as one of the most stirring races in memory. But for now, it’s too hard to get a read on either.