By David Yon
For me, Hopkinton to Boylston Street is a pilgrimage to the high temple of running – the finish of The Boston Marathon. There are plenty of people who think otherwise, so I won’t proclaim it to be the only place to attend services, but the Boston Marathon has tradition and character that is matched by few sporting events anywhere in the world. You only need say “I am running Boston this year” and everyone in the sports-crazed city of Boston knows you are going 26.2 miles on Patriots Day. One million people will watch and cheer you on as you move from Hopkinton through Ashland, Framingham, Natick, the screams of Wellesley, up and down the hills of Newton (including Heartbreak Hill), around Cleveland Circle, past Fenway Park, by the Citgo sign, and on to the finish line in Back Bay at the Boston Public Library. The race was born 106 years ago when a group decided to bring a piece of the spirit and ideals of the first Olympic Marathon back to the United States. Ever since, Boston has tried to maintain a tradition that remains loyal to its roots.
On April 19, 1897, a man named Tom Burke scraped his foot along a hard packed dirt road in Ashland, Massachusetts and called out the names of eighteen runners to line up behind the line he had drawn for the start of the very first Boston Marathon; it was to be run as it is today under the auspices of the Boston Athletic Association (BAA). Over the years the distance has been lengthened some, the start has moved to Hopkinton and the finish moved to the John Hancock building, but the core of the course has remained the same and the spirit of the race has remained true.
According to Tom Derderian’s book, Boston Marathon, (a wonderful history of the race) John Graham attended the first games of the modern Olympics in Athens in 1896, on behalf of the BAA, and watched Spiridon Louis run and walk the mystical path of Pheidippides to claim victory in the first Olympic marathon in history in a time of 2:55:20. The lore of Pheidippides’ sacrifice for country and duty and the drama of Louis rising to the occasion to win the first Olympic marathon in his home country of Greece inspired Graham to return to Boston and stage an event that matched this first marathon’s grand drama and sense of purpose. The BAA wanted to match not only the distance but also the topography of that first Olympic marathon race as closely as possible. According to Hal Higdon (in his terrific book, Boston – A Century of Running), Henry H. Holton (possibly related to Mr. “Exacto” Bill McGuire” ) rode a bicycle with a wheel counter on roads beside the rail system until he came to the spot where Burke drew his start line – somewhere between 24.5 and 25 miles away from the finish in Boston. (Of course if McGuire had been measuring, there would not by any “somewhere between.”) The BAA chose Patriots Day, a day set aside to commemorate the Battle of Lexington, and one that was consistent with the Olympic celebration of the spirit of Pheidippides. Members of the BAA proclaimed that the course “compared favorably” with the Athens’ Olympic course combining early flat stretches before ascending a series of hills and then descending into Athens/Boston. Fifteen number runners took off that marathon day and ten finished. John J. McDermott captured the race in a “world record” time of 2:55:10, ten seconds better than Louis.
A strong contingent of Tallahassee runners survived the training to represent GWTC well in Beantown this year. Jane Johnson led the way, continuing a remarkably consistent string of performances by running a 2:54:38, good enough for thirteenth master and 38th woman overall. She also managed to stay out of the medical tent this year (unlike in 1998) and was bouncing around after the race as if she had jogged through a 10K without ever pressing the pace. The medical tent visitor this year was Kathy Mora who suffered a bit from dehydration, but recovered in plenty of time for post-race celebrations. Hobson Fulmer converted his “bridge training” into a PR with a 3:12:57 finish that left a big contented smile on his face. A total of at least eleven runners from this area made it to Mecca.
The group that went to cheer was almost as large as the finishers and after getting through the depression of turning in my race number, I quickly got caught up in the passion of the one million or so race spectators lining the course. We crowded beside the fence along Boylston Street and watched for members of our group, yelling out their names in a nearly futile act. It was almost impossible to be heard above the din of the crowd. But in Boston, futility is conquered by resourcefulness and groups banded together in the crowd to help each other make enough noise to be heard by their loved ones. When a runner would finally hear their name above the roar and acknowledge the cheers of friends and family along the route, their supporters would break into wild cheers of delight and begin “high-five-ing” their new found friends who had helped them be heard. As the runners approached Fenway Park, the home of the Boston Red Sox, the crowds spilled out by the thousands and jammed the sidewalks around the course so tight the spectators simply could not move. Where else in the world do they move the start of a baseball game to 11:00 a.m. so the crowd can get out in time to watch marathon runners roll by?
My love for this race started not long after I finished my first marathon. I remember well the excitement of setting a goal and finishing just under 3:00 hours on the hilly Killearn course. I had carefully planned and trained for that first marathon and the thrill of success was more intoxicating than the pain of 26 miles. I wanted another marathon goal. It did not take long to begin to hear the lore of Boston calling. The qualifying time for me in 1986 was 2:50 minutes, much faster than I had run in that first marathon. But as I began to do my research, the stories of Clarence DeMar, John Kelley the Elder and John Kelley the Younger, Roberta Gibb, Kathrine Switzer and Jock Semple, Bill Rodgers, Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley, and Joan Benoit Samuelson got me so fired up, I knew I had to be apart of the Boston experience.
DeMar was a seven-time winner of Boston, with his first win coming in 1911. He is a Boston legend not just for his seven wins, but for his personality and of course his determination. A DeMar quote from Hal Higdon’s book says it all: “Do most of us want life on the same calm level as a geometrical problem? Certainly, we want our pleasures more varied with mountains and valleys of emotional joy, and marathoning furnishes just that.” The Elder Kelley finished Boston 58 times with his first one coming in 1933 and the last one in 1992. In 1992 at the age of 84 he ran the marathon in a time of 5:58. During his career he won the race twice and finished second seven times. There is a double statute in his honor at the bottom of one of the Newton hills, featuring him in his youth and then near the end of his life. On the day before the marathon this year John Kelley the Younger received a standing ovation for his Boston wins and many finishes when he threw out the first pitch at the Yankees/Red Sox game at Fenway.
The ban on women was a part of the original 1896 Olympic Marathon experience that the BAA should have left in Athens. Reportedly, a Greek woman named Stamata Revithi took off before the men did on the race course from Marathon to Athens and finished in four and half hours – after being told she would not be permitted to participate in the Olympic race. And while Kathrine Switzer became the legend that busted down the door for women after her fight with Jock Semple in 1967, she was not the first female finisher at Boston. In 1966, Roberta Gibb completed the race in 3:20 minutes after registering as Bobby Gibbs. Imagine first the shock and then the roar that went through the crowd of women at Wellesley that year as Gibb passed this famous landmark after discarding her hooded sweatshirt that had hid her gender. She gained the courage to toss her disguise when the group of male running companions promised not to let anyone throw her out of the race and to escort her to the finish. Her reason for running though was simple: “I didn’t want to run Boston to prove anything. I just fell in love with the marathon.”
The stories of this great race roll on year after year and I could go on for more pages than you would want to read. But be assured that Boston Billy (Rodgers) and Joan Benoit Samuelson are as big a sports heroes in Boston as any. Rodgers won Boston four times and Samuelson smashed the world record with a time of 2:22:43 in 1983 a time that would have won 54 Boston titles irrespective of sex. Of course that is nothing to the people of Boston compared to her first Boston in 1979 when she crossed the finish line wearing a backwards Red Sox baseball cap.
And then there was the battle between favored Alberto Salazar and a possessed Dick Beardsley in 1982. As these two great athletes climbed the Newton hills Beardsley did all he could to break the favored Salazar, punishing him with surges. Salazar battled the surges and the warm weather to hang on – barely. Beardsley continued to push Salazar far beyond the point that the “pundits” thought anyone would still be with the world record holder. As Beardsley continued his effort to break Salazar on Beacon Street he later recounted that the crowd pressed so loud and close he could barely stay focused. “It was like standing next to a runway with a jet airplane ready to take off.” The two giants battled each other step for step all the way down Boylston Street each squeezing the last bit of effort and courage out of their body. At the end Beardsley had pushed Salazar harder than any other competitor ever had as he lost by two seconds 2:08:52 to 2:08:54. Neither of them ever completely recovered from the effort.
I got my first chance to run in 1986, after qualifying at the Tallahassee Marathon that year, and it lived up to all my expectations. From the morning wait in the packed gym in Hopkinton, to the tremendous support from a dozen communities and towns along the way, to the screams of Wellesley where the girls formed a tunnel so tight the runners had to funnel through in single file – chest extended with pride. No one complained. There were the hills of Newton, including the famous “heartbreak hill,” the sights of landmarks of Boston proper and finally the turn past Elliot’s lounge onto Boylston Street. The roar of the crowd was deafening, always. There were also the mangled quadriceps – victims of too fast a pace on the downhills. And most of all, there were the looks of affection and admiration from the people of Boston the next day as they bonded with the hobbling runners. “You did Boston, huh? Way to go.” I have been back five times since that first day and like the taste of a sweet addiction I hope for more. It was fun to be a spectator this time, but as I finish this story, the lore that drew me to Boston in 1986 beckons with an irresistible call. Number 107, I will be there with my running shoes. It is just not right to miss church on Patriots Day.