From Tallahassee to Boston and Back
On Monday, April 17, 2017, a crowd of more than 30,000 people will toe the line again for the Boston Marathon. Among the runners in the crowd will be approximately 17 people from Tallahassee and the surrounding areas. There will be television cameras and helicopters everywhere. The elite women marathon runners will start at 9:32 a.m., while the elite male runners will go off at 10:00 a.m. The last wave of participants is scheduled to start at 11:15 a.m. The first wave begins at 8:50 a.m. with athletes who do not compete by running but by a variety of wheeled instruments that enable them to navigate the course, sometimes at amazing speeds. It is an incredible sight watching the crowd go, the vast majority crossing the start line between 10:00 a.m. and 12 p.m. It is an even better sight being part of the crowd – crossing both that start line on East Main Street in Hopkinton and the finish line painted on Boylston Street, in the heart of Boston.
And of course, there is the unique attribute of the Boston Marathon that approximately 80% of the runners participating (according to the Boston Globe report of numbers from the Boston Athletic Association) had to meet a qualifying time just to apply for the race and that time had to be fast enough to qualify them among the applicants applying. That is, within a designated time, the runner had to have completed a certified marathon in a time faster than the time designated for the runners age group and sex. Qualifying times are adjusted based on a runner’s age and sex, so that your times are compared primarily to others in your same age and sex category. But just having a time fast enough to qualify, was not enough. Because there were more applicants with qualifying times than places in the race for them, the slowest in each group were told “try again next year.” Again, the Globe reported that “2,957 applicants who met the minimum qualifying standard but had relatively slower times were turned away.” That issue could be said another way, a runner had to finish approximately 2:28 seconds faster than their qualifying time to be on the starting line in Hopkinton on Patriots Day.
Of course, Boston has not always been this way. On April 19, 1897, there were no painted start lines or finish lines and no qualifying times. It is believed that this was only the second marathon to be run in the United States. Neither the starting line, nor the finish line were painted; instead Tom Burke, a gold medal sprinter from the previous Olympics, took the heel of his boot and drug it in the dirt from one side of the road to the other. Eighteen men started the race and ten finished it with J. McDermott (no, that is John, not Jack) winning in a time of 2:55:10. Boston remained a small marathon for many years and best I can tell did not have 1000 finishers until 1969. It grew in the 70’s to a couple thousands and to 4-8,000 in the 1980’s. It had some rough times, but it is amazingly strong right now and well organized. It is estimated by the Boston Athletic Association that the Boston Marathon will bring in $192 million in spending for the marathon. While I am always skeptical of those dollar estimates, there is no doubt the event has a big impact on the city.
I had very much hoped to be in that mass of humanity at the starting line this year. I even got my qualifier in – one here in Tallahassee and again in Orono, Maine. But it is often harder to get to the starting line of a marathon than it is to get to the finish and so, I will be sitting home watching this year and rubbing my hamstring.
I think a marathon can tell you a lot about the character of a place. The Boston Marathon appropriately reflects the toughness of the people in Boston and their willingness and ability to host the best from all over the world in great marathon racing. At the same time, Boston offers many runners who work hard at their sport and want to distinguish themselves a unique chance to do just that with its qualification process. The phrase “Boston Strong” was the whole city’s response to the whacko bombers of 2013. I had the pleasure of running in 2014, a very special year.
Much like the Boston Marathon, the Tallahassee Marathon had its own humble beginnings. Bill McGuire tells the story in his essay on GWTC’s early history. “One week before the Springtime meet, on March 8 (1975), the first annual Apalachicola National Forest Marathon was held at Natural Bridge Road in Woodville.” Jeff Galloway was an active member of the running club and Tallahassee community then. A runner from Texas, John Hargreaves, drove all the way to Tallahassee to run with Galloway, a former Olympian. Jeff, however, like everyone else had opted for much shorter 7-mile race. Andy Burns, GWTC early president, decided to jump in to the marathon to give the visitor someone to run with. At least Mr. Hargreaves got the win and somehow Gulf Winds has managed to hold a marathon every year since. (And Mr. Hargreaves come back and won the marathon again the next year. There were 4 finishers that year.)
After hitting a high point in finishers, the Tallahassee Marathon has been on a bit of a downslide in numbers for the last 3 years. In 2014, the number of runners it hit a peak with 361 finishers. Since then there have been 335, 224, and 180 last year. The half has continued to grow and when combined with the full there were 1201 finishers in 2017, more than for any other year. Half marathons have been the fastest growing races in the country for a number of years.
There is a lot of work being invested right in finding a way to see those marathon numbers start turning around. It says good things about our community and running club when that happens; when we have a top-quality marathon that will draw people from all over. It will start with a course that is going to be the best in the state of Florida – the best, not the easiest. One I hope runners will enjoy. You know that GWTC rarely ever does anything else!
Back to Boston, however; good luck to all from our area who are running. Maybe we will see you in February on a new exciting course in Tallahassee.