Urban Gem: the BAA Half Marathon
The organizer of the Boston Marathon turns to the half marathon distance, putting the spotlight on Boston's Emerald Necklace and its splendid string of urban parks.
Posted Monday, 22 July, 2002
As Sarah Freeman ran beneath a fiery autumn canopy of giant oaks in the first BAA Half Marathon last fall, it was a moment that brought together two personal passions for the Boston runner: distance running and Boston's splendid park system. Along with 2,500 other half-marathoners, the longtime runner and parks advocate was finally enjoying Boston's Emerald Necklace as it was originally intended but rarely experienced.
Designed in the late 19th century by legendary landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted (think Central Park and the US Capitol grounds), the Emerald Necklace is a six-mile string of urban gems -- parks featuring rustic paths, shimmering streams and placid ponds.
"For Bostonians, this is really a treasure right under our noses," said Freeman. "What a great experience to run a race that lets you experience the parks from end to end as Olmsted intended."
While the distance may be only half that of a marathon, never let it be said that the organizer of the Boston Marathon does anything in half measures. Now gearing up for the second running of its BAA Half Marathon on October 13, the Boston Athletic Association has tackled its half marathon with enthusiasm and a vision to help improve the parks for runners and pedestrians.
Over a century ago, it was possible to wander the entire length of the Emerald Necklace parks on its walking paths, carriageways and bridle paths. Since then, the automobile has intervened, and the necklace has been broken by traffic and commuter routes, making the full experience of the park elusive for runners and walkers.
By closing the parkways to traffic for the half marathon, the BAA has managed to reconnect the parks for runners, if only for a morning. The goal, however, is longer term: a portion of every registration fee goes to the Emerald Necklace Conservancy to help fund restoration projects and improve park access. Among other projects, the conservancy is wrestling with traffic patterns in hopes of putting the broken chain back together again.
"It was so gratifying to me personally to actually run on the roads so that you could go the whole way from the art museum to Franklin Park," said Freeman, who serves on the board of the conservancy. "In order to have a necklace you have to have a chain. Right now you just have the individual emeralds -- the parks -- disconnected. It's very difficult to get from one park to the next, and people stick in one park but don't jump from one to another."
A Bit of Country in the City
The six miles of parks provides not only an ideal backdrop for an out-and-back half marathon course, but also a genuine sense of New England countryside within the region's largest city.
"The BAA Half Marathon feels like anything but an urban road race," said race director Dave McGillivray, who also directs the Boston Marathon. "It took only one drive of this beautiful and scenic park system to convince us that we indeed had a gem of a venue to work with. A running course doesn't get any more aesthetically attractive than this Emerald Necklace route."
The course starts at Roberto Clemente Park in Boston's Back Bay Fens, a greenspace that embraces a rose garden and creates a sprawling backyard for Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. Runners are soon onto the Riverway, a parkway that hugs the shaded Muddy River with its views of 19th-century stone bridges and walking paths.
Two miles into the course, runners leave the Muddy River and begin to encounter rolling hills as they pass Olmsted Park and begin the gradual climb to Jamaica Pond, the glittering 60-acre pond that is Boston's largest and purest body of water.
From Jamaica Pond, runners follow the Arborway, skirting the landscaped Arnold Arboretum on the right, glimpsing the Boston skyline on the left, and at mile five heading onto the tree-lined paths of Franklin Park, the largest of the Emerald Necklace parks, encompassing 100 acres of woodland, an 18-hole golf course and the Franklin Park Zoo.
"Running through the zoo is a real highlight of the course," Freeman said of the short zoo loop at the turnaround. "I mean, come on, you're seeing giraffes in a road race. That's not part of your normal urban half marathon course."
The return follows the opposite side of Jamaica Pond and along rolling hills back to the Riverway, finishing with a loop around the Back Bay Fens before ending where it began at Roberto Clemente Park.
"I'd like to think this course is honest," said McGillivray. "That is, it is not overly difficult, but it isn't a piece of cake either. Whatever you run on this course, you have earned it and it should be a good indicator of a runner's overall condition."
"The terrain wasn't bad, and I thought the course was pretty moderate," said Hal Goforth, 57, who finished third in his age group. "The bumps going over the bridges were nice, and the hills were enough to break up the monotony of running flats. There are some nice straightaways coming back where you can really get your rhythm."
"It's a nice variety," Freeman said. "There are uphills, downhills, winding sections. Boston is so flat for the most part that some runners might find it surprising how hilly some of this route is."
Marathon great Bill Rodgers finished first in the 50-59 age group in the 2001 BAA Half Marathon. Photo by Jim Rhoads.
As one of the nation's oldest running clubs and organizers of races, the BAA enjoys a time-tested reputation for quality, well-managed events. Backed by the BAA's know-how and the sponsorship of New England Baptist Hospital, the first BAA Half Marathon was warmly greeted last year by runners from around the region and beyond.
"The stamp of the BAA is what it's all about," said Goforth, who flew from San Diego to run the inaugural race. "The fact that the BAA organized it is why I ran it. I thought, 'My gosh, they've started some other great traditions, and so let's see what they're starting here.'
"It was run very well, very tastefully, and I'll keep coming back for it," added Goforth, who has also run the past 25 Boston Marathons. "If I've got a string of 25 Bostons, why not start a string of BAA Half Marathons?"
Organizers expect other runners to follow suit, too, and anticipate that this year's race will fill to its 4,000-runner limit. Registration is already running well ahead of initial expectations, and although the registration deadline is October 1, organizers say the race could fill within the next few weeks.
The BAA Half Marathon is the only half held in Boston, and the popularity of this new event is as much an indicator of the demand for half-marathon distances as it is of support for this well-chosen course. "Without question, the half marathon is experiencing a rebirth," said McGillivray. "The fascination with the marathon distance still exists, but many feel that the half marathon is a more realistic goal for them."
"I was very happy to see the BAA take on this intermediate distance. There just aren't many half marathons around," said Freeman, who has run the last 14 Boston Marathons. "I love the distance. It's still a long run but doesn't beat you up the same way the marathon does."
A New Discovery
Just as the BAA Half Marathon is introducing Boston to the 21K distance, it's also introducing local runners to an overlooked running venue.
"I think there are lots of people here in Boston who don't even know about the Emerald Necklace," said BAA spokesman Jack Fleming. "Here's an opportunity to discover this spectacular linked park system. That's what the entire event was conceived around."
"The folks who live in the area and those who have known of the necklace certainly have a deep appreciation for its beauty and attraction," McGillivray said. "However, I can't help but believe that the necklace has been -- but hopefully will no longer continue to be -- a well-kept secret in the city of Boston. We want to give the runners in New England an opportunity to compete in a well-managed, scenic, fall half marathon. It’s not much more complicated than that."
"It's wonderful that the BAA is exposing this park system to more runners," said Freeman. "All I can say is God bless Frederick Law Olmsted for setting aside this park system so that you can have this kind of experience within an urban landscape."
BAA Half Marathon website
Online race registration
Oct. 13, 2002
Limited to 4000 runners
Oct. 1, 2002
(Anticipated to fill earlier)
ChampionChip timing and results