The Boston Marathon
"Are you running the marathon?" There was a time when such a straightforward question prompted a reply of "yes" or "no," not another question, namely, "which marathon?"
Posted Friday, 23 March, 2007
At one time, "the" marathon was always the Boston Marathon, not the New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, London, Dublin, Dubai, or Antarctica Marathon. While such a question may still be reasonable within the route 495 beltway in Eastern Massachusetts, elsewhere the marathon running landscape has changed greatly. That raises yet another question: is the Boston Marathon still relevant? Or is it an anachronism, a relic from a bygone era that time has passed by?
On the face of it, that seems like an easy one to answer. The better part of 15,000 runners annually vote in the affirmative with their feet each April, that yes, Boston is still worth the effort, still worth the inconvenience of a Monday race date, still worth the possible ugly weather of a noontime start, still worth a long bus trip to the start, still worth the seemingly endless waiting in Hopkinton, and still worth a tough course that tortures the quads of even the best-trained runners.
There has to be something deeper that draws them to Boston by the thousands. I mean, would any marathon just arriving on the scene nowadays make is so tough for the runners? Of course not. The idea that you should have to work hard for something truly good seems outdated in the 21st century, in an era of instant everything. But that is exactly the premise that the Boston Marathon is based upon. Will that philosophy sustain the Boston Marathon, now well into its second century?
The truth is however, that Boston has changed with the times. Race director Dave McGillivray has gone more than the extra mile to create a quality race experience for all participants, light years better than it used to be. He and his technical crew have streamlined the course as much as is humanly possible on what was created as a narrow, old country horse carriage road. The athlete’s village eases the long wait in Hopkinton, and amenities abound for all runners. In addition, the seeding and management of the field at the start and finish line is nothing short of miraculous. In the setting of one of America’s great cities, it all adds up to a tremendous racing experience.
The biggest change of all in the Boston Marathon involves the runners themselves, specifically the makeup of the field. Believe it (or not): the Boston Marathon once shut the finish line clock off at 3:35, at which time everyone went home. Why not? Almost all of the runners had completed the race by that time, or knocked themselves out trying.
These days, in most marathons the clock is just getting warmed up at 3:35. So are most participants in these races—including Boston. Runners now have a full six hours to compete the 26.2 miles in the world’s most prestigious open race, a race that still requires applicants to actually run a qualifying time in order to participate. But not all runners. In another concession to the 21st century, there are ways around the time qualifier, the most popular the charity program, in which runners raise money for a race sanctioned charity in return for entry into the race. In business vernacular that’s known as a "win-win."
Speaking of winners, that raises yet another thorny issue, and we are not talking about the laurel wreath bestowed upon the first male and female to cross the line in Copley Square. Does winning the marathon still matter? Is the Boston Marathon truly a race, in the purest sense of the word? Like in any other marathon, 99.9 percent of the field steps to the starting line with absolutely no hope of capturing first place, but that has been true for decades.
In the "old days" however, the 99.9 percent still cared who that winner was. Victory at Boston meant more than just a big payday and a headline in the Tuesday morning newspaper, but forgotten by Wednesday. It was a coronation of sorts, an affirmation that you were the best of the best, and excepting the Olympics, a declaration that you had won the one race everyone wanted to win. While there remains no shortage of runners seeking a Boston title, the cache that victory once carried has been undeniably diminished, if only marginally. Even myself, a journalist and supposed student of the sport, would have a hard time reeling off the names of the last five male and female winners of the Boston Marathon. Wait -- make that the last one year.
Like every other marathon -- again excepting the Olympics - it is not about the winner, it is about winning, as in everyone achieving their own personal victories. Running a marathon has always been a very personal experience, and at Boston it seems more so than ever. There really is something special about running on the same route as your predecessors did 25, 50, even 100 years earlier. Each runner at Boston really does become a part of the history and tradition of the race. Even the most jaded of marathoners would agree that still counts for a lot, cresting Heartbreak Hill at mile 21, knowing the finish line is just five miles -- and tens of thousands of cheering crowds -- away.
In the end, there is no denying the fact that the Boston Marathon remains relevant; and more than that, vibrant and growing. While some of the seemingly endless supply of first-time marathoners will consider their lives complete without a pilgrimage to Boston, for others it is and always will be a must-do marathon. Every sport needs a "cornerstone" event, one built upon tradition and history that stands apart from the others. Professional football has the Super Bowl; baseball has the World Series. Triathlon has the Hawaii Ironman; tennis has Wimbledon. Cycling has the Tour de France; golf has the Masters. And long distance running has the Boston Marathon. In 2005, 109 years after its inception, that still rings true. A hallowed tradition or an irrelevant relic? Decide for yourself. But tens of thousands of marathoners already have. Come next year, on the third Monday in April, they’ll be ready to prove it again, one more time.