How To Watch The Boston Marathon
Running the marathon is one thing, but watching it is a totally different challenge.
Posted Sunday, 29 March, 1998
So you are going to run the Boston Marathon? No problem. There is certainly no shortage of advice available; some of it has even been dispensed by me. Given that you pay a hefty $75 dollar entry fee, every effort is made by race organizers to at least make the trip out to Hopkinton hassle-free and the roads back to Boston clear to run. What's that you say? You are not running Boston, but you plan to watch the race instead? Woanow you are on your own, my friend. It's dog-eat-dog, every man for himself out there, the epitome of Darwinism at work. Only the strong survive when it comes to viewing a mega-marathon such as Boston. During the past 20 years, I have run Boston ten times, but I have also watched the race in the years I have not run. In the ensuing paragraphs, I will detail some of what I have learned and how you might be able to have a better viewing experience.
The first thing you need to know when it comes to watching the race is that you cannot do it all. You cannot watch the start, see the leaders in Wellesley, cheer on your four-hour friends, then zip to the finish to see which Kenyan will break the tape this year. It would be nice if you could do all of this, but it truly is a mission impossible. There are many reasons for this, which we delve into later.
It's easiest to watch Boston if you are stationery. That way , you just pick out a prime viewing location, get there early and get ready for the action. The start is a poor place to go for many reasons. It's way too crowded in Hopkinton and you can't really see anything anyway, what with all of the crowds, snow fencing, ropes, and race officials telling you to get out of the way.
The first major viewing spots are in the towns of Ashland, Framingham, and Natick. I was in Framingham center last year, and the atmosphere was festive, to say the least. Hibachis were grillin' and spectators were chillin' waiting for the runners to come by. Even if you get there early, you must stake you claim to real estate. A curbside position that is yours for the taking at 10:00 a.m. becomes increasingly valuable by 11:00 and completely unavailable by Noon. A sense of fairness does prevail. Those who try to horn their way in at Noon are treated with disdain at best and physically removed at worst.
Make sure to take in the entire scene while waiting for the runners. This is people watching at its best. Make some friends. Impress people by reciting the entire Kenyan team roster. On second thought, don't do that. One thing I learned last year was how many slow, unregistered runners start early. The crowds are not fooled however, by stooped over old men in K-Mart sweatsuits trotting along at ten-minute per mile pace. The cheering does not begin until the wheelchairs come zooming by, and boy do they zoom! I am always totally impressed with the athleticism and determination shown by the wheelchair athletes. Not long after the chairs you hear helicopters whirling overhead. Shortly after that a parade of press vehicles and lead cars arrive. We all got a treat last year to see a waving marathon legend Johnny Kelley in one of those lead cars.
Shortly thereafter, the lead pack comes into view. Arriving like a huge, flowing amoebae, they speed through in and out of town quicker than you can say Cosmos Ndeti. The way the marathon is these days, unless you station yourself past the halfway mark in Wellesley, all you will see up front is the big pack. After the pack, lone runners and groups of two and three come by, highlighting the huge chasm between the pros and the amateurs. Like with the men, there is a big women's pack at the front. The difference is that there are only a few women in the pack, accompanied by a number of local class men along for the ride. Not long after that, the floodgates open, and the flow does not stop for a long, long time.
If you do indeed decide to watch the race somewhere in the second half, the Newton Hills are a good place to choose. Those who have run nod their heads knowingly, as they watch the uphills turn normally proficient runners into quivering masses of jelly. Beware of watching the race in front of Wellesley Collegeyou will not be able to hear yourself think in the din of enthusiastic, screaming coeds. Also, from miles 21 to 22, many Boston College students are all lubed up and looking for a raucous, good time. The Newton Hills are more sedate, family-oriented place to spectate.
The famous "Citgo" sign at 25
Should you watch the race at the finish? The upside to this is that you may be witness to history if there is a stirring sprint to he finish, such as that waged by Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardlsey in 1982 or Ibrahim Hussein and Juma Ikanga a decade ago in 1988. You will also be able to see your friend or loved one come down Boylston street to a triumphant finish. The downside is that you will need to arrive on Boylston Street and stake out a spot well before the race begins at Noon. That's a long time to wait, especially if the runner you are waiting for is a mid to back of the packer, even with a finish line announcer and a diamond vision scoreboard to keep you entertained. Of course, you might be an invited guest of the John Hancock company and have one of the coveted spots in the bleachers overlooking the finish. If so, congratulations for having friends in high places!
The finish is a great spot to feel the atmosphere but difficult to see anything - tight security and six deep crowds
Up to now, we have focused on how and where to watch Boston if you are going to pick out one place to watch. Well, if you are determined to see the runners more than once during the race, you will have to be on the move. It's a more difficult way to see the race, but it can be done, and your hard work is often rewarded. You must know that by being "on the move," you are forfeiting any chance to see the runners at the finish on Boylston Street. Well, that's o.k. You can tune into local TV anytime for the rest of the day Monday to see a replay of the lead runners coming in. Better yet, tape the whole race and watch it later!
So how are you going to get around? You have four choices: By car, by public transport, by bike, or by foot. Forget public transportation. While the race is in progress, you can walk faster than the T is moving. Logic dictates that unless you are running faster than the person you are hoping to see during the race, watching on foot will not work. In addition, it's bad form to run along in the race if you are not a competitor.
That leaves two options: car or bike. As anyone will tell you, driving in Boston is not for the feint of heart. On Marathon Day it is even trickier. Almost all streets in the Back Bay are closed to traffic starting well before the race begins at Noon. That means if you leave in a car in the morning, said car will not make it back into Boston until well after the last runner has reached the finish line.
What you can do by car is to pick out a spot in Framingham or Natick, watch a portion of the race go by, jump back in the car and carefully pick out another spot later in the race. The best place to do that would be on Beacon Street, from miles 22 to 25 in Brookline. Your ticket to accomplishing this feat is route 9. Traffic is open on route 9, and will allow you to get close enough to Beacon Street, so that with some luck in finding a parking spot (watch those meters!) and some hustle, you will see your favorite runner twice during the race, even if their name is Moses or Tegla.
My favorite way to see the marathon is by bike. Not only have I been able to see many runners in three different places on the course, I have gotten in a good workout to boot! Starting out at mile six in Framingham, I saw the leaders pass by and then stayed for another half hour or so, until the four-hour types passed by. Then I returned to my bike (well secured and locked up!), jumped on and made a flat-out ride through the back roads of Framingham, Wayland, and Weston to the fire station turn at mile 17. By the time I arrived, the leaders had already come and gone, but the six-minute pacers were making the turn. I stayed at that spot for another half hour to forty-five minutes. Then it was back on the bike, where I negotiated the Heartbreak Hills on the access road, then sped through Brookline on more back roads. I popped out at mile 24 on Beacon Street. By this time, the 3:20 to 3:30 runners were reaching the final stages of the race. At that point, some room had opened up on Beacon Street to watch. There I stayed until the long shadows of afternoon began to cover the road, and the infamous "sag-wagon" buses came trudging up the road, filled with disappointed dropouts. That was my signal to head back into Boston to rendezvous with my running friends, who all marveled at my ability to be "everywhere" on the course.
One of the things that makes Boston special is the tremendous energy, enthusiasm, and support provided by spectators. Boston prides itself on having the best and most knowledgeable spectators in the marathon world, and make no mistake about it, they are active participants in the race. No, watching the race is not as glamorous as running, but it is both rewarding and fun in its own way. By all means go for it and good luck!