The Boston Marathon
Ask any cyclist to list the top three iconic races in the world and you are fairly certain to see the Tour de France, Vuelta a Espana, Giro d’Italia, Milan – San Remo, Paris Roubaix, Tour of Flanders and Strade Bianche cropping up in various lists. Much depends on personal taste of course. For some, it is the allure of the one day classics, cobbled or otherwise, with the grit and determination, the power and the intensity that is required to put everything into one day of glory. For others, being able to maintain that intensity and focus (never mind fitness) over a 3 week Grand Tour is the real test of a cyclist’s all round ability. What is certainly true is that all of the races mentioned are wonderful, iconic showcases of the sport and the elite athletes that race in them.
For mere mortals, it is still possible to experience what it must be like to compete albeit at a more leisurely pace. The vast majority of the Grand Tour and Classic races have editions for amateurs so if you want to race Paris – Roubaix, then you can, although you wouldn’t have been doing it at the same time as Tom Boonen or Fabian Cancellara. The elite races are for just that; the elite.
Now ask the same question of the committed long distance road runner. The chances are that one race will be on the “top three” list of the vast majority of them. Indeed, a great many will have it as their number one. That race is the Boston Marathon.
There are so many reasons that Boston is indelibly written into running folklore and we’re not just talking about the legendary Heartbreak Hill at Mile 21. One reason is its age. This year’s edition is remarkably the 121st Boston Marathon since the first race in 1897. It has never been cancelled. It’s just unthinkable.
The first modern Marathon was run at the first modern Olympic Games held in Athens in 1896. That race was won by a Greek athlete but it had a great impact on John Graham, Team Manager of the US team that competed in Athens. Graham was also a member of the venerable Boston Athletic Association (B.A.A.). On his return from Athens, and together with Boston businessman Herbert H. Holton, Graham devised a 25 mile route from Ashland to Boston, 25 miles being the distance for a Marathon at the time. When the modern Marathon distance of 26 miles 385 yards was established in 1908 following the London Olympics, the start line in Boston was moved from Ashland back to Hopkinton and that’s pretty much the only change to the route there has ever been.
Johnny Kelley & Heartbreak Hill
The Boston Marathon has been the scene of some incredible drama over the years and the stories are really what makes the Boston Marathon so special. Take for instance John Adelbert “Johnny” Kelley. Born in 1907, Kelley won the Boston Marathon twice and finished second a record seven times. Perhaps even more remarkably, Kelley finished 58 Boston Marathons out of the 61 he started, running his last complete race in 1992 at the age of 84.
It was an incident in 1936 involving Kelley that gave the last of the famous hills in Newton the name “Heartbreak Hill”. Ellison “Tarzan” Brown Sr was a Narragansett Indian from Rhode Island who was leading the race when Kelley passed him on the Hill patting him on the backside and thanking him for a great race but announcing he would “take over from here”. Tarzan was so motivated by this that he responded with a great spurt of speed, retook the lead and won the race in 2h 33 minutes and 40 seconds. He broke Kelley’s heart on the hill and a legend was born.
Bobbi Gibb and Kathrine Switzer
In 1966 Bobbi Gibb became the first woman to complete the race at a time when women were not allowed to enter. She had tried to enter officially but received a letter from Race Director Will Cloney advising her that women were not physically capable of completing a Marathon and under the rules that governed running in the US, the furthest distance a women could compete in a sanctioned race was just 1.5 miles. As a result of the snub Gibb realised it was even more important to run and thanks to a little subterfuge at the start she not only began the race but completed it in 3h21m:40s, beating a third of the male competitors in the process.
In 1967 Kathrine Switzer ran the race as well but this time with an official bib having given her name as K.V.Switzer to disguise her gender. When the famously fiery Scottish born Race Director Jock Semple saw Switzer running (he was in the press bus passing alongside) he stopped the bus, jumped off and attempted to ‘man handle’ Switzer off the road telling her to ‘get the hell out of his race”. Switzer’s boyfriend, running alongside her, responded with a bit of man handling of his own, bundling Semple out of the way entirely. Switzer completed the race and in 1972, women were allowed officially to run in Boston. The actions of Gibb and Switzer at Boston were to change women’s road running forever around the world.
So popular did the race become that in 1970, the BAA introduced qualifying times (4:00 hours back then). These days they are age adjusted but still considered tough to meet and so great is the demand for places in the race that just meeting the qualifying time is not enough. For the 2017 race, applicants needed on average to beat the qualifying time by 129 seconds to ensure automatic entry. To put that in context, a male runner aged 50+ would needed to have run 3h27m51s or better to ensure automatic qualification. That’s pretty challenging by any measure.
The Boston Bombing and Response
Boston has had its share of dark times, the darkest coming on April 15th, 2013, when two bombs were detonated some 12 seconds apart at the finish line on Boylston Street. 3 people lost their lives including 8 year old Martin Richard. Hundreds were injured and 16 lost limbs. The perpetrators were identified as two brothers of Chechen descent, apparently motivated by extremist Islamist beliefs. One died in a shootout with police. The other is on Death Row.
Boston’s response at the 2014 race was remarkable and uplifting. So determined was the City to refuse to be cowed by the events of the previous year, that over 36,000 runners started the race, with the race organisers increasing the number of runners allowed by around 9,000. The winner of the men’s race in 2014 was US runner Meb Keflezighi who ran the race of his life to deliver the result that Boston and the whole of America could only dare to dream of. Since then, the Boston Strong tagline and One Boston Day, both born out of the 2013 bombings, have become an important part of what makes Boston so unique and wonderful; a joyous celebration of running as well as a powerful message of defiance, hope and love for humankind. Link this with the fact that Boston was already one of the world’s most wonderful Cities and you create a truly incredible experience.
The route of the Boston Marathon is the stuff of legends as well as nightmares. We’ve already mentioned Heartbreak Hill but there’s much more to Boston than that. First, it’s got more than its fair share of downhill than most Marathons. But even then, Boston has the knack of making you hurt. The downhill sections are steep. The first km of the race has an elevation drop of around 150 feet so you haven’t got to the first mile marker and your quads are already nicely “warm”.
The route passes through sleepy Boston townships and Suburbs, their names written into Marathon folklore the world over; Hopkinton, Ashbank, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Newton and Brookline. At each one, the crowds line the streets and produce a noise so deafening, you hear ringing in your ears. Nowhere is this more true than at Wellesley where the course runs alongside Wellesley Girls College and through the famous Scream Tunnel. It’s not a tunnel in the physical sense but it most certainly is in the metaphorical sense. The College Girls create a sound so loud and at such a frequency that it rivalled the F15 fighters that flew over the start line at the 2017 race.
Wellesley marks the half way point and then the fun really begins. At Mile 16 the course takes another steep descent, again around 150 feet and then rises up a sharp hill. Long time race Director Dave McGillivray reckons this is the toughest hill on the course, courtesy of the fact that you have been running for 16 miles and just come down a quad shredding descent. He’s almost certainly right of course because few people alive know the course as well as him, but for many, it is the Newton Hills that are to come next that stir the greatest sense of mounting panic.
The Newton Hills
In the middle of Newton comes one of the few genuine bends on the course, a right turn by the Fire Station and the first of the Newton Hills is in front of you. There are 3 from this point in total and they are steep. Actually, in pure elevation terms they’re not really steep of course, just relatively steep for anyone that has already run 20 miles on a hot sunny day in Massachusetts. The crowd are wonderful, offering genuine encouragement and you will hear ‘You Got This’ a million times (and no, that’s not an exaggeration).
At the top of the final Hill, the legendary Heartbreak Hill, you reach Boston College and it’s all downhill. But once again, it’s steep and your quads, already mashed, will scream for mercy as you pound the relentless descent to Brookline and on into Boston. Past famous Fenway Park home of the Red Sox then over a road bridge that is relatively shallow in its incline but now seems to be as vertiginous as the north face of the Eiger, till you come to the two most famous turns of all; right on to Hereford, left onto Bolyston then the final 600m straight to the finish line, the tall buildings of Boylston Street acting as the perfect amplification boards for the cacophony of cheering that helps you to the end and your own personal immortality.
It’s one heck of route, unique really. The fact that it hasn’t changed at all for 121 years (apart from that small extension in 1908) and never will change is part of what makes it so special.
A runner’s perspective
I was lucky enough to run the Boston Marathon in 2017 so managed to experience, first hand, the sights and sounds of this remarkable race and City. From a runner’s perspective, my race was pretty disastrous. A quad injury I have been carrying for a couple of months flared up after about 7 miles and it’s fair to say the remaining 19 miles were amongst the most painful I’ve ever run. But I don’t care. I still managed to enjoy every single step of the way. I didn’t go to Boston to set a time. I went to Boston to participate in one of the greatest running races in the world, and to be able to tell my children and Grandchildren that in 2017, I too ran the Boston Marathon.
Also In the same race that I ran on Monday 17th April 2017 were Meb Keflezighi, the men’s winner in 2014 and who at 41 years of age still managed to come 13th, and Kathrine Switzer who, aged 70, ran the race again to mark the 50th anniversary of her world changing run.
I feel deeply honoured to say I was there too. Thank you Boston.