Nearly two decades ago, Blair De St. Croix moved his young family to a home on Main Street in Hopkinton, Mass., not far from the starting line for the Boston Marathon. De St. Croix had frequently watched the closing miles of the race that all of Massachusetts knows simply as the Marathon, standing alongside a street in Boston's Back Bay as runners streamed past for hours in a long, painful procession to the finish line. So he knew what the annual event was about—or at least thought he did. "It's like when somebody buys a house on the ocean," says De St. Croix. "You know it's there, but until you walk outside every day and see the ocean, you don't really understand it. That's the way it was with the marathon."
That's the way it is with the marathon. Begun in 1897 and contested for 107 years without interruption, the Boston Marathon is on the very short list of hallowed, old-school American athletic traditions, with events like the Kentucky Derby, the U.S. Open in golf and tennis and the Indianapolis 500. Since 1924 the course has covered virtually the same 26 miles, 385 yards, from the town green in sleepy Hopkinton to the center of Boston. Runners from 23 countries have won the race, including some of the most revered names in marathoning. "The history is what sets Boston apart," says Bill Rodgers, a four-time winner. "As you're running the course, you're thinking to yourself, Abebe Bikila, the greatest marathoner of all time, ran right here. And every man or woman in the race can say the same thing. No other race comes close."
Bikila, the 1960 and '64 Olympic champion, ran Boston in '63 but did not win. Alberto Salazar won in '82, outlasting Dick Beardsley in a hot-weather duel that remains one of the great marathon battles in history. Ibrahim Hussein began Kenyan dominance in '88 and won three times. Japan's Toshihiko Seko won twice. Gelindo Bordin of Italy took Olympic gold in '88 and won Boston two years later. Joan Benoit Samuelson, born in Maine, set a women's world best of 2:22:43 in '83. John Babington, cross-country and track coach at Wellesley College and a longtime marathon volunteer, was standing at the nine-mile mark in Natick that day when Samuelson flew past, and he can't shake the image. "She just went storming by," he recalls. "I looked at my watch and computed that she was running at a 5:09 pace for nine miles [2:15 for a full marathon]. Pretty darned fast."
The race's pedigree as a world-class athletic event is beyond reproach, yet that is just the veneer. The Boston Marathon is a cultural phenomenon attended by more than 500,000 spectators who collectively propel the field of more than 20,000 runners on a journey into the soul of the state. "You go from agrarian, rural countryside into small towns and then larger towns and then into the big city, and each portion of the race has its own character," says Amby Burfoot, who won Boston in 1968 at age 21 and is now the executive editor of Runner's World magazine.
"Along the way," says Rodgers, "anyone can become part of the Boston Marathon. All they have to do is show up and find the course." Natives know the race's history, and they embrace it. They know that Clarence DeMar won the marathon seven times from 1911 to '30, that John A. Kelley won it twice and finished it 58 times, the last in '92, when he was 84 years old. They know that in 1980 Rosie Ruiz rode a train to near the finish line, passed herself off as the winner and got caught. They make the marathon a party, but they do it with an abiding appreciation for the event and its participants. " Boston people have a deep respect for the marathon," says Burfoot. "They understand the marathon."
It begins in Hopkinton, a village of 13,000 that sits five miles off the Massachusetts Turnpike, just inside the I-495 loop that roughly defines the most distant edge of Boston's bedroom communities. The marathon moved its start from Ashland two miles west to Hopkinton in 1924, lengthening it to the accepted Olympic distance. For 364 days each year Hopkinton is an idyllic town, far enough from Boston to escape the hustle, close enough to live and die with the Red Sox. Yet each year on Patriot's Day—the Massachusetts holiday, celebrated on the third Monday in April, that commemorates the start of the Revolutionary War—Hopkinton becomes Woodstock in Nikes. "It's a 10-second walk from the end of my driveway to the town green, and most days there might be five people out there," says De St. Croix. "On marathon day there are 50,000, from all over the world."
Hundreds of school buses ferry runners from Boston to Hopkinton High, the nerve center of the village on marathon day. "I've been in Hopkinton [on marathon day] when it was almost like summer and when the yellow forsythia buds were covered by snow," says Burfoot. "But every year it's the feel of Hopkinton that is overwhelming to me." Some of the images are less idyllic, such as the line of more than 100 runners—men and women—relieving themselves under the minimal cover of a long row of rhododendron bushes along Hayden Rowe. Marathoners depart from beneath the towering church steeple that overlooks the green. Hours later, the town is deserted.
The race flows downhill, quickly passing through Ashland, Framingham and into Natick. In Wellesley, the halfway point, spectators sit in folding chairs and balloons float on ribbons, as if a Fourth of July parade will soon pass by. Near the western edge of the town, Wellesley College students create a "sound tunnel" of shrieks and screams. "Going through Wellesley was the most bizarre sensation," says Don Kardong, who was fourth in the '76 Olympic marathon and ran Boston in '78 and '79. "The noise was raised a pitch, and it sent a chill right down my spine."
Next come the Newton hills, three punishing rises that culminate in the famous Heartbreak Hill, so named by former Boston Globe reporter Jerry Nason in 1936 when, on the last of the hills, Ellison (Tarzan) Brown caught Kelley. At the top, near Boston College, students shout, "It's all downhill from here!" It is, but the long, continuous pitch is often torture on thighs beaten lifeless by previous downhills and the climb through Newton. The course moves on into Boston and past Kenmore Square, near Fenway Park, where the Red Sox annually play at 11 a.m. (this year against the Yankees), allowing baseball fans to spill into the street just in time to watch the runners. The crowd is rowdier here. "You see guys hanging from lampposts and screaming," says Rodgers.
With barely a quarter mile to go, the runners turn onto Boylston Street and into another sound tunnel as the final strides disappear beneath their feet. Spectators interrupt corporate wine-and-cheese receptions in the apartments and office suites overlooking the finish. An olive wreath is placed on the winners' heads. Afternoon becomes evening. And the marathon is gone for another year.