Eighteen years of writing for the Boston globe and living in Newton, Mass., has given columnist Leigh Montville a special perspective on the Boston Marathon. Not only has he written about Heartbreak Hill, he has frequently driven over and around it. So when the idea came up to have him describe the residents and merchants along the storied marathon course (page 94), he had an assignment close to both heart and home.
"Most of the people I talked to have the feeling they're involved in something special," says Montville, 43. "Each of the places I went, people didn't have to think very deeply for stories."
In addition to writing for us—his two previous contributions were stories on the Boston Garden (May 19, 1986) and the inventor of the Zamboni machine (March 30, 1987)—and for other magazines, he turns out four sports columns a week and the random essay for the Globe's Sunday magazine. Seeking inspiration, he often turns to a mystical—to him—rubber-coated baseball the late Globe columnist Ray Fitzgerald also favored. "Ray developed the notion that if he held on to the ball, War and Peace would come into his head," Montville says. "Michael Madden, his successor, uses it, too. It's surprising how many times you need it."
Montville's stories generally reflect a fresh point of view. "Everyone else looks at things from the ground floor," says SI senior writer Peter Gammons, a former Globe colleague. "Leigh writes like he's got his own hot-air balloon." Globe sports editor Vince Doria says, "Leigh's not a hard-opinion guy. He sees a lot of gray in everything." And it's usually funny. To which Montville says, "I think that's one part of writing columns they don't mention in journalism school—entertainment. There's as much Woody Allen in it as Woodward and Bernstein."
Montville is easy to spot in a press box. He's the rumpled guy with a toothpick in his mouth and a Coke in his hand. When he isn't working, he reads Anne Tyler and John Gregory Dunne, vacations in Maine, goes full court at the Newton Y and slugs down junk food. So it was probably only natural that, while Montville was at work on the marathon story, he and his 15-year-old son, Leigh, noticed that there were no McDonald's along the course. "It's hard to imagine a 26-mile stretch of road in America without a McDonald's," he says.
Just another observation from the man in the hot-air balloon.