"I often wished that there was some way you could have cut the roof off of this place on the day of the marathon and taken a giant picture to show the mess down here," Tony Cataldo says about the Prudential Center parking garage. "Not a messy mess. The madhouse. The ugly side of the marathon. How tired the people were. How hurt some were. Just a look at all the things that were happening."
For 21 years, this parking garage under a skyscraper in the middle of a big city was the final Boston Marathon stop. The winners were hustled here from the finish line to describe their victories in a press conference. The rest of the field simply followed. This was where the medical center was. This was where the showers were. This was where the luggage containing clean clothes had been shipped from Hopkinton in vans. The Blue Level.
"The rush always was to have everything ready by the time the first runner arrived," Cataldo says. "Once he got here, there was no stopping. The first runner would arrive at a few minutes after two, and from then until six or seven at night people would be arriving."
Cataldo was the Prudential employee in charge of converting the garage into a giant locker room. The Blue Level would be closed three days before the race. The showers would be installed. The medical facilities would arrive from local hospitals. The floors and walls and ceilings would be steamed clean. The garage would become the cleanest garage in America.
"Some people would arrive here who were really hurting," Cataldo says. "It was amazing to me that some of them would put themselves in the condition they were in. They'd wobble in here and sit down. One of those thermal blankets pulled around them, and that would be the only possession they had. They'd have no money, no luggage, no friends. They'd be from out of town, all alone, shivering. No one to wait for them.
"We'd wind up trying to find people rides, sending them to hospitals, finding, them money. I remember taking three people back to Brookline at 11 o'clock one night a couple of years ago. They were just wandering around here." he says. The collective enthusiasm of Hopkinton would be changed to individual struggles for survival. The parade at the end would be single file, across the double-yellow line in front of the Prudential. Here. Made it. Done. For 21 years the garage would be the runners' biggest marathon reward of all. A place to sit down.
"Everything felt strange last year," Cataldo says. "I was here, and the runners weren't. It was an odd feeling. The garage was just a garage again."
The finish of the marathon was changed last year. The John Hancock Insurance Company took over sponsorship of the race from Prudential. The finish was switched closer to the Hancock skyscraper. The entire course was tugged forward by two blocks down Boylston Street. Tents were pitched on the plaza at Copley Square to handle most of the functions that the garage had handled. The finish became a white line painted next to the Boston Public Library. The winners were taken to the Copley Plaza Hotel. New backgrounds were attached to all the traditional scenes. The homestretch where Bill Rodgers and Joan Benoit and Amby Burfoot and Alberto Salazar—and thousands and thousands of other runners of the past two decades—ran is now under construction.
"It's funny, but last year was the first time I could watch the race," Cataldo says. "I'd always been too busy down in the garage. This time, I stood out front and watched the lead runner go past. I almost expected him to turn into the garage. When he didn't, I wanted to yell, "Hey, don't you know me? I've got a shower for you inside.' "
The runner passed. Tony Cataldo watched the marathon for a while, then found his truck in the garage and drove home. Back to normal.