"The history is one of the things that makes the race great. I'll run that course and I'll always be passing points where I know certain things happened, where one runner passed another, where someone dropped out, where the race turned. I'm very conscious of that. What is nice is that not a whole lot has changed. I'll see pictures of some of those old races—Johnny Kelley running against 'Tarzan' Brown—and the houses in the background will be the same houses you would pass today. I'll know exactly where the picture was taken."
The day of the race brings curious sensations. To walk toward Hopkinton Green is to walk into the madness. To walk the other way, however, is to walk into a silence that doesn't exist at other times of the year.
"This is a busy road," Johnson says of Route 135. "A busy road doing more work than it was intended to when it was built. On the day of the race, though, the road is closed. If you go for a mile or two down the road there will be this peaceful silence. A few people will have parked their cars somewhere and will be walking toward the start. That's it. Otherwise, silence."
Johnson has run the race at various levels. He ran it as a lark when he was a Boston University undergraduate, as a test when he was an improving runner, as a competition when he moved to the top level. He watched last year's race while riding a bicycle on a one-day assignment for a suburban newspaper.
"You get an appreciation for the course when you ride a bicycle," he says. "The way everything builds. The way it funnels into Boston. Everything becomes larger. The buildings become larger. The crowds become larger. You start out here in the hills and you go through all of these towns and then you start crossing highways and then you wind up in the city with the big buildings. Everything simply builds and builds, starting from here."
Last year he rode his bicycle for 22 miles in tandem with record-setting winner Rob de Castella (2:07:51). Then he turned around and started pedaling back.
"That's the problem with covering the race from here on a bicycle," Johnson says. "When the race is finished, you have to ride the entire course again to get home. Do you notice that this house is on a hill? I tell all my friends that if they ever held the marathon backwards one year, it'd be a much tougher race. You'd be climbing this hill to reach the finish line."
This hill. Right outside the front door.
Hills...Trailmare Farm...Ashland State Park...Clock Town Liquors...St. Tarcisius Church...The Happy Swallow....
The worst Boston Marathon for Pete Phylis came when the local paper printed a story about his tavern two days before the race. The story said that The Happy Swallow in Framingham gave free beer to all runners in the marathon. The words were in black and white. The words were wrong.