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The marathoners flow downhill out of Hopkinton in an antlike pack, slowly stretching apart as mile piles on mile like a gob of salt-water taffy at the seashore. As early as the mile mark, hopeful little boys stand by the roadside offering orange slices to the runners. "Gee, if only Johnny Kelley would eat my orange" they think, referring to the two-time Olympian, no relation to Old John, who graduated from Boston University and won the race in 1957. But it is too early for the lead runners to think of refreshment. A couple of plodders in the rear of the pack accept slices, thus making the boys' day a success. It is easy to imagine the Boston kids' conversations the day after the great marathon as they check the results in the paper:
"Hey, the guy who took my orange finished 26th."
"So who's bragging? I got seventh place!"
Refreshments in the form of water, juice, fruit slices and wet sponges are given regularly at the various checkpoints along the 26-mile route. The rate of consumption increases in direct proportion to the temperature. Nobody ever saw Jim Beatty take a sip of water on the way to a 3:58 mile, but some replenishment of liquids seems to be necessary in a race of two and a half or more hours duration. Once while running in a 19-mile race sponsored by a veterans' post in Hamilton, Ont., I strode past a refreshment stand followed closely by several other runners. One grabbed for a cup poised on the edge of the stand. "Hey, bring that back!" fumed an official at the runner plodding away, cup in hand. The runner discovered the reason for the official's concern when he sipped from the cup. It was filled with straight whiskey.
By the first five-mile checkpoint in Framingham, a dozen runners may still share the lead. You cannot declare a leader, although the pasty-blue uniforms of the two Finnish runners are usually well in evidence along with the unicorn-head insignia of the BAA worn by, among others, young John Kelley. "Go, John," yells the crowds, hopeful that he can stem the Finnish tide. Many members of the Finnish-American club that each year sponsors the expenses of the two athletes from Finland shout encouragement in their Finno-Ugric tongue. Japan has not sent a marathon team since 1959, but when it did, someone always seemed to be vaulting out of the crowd to wave a huge red-spot flag, which, considering the size of the Japanese, was usually big enough to cover both him and the runner. By the midway point a Wellesley College group of Bermuda-shorts-clad girls, standing, like Rhine River maidens by the side of the road, cheer the runners past. They seem to be willing to applaud anyone who is male.
Several miles beyond Wellesley, the Newton Hills begin, a series of reasonably short and relatively gentle slopes that nevertheless assume Everestian proportions when taken after an hour and a half of stiff running. The crowds have thickened by this point and the runners have thinned. "Go, Higdon," they cheer. At first you think they have waited to cheer for you alone, then you realize they have simply matched your number with the list of entries in the morning paper. One year when I perhaps imprudently stayed with Kelley. the Finns and the Japs well past the midway point. I kept hearing the comment: "Hey, who's that guy?" Some spectators note my University of Chicago Track Club running shirt and ask: "How are things in Chicago?" or "How's your football team?" I do not answer nor does the crowd expect me to. By this point my eyes resemble those of Little Orphan Annie. A small number hurl insults. "Hey, you must be nuts," I was told last year by three college types standing near the 20-mile mark. It was cold and wet. I glanced briefly at them standing there in the drizzle minus even an umbrella to protect their (pointed) heads and decided I wasn't the only one. At least I was running to get out of the rain. Most people, however, are encouraging: "The last five miles are all downhill," they chant, describing the course's topography with some accuracy. However, they have never tried to run it. The last five miles of any marathon race always feel uphill.
In the last few miles of the marathon course along Commonwealth Avenue, the watching mob thickens to three-, four-and five-deep, restrained only by their Boston manners, a rope and policemen. Individual faces in the crowd have long since disappeared from the sight of the runner. His mind focuses only on a thin yellow line in front of the Hotel Lenox. Maybe he can sprint and overtake the runner immediately before him. But then, having trailed to this point, perhaps it would be rather impolite—and not worth the additional agony. All marathon runners are companions in pain. They do not elbow each other like milers on an indoor track. They do not attempt to outguess each other like sprinters waiting for the gun. They do not try to "psych" each other like high jumpers who skip the next height hoping to shatter the nerves of their opponents. Few races are won in the last 385 yards. It is done in the 26 miles leading up to this last insulting piece of distance—and the hundreds and thousands of miles in practice before that.
Suddenly the course bends abruptly right onto Exeter Street, and the blur of a finish line looms into view only a few hundred yards ahead. If you finish first the mayor of Boston will affectionately ring your head with a symbolic crown of thorns in the form of a laurel wreath. In Turku, Finland I once saw one such mayor crown a marathon winner with a wreath that would have seemed more in place on the doors of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. And he did it 100 yards before the finish line. I would have collapsed, my only request being to be carried to the nearest sauna bath. Most runners in the Boston Marathon are allowed to swoon pleasantly into the warming confines of a G.I. Army blanket, in which shroud they are whisked to the second floor of the Hotel Lenox to ease their pains in comparative privacy.
"Why do you run marathons?" echoes the query.
"Because it feels so good when I stop," screams back the now obvious answer.