If you’re in town the weekend of April 18th, chances are you’ll parking yourself somewhere along the 26-mile route of the 120th Boston Marathon. This epic run courses through the greater Boston area, through the treacherous Newton Hills and infamous Heartbreak Hill, and finally stretching into Back Bay, where winners are crowned at the Boylston Street finish line. Being the oldest annual marathon, with an attendance of about 500,000 people every year, the Boston Marathon is one of the world’s most famous races, drawing professional and amateur athletes alike, from across the globe.
To Bostonians however, the marathon is more than just a race; it’s a piece of our unique history, legacy, and folklore. It’s a story of triumphs and tragedy, fierce competition and yet a source of pride and unity, showcasing not just how fast and far these talented athletes can run, but how far we’ve come as a city.
- Debuting in 1896, the Boston Marathon was meant to coincide with Patriot’s Day, celebrating one of the Boston area’s proudest moments in Revolutionary War history—the events of April 18th 1775, which include Paul Revere’s Ride to warn of the Red Coats’ coming attack, The “shot heard ‘round the world” at the Lexington Battle Green, and The first Minuteman battle at the Old North Bridge in Concord.
- “Heartbreak Hill” is actually the last in a series of gradual but grueling slopes leading from the suburb of Newton before descending into Boston. Many a competitor’s heart has been broken here, about 20 miles into the race, when many simply run out of steam. Runner “Johnny” Kelly learned this the hard way as he taunted fellow runner Ellison Brown with a pat on the back on his way up the hill, at which point he lost his lead, and the race, to Brown. As with any sport in Boston, remember, it ain’t over ‘til it’s over, folks…
- Back in the Stone Age, Marathons were just for men. In one of the race’s more infamous incidents, Kristin “KV” Switzer somehow registered in the 1967 race, and was almost tackled and nearly had her number ripped off by an angry organizer, “Jock” Semple—as immortalized in some disturbing photographs. Switzer became the first registered woman to run in the Boston Marathon, and Semple later became an advocate of allowing women to run in the races, interestingly.
- By now, we all know the tragic events that occurred on the afternoon of the 2013 Boston Marathon; but what’s often (understandably) overlooked, is the story of that year’s men’s’ winner, Ethiopian runner Lelisa Desisa. After having his day of triumph quickly turn into an entire city’s day of tragedy and horror, Desisa was so moved by Boston’s grief and resilience that he donated his own victory medal back to the city of Boston the following summer, and gave his numbered racing bib to Adam and Adrienne Haslet-Davis, a local couple who had been seriously injured in the finish line blasts. Desisa fearlessly returned in 2014’s Boston Marathon, with disappointing results, but returned again in 2015 finish line.
These stories are why traditions like the Boston Marathon are so important to us, as part of our living heritage—and the reason why 2013 was such a difficult but inspirational year for Bostonians. It wasn’t just because of the shock of those horrific events, and the subsequent strong merchandising campaign—no, I’m not that big of a cynic. I will say that Bostonians have a pretty uniquely provincial identity. We may have been dubbed “Athens” of the New World, but at the same time, we’re the salt of the earth. We work hard, we like our quaint New England traditions, our Pats, our Sox, our lobstah—you know the drill. The idea that something like a terror attack would ever occur in this city seemed ludicrous at the time. Today, many of us know someone that was impacted—friends that ran in the marathon, friends that were spectators, friends in law enforcement.
I was even planning on stopping by the finish line that day to take some pictures for this blog, but decided to head up to Vermont, where I watched it all unfold on TV after the Sox game ended. Returning home the following week, seeing Copley Square cordoned off by yellow police tape, and hearing story after story across the city, it felt that Bostonians really had reached out and come together as a stronger community, for the first time since that 2004 World Series win—and that’s not even really a joke. As a city already steeped in some of the richest, proudest traditions in America, Boston has given its famous marathon a whole new meaning.