The 100th Boston Marathon:
More a Pilgrimage than a P.R.

By Chris Kostman

Originally published in Oui, August, 1996, Fitness Plus, , Vol.7, No.9, September 1996, and ULTRA Cycling, Vol.5, No.2, June 1996

Boston. The name conjures up many images: the infamous Tea Party, Harvard, M.I.T., Celtics, Red Sox, baked beans, clam chowder, but most of all, the Boston Marathon.

Boston is synonymous with the marathon. For 100 years, the city has hosted the world's oldest and most prestigious marathon running race. The 26.2 miles from the suburb of Hopkinton to the finish line at Boston Commons are fabled streets, where history and courage, sportsmanship and tragedy have been played out every year on April 15, Patriot's Day, since 1897. You can set your clock by the event, for the entire city shuts down to watch and support this legendary race. Even the I.R.S. helps out: Bostonians get to postmark their tax returns a day late!

Name your sport and there is a single event that defines it, shapes it, motivates its players. Football has the Super Bowl, baseball the World Series, cycling has the Tour de France, and triathlon has the Hawaii Ironman.

Running has Boston. No other name rolls off the lips of dreamy-eyed, lustful runners more often than Boston. And none ever will, especially after the 1996 Boston Marathon, held April 15. This was the centennial race and for once, the floodgates were open.

For 99 years, only runners with strict qualifying times from other sanctioned marathons could enter the event. This kept the field small, with 15 runners way back in 1897 and 9,416 runners last year in 1995. Not so in 1996 for the 100th anniversary; softer qualifying times and, unthinkably, a lottery, allowed over four times the previous field to enter. 38,706 got to partake in the punishment this year. (It could have been worse: 30,000 were turned away from the lottery!)

So it's good a thing I don't suffer from claustrophobia. Joining nearly 40,000 official runners, plus as many as perhaps 10,000 unofficial runners, down a course that's just two lanes wide and lined every inch of the way with spectators is not the for the queasy.

It's also not the place to look for a personal record (PR). No, I've run much faster within the context of Ironman triathlons (after having already swam 2.4 miles and bicycled 112 miles). No, Boston was not about a PR, for I was there to partake in this sacred communion of sweat and muscles, shoes and pavement, crowds and energy. In short, I was there to be part of history.

It was a long day, beginning with my alarm buzzing at 5:30 a.m. The race didn't start until noon, but I had to be at the finish line by 7:00 in order to catch a bus to the start line outside of Boston. In all, it took 850 buses to get the runners to the start. On my bus alone, I met runners from Germany, France, Denmark, England, Brazil, and Japan. Needless to say, I've never seen so many school buses in my life! (By the end of the day, I would be able to say the same about portable toilets, donuts, orange peels, paper cups, and many other necessities of marathon races.)

By 8:00 I was in Hopkinton at the pre-race jitter zone euphemistically called Athletes Village. With four hours to kill, I mingled. There were runners of every shape and size and ethnicity and language and fitness level. Most wore plastic bags over their shoes and socks to keep out the mud that had accumulated over the past several days of pouring rain. Thankfully, race day was 50 degrees and dry. (It poured the next day, so mother nature was on our side on race day, too.)

Cruising the scene with two of those disposable cameras in order to capture the event, I happened upon a group of Japanese runners enjoying sushi. Personally I think 8:30 is a bit early for such a meal, but I was impressed with their preparedness and civility. Soon I was asked to join Tamada Noboru and his buddies from Saitama, Japan, and was wolfing down rice balls like a native. Later I headed outside the giant circus tents to try to warm up with some sunshine. I ran into Michael Murphy, with whom I'd raced 100 miles on snowshoes in Alaska back in February. I guess with that many people in one place, you've got to expect to run into someone you know.

As the noon hour of race start approached, most everybody got down to final preparations: removing plastic bags from shoes, rubbing on sunblock and liniment, lacing shoes just so, taping up feet, rubbing vaseline on untold body parts, and hitting the portapotty for the umpteenth time. Still others donned costumes as part of the celebration. Eventually we all lined up in our designated corral to prepare for the start. It went so smoothly I couldn't believe it.

It was wall to wall bodies by 11:30. With just two lanes of street, there was not an inch of pavement to spare. So when the gun went off at noon sharp, we didn't budge in my area of the line-up for a full four minutes. It took 23 minutes before I crossed the starting line, and 29 minutes total for everybody to cross the starting line. In other words, I was lined up way in back with the slower, unqualified runners.

But I reminded myself: "hey, you're here for the cultural event, to be a part of history, to celebrate Paul Revere's famous ride that began the Revolutionary War, to hang out and soak up the festivities."

And so I did, although I must admit that for the first three miles I bounced around slower runners like a pinball, trying to move up in the field. When it became clear that this pointless exercise was a good recipe for a sprained ankle, I settled in at the pace of my compatriots and just, for lack of a better way of putting it, went with the flow.

And flow I did, running 10 minute miles, more or less, for 26.2 miles through Ashland and Framingham, passed the screaming beauties at Wellesley College, over the infamous Heartbreak Hill at mile 20, through Newton and Brookline, all the way to the finish line in downtown Boston. The route was like a human wave, with spectators always lining the roads, offering water and orange slices, even home-made cookies, to one and all. I followed many a runner wearing shirts especially imprinted to honor some loved one lost to cancer or another affliction. I passed a guy dressed like a Trojan, carrying a big plastic sword, not to mention the Queen of England, a court jester, Superman, and a prisoner with ball and chain. Live music serenaded us on many occasions, and giant billboards with black and white photos from races of yesteryear reminded us time and again of this race's proud and unique heritage.

Turning the corner onto Boylston Street, spying the finish line just 600 yards away, was a rush for all of us. I wouldn't be crowned with the laurel wreath and receive a check for $100,000 like Uta Pippig or Moses Tanui, but I was stoked just the same. The crowds were deafening and the electricity in the air was so thick you could almost cut it.

There was nothing I could do but grin after 4 hours, 27 minutes of participating in a human parade, a tidal wave of energy and emotion and pride and history and fitness. I even managed to outrun 9,472 runners! (Of course, that means 29,233 outran me, but who's counting?)

I'd made the pilgrimage to running's most hallowed grounds and lived to tell. Thanks for the party, Boston!