It’s a premier, international sporting event that’s free to view, a serpentine gantlet of scream tunnels, haunted miles, and heartbreaking hills that bisects, and also annually unites, Greater Boston.
The Boston Marathon is also a vast and public personal gut-check, where tens of thousands of spectators urge each runner to deliver on the private promises made over thousands of grueling training run miles.
And it’s a 26.2-mile-long county fair, with clowns and trampolines, music and costumes and feats of derring-do.
Each runner carries his or her own memory of Boston: a pickup from a stranger when the runner’s high fades and the miles stretch long; a beer chugged with friends along the route; an inspirational sign carried by a loved one; even something minuscule that happened at a roadside scrub tree, or an otherwise unremarkable stretch of sidewalk.
Here are stories of those fleeting moments, those bursts of joy and inspiration, that make race day unforgettable for them.
‘This is the make-or-break mile. This is where you would hit the wall. Last year, I hit the wall.’
Lots of iPod-toting runners draw strength and inspiration from their favorite tunes. When Sarah Norcott hits her comfort zone, she sings along, out loud. Especially “Footloose,” Kenny Loggins’s relentlessly upbeat ode to the liberating power of dance. Over 26.2 miles, she’ll play (and sing to) that ’80s pop-rock nugget as many as five times. Most runners, she said, smile and cheer on her singing (though one time a runner covered her ears and ran away).
But in 2011, the first of two Boston Marathons that Norcott has run as a qualifier, she was jolted from her warbling trance just after mile 10 in Natick. A crowd-pleasing tune, “Shout,” was blaring from a sound system. Spectators were jumping on small trampolines on the side of the street. The crowd and the racers thrust their fists in the air in time with the music. Norcott shut off Kenny Loggins and joined in.
“The energy was just amazing,” she said. “This kind of brings it back to why you run. I run to have fun.”
Running to help
Hayley Yaffe is the first to admit it: She’s no natural-born marathoner.
The 37-year-old program administrator for the YMCA didn’t start running until four years ago.
But she has watched Boston for years, fascinated at the determination of the participants who finish late in the afternoon.
“I remember watching this woman literally crawl across the finish line,” she said.
Lots of people swore they would run Boston this year after the last Marathon. Yaffe is one who followed up on it. She will be at the starting line after raising money for Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Finishing around the five-hour mark would be just fine.
Yaffe knows that to do that, she will need support. Last Sunday, she stood at Crescent and Washington in Wellesley, where she expects a group of friends to be waving Team BIDMC signs to urge her on. That’s just after mile 15, when she’ll be looking for a lift.
A pair of young women jogged by easily.
“If I look that good at this point I’ll be happy,” Yaffe said.
A fig tree grows in Newton
A spectator’s kind gesture that went wrong in his first Boston Marathon is the marathon memory that stands out for Gerry O’Shea, 36, who will be running his third on Monday.
It was 2011, and at mile 16 in Newton, O’Shea was starting to flag. He was feeling lightheaded, his legs were tightening, and the hills loomed ahead. In this moment of despair, a woman on the side of the road offered him a Fig Newton. How apropos.
“I remember thinking, ‘This will definitely help,’ ” O’Shea recalled last Sunday. He quickly realized his mistake. It was dry and years-old stale.
“It turned into a sandy, golf-ball-size wad in my mouth,” he said. “I stopped, pulled it out, and threw it against a tree, where it exploded into little sandy pellets on impact.”
But the incident pulled him out of his torpor, and he finished the race in 3:58. O’Shea went back to the other day to contemplate the tree, at the foot of the bridge over Route 128. It remains a personal checkpoint. “While I’m done taking food from strangers on the course, this type of random connectedness with spectators and runners is one of the many reasons Boston is such a great, unique event.”
Charity runner, elite resolve
Serious runners measure marathons in kilometers. Ali Sherwood, 36, is a serious runner. She is a member of the Somerville Road Runners club, and she excels at half-marathons. She swore she would never run Boston until she qualified. She broke that promise after vowing April 15 last year — she was at the finish line — to run this year’s Marathon, then dealing with a stress fracture in her foot from June to November. So she is running for the Back on My Feet nonprofit.
Other injuries — she has had three knee surgeries — have bedeviled previous marathon efforts. Her best Boston Marathon memory comes from her club’s cheering station, strategically located at the 30k mark, where runners fight through the Newton hills.
“But this is also where you see the elation of a runner getting a boost from a friend or a family member, where strangers inspire and propel each other and where my resolve to be on that course some day was shaped,” Sherwood said at the yellow 30k imprinted on Commonwealth Avenue.
This year, Sherwood will see her mother, husband, and friends. She will pick up a bag of “fuel” — a flat Coke, gummy bears, a squeeze pack of applesauce, pretzels, hydration fluid — and a copy of an inspirational note her late father wrote her years ago: “Have a great experience, enjoy every minute.”
“There’s no way in holy hell I’m dropping out,” she said.
They call it the haunted mile, a stretch that starts in Brighton and ends at Cleveland Circle in Brookline. The hills are behind, but the toll they’ve taken starts to show. The haunted mile has buried the hopes of elite runners and amateurs alike. Last year, it nearly got Kate Plourd.
“There’s not many people cheering, it’s empty, you think you’ve achieved something after the hills,” said Plourd, 29. “This is the make-or-break mile. This is where you would hit the wall. Last year, I hit the wall.”
She thought she was going to be sick, and pulled off the course and bent over.
“Then this college girl runs up, she was like, ‘C’mon, you can do it!’, ” Plourd recalled. “I was trying to figure out if she meant ‘C’mon you can throw up,’ or ‘C’mon you can finish the race.’ ”
It was the latter. The student helped her up and sent her along. Plourd finished the race in 3:41:10. She will line up for her third Marathon on Monday, and she hopes the larger-than-usual crowds will enliven even that memorably desolate stretch. “Maybe there’ll be so many people that they’ll have to pack even the haunted mile.”
A qualifier kicks back
Brendan Kearney has run Boston four times, qualified for three, and owns a 2:54 personal best. But it was a swig of beer last year that reminds him of what makes Boston special.
At mile 16, Kearney, 31, had decided to throttle back, high-five as many spectators as he could, and enjoy the camaraderie. “It’s what makes the day great,” he recalled.
At mile 22.5, his friends were waiting as they always do, outside the Chinese Christian Church of New England, a neo-Gothic, late-19th century structure that looms over rows of apartment buildings along Beacon Street.
When his girlfriend offered him water, he surprised her by asking for a beer instead, gave her a hug, and lingered for a while.
“They thought it was hilarious that I stopped to hang out for a little bit, since in past years it was just a yell, high fives, water hand-off, and I was off down Beacon Street,” Kearney recalled.
Kearney finished in 3:09, blazing speed for thousands of runners, but four minutes off qualifying for this year’s race.
So Monday, instead of running, Kearney will be outside the church with his friends, but that’s no let-down.
“Lots of yelling in store,” he said. “I can’t wait.”
To the future
Sarah Norcott, the marathoner who sings aloud, has already qualified for the 2015 Boston Marathon, but she is not running Monday. She’s 19 weeks pregnant. So she will watch the race from the spot where she was last year: At Max Brenner restaurant on Boylston Street, a few hundred yards from the finish line. There, she’ll wait for her husband, Jim, who is running his first Boston Marathon, as a qualifier.
But first, she will go to the spot in Boston Common where he proposed to her a month before she ran the 2012 Boston Marathon. There, she will open an envelope and learn the sex of their baby. At the finish line, she will wear a shirt that says “Future Boston Qualifier” and holding a sign telling Jim “We’re having a _____” with the thrilling answer filled in.
“My husband and I want to take back the meaning of Boston,” Norcott said. “We feel that this reveal is a new beginning for us with the Marathon. Because from that moment, we will be able to look forward. With a little sidekick.”
Send your message to the runners of the 2014 Boston Marathon.