There’s a road race in Boston on Monday. An actual athletic competition. Thousands of athletes will compete to see who can cover 26.2 miles faster than anybody else.
Remember when the Boston Marathon was just a footrace?
The Marathon was quaint and charming in its early years, became somewhat corporate and commercialized in recent decades, but the special trappings of Boston assured that it remained uniquely ours. Marathon Day was a fun field trip on our April calendar. It meant no school and no work for most of us. Friends and relatives in other parts of the country could never be expected to understand any of it. We were the only ones who acknowledged Patriots Day and found nothing odd about a major league baseball game starting annually at 11 a.m. on the third Monday of April. We were the only ones who knew Clarence DeMar, Johnny Kelley, Billy Rodgers, the Hoyts, and Heartbreak Hill.
Everything, of course, has changed. This year, the Boston Marathon belongs to the world. It stands as a symbol of American freedom and a population refusing to cower to terrorism. Bostonians, New Englanders, Americans, and citizens of the free world on Monday will return to Hopkinton to reclaim a celebration that last year was interrupted by murder and mayhem.
On the eve of the event, we remain consumed with the pain and healing of victims, and victims’ families. We are forever thankful for first responders and we celebrate those who serve and protect. Everyone who lives here, and that means everyone, has some connection to this event and the tragedy that unfolded in 2013. Now we wonder how it’s going to feel when we reclaim the day; when victims, responders, and their families and friends cross the finish line; when runners who were stopped before Kenmore last year finally get to finish the race they started April 15, 2013. We expect that it will be heartbreaking, exhausting, and exhilarating.
The event will never be the same. This was assured when the bombs went off. But part of Boston Strong, part of the message that we will never succumb to terror, is the notion that we can go back to the original spirit of the competition; the people, places, and performances that made the Marathon special in the first place.
How many of you can name the winner of last year’s men’s race? His name is Lelisa Desisa. He is from Ethiopia. He crossed the finish line two hours before the explosions. Two months after the race, Desisa returned his first-place medal to the city of Boston. He gave his Boston bib to a woman who lost her lower leg in one of the blasts. Desisa will run Monday to defend his laurel wreath.
The Boston Marathon is the most famous road race in the world and the oldest continually run marathon in the United States. It has spanned three centuries, starting in 1897.
John A. Kelley ran 61 Boston Marathons, winning twice. He ran the race in 1992 at the age of 84. DeMar, a typesetter at the Boston Herald, won Boston seven times and was famous for jogging to the Herald after the race to set the bold-face type hailing his own victory. Then there’s Ellison “Tarzan” Brown, a Narragansett Indian and two-time Boston winner who may or may not have jumped into Natick’s Lake Cochituate on his way to Boylston Street. We have fond memories of Boston Billy Rodgers wearing Mickey Mouse gloves and dominating in the 1970s, Jack Fultz winning the “Run for the Hoses” in ’76, Alberto Salazar’s duel with Dick Beardsley in ’82, Joanie Benoit’s record-setting Olympic warm-up in 1983, and Uta Pippig’s three firsts in the 1990s. Even our cheaters (Rosie Ruiz) were larger than life.
In a photo history of the Boston Marathon, authors Richard Johnson and Robert Hamilton Johnson wrote, “Over the years, the Boston Marathon has also served as the tableau for a multitude of causes and social issues. In 1946 . . . Stylianos Kyriakides’s dramatic victory allowed him to undertake nothing less than a one-man Marshall Plan for his war-stricken homeland of Greece. After traveling across America to raise funds, he was greeted by over a million Athenians upon his triumphant return home . . . ’’
Boston helped shatter the myth that women weren’t strong enough to run long distances. The Boston Marathon’s first female competitors — Roberta Gibb (1966) and Kathrine Switzer (’67) — helped create the climate for Title IX and the expansion of women’s collegiate and Olympic programs.
In 1970, Eugene Roberts, who lost both of his legs to a land mine in Vietnam, became the first unofficial wheelchair Boston Marathoner, crossing the finish line after seven hours in a hospital-issued chair. Five years later, Belmont’s Bob Hall was the first official Boston wheelchair winner.
This is our Marathon. The event is different today, but at its core it has always been about endurance, freedom, inclusion . . . and the spirit of competition. Long may it run.