Turning left onto Boylston Street and spotting the finish line, I momentarily wished the 2014 Boston Marathon would last a little longer. To be sure, my knotted quads and tightened calves objected. But other parts of me wanted the experience to continue. For more than a year, there was the belief that the 118th Boston Marathon should be, needed to be more than a 26.2-mile race from Hopkinton to Boston. And in every way, it was for me and other runners who went the distance on Monday.
Of the 14 marathons I’ve run, I’ve never been part of a race with such a spirit of generosity, such a sense of community among strangers, and such a feeling of good fortune to simply participate. Not even close.
As I walked to my starting corral, I trailed a runner from South Africa. His singlet was emblazoned with his home country’s colorful flag. But that was not why he stood out. It was what he did as he passed every police officer, every National Guard soldier, every volunteer collecting layers of clothing shed by marathoners. “Thank you,” said the South African. “Thank you for being here.”
Everywhere I turned, all race long, runners kept saying, “Thank you.” To women handing out cups of water. To young boys holding out orange slices in the palms of their hands. To spectators ringing cowbells and holding up signs and half-jokingly offering cups of beer. And spectators who were thanked often would reply, “Thank you for coming to Boston” or “Thank you for coming back” or “Thank you for making it a great race.”
Even during the usual slowdowns entering and exiting water stations, crowded junctures where I’ve seen runners collide and curse each other, politeness reigned. This was still true as green paper cups coated the ground the higher temperatures climbed. Even if no one said it, this was not a day for the petty, personal concerns that sometimes preoccupy marathoners and the blinders-on pursuit of personal bests, at least not for the thousands of runners who came after the elites and sub-elites.
Like many average, happy-to-be-there runners, I was more interested in the whole experience than my time (3:27:52, for the curious few). I wanted to take in all the sights and the sounds. I wanted to see and hear the quirky, the familiar, and the new as I ran past.
It proved almost impossible to take it all in with sensory overload nearly every mile. As I watched dozens of runners hold up their cellphones and capture different scenes, it made me wish I’d brought my phone along. Mostly, runners panned the sidelines where record crowds cheered with signs that played on the theme of “Boston Strong.” Many read: “Finish Strong for Boston” and “Run Strong” and “One Year Stronger” and pick-your-town-along-the-course strong.
With the exception of a few spots with narrow shoulders and a few stretches with hard-to-reach course-side real estate, the route was packed with loud fans in full party mode. The smell and smoke from cookouts was prevalent through Ashland and Framingham. And it seemed almost everyone wanted a piece of the action, leaning over roads, sometimes over barriers, and stretching out arms for high-fives.
Approaching the 15K mark in Natick, I smiled as car radios blasted the broadcast of the Red Sox game and spectators displayed erasable boards with inning-by-inning updates. At one point, it was hard to hear the broadcast because “Sweet Caroline” blared from a set of speakers. I joined in with runners and spectators who shouted together, “So good, so good” without the need of any cues. I heard a runner behind me say, “Wow, just like Fenway Park.” Happily some things never change.
For those parts of the race that had to change for security reasons, no one seemed fazed or bothered by the extra police officers or the barriers that kept fans a little more distant at some popular viewing spots or the various checkpoints, or the no bags policy. If anything, runners were patient and relaxed as they showed their bib numbers to volunteers at the Boston Common and queued for buses to Hopkinton without their usual bulky gear bags. I arrived at the Common with my pockets stuffed full of pre-race essentials—water, bananas, toilet paper.
The ride out was as normal as any to the start of a marathon. Talk of races past and of the course ahead. There were the usual words of caution about going out too fast, about different landmarks along the route from the Framingham Train Depot to Natick Town Common to the Newton Firehouse to Heartbreak Hill to the Citgo sign.
Shortly past Natick Town Common, I spotted spectators jumping on mini-trampolines to the Dropkick Murphy’s song “I’m Shipping Up to Boston.” A short distance away, I spotted a one-and-a-half story replica of the Prudential Tower-turned-viewing stand. Soon I was upon the scream tunnel at Wellesley College, then the half marathon mark in Wellesley Center. It was here that word about the men’s race finish trickled from the spectators to the runners around me. First, we heard that an American won. Then, we learned it was Meb Keflezighi and there was more than a moment of disbelief.
As the runners around me briefly chatted about the significance of an American win this year, I couldn’t help but notice the patriotism all around. I spent a fair amount of the race behind a man dressed as Captain America and passed a couple women in what appeared to be Wonder Woman costumes.
At times, the race felt more like a reunion. Many of the runners I met throughout the day had run Boston before. Some ran last year, but many had not been back to Boston in several years. They talked about last running the world’s oldest marathon in 1999 or 2005 or 2008. But they had to come back for this year. Nothing was going to keep them from the start, not injuries, not tough winter training conditions, not their better judgment.
Around the midway point, I passed a young man with his left arm in a sling, moving with surprising efficiency. And other runners bound and determined to be in the field for the 118th Boston Marathon sported a rainbow of athletic tape, especially on their hamstrings, knees, and calves. If it had been any other year at Boston, any other marathon, they probably would have passed and healed up, rather than pushed through.
As Heartbreak Hill took its usual toll on runners’ legs, they ran through the pain and battled hotter-than-expected conditions. I saw one man with two ice packs strapped to his quads, plodding his way uphill. I struggled through the Newton Hills, up Heartbreak, and over the next couple miles.
Then, as I ran through Kenmore and looked forward to the turn onto Boylston, I picked up my speed. It was entirely attributable to crowds that lined both sides of the street, thick and loud and determined to see everyone reach the finish line. Then, the turn onto Boylston Street came and it was hard to believe that the race I’d waited so long to run, that everyone waited so long to run, was over.
More from the 2014 Boston Marathon — Cullen: Just like the days we used to know | Gasper: Boston reclaims its Marathon | Photos: Marathon scenes | The ‘Scream Tunnel’ and Heartbreak Hill | The elite runners | Boylston Street | Videos from the Marathon | Full coverage