HOPKINTON — A cart path 3,230 feet from the starting line of the Boston Marathon stretches into overgrown woodland, leading past untended shrubs and old stone walls until a spring-fed pond emerges from the brush.
Except for the bucolic setting off Route 135, it’s not much to look at. But as former Boston Marathon director Tim Kilduff moves deeper into the scrub, he sweeps his hand across the 19-acre plot and pictures a long-nurtured dream that is coming closer to reality.
What Kilduff sees is the International Marathon Center, a $29 million project that will pay homage to a global sport in the quaint town where the world’s most celebrated marathon begins. If completed as planned, it would be the largest museum dedicated to marathoning in the world, adding a potential running mecca to the region’s array of sporting destinations.
The nonprofit 26.2 Foundation, created 25 years ago to enhance the connection between the Marathon and the Hopkinton area, recently signed a 99-year lease for the town-owned site. Design work is nearly complete, a capital campaign is scheduled to begin in September, and construction is hoped to be finished by 2024.
“We want to stress the platform that the marathon presents, using the marathon to provide an example of the power of the human spirit,” said Kilduff, president of the 26.2 Foundation. “There’s more to the marathon than running 26.2 miles. Everyone running a marathon is making an expression of personal freedom.”
Kilduff and the designers are not envisioning a marathon version of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., or the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Those venues were founded primarily to celebrate stars and champions, places that honor remarkable careers and greatness that can be defined and buttressed by glittering statistics.
The International Marathon Center plans something broader. A Hall of Excellence will include marathoning’s past and present stars, but it also will feature many people who have contributed to the sport in myriad, almost countless, and often unrecognized ways.
“You can always say, ‘Let’s just put the fastest in there,’ but this is a sport where 30,000 people come together and run their hearts out,” said Terence Healy, cofounder of HealyKohler Design, a Washington, D.C., firm selected for the project.
The Hall of Excellence would comprise only about 10 percent of the center’s nearly 13,000 square feet of exhibits. There also will be space devoted to the marathon’s history, dating to its legendary beginnings following the Battle of Marathon in ancient Greece.
Other sections of the center will explore the sport’s ethos and sense of community, the science of endurance running, the technology of its gear, and the physical and mental benefits that flow from the sport.
The center also will have a broad educational component, including classrooms, meeting areas, lecture space, and areas for community use. Running and walking trails are planned.
Tom Grilk, president of the Boston Athletic Association, said the enthusiasm for the project has been impressive.
“It’s a wonderful initiative, and it certainly shows a lot of energy on the part of the people at the 26.2 Foundation. They have the support of the town, it’s a big job to do something like that, and I applaud them for it,” Grilk said.
The BAA, which has organized the Boston Marathon since its beginning in 1897, has donated Marathon entries on two occasions to support the Foundation’s fund-raising efforts, Grilk added.
“The town cares about it, and we care about the town,” Grilk said.
Although the BAA has no official connection to the project, the organization and the Boston Marathon will be honored within the center. But the Boston Marathon, whose course runs past the site, will not be the dominant focus of the project.
HealyKohler, the designer, has a broad background in creating visitor experiences that go beyond names and numbers. Its projects include the National Soccer Hall of Fame, the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I., and The Sailing Museum, which is scheduled to open in Newport in 2022.
“What we want to do is create an experience that not only combines the sport of marathon running, but also the culture and festivities that surround it,” Healy said. “This whole idea of excellence is that everyone has their own level of excellence when they run marathons.”
Hopkinton Town Manager Norman Khumalo said the center, projected to be about 25,000 square feet overall, could be an economic catalyst in a town bound so closely with distance running.
“The Boston Marathon has offered Hopkinton the opportunity to connect with people all over the world,” Khumalo said. “That’s the strength of part of what the center will do, to allow those relationships to flourish on an ongoing basis.”
The site was part of a much larger property sale by Weston Nurseries to the developer of Legacy Farms, a major housing venture in Hopkinton. As part of the deal, the developer donated 19 acres to the town, which negotiated with the 26.2 Foundation for a year before signing the lease for the land.
One key to the center’s success will be leveraging the sport’s global appeal, and the hope that international and domestic visitors will travel to Hopkinton throughout the year.
“We’re not talking about people visiting us one month a year. It won’t work,” Kilduff said.
Bill Rodgers, a four-time Boston Marathon champion, said he hopes the concept succeeds, although he questioned whether large numbers of visitors would travel to Hopkinton.
“Tim’s on the right track. He knows what the sport means, and I think it’s growing globally,” said Rodgers, a former Olympian and also a four-time winner of the New York City Marathon. “Our sport can match any other sport for history.”
Amby Burfoot, the 1968 Boston champion, offered a strong endorsement, noting the center’s potential to draw on support from the Boston area’s medical and research institutions.
“I’ve been excited to hear about it,” said Burfoot, who has conferred with Kilduff during the planning process. “That will be an ideal location. Hopefully, it attracts the right momentum. The marathon and running mean much more than a one-day World Series.”
For Burfoot, the editor of Runner’s World magazine for many years, the appeal of marathoning lies in its basic, elemental nature, not only of putting one foot in front of the other for 26.2 miles, but in the commitment and discipline that make it possible.
“I like that the sport is the simple, essential sport,” Burfoot said. “But as simple as it is, we can still challenge ourselves to finish a Boston Marathon. We can go as far as we want with it, or we can run for everyday health and fitness.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com.