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Tara Sullivan

In a symbolic comeback, return of Boston Marathon will lift up the city, and the country

A police officer snaps a photo of Tammy Kronebusch and Deb McClellan near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Thursday.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Their races were canceled, their group runs disbanded, their lives upended and their routines shattered. And yet they ran. Alone and apart, the runners kept running. Because that’s what runners do. Laced up and masked up they took to the streets, pounding pavement and pushing back against a COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the world.

In Boston, running has always reached its peak in the communal celebration of the Boston Marathon, where the challenge of running’s solitary nature collides with the beauty of its shared exhilaration. From Hopkinton to Copley Square, the Marathon has carried us through joy and pain, the yearly date with one of the world’s most historic and celebrated sporting events creating our very own open air party.

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Until it didn’t. For almost two years — more than 900 days — the Marathon went silent in a cycle of pandemic postponement.

Come Monday, the silence gleefully, joyously, and triumphantly comes to an end. The metaphorical arms — and the familiar streets — of Boston are open to the Marathon once again, ready to welcome all those runners back from their solitude. What a day it is sure to be.

“It’s like the world was turned upside down last year,” says Bill Rodgers, the four-time Boston champ and all-time marathon ambassador. “When I ran all of last year, every time I’d see a runner or a walker or a biker, you’d put your mask up, and it was terrible . . . I remember thinking, ‘this is bad news.’ But people were out there and that was important.

“To me it was a way to fight back. This is the way marathoners are. We’re fighters. We’re like boxers. We’re in the ring. Like going to war against COVID. And all of us feel the same. We all took a beating psychologically and physically. It was hard on everyone. But what we do really well in the United States is we find a way to make a comeback. That’s what the Boston Marathon has always been about. To me, it’s symbolic.

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“We all know it lifts the city up. It lifts the country up. It’s an international event. So let’s cheer the runners on. No one does it better than Boston.”

The 125th running of the race brings unprecedented challenges, not the least of which is the unprecedented date change from April to October that obviously altered many longstanding logistics. But the rescheduled race will look different in other ways. There are fewer overall participants, a nod to some semblance of social distancing. There are clear, required health protocols, with proof of a negative COVID test or vaccination necessary to participate in any official capacity. There is no morning Red Sox game to pair with the race on Patriots’ Day, but rather a postseason playoff game late Sunday afternoon, the celebratory hinge between the Marathon and Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Three-time Boston runner-up Patti Catalano Dillon will start both the men's and women's open races on Monday.Bill Brett/Boston Globe

But there will be plenty of familiar pomp and circumstance too, from the official starter who will get things going to the traditional finish-line olive wreaths that will crown the winners. Patti Catalano Dillon, three-time Boston Marathon runner-up and a member of the Mi’kmaq, will mark the American marathon record she set at Boston 40 years ago by starting this year’s men’s and women’s Open races. Like so many of her Boston Athletic Association colleagues and friends, she has felt herself swept up by the energy, not simply because in-person events have replaced the Zoom calls of our last 20 months, but because there is so much emotion coursing through the treasured interactions.

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“It is so great to be back,” Dillon said. She repeated herself, as if still erasing disbelief. “It is so, so great to be back. And this is a joyous honor for me. It’s a wicked honor. I’m the first indigenous woman to start the race — Billy Mills was the first indigenous man in 2016 — and the representation is so important.

“My place in all this, I’m a thread in the fabric of all of this history. It’s so wonderful that I can really play a role. With that, it becomes a responsibility. To take up that mantle is sacred and there’s a feeling like I’ve really got to step into this.”

Part of the race’s charm is the way its history keeps pace with its present, the considered effort by the BAA to remember the milestones and breakthroughs along the way, to gather luminaries from Marathons past, and, say, put them together in a duck boat to traverse the course, like they’re doing this year. Sara Mae Berman will be on that boat, her unofficial victories from 1969 to 1971 setting the stage for the 1972 policy change that allowed women to enter the race as full competitors. At 85, Berman remains as active as ever, busy with both orienteering and cross-country skiing. But the running that got her started, and the race that catapulted her to such unexpected heights, remains close to her heart. Getting that race back on the road this year feels, to her, like nothing short of triumphant.

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“It’s a very good symbol of the city and of the state . . . It celebrates accomplishment and what you feel when you put in the work and you come out with the accomplishment. It’s very satisfying,” Berman said.

Close to 18 months on, the world's most famous road race will make its triumphant return.Mary Schwalm/Associated Press

“If you’ve lived in Boston for more than a minute you know that it’s one of the important markers of the city. Celebrating 125 years of running the race — last year was virtual, which was unsatisfying — it’s always been something to aim for, something to shoot for. When my husband started me running in the 1960s, that wasn’t the immediate goal. But eventually it became the goal.”

For her, for generations before her, for generations after her, for generations yet to come, it remains a worthy goal. In some ways, the feat of staging the marathon is matched only by the feat of completing one.

“Everyone can run. Running is fun,” Dillon says. “When I first started, it was hard on my body. But I was enlightened enough to grasp the need to hold onto the feeling afterwards. Afterwards I had the thought, ‘huh, if I have to pay this price to feel this good, I’m doing it.’ Because I knew what I felt, nobody gave this to me. I remember standing in a shower, with my hand on the shower head, thinking, ‘Well, if nobody gave this to me, then nobody can take it away. I earned this.’ And I wanted it. So I was off with it.

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“Every part of my body was sore. But it was OK. Because the aftereffect I felt was gleeful.”

Even as the pandemic retains some of its grip, the fact that there is room for some glee is reason to celebrate.

“I’ll be downtown cheering the runners on,” Rodgers said. “I love going to the finish line and seeing these hard-working people doing their best. It’s just incredible. It’s always this positive thing. The overwhelming sense you have is of good will. And in the world today we need good will.”

More Boston Marathon coverage


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.