While Joe Velez was letting every imaginable emotion flow through him after crossing the finish line Monday at the Boston Marathon — letting out a roar loud enough to hear for blocks on Boylston Street, celebrating with teammates, snapping photos — a blue tent with volunteers holding lollipop signs was waiting for him.
The tent was similar to a booth that had caught his eye seven years ago and set him on a special journey.
Velez never pictured himself as a marathoner. He came to America from the Dominican Republic when he was 28 years old, seeking a place he could live openly and peacefully as a gay man. He left his family behind to live in New York and dealt with the depression and anxiety of being alone, trying to forge a new life in a new place.
“I was, how I call it, hopeless,” he said.
A friend suggested he try a sport. Initially, it was baseball. Then the friend asked him to consider running.
“Absolutely not,” he told her. “I’m not running. I hate running.”
She stayed on him.
When he started, he couldn’t run a mile. He went out for a run and made it about 400 meters before turning around and going home. His friend asked him how the run went. He told her he loved it.
“Liar,” he said, laughing as he looked back.
But he stuck with it until 400 meters turned into 10 kilometers and 10 kilometers turned into a half-marathon. He ran his first marathon in 2014 in Chicago. Since then, he has run 35.
But Chicago is where the journey started. He remembered seeing the blue booth for the Abbott World Marathon Majors and seeing the medals for Six Star runners who had completed them all.
“I was just curious,” he remembered. “I said, ‘Hmmm, I want to do that.’ ”
He checked them off, one by one: from Chicago to Berlin, New York to London and Tokyo.
“I never thought I was going to be traveling just to do marathons,” he said. “Once I knew about the six majors, I went for it.”
The reward for each race was a community.
“Every time I go to those places, I have friends, I have family, I have a place to stay,” he said. “It feels like I never left home when I visit those places. I feel like that’s the best part of the journey is growing your family.”
As of 2019, 6,600 runners had completed all six major marathons, according to World Marathon Majors. Going into Monday’s Boston Marathon — as the majors relaunched after the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a halt — 509 runners were set to finish their Six Star journey at one of the fall majors, including 169 in Boston. While 60 of those runners were from the US, 109 came from 48 other countries.
Ben Shapira traveled from Tel Aviv to Boston with his father Harel and brother Ron to finish their Six Star. They did the New York City Marathon in 2014, which was grueling, but when they crossed the finish line, they saw people getting medals they had never seen before.
“We were spitting blood,” Ben said. “At the end, we saw people with the Six Star medal and we wanted it.”
Every step of the way, they trained together.
“I feel like it’s been a heartbeat since the first marathon,” Ben Shapira said. “It’s an amazing experience just to travel the world.”
For years, Amy Pelzel, 46, would travel from her home in Dallas to New York with her husband on the same weekend as New York City Marathon.
“I always thought it was so neat, but I had never thought about a marathon,” she said.
She was in New York with a friend, walking through a park, when they saw workers setting up for the marathon. They put their names in the lottery for 2016, and Amy’s was drawn.
In 2017, she saw the London Marathon on television.
“It just kind of snowballed from there,” she said.
She ran the London Marathon in 2018, and it ended up being the hottest marathon day on record. When she did Berlin and Tokyo, rain poured.
“I learned I’ll take the rain over the heat,” she said.
It took five tries to qualify for Boston, and once she finally got in, the race was canceled.
“I don’t know if I’ve got really good luck or really bad luck,” she joked.
But with each race, she could sense herself getting wrapped up in running.
“You can go all these places and you don’t have to be in a marathon to do it,” Pelzel said. “But there is something about the camaraderie. You meet other people, the cities are excited to have you, there’s a different vibe when you’re there for a reason.”
With the other five under her belt, Pelzel wanted to take in the Boston experience and enjoy it.
“We were all excited and thought 2020 was going to happen,” Pelzel said. “So you go through the whole training cycle, then that gets canceled. Then you think it’s going to be in September and that gets canceled. Then you hope for April and that gets canceled.
“Then it comes around that they announce the date for October and you’re like, ‘OK ... I’ll believe it when it gets closer.’ ”
When the day became locked in, it was surreal. She had read the books and the blogs and knew what to expect, but she wanted to see for herself.
“I hope this is all true,” she said. “And it is. It’s a pretty magical moment.”
Heartbreak Hill lived up to its reputation.
“I did have to walk a little,” she said. “Not going to lie.”
The Scream Tunnel at Wellesley College energized her.
“This was the first time we saw a mass of people, together,” she said. “It felt good to see it back.”
More to come?
As Pelzel was celebrating just past the finish line, diminutive firecracker Robin Felts, who had come from Oklahoma City, approached her.
“Can I touch your medal?” Felts said.
Felts gave it the slightest pinch with her fingertips and made a sizzling sound.
“I’ve got one more,” Felts said.
A week earlier, she crossed the London Marathon off her list. She told Pelzel that she was supposed to finish her Six Star last year. Pelzel already knew which one she was still chasing.
“Is it Tokyo?” Pelzel asked.
“Yeah,” Felts said. “I’m in. I deferred to ‘23.”
“You’ll get it,” Pelzel told her.
“I have something to look forward to, right?” Felts said.
The scene at the finish line Monday was almost its own convention. As Velez waited by the Abbott tent, 1984 Olympic gold medalist and former Boston champion Joan Benoit Samuelson congratulated him. They traded bows of gratitude, each acknowledging the other’s accomplishments.
“Through this journey, you met so many great people that you learn from those people,” Velez said. “You learned to be more social, you learned to be more kind.
“Kindness is very important, and I think there is no other sport in the world that can show this kind of kindness to other people. I don’t know if there is any other sport that people come and stand for hours just to cheer strangers.”
With World Marathon Majors announcing Cape Town and China as candidates to become majors, the Six Star journey could soon expand. With his medal around his neck, Velez said why not keep going?
“I’m looking forward to that,” Velez said. “No. 7, No. 8, No. 9. Whatever they want to add, I’m looking forward to that.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.