TOKYO — Zach Flechtner thought back to a Sunday morning when, while visiting Brooklyn from his home in South Boston, he nearly came to tears.
“It was just so emotionally overwhelming,” Flechtner said. “It was a combination of how good I felt and how fortunate I was. It all just hit me at once.”
Flechtner wasn’t just a tourist that day. He was running in the New York City Marathon, which crosses the metropolis’s five boroughs. And he had his mind set on a rare goal: finishing all six of the World Marathon Majors — Berlin, Boston, Chicago, London, New York, and Tokyo.
Earlier this month, Flechtner finally completed his quest, which was delayed by injuries, COVID cancellations, and pandemic travel restrictions, when he finished the Tokyo Marathon here and crossed into the recovery area, laid out in neat Japanese fashion beside the grounds of the city’s Imperial Palace.
And while, at 48, he’s completed 10 marathons, those top six stand out for more than just the running. They took him around the world in what may be the most unusual way to experience the cultural uniqueness of each host city: seeing them not through the windows of a tour bus, but by running past (and even through or over) some of the most iconic landmarks on the planet while enjoying the camaraderie of other runners from around the globe who are pursuing the same goal.
Few people outside of running appear to know about the World Marathon Majors — even many runners say they heard about the series almost accidentally.
Jenn Curro of Billerica was sitting on the ground drinking a beer after finishing the Chicago Marathon when she saw a woman walk by wearing the bulky “six star” medal indicating that she’d finished all six Marathon Majors.
“I said, ‘What is that and how do I get it?’,” asked Curro, who ultimately also earned her own in Tokyo.
That’s a surprisingly rare feat. Before Tokyo, where a record 3,033 people earned their sixth stars, only 1,544 Americans had done it. The new international total is 11,134, with another 498 contenders who will have a chance to run the last of their six majors in Boston, and 196 more the week after that in London.
It’s an example of the human obsession with setting and meeting goals that often intersect with travel, from hiking all the peaks in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range to seeing a game at every major league ballpark.
“There’s so much more to this than just the race itself,” said Dawna Stone, CEO of the World Marathon Majors, sponsored by the medical device and pharmaceutical company Abbott. “There’s the buildup, there’s the destination — the experience you have in these incredible locations. There’s something unique and special about going to these destinations and taking on this life-affirming challenge.”
Running one marathon isn’t easy, said Drew Santaniello of Watertown, another six-star finisher in Tokyo. “Running six is exponentially harder. People want to challenge themselves to see what they can do.”
Runners in London cross the Tower Bridge, pass Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament and finish in front of Buckingham Palace. In Berlin, they run through the Brandenburg Gate; in Tokyo, past the Seno-ji and Tomioka Hachiman shrines. The New York City Marathon ends in Central Park.
When he ran in Berlin, Steve Iannacone of Norwell took his son, who was then in the ninth grade. “He’s such a history buff, but we had never traveled anywhere outside of the United States until this journey started.” The history there, and in London “was just off the charts. When I was running in Berlin and London, my mind got lost in the architecture, it got lost in the history. I was just soaking it all in.”
The experience doesn’t only look markedly different in each city. It smells, tastes, and sounds different.
Iannacone remembered smelling deep-dish pizza all over Chicago, and associates the New York City Marathon with the bagels he gets, hot out of the oven, to fuel him. Runners entering Manhattan in the marathon itself are subjected to the tempting scent of bacon sizzling for Sunday brunch along the Upper East Side.
There’s a surprising variation in the noise.
Berliners who line the course watch comparatively stoically, without much noise. Among the few signs she saw there, said Erica Gennaro of Somerville, who also got her sixth star in Tokyo, was one with nothing on it but a bib number. “That felt so German to me: just a bib number and nothing else.”
In Tokyo, where yelling is considered impolite, many of what organizers say were 940,000 people along the sidelines soundlessly waved — although performers playing big wadaiko drums at one point pounded along to “Young Man,” the Japanese version of the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.”
“People in Tokyo are more like curious onlookers than fans,” said James Coffey of Sandwich, who also earned his sixth star there. “For the most part it’s just respectful support. There aren’t the bands, the families, the drunken college students that you get in Boston.”
An estimated 750,000 Londoners, by comparison, stand 10 deep for the marathon there, cheering wildly. “London is a party the whole way,” Curro said. “Carry on, mate! You can do it,” Coffey remembered people yelling at him from the thick of those big London crowds. “Well done!” And while the onetime perk of a free pint is no longer part of the registration packet, “when you walk back to your hotel, every small pub invites you for a beer,” said Iannacone.
New York is a hybrid. Almost deafening support comes from huge crowds along most of the course, punctuated by sudden silence as runners pass through an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn whose residents are only grudgingly tolerant of the disruption, and when they cross the route’s five bridges.
“All you hear on those bridges was the shuffling of feet,” recalled Mark Valutkevich of Hopkinton, who also finished his sixth Marathon Major in Tokyo.
Every race is different, Stone said. “You can’t lump them together. They are so unique in the locations, the crowds, the feel.”
All of this extends beyond the marathons. After she ran Berlin, Curro stuck around in Germany for Oktoberfest before going to Austria, and spent 13 days in Japan around the Tokyo Marathon.
Probably the hardest part of the Marathon Majors is getting in. In Boston, that means meeting a qualifying time or raising money for charity; the other races fill by lottery. It took Coffey 23 years to finish.
At 43, Santaniello said he’s retiring from marathons. He’s halfway to a new goal: running a half marathon in every state.
Iannacone, he said, will “never forget the experience we’ve had on this journey.” Added Curro: “It’s just an amazing way to see the world. Running is just one part of it.”
And Flechtner joked that, since he finished Tokyo, he tells his girlfriend: “Let’s go back to Japan. Let’s go back to Berlin. Let’s go back to London.”
He paused for effect.
“But let’s not run a marathon.”
Jon Marcus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.