When runners stream down Route 135 next week, en route to the blistery nirvana that is Boylston Street, they will tread across one of the greatest rivalries in sports. Not the Sox and the Yanks, not the Patriots and the Ravens, not “tastes great” and “less filling.” It’s Hopkinton vs. Ashland, in the two suburban towns’ dueling quest for a marathon museum.
In one corner, there’s Ashland, where the Boston Marathon began — or rather, the 24.5-mile road race that would become the modern-day marathon, the king of distance racing. In the other corner, there’s Hopkinton, which has been called “the spiritual ZIP code of the marathon” and has claimed the starting line since 1924.
Both towns want to build a museum, so that the masses will come to admire the worn shoes and stained singlets of speedy Kenyans, and spend money as they do so. But unlike the famous battle to the finish line between Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley 31 years ago, this is no heart-stopping “duel in the sun,” because from Framingham on, no one else cares. The runners — the real heart of the Boston Marathon — are just not that into Hopkinton or Ashland.
That’s a tough truth to bear, especially for towns that stake their identities on their role in the early stage of a once-a-year road race. But just like at Logan and other airports, arrivals always trump departures. After the second it takes to cross that starting line, all the runners really care about is the finish.
It’s especially hard for Ashland, which claimed the start of the marathon only when its participants numbered in the tens, not the thousands. “Even though Hopkinton claims to be the home of the starting line of the Boston Marathon,” sniffs the website of the Ashland Historical Society, “we in Ashland know the real story.”
At the first race in 1897, 15 men took off on Pleasant Street when the announcer yelled “Go.” Although only eight made it to Boston, the race “proved a great success and is an assurance of an annual fixture of the same kind,” the Globe reported the next day. “The crowd at the Ashland station was good natured, and as it formed a line for the athletes to pass, the sleepy old town rang with the cheers of her lusty sons,” the newspaper report said.
But the distance from Ashland to Boston is a mere 24.5 miles, and with no clamor for an aqueous finish in the harbor, the starting line had to be moved in 1924 to conform with the Olympic standard of 26.2 miles. To cheer at the start, the lusty sons of Ashland had to chug up East Main Street to the crest of the Hopkinton Common.
Since then, Hopkinton’s proud motto has been “It all starts here!” Ashland has been reduced to also-ran status, despite valiant attempts to stay relevant. Last year, it unveiled a shiny new blue sign at its Marathon Park, the site of the original starting line. The sign says, somewhat forlornly, “It all started here!”
Last year, the town launched a half-marathon, aided by the legendary Bill Rodgers, who said he loves to run in Ashland because of its “unique historical significance.” Ashland has a jazzy website for its October race and says proceeds will contribute to improvements to Marathon Park and the development of a marathon-related museum.
Ignoring that, Hopkinton charges ahead with a lead akin to 2012 winner’s Wesley Korir usual distance from the back-of-the-pack bandit jugglers. The town’s 26.2 Foundation already has an architect’s sketches of an “International Marathon Center” on its website. It’s an impressive vision the foundation puts forth, one with interactive exhibits for children, community meeting space, and running facilities.
With the popularity of distance running at an all-time high, a marathon museum is an idea with legs like a champion. And sorry, Ashland. Hopkinton owns the starting line, and possession is nine-10ths of the law.
Fortunately, Ashland has other glory on which it can capitalize: It’s the birthplace of the electric clock. It’s not the laurel wreath of glory, but then neither is a line painted on a road. The glory of next Monday’s Boston Marathon belongs not to a town, but to the runners.
Jennifer Graham, a Hopkinton resident, writes regularly for the Globe.