On his first visit to Boston, two-time Olympian Ryan Hall was a promising California schoolboy distance runner in town for a track and field meet. Taking advantage of the cross-country trip, he toured some of the city’s historic sites. He climbed the Bunker Hill Monument — all 294 steps to the top. The experience left a memorable impression, though not entirely because of the monument’s historical significance.
“I remember climbing all these steps and being super sore before my race,” said Hall. “My quads were trashed.”
Consider it a rookie mistake for the runner who, several years later, set a personal best of 2 hours 4 minutes and 58 seconds at the 2011 Boston Marathon. Hall has become a familiar sight on Patriots Day, striding from Hopkinton to Boston in contention for the marathon title. Before being sidelined by injury, Hall planned to compete in this year’s race. But he will be back in the Hub because, like many of his fellow elite marathoners, Hall loves running the marathon and spending time in the city. And when he returns, he hopes to hit more historic sites.
This weekend, the city welcomed roughly 27,000 marathon runners along with their families and friends. That number includes the 32 runners who fill the men’s and women’s elite fields. While the race is essentially a business trip for those most fleet-footed marathoners, that doesn’t keep the elites from exploring the area and building wish lists of places they want to visit when they come back for other races and training.
Not surprisingly, the Charles River is the most popular attraction for top marathoners, letting them train and get a sense of the city. Many venture from Back Bay to Harvard on their runs, impressed by all the activity on the water and on the bike paths along its banks. You might see defending women’s champion Sharon Cherop speeding by on the bike paths. She said it’s one of her favorite places to run, besides the marathon route, of course.
“As professional athletes, we’re there to compete and our experiences are very different than the average person,” said Jason Hartmann, who finished fourth last year and is back in the elite field this year. “We’re flown in to race, so we don’t get the luxury of a lot of time to sightsee. But one of the things I really like is the Charles River, the environment around the river. Last year, the day before the marathon, there was a race just along the paths. That was cool to see, along with the rowers.”
Added Hall: “I loved how running is such a part of the culture in Boston, seeing all the runners out. I feel like running is a big deal there, more so than in other cities I’ve been to before. . . . As a West Coaster, I get a bit of the East Coast vibe running along the river. It feels so different from anything over here [in California]. I’d recommend doing a run from Harvard along the river and checking out the campuses on the river.”
Given its proximity to the finish line and the hotels where elite runners stay, Back Bay is another area popular with the fastest in the field. Like tourists and locals, two-time Olympian Kara Goucher, who finished third in the 2009 Boston Marathon and set a personal best of 2:24:52 in the 2011 race, enjoys getting a bite to eat with friends and shopping on Newbury and Boylston streets. “I love how it feels quaint, but it’s a big city,” said Goucher. “You can’t go wrong with any restaurant.”
Meb Keflezighi, marathon silver medalist at the 2004 Athens Olympics and third place finisher in the 2006 Boston Marathon, goes for ethnic food. “When I’m doing appearances and not racing, I love eating Indian and Thai food on Newbury Street,” he said. “If I am there for a longer stay after a race, then look for me in a spicy food restaurant.” Keflezighi planned to race Monday, but an injury forced him to withdraw and miss any post-race spicy treats. On one of his first trips to Boston, Keflezighi also made the popular tourist trek to the original Cheers bar. It was a show he watched growing up while adjusting to US culture as an immigrant from the African nation of Eritrea. To get a taste of his home country, Ethiopian Olympian Gebre Gebremariam heads to the Addis Red Sea Restaurant on Tremont Street.
Meanwhile, with relatives in the area and after an extended stay in Waltham one year while training for the marathon, Hall favors Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee and Sorella’s in Jamaica Plain for breakfast. “Sorella’s has the most ridiculously good pancakes and I’m a huge pancake person,” said Hall, whose sister-in-law introduced him to the eatery. “They have a million different varieties.”
The Back Bay, Public Garden, and Boston Common were always special places for three-time Olympian Shalane Flanagan while growing up in Marblehead. She remembers reading the book “Make Way for Ducklings” in elementary school and taking a field trip to the Public Garden. When she started dating her future husband, Flanagan brought him there, too.
“The first time I took my husband to Boston, he’d never been on ice before and the pond was actually iced over,” said Flanagan. “Then, I brought him back when the Swan Boats were out. It’s a full-circle place for me. I have lots of good memories there. Even when I come back for indoor track meets, I go over and run in that park.”
When not running along the river or racing on the course, elite marathoners may dine at North End restaurants, take in brewery tours, visit museums, or attend Red Sox and Celtics games. At least, they hope to cross a few attractions off their tourist wish list following the marathon, though it all hinges on how they feel after finishing. Asked what she planned to do post-race, Flanagan said, “It all depends on how much I annihilate myself. I could be in the fetal position and not moving for hours. Or, I could be on cloud nine and not have anything hit me until the next day.”
All she could guarantee was that “some beer and some seafood” will be involved. And, perhaps, she’ll get a chance to check one item off her bucket list: a Sam Adams brewery tour.
“I’ve been wanting to take a tour for the past couple years and do some beer tastings,” said Flanagan. “It’s definitely something my family and I have talked about doing this spring.”
Olympian Guor Marial, a refugee from South Sudan who attended high school in Concord, N.H., hopes to visit the Museum of Science. Until injury struck last month and forced him out of the marathon, Marial thought he’d have a chance to go this week. Now, he’s hoping to see the museum on a return trip to Boston. “Before I changed to [majoring in] chemistry, I was very interested in anatomy and physiology,” said Marial. “And I said, ‘I have to go to the Science Museum to look at all the sites.’ ” Also, with his refugee background and recent swearing in as a US citizen, Marial will never forget a high school trip to Plimoth Plantation, calling it “a big experience” to see Plymouth Rock and learn its history.
For Goucher, being a mother to 2½-year-old son, Colt, dictates sightseeing. She sees the Museum of Science, the Boston Children’s Museum and a duck tour in her future.
“I’ll see the city in a whole new light because it will be through Colt’s eyes and what Colt wants to do and what Colt can appreciate,” said Goucher. “He likes trains, boats, cars, animals, and sports. I’d like to spend time exploring, just do a little bit more touristy things and things that Colt could enjoy.”
No doubt there are Red Sox and Celtics games in Colt’s future.
Since runners can sit and enjoy the action, watching local teams play is another favorite Boston activity. Keflezighi has attended a Celtics game and chatted with coach Doc Rivers about the marathon. Flanagan and Marial have memories of watching Red Sox games when they were younger. And after competing in the 2004 Athens Olympics, Flanagan was honored on the field by the Red Sox. Hall threw out a first pitch during one of his first visits to Fenway and he called it “one of the highlights of my career.”
“Whenever I’m in Boston, I always try to take in some type of game,” said Hall. “I’ve been to a bunch of Red Sox games. I’ve also been to college hockey games, Celtics games. Standing out on that mound and throwing out that first pitch, I’ll never forget that. It’s a sports mad city that I’ve fallen in love with through the marathon.”
And in that way, the elite runners are a lot like many other entrants in Monday’s race.Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.