Article excerpted with permission from The B.A.A. at 125: The Official History of the Boston Athletic Association, 1887-2012, by John Hanc. Copyright © 2013, Sports Publishing, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing Inc.
Boston is a sports town. Admittedly, there are those who suggest that we natives take our sports a bit too seriously, but rarely do these critics hail from Boston. Some of my most vivid childhood sports memories took form in the early 1980s at Fenway Park, the Boston Garden, and by the side of the road near the fire station on Commonwealth Avenue in Newton.
On the third Monday in April, Comm. Ave. transforms into a sporting spectacle like no other, overwrought with nerves and excitement as enervated runners from around the world confront the historic Heartbreak Hill(s). I’ll never forget standing there in the crowd with my brother, Kyle, as we looked first for Bill Rodgers, and then, in the very same race as some of the most talented runners on earth, our smiling (and grimacing) 40-year-old dad.
My dad, Kent, never did catch Rodgers, but he ran the Marathon with the same passion as “Boston Billy,” and he did so four times throughout my childhood. I later learned that our viewing locale represented more than just the course’s most convenient proximity to our home; it was part of my dad’s careful design to supply himself with the necessary motivation to face the daunting topography that follows the 18-mile mark.
Clearly my dad’s strategy has caught on — nowadays the Heartbreak Hill section of the Boston Marathon course features crowds roughly five deep. At this junction, in particular, a palpable bond exists between audience and athlete, forming a distinctive stew of sympathy and suffering that has lasting effects for both parties. In fact, many of those running in the race are doing so precisely because of their past experiences watching it.
The word “Boston” is itself a hallmark in the international running community, forging a bond by the very sound of it between all who count themselves among its ranks and those who aspire to them. The strict qualifying standards, originally implemented to thin the growing field, ironically, today only enhance the race’s appeal to people whose primary motivation in running is not medals. Now many run for a slimmer waistline, a healthier lifestyle, or simply the challenge of completing 26.2 miles.
These people are champions, too.
My brother also fell victim to the Boston Marathon’s seduction. With me serving as water boy, Kyle earned his spot in the Hopkinton corrals at the Las Vegas Marathon in February 2000. Then in April, in a cathartic reenactment of our Comm. Ave. exploits of exactly 20 years prior, he positioned his two boys at the same spot where we rooted on our dad. The drama was enough to propel my brother to literally follow our dad’s footsteps and also run the race four times. To this day both my father and brother have their bib numbers archived with their most prized possessions and describe their experiences as some of the most emotional moments of their lives.
In the early days of the Boston Athletic Association, amateurism was a big deal. To be a professional was looked down upon; you were supposed to compete for the pure love of sport. We don’t have such a stigma today — we welcome the elite runners from Africa, Asia, Europe, as well as the United States, and don’t begrudge them their well-earned paydays. But we do see a different and perhaps even nobler spirit at work, as more and more participants at BAA events are raising money for worthy causes. My brother and I are proud to be part of that trend, as we have runners from our foundation TEAM.Water.org out on the roads of Boston alongside all the charities and foundations represented.
These people are doing something good for themselves — and for others. How great is that?
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