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Restart: The future of the Marathon

Marathon 2014 will be different. But if next year will be a corrective, what will the race look like in five years? And how will we tell the story of what happened?

Shadows of Wellesley students waved alongside Boston Marathon runners. Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

THEY COME IN PAIRS AND THEY COME IN SMALL GROUPS. Many come alone. They come in blue windbreakers and they come in work clothes. Some come in yesterday’s running shorts.

All day long, they file past a formation of reporters and TV cameras camped outside the granite fortress, past the police officers defending the door, and into the cavernous high-ceilinged hall that Guardsmen once used for drills and that the Boston Park Plaza Hotel across the street now uses as overflow function space.

The former armory, better known as “the Castle,” sits at the intersection of Columbus Avenue and Arlington Street. That puts it just a few blocks from the stretch of Boylston Street where madness had struck.


The building’s assigned function on April 16, this sad day after the Marathon bombings, is of the unemotional type, as a depot. When thousands of runners had been hurried off the course after the twin blasts, they were prevented from receiving their medals and collecting the bright yellow bags, marked with their bib numbers, that stored their phones, wallets, and change of clothes. Now they are showing up to reclaim what is theirs. This should be a straightforward transaction conducted inside a cold gray building made more imposing by the menacing dragon carved into its granite tower. There is no indication that the place will turn into a house of healing.

This same armory had played an important role a century earlier, when terror in Boston had also commanded the attention of a horrified nation. During the police strike of 1919, Boston descended into darkness, with widespread looting, mob violence, and a heavy-handed military response that led to nine deaths in two days. Governor Calvin Coolidge had called in the State Guard, using the armory as headquarters for machine gun-armed motor units.


On the morning after the Marathon bombings, the city is still visibly shaken. Yet some of the runners who have shown up seem intent on simply picking up their stuff and leaving. It turns out to be a bit more involved than that.

A Marathon staffer has placed a small handwritten sign on the hall’s carpeted floor. It reads FINISH. Laid down beneath it is a nearly 3-foot-long segment torn from the actual blue-and-yellow Marathon finish-line tape. Each marathoner is instructed to hand over his or her smartphone and then stand on one side of that tape while the volunteers gather on the other. With the media crews kept outside the Castle door, all photography inside will be handled by amateurs. When the runner is given the signal and steps over the line, one volunteer bestows the medal, another snaps the photo on the runner’s phone, and the rest of them bathe the athlete in applause or hugs.

The finish line in 1930. 1930 from Globe file

Some runners can only gamely go along with these reenactments, like the middle-aged guy who offers the self-conscious smiles of a dad sipping from a china cup at his daughter’s tea party. Others grin as they begin to cross the makeshift finish line, but then lose their composure and dissolve into sobs. As some of them explain later, at that moment they hit the wall emotionally, overcome with a jumble of sadness, fear, pride, guilt, anger, and fatigue. One woman holds it together long enough to receive her medal and collect her belongings. But after fishing her cellphone out of her yellow bag, she involuntarily plops onto the floor. For her, the exercise of listening to the voice mails from loved ones that had accumulated in the 24 hours since the attacks turns into a forensic audit of fear.


And then there’s Jess Bryson, a 26-year-old charity runner from Jamaica Plain who breaks down the moment she steps into the hall. During her five months’ training for her first marathon, she’d been imagining the exhilaration she would experience as she turned left from Hereford onto Boylston and headed for the final straightaway.

“I was at mile 25.6 when they stopped the race,” Bryson tells Lisa Fliegel, a trauma therapist who had shown up to volunteer her services. “I could have made it to the finish line.”

“You’re here. You’re getting your medal,” Fliegel counters. “You didn’t just finish the race. You won the race.”

After the last runner has left for the day, I chat with Fliegel, whom I’ve known for years, about her determination to get the marathoners to frame their stories around strength rather than defeat. She lived in Israel for two decades of upheaval, and her day had started with a text from a friend who still lives there: “What a sad morning after. Same pictures and stories, but in English.” That’s not the reality she wants for Boston.

Already we know this much. Marathon 2014 will be different. Security will be tighter, and although race and public safety officials have yet to work out the specifics, at least some of the porousness that has defined the course for more than a century will likely have to give way. Complicating matters will be a field of runners that is almost certain to be larger, assuming race officials honor the commendable impulse to show that Boston will not be cowed. If all the people who’ve already said they intend to run in April 2014 actually show up in Hopkinton, race organizers might want to extend the starting-line corral back to Upton.


But if the next Marathon will be a reaction and a corrective, what will the race look like in five years? Ten years? And by the time we get there, how will we be telling the story of what happened in 2013?

Every big event generates multiple narratives that do battle until one takes hold. The early story of that 1919 police strike focused on the solution-minded mayor trying to head off chaos with a compromise and shake Coolidge from his cold indifference (and, if you believe some accounts, giving Silent Cal a shiner in the process). But after the governor’s refusal to bend led to both the return of law and order and the firing of every striking cop, the mayor was voted out of office. Coolidge catapulted himself to the vice presidency.

A dominant narrative of the Marathon bombing will eventually emerge. Will it be about the end of innocence, talked about with the dewy nostalgia we use to recount stories of pre-9/11 air travel, when you could show up 15 minutes before takeoff? Or will it instead be about the triumph of resilience?



IF “CLOSURE” WAS THE FOGGY but somehow reassuring buzzword that dominated discussion after the Columbine massacre in 1999, “resilience” has quickly taken on that role for Boston after the bombs. It’s been invoked by the president, governor, mayor, and every pol who covets one of those jobs, as well as most of us in the unelected masses.

But what does it even mean? In a third-floor office in Cambridge, a researcher by the name of Eric McNulty is studying just that. Broadly, the word suggests bouncing back. But he stresses that resilience means profoundly different things to different people. He breaks it down into three buckets, each one with important implications for Boston.

For psychologists, it’s the ability of a person who suffers some kind of trauma to be able to move on. Think of runners horrified by the blasts but jumping in to aid the injured, or those who were injured in 2013 showing up at the starting line in 2014. For engineers, it’s the ability of critical systems to withstand the shock of a disruption or attack and quickly return to a previous norm. Think of the first responders and medical personnel bringing order to the chaos in the early minutes after the attacks, right down to the smooth distribution of patients to hospitals. For ecologists and other natural scientists, resilience describes the ability to adapt to a new norm. While it’s too early to tell how the Marathon will respond in that context of transformation, you can see it at play in the post-Katrina debate about how — and whether — to rebuild New Orleans, considering how far below sea level it sits.

McNulty works for the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, a joint program of Harvard’s School of Public Health and Kennedy School of Government. The group’s academic work is rooted in the real world. McNulty and his colleagues get to be flies on the wall in meetings when high-level government leaders — from Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Centers for Disease Control — are responding to major crises.

Lenny Marcus, the program’s co-director, observed disaster response to the BP oil spill, the H1N1 “swine flu” virus, and super storm Sandy. He was even in the room during Katrina when Mike “Brownie” Brown, the infamously clueless FEMA director, was transferring power to his replacement after getting sacked. In addition, the Harvard program has brought to Boston security people who’ve responded to terror attacks in Tel Aviv, Islamabad, Madrid, and London.

Based on what he learned from those officials, Marcus was relieved that there was only one secondary device in Boston. “There were four bombings in Madrid, four bombings in London, four planes on 9/11,” he says. “There could very well have been more bombs going off in Boston.”

He concedes that it will be difficult for public safety officials to make the Marathon more secure without eating away at its trademark openness. Still, by understanding the patterns of previous attacks, he says, you can be selective in the changes you make.

“A terrorist event is a very raw and savage form of communication,” he says. “If you’re a terrorist trying to convey a message, you want to do it when a lot of people are paying attention.” It’s no surprise that these attacks came at the finish line, where the concentration of spectators and TV cameras was densest. By that measure, the starting line might also be especially vulnerable, whereas a sparsely populated stretch of the route in Ashland might not have to be a major worry.

To turn Boston’s reaction into a story of transformational resilience, the Marathon will need to adapt to new challenges in sensible ways. Fortunately, it’s never had to face the kind of evil it did in 2013. But it has shown itself to be adaptive in other ways.

During the 1967 Marathon, race official Jock Semple attacked runner Kathrine Switzer.1967 by Walter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated/Getty Images/Boston Globe


DURING THE 1967 MARATHON, one of the race directors was riding in a bus along the route when, about 2 miles in, he spotted an invader. So Jock Semple went on the attack. Jumping off the bus, he lunged at his target in baggy sweats and yelled, “Get the hell out of my race!” The runner was no bandit, and wore official bib number 261. But Semple had just figured out that registrant K.V. Switzer was a woman. For 70 years, the Marathon — his race — had been only for men.

The exchange, captured in freeze frame by news photographers, showed a man who appeared to have snapped, a primordial creature clawing at the number on Kathrine Switzer’s chest. But the photographers also captured what happened next. A strapping ex-college football player and hammer thrower running alongside Switzer body checked the race director into the sidelines. He happened to have been Switzer’s boyfriend at the time, but other runners around her also closed in to offer support. It was a dark chapter that somehow turned light.

Switzer finished the race in 4:20. Five years later, Boston officially allowed female runners, making the Marathon not simply less sexist but far more popular. And Switzer went on to play an instrumental role in the campaign to make women’s marathons an Olympic event. “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t thank Jock Semple for attacking me,” she says. “It radicalized me and gave me a career.”

The start of the 2013 race. Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

It’s a career that has been indivisible from marathons. In 1972, she covered the Munich Olympics as a journalist. After 11 Israeli athletes were kidnapped and killed, many people assumed the Games would be canceled.

But they went on, and five days later, Frank Shorter competed in the marathon. “I did not think about whether the terrorists might have been out there somewhere on the course,” he says. He focused only on the race. When he won the gold, the first American marathoner to do that in 64 years, it didn’t erase the bloodshed or ease the sadness. But by prevailing in this ultimate contest of endurance, he gave people back home something good to hold onto, a useful metaphor for the kind of indomitable spirit needed to bounce back from tragedy. It also helped spur America’s long-distance running boom. Those positives mitigated the awfulness of ’72 in the narrative that eventually took hold.

In 1980, Switzer was back on the Boston course, covering the race for local TV. When Rosie Ruiz was the first woman to cross the finish line, the interview Switzer conducted with her hinted at the eventual discovery that Ruiz hadn’t run the whole race. (The investigation could have probably ended with Ruiz’s response to Switzer’s question about whether she’d been doing heavy interval training: “I’m not sure what intervals are. What are they?”)

But Switzer says Ruiz’s clumsy prank ended up triggering real improvements. “Boston in those days was still a provincial, badly organized race,” she says. “They cared about the first 15 guys who crossed and maybe the first woman.” Monitoring of everyone else was a joke. And crowd control, she says, was so bad that in Coolidge Corner and Kenmore Square, runners often had to weave their way through paths no wider than their shoulders. Every runner had a horror story about some drunk yahoo rolling a beer can in front of his feet. The Rosie fiasco forced the Boston Marathon to grow up.

Still, as marathons have grown more popular, and even glamorous, they’ve become more attractive as potential targets. Switzer says she never felt that way more than in 2001. Just seven weeks after the World Trade Center attacks, she found herself standing with 25,000 runners on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge for the start of the New York Marathon. She was terrified.

After the two blasts near Copley Square, an official in protective clothing was called to a package near Kenmore Square. Alex Trautwig/Getty Images

September 11 prompted a host of tighter security measures for the New York race, says Allan Steinfeld, who was the race director at the time. Public safety officials closed the bridge an hour earlier than they had in previous years, had the Coast Guard close down marine traffic around it, sent divers into the water under the bridge to check for bombs, stationed police snipers on roofs along the route, began cross-referencing the list of registered runners with FBI databases, and insisted that runners put their belongings to be picked up after crossing the finish line in easily searchable clear plastic bags. The Marine Corps Marathon in greater Washington, D.C., changed its course the year after 9/11, when Pentagon property became off-limits. But the new route had an upside: It allowed the race to nearly double in size.

Of course, tighter security usually introduces some inconvenience. When the New York race was over, Switzer met up with Steinfeld and they headed over to the cordoned-off finish-line area in Central Park. A New York cop stopped them, asking for their credentials. Switzer flashed her press pass, but Steinfeld realized he didn’t have his tags. So the cop turned him away.

“But he’s the director of the race!” Switzer protested.

“I don’t care, lady,” the cop said. “If he doesn’t have a pass with a green dot, he’s not getting in.”

In Boston in April, Switzer had wrapped up her broadcast duties and made it to her hotel room when the first bomb went off. She expects that security here will eventually look more like it does in New York and London, where anyone getting near the start or finish areas is required to have credentials. As essential as that may be, she says, “it’s going to be hard on the spontaneity of the crowd and all the stuff we’ve come to love.”


IF YOU HAD TO PREDICT now what the Marathon will look like in five years, the safest bet would be more camera surveillance and stiffer security with a “contained” start and finish. (That could even involve moving the finish line, something organizers last did in 1986, when they brought it closer to the turf of chief sponsor John Hancock — and farther from that of insurance rival Prudential.) But locking down the beginning and end of the race may just be the only option we can imagine right now, other than making no changes or moving the event into a 26-mile steel tube.

Wellesley’s “scream tunnel.”Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

When the Ruiz scandal hit back in 1980, Guy Morse was a volunteer for the Boston Athletic Association, the group that runs the Marathon. He witnessed the sensible but fairly obvious responses, such as increased crowd control and tighter monitoring. Yet during the quarter century when he served as race director and then BAA executive director, he oversaw the implementation of technological changes that were truly transformational. “At the time of Rosie,” he says, “you could never have envisioned how you’d have chip technology in the bibs, allowing you to know where every runner was at all times.”

One logical if somewhat fraught extension of that technology is to use it or something like it to track spectators. Veteran race organizers and public safety officials say they’d like tools that could give them a sense of who’s doing what along the route, provided those tools don’t compromise civil liberties. Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis says that as he and his colleagues map out security plans for public events, they’re closely monitoring the tech innovations making their way to market. He and state officials have begun reviewing plans for Boston’s Fourth of July celebration, which seems to have been the bombers’ original target. And Davis says he’d entertain using drones with cameras for future Marathons. “We use helicopters now,” he says. “A drone may be a cheaper way to achieve the same result.”

Still, Davis stresses that a more vigilant public will likely play a bigger role in protecting people than a fleet of drones could. “I think there’s a danger in thinking technology is going to solve all our problems,” he says.

He sees an even bigger danger in sacrificing too much freedom in the name of security. “We want to keep in mind that this is a balancing act and not turn any place into a police state.” To do otherwise, Davis argues, would be to deny the most lasting power of the narrative from 2013. “What happened in Boston tells the story to potential terrorists that this is a cowardly thing to do,” he says. “It’s not going to change who we are.”

As that narrative plays out, though, we could well see the theme of resilience come to dominate — Boston bouncing back, honoring the victims, preserving its essential openness — even as circumstances on the ground change.

Consider the thoughts of Katie Carmona, a 44-year-old mother of three. She has run seven different marathons — as big as New York and as tiny as Tucson — and she and her husband help organize the race in Austin, Texas, where they live. She ran Boston in 2011 and has been here for several other Patriots Days to cheer on her husband. Each time, she’s been struck by the passion and cooperative spirit of the fans. She sees it as a huge race that has the intimacy of a much smaller one, with spectators getting largely unrestricted access and showing their appreciation by behaving respectfully. “Boston,” she says, “is by far the best.”

It’s only after thinking about it for a while that Carmona recalls an unexpected scene her husband had described seeing in 2013: police snipers on roofs near the starting line in Hopkinton. As Morse, the former BAA head, points out, security in Boston, as in New York, got a lot more serious after 9/11. People forget that there were about 1,000 police officers and military personnel lining the route.

When the first bomb went off on Boylston Street, Carmona was standing about 10 yards away. Fortunately, she wasn’t seriously injured, and she immediately bolted up Exeter toward Newbury Street.

“Boston is something every runner aspires to participate in,” she says, “and I don’t want to see that go away.” She feels for the victims and survivors of the blasts and intends to do her part to ensure that the narrative of resilience prevails. “I plan to run Boston again.”

Still, she admits to a somewhat contradictory feeling. “I don’t think I’d bring my kids,” she says.

David Ropeik, who studies risk and teaches about it at Harvard, says many parents will identify with that reaction, even if it’s not entirely rational. “Risks to children always scare us more than the same risks to adults,” he says. “That’s an adaptive trait that helps the species go on.”

A memorial, and debris, in Back Bay the day after the race.Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters

But Carmona says there’s even more to it than that. As she was fleeing the first bomb, she encountered a young mother with two sons, one she carried on her hip and the other she was holding by the hand. The older boy, who looked to be about 4, was frozen in hysteria. “It’s OK, it’s OK,” the mother said. “Keep walking.”

Carmona suspects that her own youngest son, who is 6, would have been similarly shaken if she had brought him with her to Boston. “I wouldn’t want him to witness what I witnessed,” she says, “let alone be injured.”

For generations, a defining image of the Marathon has been the 26-mile-long ribbon of little kids passing out orange slices or drinks or hand-warming packs. Could we end up seeing thick crowds turning out in solidarity all along the route, but with a decidedly higher average age?


ON APRIL 29, 1980, a petite 27-year-old runner from Canada was led into a conference room in the Back Bay. Eight days after she’d left Boston dejected, having run a course-record pace but denied the victory she knew was hers, Jacqueline Gareau was officially crowned the women’s winner.

Yet even with the laurel wreath resting on her head, Gareau knew it would be impossible to recapture the thrill of crossing the finish line first. Rosie Ruiz had stolen that from her forever.

These days, Gareau works as a massage therapist outside Montreal, and the framed piece of parchment she received belatedly from Governor Ed King hangs on the wall by her table. “I would say I missed something,” she admits. “It’s not the same.”

And yet, because of the controversy, she recognizes that she is better known than many other one-time winners of Boston. When she was invited back a few years ago, she felt like a celebrity. Narratives have a way of changing. “My story is a happy one,” she says. “I missed some glory, but I gained so much.”

Neil Swidey is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at and follow him on Twitter @neilswidey .