Christians travel to Rome to visit the Vatican; Hindus go to India to submerge in the Ganges River; Muslims journey to Mecca to celebrate the Hajj. Runners flock to Boston to run the marathon. Today is Patriots Day in Massachusetts and more than 22,000 runners lined up in Hopkinton, Massachusetts for the 116th running of the Boston Marathon. Seasoned runners like myself should feel especially good because, according to the BAA, more than 3,000 runners over the age of fifty-five are running this year compared to 2011.
No ritual is more venerated to a distance runner than the Boston Marathon. While most marathons around the globe require only a registration form and fee, runners must qualify for Boston by completing a USA Track & Field-certified marathon with a finishing time which is predetermined by age and gender. The qualifying requirement elevates the challenge from merely running 26.2 miles, to finishing the distance at a rigorous pace. Running a six, seven or even an eight-minute mile is an achievement for most human beings, maintaining that pace for such a distance is extraordinary.
Boston is more than a race–to a distance runner, it is sacred ground. In 2011, athletes from fifty-five states and US territories, as well as citizens representing ninety countries from as far away as Cyprus and Morocco registered for the race. The multitude of runners are lured to trace the footsteps of luminaries such as Johnny Kelly who finished Boston fifty-eight times, winning in 1935 and 1945; four-time winner Bill Rodgers; and Kathrine Switzer, the pioneering first female to crash the formerly men-only race in 1967. Johnny Kelley ran his last Boston Marathon at the age of eighty-four in 1992.
Boston’s reputation is so renowned that most runners are familiar with the course before they arrive. Women brace themselves for hoots and hollers from bikers partying alongside decked out Harley-Davidsons at TJ’s Food and Spirits at mile two, and the men begin to pucker for a kiss at mile twelve in anticipation of the all-female student body from Wellesley College. Meanwhile, they are all anxious for the zealous crowds that line the Hills of Newton, which begin at mile seventeen and peak at Heartbreak Hill near mile twenty-one. Runners squint through the baptismal waters of perspiration as they run down from the crest of Heartbreak and see the huge CITGO sign that announces downtown is within reach.
Crowds line Commonwealth Avenue shouting encouragement and handing out refreshments, orange slices and Jell-O shots to the exhausted runners. Delirious members of Red Sox Nation funnel from the early game at Fenway Park and cheer the runners who are in the bottom of the ninth with two out juncture of the race.
Endurance runners refer to the marathon as “Twenty miles of hope, and six miles of truth.” Each successive mile is a testament to the runner’s will, and the intensifying crowds along those final miles help ease the burden. Beacon Street is packed six-deep on the sidewalk, screaming fans are packed from the curb to the rooftop on Hereford Street, and bleachers line the final stretch along Boylston Street.
Euphoria descends upon the runners the final three city blocks, and they feel as though their feet are no longer touching the earth. The thrill of crossing the bright red, blue and yellow finish line painted atop the asphalt is confirmed by jubilant screams echoing from the heavens—a memory that the runners will savor for a lifetime. Boston is an athletic ritual consummated by covering the same twenty-six miles as the legends, as well as the thousands who train and sacrifice for the passage to run on hallowed ground.