The hand-lettered sign on one end wall says the gymnasium is called THE PIT. Basic stuff. How many high school gyms in the country are called the Pit? Basic. Next to the rolled-up bleachers a couple of young coaches talk. A solitary figure dribbles a basketball, takes a shot, gets the rebound and takes another shot. A late-afternoon bell can be heard from the corridor. A yellow minibus waits in the drizzle in the parking lot outside.
Nothing unusual here. Not today.
"I saw the movie Hoosiers the other night," says Chuck Joseph, the girls' basketball coach at Hopkinton High. "The gym in the movie reminded me of this gym. Small-town America."
The annual smell of liniment and oranges—so pungent that to smell it once is to remember it for a lifetime—has not arrived. The people have not arrived. The thousands of people. The joggers. The walkers. The nervous. The determined. The champions. The hopeful. The friends. The families. The confusion has not arrived.
April 19, 1987
The everyday normal still is normal in Hopkinton, Mass. This is not the day of the Boston Marathon.
"Do you know when I know it's getting close?" cross-country coach Mike Scanlon asks. "When the portable Johns are delivered to the football field outside. They're just there, all of a sudden, a long line of them."
"The phone company seems to become awfully busy," Joseph says. "Suddenly there'll be telephone trucks and wires everywhere. And the TV trucks. I guess they have to set up early to claim a spot. They're here for at least a week."
"The helicopters," Scanlon says. "Once those helicopters arrive from the television stations, it's all over. Did you ever try to teach physics to a class of kids looking out the window at helicopters?"
Isn't that how it always happens? The support troops will arrive first and wires will be plugged into the outside world and each day will become bigger than the last and on the morning of the final day it will seem as if someone has flipped the switch and electricity runs straight from the ground into your soul. Isn't that how it always happens? The oldest and most famous road race in the country—the 91st Boston Marathon—will start here in Hopkinton, again, on April 20.
"The marathon touches everyone in this town," Scanlon says. "Everyone is involved somehow. A lot of people have runners stay at their houses. The band plays on the green. The track team helps coordinate the start. The football team holds the ropes at the start...at least until the first resistance, and then the kids always drop those ropes in a hurry. My wife was helping to hold the ropes last year and the kids dropped theirs and she tried to hang on. She wound up in the race for a while before she could get out of it."
The Hopkinton Lions Club will turn Center School (kindergarten through third) into a restaurant for visitors, with a pancake breakfast on race morning. A service will be held on Monday morning on the lawn of the First Congregational Church. In other years, the sign in front of the church has proclaimed AT HEARTBREAK HILL, REMEMBER, 'I CAN DO ALL THINGS THROUGH JESUS CHRIST WHO STRENGTHENS ME'. The green-and-white line across Main Street—sure to be repainted before the great day—is where the whole thing begins. The best runners will be in front, the rest behind them. The spectators will be everywhere, covering the sidewalks and the town green and letting out war whoops.
On marathon day, the electricity will start in this New England bedroom town of Hopkinton, with its postcard colonial scenery, and continue for 26 miles, 385 yards through Ashland and Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Newton and Brookline to the heart of Boston. Runners from around the corner and around the world will cover the course, and at each place they pass they will turn everyday black-and-white living into Technicolor. A Monday in April once again will become the most exciting day of the local year.
"Some of the runners get their numbers and check in here in the morning," says Joseph, standing in the Hopkinton High gym. "There are tables set up at the end of the basketball court. This place is a mob scene. The greatest runners in the world. They've all been here. I ran the race once. Just before the start I had a call of nature and went behind the Congregational Church. I'm standing next to the wall and turn to my left and there's Frank Shorter. The Olympic champion. Standing next to me."
"The kids all go to the start to see what kinds of sweatsuits they can grab," Scanlon says. "The runners wear sweatsuits, then just throw 'em to the side a few minutes before the start. The race leaves, and there are sweatsuits everywhere. Every kid in Hopkinton has a great wardrobe of sweatsuits. You see sweatsuits from all over the country on these kids all year round."
The magic here is a morning magic. The start is at noon, and 30 minutes after the herd leaves, the town will be on the way back to its normal condition. Discarded plastic garbage bags, used by the runners as prerace raincoats, are cleaned from the streets on wet days, along with discarded cups and orange peels. The spectators will be gone. The runners will be gone.
They will have taken the excitement with them down the road.
One minute to go...30 seconds to go...kaboom!
Dr. Bob Johnson lives in the first house on the right side of the marathon course. He is a good runner—good enough to finish 35th in the 1984 U.S. Olympic Trials—and the race starts 50 yards from his front door on Route 135. About the only thing closer is the World War I doughboy statue, which, rifle on one shoulder, stands prepared to leave Hopkinton Green to fight the Hun.
Every morning when Johnson drives to his dental practice in the neighboring town of West Upton, he crosses the starting line. Every time he runs a workout loop he covers part of the course. He lives with the imaginary trumpets of the race for 364 days of the year, and on that one important day in April his sport lands at his feet as if it were a rolled-up morning newspaper.
"The house is almost as old as the marathon, almost 100 years old," the 33-year-old runner says, sitting in the living room of the house he bought in 1984. "That's kind of neat. The house has been here for the start of every marathon except the first few, when the course was measured differently and the race started in Ashland.
"The history is one of the things that makes the race great. I'll run that course and I'll always be passing points where I know certain things happened, where one runner passed another, where someone dropped out, where the race turned. I'm very conscious of that. What is nice is that not a whole lot has changed. I'll see pictures of some of those old races—Johnny Kelley running against 'Tarzan' Brown—and the houses in the background will be the same houses you would pass today. I'll know exactly where the picture was taken."
The day of the race brings curious sensations. To walk toward Hopkinton Green is to walk into the madness. To walk the other way, however, is to walk into a silence that doesn't exist at other times of the year.
"This is a busy road," Johnson says of Route 135. "A busy road doing more work than it was intended to when it was built. On the day of the race, though, the road is closed. If you go for a mile or two down the road there will be this peaceful silence. A few people will have parked their cars somewhere and will be walking toward the start. That's it. Otherwise, silence."
Johnson has run the race at various levels. He ran it as a lark when he was a Boston University undergraduate, as a test when he was an improving runner, as a competition when he moved to the top level. He watched last year's race while riding a bicycle on a one-day assignment for a suburban newspaper.
"You get an appreciation for the course when you ride a bicycle," he says. "The way everything builds. The way it funnels into Boston. Everything becomes larger. The buildings become larger. The crowds become larger. You start out here in the hills and you go through all of these towns and then you start crossing highways and then you wind up in the city with the big buildings. Everything simply builds and builds, starting from here."
Last year he rode his bicycle for 22 miles in tandem with record-setting winner Rob de Castella (2:07:51). Then he turned around and started pedaling back.
"That's the problem with covering the race from here on a bicycle," Johnson says. "When the race is finished, you have to ride the entire course again to get home. Do you notice that this house is on a hill? I tell all my friends that if they ever held the marathon backwards one year, it'd be a much tougher race. You'd be climbing this hill to reach the finish line."
This hill. Right outside the front door.
Hills...Trailmare Farm...Ashland State Park...Clock Town Liquors...St. Tarcisius Church...The Happy Swallow....
The worst Boston Marathon for Pete Phylis came when the local paper printed a story about his tavern two days before the race. The story said that The Happy Swallow in Framingham gave free beer to all runners in the marathon. The words were in black and white. The words were wrong.
"I came in on the day of the race, and there must have been 50 people at 10 o'clock in the morning wearing shorts and sneakers," Phylis says. "They all wanted their free beer. I wasn't giving out free beer. The story was wrong. I could see people would be coming in all day looking for the free beer."
What was there to do? "I went into le back," Phylis says. "I made up a big sign. It said FREE BEER ONLY FOR OFFICIAL ENTRANTS. MUST SHOW NUMBER. That ended the free beer right there."
The runners have covered almost seven miles when they reach The Happy Swallow. There is a different New England look here. This is the edge of an old mill town. The Dennison paper factory stands on the left. Train tracks crisscross the road. The Happy Swallow stands on the right.
In marathon history, this is the spot where Tommy Longboat made his smartest move in the 1907 race. A freight train was coming, and Longboat, a Canadian Indian, and eight other runners hurried to cross the tracks before the train arrived. The rest of the field had to wait, in the drizzle and sleet, for the train to pass. Longboat beat the eight other runners to win the race.
The Happy Swallow has been at the same location since the repeal of Prohibition. Maybe even before the repeal of Prohibition. This is a blue-collar, all-age neighborhood bar. Two pinball machines are lined against one wall. Four television sets are spread around the room.
"I call those my New England Patriots television sets," Phylis says. "The Patriots had that good season and went to the Super Bowl two years ago and every week the crowd got larger in here and I needed another television set. I started with one and wound up with four. The Patriots bought those sets for me."
The marathon is the best day of the entire year for The Happy Swallow. From 10 in the morning until seven at night, the beer is sold so fast that there isn't time to wash glasses. Twenty barrels of beer. Plastic cups. One man is hired just to tap kegs and bring bottles from the cellar. Another man cooks hot dogs. The place is noisy and packed. New Year's Eve on a Monday afternoon.
"It's my best day of every year, far and away," Phylis says. "The only one that ever came close was the day of Hurricane Gloria. Don't ask me why. We do very well during disasters. We're the first service on the Boston Edison line, and for some reason we never lose our power. Hurricanes. Blizzards. The place is packed."
The marathon is first in the standings. Disasters are second. There also is no dispute about the third-place event at The Happy Swallow.
"Third is Waxie Mandino's stag party," Phylis says.
What was the attraction at Waxie Mandino's stag?
"Waxie Mandino was the attraction," the owner says. "He's a good guy, and he knows a lot of people around here."
Realty World...Wendy's...Henry Wilson Historic District...Natick Pizza Palace...Wellesley College....
Writer Nora Ephron once stood in front of these buildings to cheer for strange men as they ran down the street in shorty-shorts. Diane Sawyer stood here. Ali MacGraw. Ephron, Sawyer and MacGraw were younger at the time, of course, harder to pick out of the crowd, and maybe they did stand here, and maybe they didn't, but certainly they had the chance.
They were the women of Wellesley College.
"We had a picnic in front of the dorm last year," says Tracy Firth, a social chairman at Cazenove Hall. "We cheered the runners, played Frisbee, had hot dogs, music. We worked with a fraternity at MIT, Phi Delta Theta. It rained, but it must have been a good time, because the fraternity wants to do it again."
Nowhere on the entire course is carnival merged more closely with a sports event than in front of this 112-year-old women's college. The Wellesley women assemble in front of the dorms on Central Street to cheer for the young and the virile and the lame and everyone in between. As they pass, the men of the Boston Marathon preen and strut, sometimes do cartwheels and generally feel as if they might actually complete this race that is only half finished.
Every year The Wellesley News, the student newspaper, receives letters to the editor from runners who felt "down, disheartened, ready to drop until I reached your campus and heard the lovely sound of all these beautiful women cheering for ME!" Writer Erich Segal rhapsodized about the women of Wellesley during his Boston Marathon days in the '60s. One runner, a brewery executive from Milwaukee, annually has a keg of beer delivered to Munger Hall two days before the race to show his appreciation for all of the cheers.
"He's an older gentleman who is called Black Bart," says Cean McCarthy, house president of Munger Hall. "He has been running the marathon for something like 50 years. He sends the beer, and he and a couple of his friends drop by to share it with us a day or so before the race. We cheer for him on the day of the race. It's a tradition."
A Wellesley senior named Kirsten Daehler has become part of the marathon tradition. A friend of her family in Phoenix ran the race half a dozen years ago and was so impressed by the reception in front of the school that he said this might be a place to consider when the Daehler girls were choosing colleges. The next steps were obvious. Kirsten's sister Maria graduated from Wellesley in 1986; Kirsten will graduate in June and—fittingly—already has run the marathon.
"Three years ago my dad suggested that since I had come here because of the marathon it might be a great idea if he and I both ran the race," Kirsten Daehler says. "I had never run two steps in my life, but we both went into training and we both qualified and we ran the race together two years ago. We crossed the finish line holding each other's hand."
"I think there is a difference in the appreciation of the event now," says Wellesley president Nannerl Keohane. "When I went here in 1960 and '61 it was a festival, a circus. I think more women now have run or have been involved in some physical exercise. I think there is a greater understanding of the event."
President Keohane joins her women of Wellesley, both at the Central Street curbside and in the cheering. She is a marathon regular, leaving her afternoon calendar open for the day. Five years ago she was able to cheer for her husband, a Harvard professor, as he struggled along the route.
"He got a good cheer when he came past, but he was running with one of our most popular economics professors," Keohane says. "I think most of the cheering was for the economics professor. I don't know how many of the women knew who my husband was."
No matter. Every man who runs the race is cheered at Wellesley. Young or old. Fast or slow. President's husband or not. Every man...and every woman.
"That's what no one ever seems to mention," Firth says, planning for that big picnic day with the Phi Gamma Delts. "The biggest cheer every year is for the first woman to run past Wellesley. The women usually get the biggest cheers of all."
Benetton...Community Playhouse (Closed)...Wellesley Hills...Rte. 128 Overpass...Newton-Wellesley Hospital...Newton Fire House, Station 2....
Runners. Freddy Lennon has seen runners. Do you want to talk about runners? You have come to the right place. Station 2, at Washington Street and Commonwealth Avenue, is the largest firehouse in Newton. The equipment sparkles. There are no calls at the moment. Runners are crazy. Ask Lennon.
Start anywhere. Start with the guy who showed up that one marathon day with the giant speakers.
"He wanted to play the song from that movie with fire in the title," Lennon says on this quiet afternoon.
"Fire?" Mick DeMeo, a fellow fireman, asks.
"The one about the Olympics. Something to do with fire."
"Chariots of Fire?"
"That's the one," Lennon says. "The guy said his friend had been training every day, listening to the theme from Chariots of Fire on his Walkman. He thought it would be nice to play the music here when his friend turned into the hills. The guy set up these giant speakers. Started playing the song. Played it so loud you couldn't hear anything. Couldn't hear the radio. If there was a fire you couldn't have heard the call. We had to tell the guy to cut it out.
"There was a runner in here yesterday. He was taking a shower in our water fountain. I said, 'What are you doing?' He said, 'Cooling off, it's good for you.' I said, 'Maybe it's good for you, but that's where we drink water. And you're taking a shower in it.' "
Runners appear at Station 2 on Christmas. They appear on New Year's Day. Station 2 is where the race course moves into the hills of Newton, the Gateway to Hell, 17½ miles completed, just under 8¾ to go, the beginning of the stretch where the race is won or lost. The rest of the year it is where a lot of runners training out of Boston turn around.
"My cousin ran the marathon one year," Lennon says. "He gave up right here at the firehouse. I gave him a ride home. I didn't say anything that day because he felt so bad, but I let him have it the next time. I told him if he was looking for sympathy about dropping out, he could find it in the dictionary between sweat and syphilis, because he wasn't going to get it from me."
There have been some nice marathon moments at the firehouse. Eleven years ago, on a 90° day when 40% of the field didn't finish, the firemen strung a hose from one of the trucks into a nearby bush to give every runner who passed an impromptu shower. It was called the Run For The Hoses. Even Freddy Lennon helped.
"Oh, you had to do something," he says. "That day was just awful. I've never seen one close to it. Before or since. Those people were just suffering. You had to do something to help."
Most of the time when Charley Feeley worked on Heartbreak Hill he was teaching children how to ride their bicycles. He would sit inside the big Newton Police Department cruiser and drive behind the wobbly line of kids. He would dispense amplified instructions from his loudspeaker as the group moved slowly along Commonwealth Avenue.
When Feeley worked on Heartbreak Hill during the marathon, he also was in his cruiser. He also was talking into his microphone.
"It's funny how I started doing that," he says. "At first, my job was to clear a path for the first-place runner. I would drive along the route and tell everyone to move back because the runners were coming. I always made two passes. One to open the path. The second to make sure it was still open.
"One time, though, I somehow got caught. When I came back to make my second pass, the runners had come farther than I thought they would, and I had to stop the car at the top of Heartbreak Hill. Since I was in the car and had nothing to do while everybody passed, I started talking...and I guess somebody liked it."
Feeley is 68 years old, retired as a lieutenant after 42 years with the Newton police, but until three years ago he was the voice of Heartbreak Hill. Feeley offered encouragement to the worn and tired folk who, on finally reaching this rise in the land, would have a view of the Prudential and Hancock towers of Boston.
"Congratulations, you are now at the top of Heartbreak Hill," he would say. "You have five and a half miles to go. Most of it is downhill."
This is the place, the end of the hills, where sprints are traditionally made. This is also the place where legs grow old. "You could tell who was going to make it and who wasn't," he says. "You'd see some of them...the greatest grade going down the hill is three degrees. You knew that if their feet weren't bleeding at the top, their feet would be bleeding at the bottom."
He congratulated survivors. He directed the casualties of the race to the MBTA stop at Boston College, where they could hop a Green Line ride into the city. Once he even ordered Paul Newman off the course. Newman was directing a movie that featured his wife, Joanne Woodward, as a runner. Feeley said that he hadn't heard about the movie. Off.
"One year I was sitting there and this guy helping a blind runner comes up to the car," Feeley says. "The helper has lost his steam, can't go anymore, but the blind runner wants to finish. The guy asks if I can guide the blind runner into Boston.
"I start driving the car, giving the blind runner directions. I tell him when to turn left or right, when to move around a hole in the road. All that stuff. It works fine until we get near the finish. The crowd is so large I can't move the car in there.
"I spot a rather out-of-shape Boston patrolman at a streetcorner. I'm wearing my lieutenant's uniform, all the gold and soup on, and that's what I try to show. 'Officer,' I say in the loudspeaker, 'run with this man to the finish.' The patrolman starts to move, but he's walking. I get on the loudspeaker again. 'I said, RUN!' The patrolman starts running with the blind guy, what a picture, and that's the last I saw of either of them."
Feeley works twice a week now as a talk-show host on a local radio station. He has been replaced in the cruiser by Lieut. James O'Donnell. The congratulations continue at the top of Heartbreak Hill.
"I was going to a wedding a couple of years ago in Holyoke," Feeley says. "I was checking out of the motel and I yelled to my daughter to bring something down from the room. Three guys started yelling at me, saying that they recognized my voice from the marathon. They were runners. It was kind of nice for the ego, you know."
Boston College...Chestnut Hill Avenue...Old Bill Rodgers Running Center...Cleveland Circle...Coolidge Corner...New Bill Rodgers Running Center....
The old store—where strangers waited outside every night in the week before the 1979 marathon in hopes of running around the reservoir at Cleveland Circle with Bill Rodgers—closed last December. Condo conversions. Buy or leave. The choice was to leave. This is the new store. New patterns of craziness have yet to develop at this version of the Bill Rodgers Running Center.
"Different places on the racecourse present different realities," Jason Kehoe, the assistant manager, says. "We still don't know what it will be like here. The old store was in an area that was a pretty yahoo sort of place. Now we're a little farther down the road. We're hoping this will be a little quieter."
The old store, opened in a former basement dry cleaners in the midst of Rodgers's string of four Boston wins in six years (1975-80) and the quick upsurge in running, was part YMCA, part shrine, part surprise. It had a neophyte sort of innocence to it—three showers that could be used for workers and visitors after daily training runs; customers who might stand around for half of the day, simply waiting for the defending marathon champ to appear.
"It was cramped, but pleasant," Kehoe says. "You can't just go to Fenway Park and hang around the Red Sox clubhouse, but you could come to the store. If Billy was going out for a run and you wanted to go and you could keep up, you could do it. What do you think would happen if you went over to Jim Rice and asked him if you could play a game of catch with him?"
On race days the store was officially closed. One reason was that the crowd watching the race at Cleveland Circle is one of the rowdier groups, filled with college kids and the smell of beer. Another reason was that there weren't many people on the staff who wanted to work on race day.
"The Rodgers family would come down and watch the race in the store," Kehoe says. "You could watch the start on television, go out and give Billy a water bottle when he came past, then go back and watch the finish on television. When he was winning every year, it was as exciting at the store as it's ever going to get."
Kehoe ran the marathon in two of those winning years. Both times he dropped off the pace somewhere along Heartbreak Hill and walked home to the store. He sat at the side of the celebration.
"I'd be there with two feelings," he says. "I'd be overjoyed that Billy won, but personally I'd be in the pits."
The new store, which opened in January, is two miles down Beacon Street, closer to the finish. The neighborhood seems more residential. The store is on the first floor, not in the basement. There still is a shower in the basement, however, and a pleasant, low-pressure atmosphere. There still is the man who won four Boston Marathons.
"The closer we come to the race, the crazier it'll become around here," Kehoe says. "It's already started. As soon as Billy gets here, the phone will be ringing off the hook."
Fenway Park...the Citgo Sign...Ken more Square...Massachusetts Avenue...the Eliot Lounge....
The night at the Eliot Lounge that Tommy Leonard likes best is the night Jacqueline Gareau came through the door. There actually are a lot of nights at the Eliot Lounge that Leonard likes best, but this night he likes best of the best.
"It was a few weeks after the race in 1980," Leonard says. "That was the year of Rosie Ruiz. Jackie Gareau from Montreal actually won the race, but the stories were all about Rosie Ruiz and how she sneaked in at the finish. I'll never forget what Joanie Benoit said, that 'Jackie has been denied forever the thrill of her greatest moment.'
"There was a ceremony a few weeks later, at the finish line, to give her the medal she rightfully won, and after the ceremony we invited her back to the Eliot. We had a bouquet of roses waiting for her and some champagne. There were a couple of sportswriters from Montreal drinking at the bar. They started singing O Canada, and we had a piano player who started to play and the whole bar started singing. It was a beautiful moment. I'm getting choked up just talking about it."
The Eliot, which stands at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Commonwealth, seven blocks from the finish, is the clubhouse to the marathon, the almost-official runners' bar, a sort of Boys Town for anyone who ever jogged as far as the corner to catch a bus. Tommy Leonard is a sort of Father Flanagan.
While working as a bartender at the Eliot in 1971 and running the marathon as a member of the great huffing and puffing masses, he decided that his two loves should be joined. He obtained a mailing list of the marathon entrants and sent each runner a postcard inviting him or her to the Eliot for a free beer after the race.
The marathon runners started to show up at the Eliot Lounge.
"The big jump came in 1975," Leonard says. "Billy Rodgers had won the Falmouth Road Race on the Cape a year earlier, beating Marty Liquori in a heck of a race. His car was towed after that race, and I helped him get it back. One thing led to another. I got him to come to the Eliot when he was in Boston. Then, in April of 1975, he wins the marathon in a record 2:09:55 and is asked on national television what he's going to do now that the race is finished. Billy says, Tm going to the Eliot to have a Blue Whale,' and that was it. The place has been crazy with runners ever since."
The motif is runner chic. Is there another bar in the country with a signed 24- by 42-inch full-color picture of Orlando Pizzolato on a wall? Is there another bar with a countdown calendar to the marathon—any marathon—on the wall, numbers changed daily? With Carl Lewis's record indoor long jump measured on the floor and the world high jump record measured on a wall? Is there another bar with the footprints and autographs of famous marathon runners in cement on the sidewalk outside?
"I have to get that cement mixture right," Leonard says. "There's a perfect mixture for footprints, and I bet that Chinese theater place in Hollywood has it. I have to call that place sometime."
The mailing list to attract runners on the day of the marathon has disappeared and, because of fire laws, the Eliot has become the site of a private, by-invitation-only race-day party. The lines outside on the days preceding and following the race have developed a Studio 54 quality. Studio 54 in sweatsuits.
"The year Joanie Benoit set the record?" Leonard says, referring to Benoit's 2:22:43 mark in 1983, "she stands outside in the line, waiting to get inside. Not a peep out of her. That's the kind of person she is. She wouldn't just go up to the guy on the door and tell him who she was. The guys on the door, they don't know anything about track and field. They didn't recognize her. I guess the same thing happened last year with Ingrid Kristiansen after she won the race."
"The trouble with the door," says one of the guys who is at the door, "is that everybody comes up to you and says that he knows Tommy Leonard. And the trouble is that everybody does."
Hereford Street...Boylston Street...The Prudential Center...The Hancock Tower...The Finish Line....
The garage is a normal garage. An engine is started and the sound is magnified. A door is slammed. A salesman drives around and around, looking for the right spot to park his car. A well-dressed woman with shopping bags from expensive stores wonders if she has parked her car on the Green Level or the Blue Level, the Red or the Orange. Which was it?
There is no indication that more exciting moments have occurred exactly where she walks.
"I often wished that there was some way you could have cut the roof off of this place on the day of the marathon and taken a giant picture to show the mess down here," Tony Cataldo says about the Prudential Center parking garage. "Not a messy mess. The madhouse. The ugly side of the marathon. How tired the people were. How hurt some were. Just a look at all the things that were happening."
For 21 years, this parking garage under a skyscraper in the middle of a big city was the final Boston Marathon stop. The winners were hustled here from the finish line to describe their victories in a press conference. The rest of the field simply followed. This was where the medical center was. This was where the showers were. This was where the luggage containing clean clothes had been shipped from Hopkinton in vans. The Blue Level.
"The rush always was to have everything ready by the time the first runner arrived," Cataldo says. "Once he got here, there was no stopping. The first runner would arrive at a few minutes after two, and from then until six or seven at night people would be arriving."
Cataldo was the Prudential employee in charge of converting the garage into a giant locker room. The Blue Level would be closed three days before the race. The showers would be installed. The medical facilities would arrive from local hospitals. The floors and walls and ceilings would be steamed clean. The garage would become the cleanest garage in America.
"Some people would arrive here who were really hurting," Cataldo says. "It was amazing to me that some of them would put themselves in the condition they were in. They'd wobble in here and sit down. One of those thermal blankets pulled around them, and that would be the only possession they had. They'd have no money, no luggage, no friends. They'd be from out of town, all alone, shivering. No one to wait for them.
"We'd wind up trying to find people rides, sending them to hospitals, finding, them money. I remember taking three people back to Brookline at 11 o'clock one night a couple of years ago. They were just wandering around here." he says. The collective enthusiasm of Hopkinton would be changed to individual struggles for survival. The parade at the end would be single file, across the double-yellow line in front of the Prudential. Here. Made it. Done. For 21 years the garage would be the runners' biggest marathon reward of all. A place to sit down.
"Everything felt strange last year," Cataldo says. "I was here, and the runners weren't. It was an odd feeling. The garage was just a garage again."
The finish of the marathon was changed last year. The John Hancock Insurance Company took over sponsorship of the race from Prudential. The finish was switched closer to the Hancock skyscraper. The entire course was tugged forward by two blocks down Boylston Street. Tents were pitched on the plaza at Copley Square to handle most of the functions that the garage had handled. The finish became a white line painted next to the Boston Public Library. The winners were taken to the Copley Plaza Hotel. New backgrounds were attached to all the traditional scenes. The homestretch where Bill Rodgers and Joan Benoit and Amby Burfoot and Alberto Salazar—and thousands and thousands of other runners of the past two decades—ran is now under construction.
"It's funny, but last year was the first time I could watch the race," Cataldo says. "I'd always been too busy down in the garage. This time, I stood out front and watched the lead runner go past. I almost expected him to turn into the garage. When he didn't, I wanted to yell, "Hey, don't you know me? I've got a shower for you inside.' "
The runner passed. Tony Cataldo watched the marathon for a while, then found his truck in the garage and drove home. Back to normal.