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The Long Run Next week's 108th Boston Marathon will add to a legacy of heroes and heartbreaks

April 19, 2004
April 19, 2004

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April 19, 2004

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The Long Run Next week's 108th Boston Marathon will add to a legacy of heroes and heartbreaks

Nearly two decades ago, Blair De St. Croix moved his young
family to a home on Main Street in Hopkinton, Mass., not far
from the starting line for the Boston Marathon. De St. Croix
had frequently watched the closing miles of the race that all
of Massachusetts knows simply as the Marathon, standing
alongside a street in Boston's Back Bay as runners streamed
past for hours in a long, painful procession to the finish
line. So he knew what the annual event was about--or at least
thought he did. "It's like when somebody buys a house on the
ocean," says De St. Croix. "You know it's there, but until you
walk outside every day and see the ocean, you don't really
understand it. That's the way it was with the marathon."

This is an article from the April 19, 2004 issue Original Layout

That's the way it is with the marathon. Begun in 1897 and
contested for 107 years without interruption, the Boston Marathon
is on the very short list of hallowed, old-school American
athletic traditions, with events like the Kentucky Derby, the
U.S. Open in golf and tennis and the Indianapolis 500. Since 1924
the course has covered virtually the same 26 miles, 385 yards,
from the town green in sleepy Hopkinton to the center of Boston.
Runners from 23 countries have won the race, including some of
the most revered names in marathoning. "The history is what sets
Boston apart," says Bill Rodgers, a four-time winner. "As you're
running the course, you're thinking to yourself, Abebe Bikila,
the greatest marathoner of all time, ran right here. And every
man or woman in the race can say the same thing. No other race
comes close."

Bikila, the 1960 and '64 Olympic champion, ran Boston in '63 but
did not win. Alberto Salazar won in '82, outlasting Dick
Beardsley in a hot-weather duel that remains one of the great
marathon battles in history. Ibrahim Hussein began Kenyan
dominance in '88 and won three times. Japan's Toshihiko Seko won
twice. Gelindo Bordin of Italy took Olympic gold in '88 and won
Boston two years later. Joan Benoit Samuelson, born in Maine, set
a women's world best of 2:22:43 in '83. John Babington,
cross-country and track coach at Wellesley College and a longtime
marathon volunteer, was standing at the nine-mile mark in Natick
that day when Samuelson flew past, and he can't shake the image.
"She just went storming by," he recalls. "I looked at my watch
and computed that she was running at a 5:09 pace for nine miles
[2:15 for a full marathon]. Pretty darned fast."

The race's pedigree as a world-class athletic event is beyond
reproach, yet that is just the veneer. The Boston Marathon is a
cultural phenomenon attended by more than 500,000 spectators who
collectively propel the field of more than 20,000 runners on a
journey into the soul of the state. "You go from agrarian, rural
countryside into small towns and then larger towns and then into
the big city, and each portion of the race has its own
character," says Amby Burfoot, who won Boston in 1968 at age 21
and is now the executive editor of Runner's World magazine.

"Along the way," says Rodgers, "anyone can become part of the
Boston Marathon. All they have to do is show up and find the
course." Natives know the race's history, and they embrace it.
They know that Clarence DeMar won the marathon seven times from
1911 to '30, that John A. Kelley won it twice and finished it 58
times, the last in '92, when he was 84 years old. They know that
in 1980 Rosie Ruiz rode a train to near the finish line, passed
herself off as the winner and got caught. They make the marathon
a party, but they do it with an abiding appreciation for the
event and its participants. "Boston people have a deep respect
for the marathon," says Burfoot. "They understand the marathon."

It begins in Hopkinton, a village of 13,000 that sits five miles
off the Massachusetts Turnpike, just inside the I-495 loop that
roughly defines the most distant edge of Boston's bedroom
communities. The marathon moved its start from Ashland two miles
west to Hopkinton in 1924, lengthening it to the accepted Olympic
distance. For 364 days each year Hopkinton is an idyllic town,
far enough from Boston to escape the hustle, close enough to live
and die with the Red Sox. Yet each year on Patriot's Day--the
Massachusetts holiday, celebrated on the third Monday in April,
that commemorates the start of the Revolutionary War--Hopkinton
becomes Woodstock in Nikes. "It's a 10-second walk from the end
of my driveway to the town green, and most days there might be
five people out there," says De St. Croix. "On marathon day there
are 50,000, from all over the world."

Hundreds of school buses ferry runners from Boston to Hopkinton
High, the nerve center of the village on marathon day. "I've been
in Hopkinton [on marathon day] when it was almost like summer and
when the yellow forsythia buds were covered by snow," says
Burfoot. "But every year it's the feel of Hopkinton that is
overwhelming to me." Some of the images are less idyllic, such as
the line of more than 100 runners--men and women--relieving
themselves under the minimal cover of a long row of rhododendron
bushes along Hayden Rowe. Marathoners depart from beneath the
towering church steeple that overlooks the green. Hours later,
the town is deserted.

The race flows downhill, quickly passing through Ashland,
Framingham and into Natick. In Wellesley, the halfway point,
spectators sit in folding chairs and balloons float on ribbons,
as if a Fourth of July parade will soon pass by. Near the western
edge of the town, Wellesley College students create a "sound
tunnel" of shrieks and screams. "Going through Wellesley was the
most bizarre sensation," says Don Kardong, who was fourth in the
'76 Olympic marathon and ran Boston in '78 and '79. "The noise
was raised a pitch, and it sent a chill right down my spine."

Next come the Newton hills, three punishing rises that culminate
in the famous Heartbreak Hill, so named by former Boston Globe
reporter Jerry Nason in 1936 when, on the last of the hills,
Ellison (Tarzan) Brown caught Kelley. At the top, near Boston
College, students shout, "It's all downhill from here!" It is,
but the long, continuous pitch is often torture on thighs beaten
lifeless by previous downhills and the climb through Newton. The
course moves on into Boston and past Kenmore Square, near Fenway
Park, where the Red Sox annually play at 11 a.m. (this year
against the Yankees), allowing baseball fans to spill into the
street just in time to watch the runners. The crowd is rowdier
here. "You see guys hanging from lampposts and screaming," says
Rodgers.

With barely a quarter mile to go, the runners turn onto Boylston
Street and into another sound tunnel as the final strides
disappear beneath their feet. Spectators interrupt corporate
wine-and-cheese receptions in the apartments and office suites
overlooking the finish. An olive wreath is placed on the winners'
heads. Afternoon becomes evening. And the marathon is gone for
another year.

This is the 39th in SI's 50th anniversary series on the 50
states. Next week: New Hampshire.

For more about sports in Massachusetts and the other 49 states,
go to si.com/50.

B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AP PHOTO ONE FOR THE AGES DeMar ran Boston 33 times and won it a record seven times. His last victory, in 1930 (above), came when he was 41; he's still the race's oldest champ.COLOR PHOTO: CHARLES KRUPA/AP PHOTO DONE! Catherine Ndereba of Kenya won in 2000 (and '01).B/W PHOTO: AP (RUIZ AND RODGERS) ROLL CALL Ruiz and Rodgers are part of Boston lore--though for different reasons--while wheelchair racers have been a race staple since the 1970s.COLOR PHOTO: VICTORIA AROCHO/AP ROLL CALL Ruiz and Rodgers are part of Boston lore--though for different reasons--while wheelchair racers have been a race staple since the 1970s.

The Marathon is a cultural phenomenon attended by more than
500,000 spectators who propel a field of 20,000 runners through
the soul of the state.