Spikes11 Apr 2016

More Than a Race


Boston Marathon spectators

To celebrate the rich history and greatness of the Boston Marathon, we get to grips with why it's come to represent more than just a race.

Longest race ever

Queen Victoria was sat on the British throne and the genesis of air flight was still a decade away when John J McDermott defeated a field of 15 to win the inaugural Boston Marathon – then known as the American Marathon – over a distance of 24.5 miles in a time of 2:55:10. The year was 1897. Since then the historic race has thrown up all manner of improbable champions, heartbreaking tragedies and heartlifting stories. 

In 1925 Chicago’s Chuck Mellor won with a wad of tobacco in his cheek and a morning edition of the Boston Globe down the front of his shirt to act as a windbreak. Finnish-born Canadian cobbler Dave Komonen was victorious in 1934, wearing homemade shoes, which he then sold to pay for his ticket back to Toronto.

In 1946 Boston Globe sport editor Jerry Nason described the 50th edition as “the most significant race of all time”, as Greek Stylianos Kyriakides, who was running to raise the plight of his starving countrymen, took victory to usher in a sustained period of international domination.

In recent years, little beats Meb Keflezighi’s victory in 2014. He was the first US winner for 31 years, and his victory came a year on from a bomb attack at the finish line that killed three civilians and injured more than 250 others.

Boston Marathon 1980

Startline in Hopkinton for the 1980 men's race, which was won by USA's Bill Rogers. The race has begun in the Massachusetts town since 1924

How VIP do we gotta get?

If you want to be part of the history you better be fast. Boston is the only of the six Marathon Majors to operate a stringent qualification system. Achieving the requisite time does not guarantee entry, but simply the opportunity to submit for registration.

Each runner’s BQ (Boston qualifying time) is determined by their age. The younger you are, the faster you have to be to register. Around 24,000 of the 30,000 spots are taken by this qualification method. Runners representing charities or sponsors fill the remaining places.

Here come the girls

For good and for bad, but thankfully in more recent times the good, the Boston Marathon has had a long association with women’s marathon running.

In 1966 Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb became the first woman to complete the race. Women were not officially allowed to enter at the time, so Gibb concealed her face with a hoodie and hid in a cluster of bushes at the startline, defying officials to run the distance in 3:21 (read her account here).

The following year Gibb returned to unofficially win the women’s race again (without wearing a number). However, the headlines were reserved for Kathrine Switzer, who had obtained a race number by entering under the guise of K.V Switzer. Furious race officials attempted to remove her number mid-race, before being cut down by Switzer’s boyfriend.

The first official women’s race was won by New Yorker Nina Kuscsik in 1972. Since then a string of the all-time great women marathoners have triumphed in Boston including Ingrid Kristiansen, Rosa Mota, Catherine Ndereba and Joan Beniot with the latter taking her second race win in 1983 in a world record 2:22:43 – the last time a WR was run on the course.

I do like Mondays

Bob Geldof once warbled something about disliking Mondays, but running fans could find a reason to disagree with him at least once a year. Staged on the third Monday of April – which is Patriots’ Day in the state of Massachussets – the Boston Marathon is always a Magic Monday in our book.

Whim of the wind

The Boston weather in April is as unpredictable as Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. Down the years, the great old race has thrown up every conceivable type of weather phenomena.

In 1908 there was snow, while Michael J Ryan won the 1912 race on a “mud and slush soaked course”. At the other end of the thermometer, the 1976 edition was held in temperatures exceeding 100°F (39°C). The race became known as the Run for the Hoses, with 40% per cent of the field failing to finish.

Things got sweatier still at the 2002 race, won by Kenyan Rodgers Rop, who was shrouded in heavy mist as humidity levels hit 96%. (When Rop returned home his wife gave birth to a son, who they called him Boston.)

Even the wind has played its part in shaping Boston’s history. Two-time Olympic champion (1960 and ‘64) Abebe Bikila, along with his Ethiopian countryman Mamo Wolde (‘68 Olympic champ), had forged a world record pace for the first 18 miles. But with a quarter of the race to go a sudden cold easterly wind at the Newtown Hills sapped their challenge. The pair finished fifth and 12th respectively, as Belgian Aurele Vandendriessche sailed home for the win.

Boston Marathon 1996

Kenyans have dominated the men's race in the modern era. The 1996 edition was won by Moses Tanui (hiding behind No.4)

Mt. Misery

Boston is the most undulating course of the Marathon Majors and has an infamous sting in its tail. The demanding four Newton Hills feature between miles 16-21. The last of these has a 27m climb over 600m and can prove decisive to the race outcome, so much that has become known as Heartbreak Hill.

Boston Globe sports editor Jerry Nason dubbed it thus after a dramatic 1936 race. Johnny Kelley overtook Ellison “Tarzan” Brown on the hill, giving him a consolation pat on the bottom as he passed him. The cheeky gesture appeared to anger Brown who rallied, pulled ahead of Kelley and took the race win. The defeat was said to have broken Kelley’s heart. A legend was born.

Duel in the Sun

Arguably the greatest race in Boston Marathon history came in 1982, as Massachusetts-raised Alberto Salazar defeated Minnesota dairy farmer Dick Beardsley by two seconds in a brutal head-to-head battle.

For a nine-mile stretch from the Newton Hills, Beardsley led with Salazar tucked in behind. With less than a mile remaining Salazar hit the front and opened up a gap. A frenzied sprint finish saw the runners weave in and around the police motorcycle escort.

Salazar held to win in a course record 2:08:52. It was the first race in history to see two men dip below 2hr 9mins. In 2004, Salazar told Runner’s World: “Among all the guys I ran with or against, Dick might be the one I feel closest to ... I think he and I have a special bond.” It was a bond forged in Boston.

The Scream Tunnel

When the marathon route passes through Wellesley, a town on the western edge of Boston, things get seriously loud. In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking there’s a Beatlemania revival for the short stretch of road past women’s liberal art institute Wellesley College.

Thousands of its students gather outside to cheer the runners on, screaming deliriously and offering high-fives to runners and even kisses. Some reports say the tradition of the Wellesley Scream Tunnel extends back to the very first race, when students cheered on their favourite athlete (from Harvard, it is said). Things were ratcheted up to the next level when Bobbi Gibb ran past in ‘66. “They were screaming and crying,” she writes here. “I felt as though I was setting them free.”

The noise generated by the Scream Wall is these days legendary. Indeed it is apparently so loud that runners can hear the students’ wails from a mile away.