Friday, April 12, 2013

It Takes a Village to Make the Boston Marathon What It Is

"No one gets to their heaven without a fight" - Neil Peart

This past weekend, my wife & I made our somewhat bi-monthly trip up to Boston to visit my son, Michael, and his wife, Joanie. And of course, we were also visiting our very rapidly growing grandchildren, 3 1/2 year old Adam and 1 1/2 year old Emma. Holy cow, talk about energy. Ol' grandpa was pretty pooped almost every day. A game of tag in the park can turn into quite an intensive aerobic workout, although Adam didn't seemed too phased after 20 minutes straight of "you're it!". 

Usually, when our visit comes around this time of year, we'll usually finagle the schedule so it coincides with the Boston Marathon, but this year, we were just too anxious to get up there and play grandparents. I did however, get in my mandatory run on the BM course, which always includes crossing the finish line, which is painted across Bolyston Street year-round. I've done Boston 5 times, but those days are behind me and now I run on the roads full of not just my memories, but also the memories of thousands of some very special runners. As I ran down Beacon Street this year, over "Mt Kenmore", past Fenway and the famous Citgo Sign, up Hereford and down Bolyston, I had plenty of time to think about what makes Boston so special.

First of all, it's the community - it contagiously seems so involved. I’ve attended races in other large cities, such as Chicago, Atlanta, San Diego and even Disney World, but nothing comes close to the crowd and community support shown during the Boston. For example, a marathon is 26.2 miles, and in most races, it’s common for runners to come across sections of the course with no spectators, just peace and quiet (or boredom). However, during the Boston, the entire course is lined with people...I've read at least 500,000! The seven cities along the point-to-point course each will pack the course, but as you get closer to Boston, the crowd gets thicker and thicker and louder and louder. Everyone in Boston and all the towns along the race route feel as though they have some kind of ownership of the race; this is a time for them to shine on one of the world’s brightest running gems. Of course, there is that giant bulge of excitement at roughly the
 halfway point when you enter The Scream Tunnel - Wellesley College. There are few bigger thrills in marathon running then hearing the absolute billion decibel shrill from coeds holding signs begging to be kissed. The Boston Marathon starts at 10 a.m., and by the time you reach downtown, the crowds can be 10 deep. What’s especially interesting is that most of the spectators are from the local area. (Participants in the Boston Marathon must qualify within a certain time for their age group. It’s pretty competitive, so most runners are not from the surrounding areas). This race isn’t just a race; it’s a community event.   

The most amazing experiences for me at Boston always begin at the point in time when I land at Logan International Airport in Boston. As soon as I step off of the plane, I see a sudden shift in the morphology of the general population around me. First, signs greet the runners as soon as you hit the concourse. There are large billboards, banners, and motivation signs everywhere...the airport, the subways, the streets, painted on buildings, on top of taxis. Athletic folks abound all over, carrying water bottles and wearing t-shirts espousing the various running clubs or races that they have been affiliated with. To your right and left are small groups of folks chatting quietly and confidently while chewing on a Clif Bar. In truth, even before this if you are flying into Boston, you only need to look around the plane you are flying on to see hints of this already. It's exciting to be flying into a hub from anywhere USA (in my case, Birmingham, Al) to catch
 your connection to Boston. In this hub there will be hundreds, and on your plane there will be dozens of folks going to the Holy Grail of marathoning. These people need no medals swung loosely around their necks for us to understand just how talented these runners are. It isn’t the running shoes on their feet or the small duffel bag on their shoulder that gives them away.  In fact it’s in their confidence and the special stare in their eyes. What makes Boston different than any other marathon is that everyone that has qualified for this race has already done the work to get here. There is nothing left to worry about or be concerned about aside from any demons that we all continue to carry around with us in search of our next good race, and if it should be at Boston, so much the better. Boston is about celebrating your accomplishments. 

Unlike other marathons, where people wander aimlessly around the expo, the huge Boston Marathon Expo is very much business as usual, with runners getting in, and getting out as efficiently as possible. When you go to the Boston Expo, most runners know how this works because they've done this so many times before. Everyone there knows what they are capable of accomplishing. All the vendors seem to be so much more attuned to the seasoned runner and not needing to slowly guide a new runner through the maze of their wares and products. We know what they're selling and hawking. We know what we want. We want to know what's new, or where's the booth that has what we want (not necessarily need). 

The charity entries have definitely changed this atmosphere, and although I was a Team-in-Training coach for 15 years, I actually discourage folks from running Boston under a charity entry. I simply think that there’s nothing wrong with one marathon to be held aside for those age-groupers who purely by genetic gift or gut-out training have risen to this level of performance. All marathons have their personalities and Boston is no exception. The course is no joke, but it is after all, just another course, 26.2 miles long. To me what is really special about Boston is that from the moment you get off the plane till the moment you get back to the airport to go home you have a community that is singularly committed to celebrate all of the sacrifices that you made to get there and all the joy you have in your personal feat. In short, The Boston Marathon is the slam dunk of running. Not everyone can do it, but when you do, the immediate world the whole
 Boston-Metro area takes notice and you can’t help but feel that it was all worth it. 

Congratulations to all who will be participating in Boston on Monday. As always, I am humbled by your achievement. Congratulations on your journey.

Here, there, or anywhere, I'll see you all on the roads.

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world" 


Anne Lawrence said...

so poignent reading this after what occurred at the race. I have never before had a desire to qualify for Boston, not until now. Your depiction of the race atmosphere has a part in that decision! I hope to be there next year, only as a spectator for a dear friend who has worked years to qualify. -Kathleen

AL said...

Thank you so much for your comments. I hope you get to go next year just to absorb the atmosphere. It is truly a magical place, though the tragedy of this week has once again shown that no place is not vulnerable to the demons that lurk among us. They will never win, but they will never stop trying.