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2006 Boston Marathon
  The course: Fun, then sweat, then heartbreak hell

Stage One

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The start
Hopkinton Common is a scene to savor, minute by minute, for hours before racetime. No matter the weather, the town green is alive with the nervous anticipation of athletes pacing and prancing among the hawkers and spectators.

At 11:30, a half-hour before the starter's gun, it's time to stretch again, jog a bit and review race strategy. At 11:45, duck underneath the rope barrier and claim a 2-square-foot plot in the staging area.

At noon, the gun sounds and the world's elite marathoners begin their quick step to Boston. For agonizing minutes afterwards, the rest of the field snakes its way to the starting line at the Doughboy Statue.

Right away, the course drops sharply. Most runners find themselves boxed in, unable to open their strides and forced to conserve their energy for the road ahead. In this regard, the crowded conditions are a blessing. At 1.1 miles, the sounds of live country fiddlers elicit yelps and hoots from the herd.

4.3 miles: In Ashland
A quarter-mile past the Dairy Queen on Route 135, the course's first significant hill winds to the left. To this point the course has been almost all downhill through semirural residential areas. Now, having established a comfortable pace just under 6 minutes per mile, I work to maintain that rhythm up the hill, testing my strength ever so slightly for the half-mile incline. The crowds have increased, and a sign over the road reminds us: ''22 miles to Boston.''

6.6 miles: Framingham
The intensity of the race has accelerated and runners pass me as I resist the urge to run with them, concentrating instead on maintaining an even pace. A big sweeping left brings us down a short slope to a long flat stretch past the Framingham train station, and to the intersection of Routes 135 and 126. The crowd here is the biggest yet, a five- deep mob that compels nearly everyone to run a little faster. At 7 miles, opposite the Dennison factory, I see my wife for the first time since Hopkinton. An encouraging word, a quick kiss on the run, and I'm off for Natick.

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