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  MICHAEL HOLLEY

26.2 miles of storytelling

By Michael Holley, Globe Columnist, 4/16/2001

ne more time, for the 105th time, a gun will be fired and the Boston Marathon will begin. The streets will be painted, school will be out, there will be vacant parking meters in the Back Bay, the Red Sox will play in the morning, a Kenyan will finish in the top three, and Manny Ramirez will have an RBI.

What a day.

Ours is supposedly a society of short attention spans. But thousands of people remain interested in a race that has been held every April since 1897. Say ''Boston Marathon'' to serious road racing fans, and they'll look at you as if you cued their favorite song. They won't mind if you play it again once, twice, or 105 times. There's always a subtle riff or rhythm they swear they've never heard.

You don't have to love racing to love this old race; a respect for history and storytelling will do. Hopkinton-to-Boston is not so much a route as it is a 26.2-mile timeline. A living, breathing, evolving timeline.

The Marathon has been affected by all the themes that have stoked the engines of America, themes that have led to arguments and celebrations and philosophical wrestling. Those themes - from brilliance to authenticity to gender to absurdity to cash - have always kept the race fresh and unpredictable.

No one could have guessed the Boston Athletic Association would have to confront its sexism in the 1960s, when Roberta Gibb and Kathrine Switzer refused to let Boston host an all-male, Members-Only Marathon. Literally and figuratively, no one saw Rosie Ruiz coming in 1980. Hardcore purists cringed in 1986 when prize money became an incentive for some to run.

You know how many people in other countries refer to us as ugly, self-important Americans? We could have shaken the label in the 1980s if we had sent everyone tapes of the Marathon. That was when it became clear Americans weren't going to dominate the course, yet thousands of New Englanders continued to shout themselves hoarse supporting favorites from Kenya, Japan, Ethiopia, and Russia.

There have been three-time champions and a four-time champ. There was a winner - Uta Pippig in 1997 - who had to fight off her opponents while simultaneously dealing with the cycle that affects millions of women every 28 days. Last year, there was a second-place finisher - Gezahegne Abera - whose road rage caused him to vent during a postrace press conference. The Ethiopian marathoner said he didn't win because Kenyans intentionally blocked his path.

What will be the story this year? A record-setting wheelchair racer? A return to the top by Fatuma Roba? Redemption for Abera?

Thousands of fans will watch today's race simply because it's a cool ritual on a unique holiday. Not only do residents of Massachusetts and Maine get an offday, the feds have even given us an extra day to file our taxes.

Everything revolves around running today. The Red Sox play their earliest game of the year, at 11:05 a.m., giving baseball fans time to see or hear the finish. Some of the busiest streets in the city will be free of automobiles and manic horns.

More than 15,000 athletes will be on New England's streets, and many more than 14,000 of them will be unfazed by the prize money. Of course, most people wouldn't object to extra income. But if you polled these athletes and asked what they most wanted out of their 26.2-mile mission, they'd say recognition. Not necessarily recognition in the form of awards or paychecks, but recognition linked to an appreciation of their sport. It is that appreciation that makes the race a good one, because it makes celebrities out of everyone on the course, elite athletes and once-a-year marathoners alike.

Those participants who didn't arrive in Hopkinton last night will travel there this morning. Because of these racing lovers, the restaurants near the starting line will be full of conversation. Some patrons will drink black coffee, some will have bagels or the No. 3 special, some will sit on the floor, stretching while reading a newspaper.

And then they will do what runners, wheelchair athletes, and their fans have been doing for years. The watchers will laugh a little, gossip a little, maybe throw something on the grill and, with all sincerity, encourage a runner they don't know. The participants, regardless of status, will begin with dreams of first place. Then, regardless of status, they'll try to make it through all 26.2 miles.

Participants never take those miles for granted. Anyone can tell you marathoning is like riding an obsessed mechanical bull. It is always twisting, thrashing, challenging, waiting for you to give in to the intensity and fall off. It's hard work. The intimidating bull has caused the best marathoners to surrender momentarily. It forces them into passivity on the course, making them wonder whether their bodies are capable of climbing aboard again and finishing a strangely rewarding ride.

That's why it's not corny when the people cheer, nor is it corny for marathoners to say the cheers helped them. On Patriots Day, anyone running on the streets of Greater Boston between noon and dusk can use the support. They may be competing, but they still notice the faces on the roadside and the screams coming from them.

They noticed in 1946, the year of the 50th Marathon.

They noticed in 1972, the year women were officially recognized as Marathon participants.

They will notice in 2001, when the race will start and end for the 105th time.

Once again, the guns will sound today and the partying and racing will begin. Those 15,000 athletes will be the featured guests of the party. They will cover the length of the hilly course, where there will be a different story from mile to mile and face to face.

Michael Holley is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is holley@globe.com.

This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 4/16/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.


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