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Evolution of the Boston Marathon finish line

No end to the changes organizers have made through the years

By John Powers
Globe Staff / April 16, 2010

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The 24 miles in the middle haven’t changed since Tom Burke shouted “Go!’’ in 1897. But the Boston Marathon’s starting and finishing lines have been moved up and back again and again to accommodate everyone from John Hancock to the King of England.

The race’s original beginning and end lasted only two years. In 1899, the start was moved from Metcalf’s Mill on Pleasant Street to High Street on the bridge above the railroad tracks to adjust the distance to a full 25 miles, and the finish was switched to Exeter Street in front of the Boston Athletic Association’s clubhouse. By 1907 the field had grown from 18 to 126, too large for the narrow bridge, so the start was moved past downtown Ashland to Union Street.

But the most enduring change came in 1924 when, with Boston hosting the US trials for the Summer Games in Paris, the BAA decided to lengthen the race to the Olympic standard of 26 miles, 385 yards that had been established in 1908 in London when the marathon began near Windsor Castle. That meant moving the starting line up the road to Hopkinton, where the race has commenced in one place or another ever since.

Remeasurements and sponsor desires accounted for the other tweakings to the layout. In 1927 the course was found to be 127 yards short. After Finland’s Antti Viskari broke the record by more than four minutes in a shocking 2 hours, 14 minutes, 14 seconds in 1956, the course was recalculated and discovered to be 1,183 yards shy because of road straightening and other alterations since 1951. So the starting line was moved up the hill to the town green, where it remained until Prudential stepped in as sponsor in 1965.

The insurance company’s new tower provided several advantages. The stretch run on Ring Road was considerably wider for a field that had more than doubled (to 447) in five years and the Pru was visible for miles, providing an encouraging target for the forlorn and the footsore. So the finish was moved around the corner from Exeter and the start moved to Hayden Rowe.

By 1978 the running boom had swollen the field tenfold to 4,764 and the starting area, as previous year’s champion Jerome Drayton pointedly remarked, had grown dangerously chaotic with the lead runners being pushed and tripped. So the start was moved back to Route 135, avoiding the sharp righthand turn that made the first few hundred yards reminiscent of the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona.

When Hancock stepped in with a 10-year, $10 million deal before the 1986 race, it made corporate sense not to have the race end in front of a principal rival. So the line was moved down Boylston Street, across from the Copley Square library and closer to the Hancock Tower, and the start was shifted yet again, this time to Main Street alongside the Doughboy Statue. One way or another, they get to 26 miles, 385 yards.

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