It's been said that the Boston Marathon has the most involved, intense fans of any road race on the planet. After all, we've had 107 years to practice.
"In few other sports do spectators have the chance to direct an outcome by cheering, providing water and oranges, and offering directions or information," said race director Dave McGillivray. "Fans can help an outcome, or hurt it."
Jack Fultz knows this firsthand. He won the Boston Marathon in 1976 in 2:20:19. It was 96 degrees, and there were no official water stops back then. What kept him from collapsing were the fans who passed out cups of water.
Two years later, in 1978, the crowd was more unruly -- a well-meaning fan tossed a glass of water in his face, "almost ripping my eyelid off," recalled Fultz, a Lincoln resident. Others crowded the route so closely that runners had to run single-file in some spots. He missed a third-place finish that year by just two seconds.
While runners get all the attention, this is the story of the sidelines, which are by turns inspiring, maddening, comical, and just plain weird. There are the rituals, cheering sections, and even inside jokes that runners have come to expect from Boston Marathon fans year after year. Here are some sideline highlights of the 26 miles of emotional terrain that don't appear on official race maps.
Starting line: Hopkinton. The race starts on Marathon morning at 4:30 a.m. for the hundreds of volunteers who staff information booths, cleanup crews, and security details.
Runners start to arrive by bus around 9:30 a.m., and many rush first to the information stand, where longtime volunteers Jane and Dave Goodman have prepared enormous poster boards on which runners sign their name, race number, and a short message. The annual tradition is considered a good luck ritual by thousands of competitors.
In decades past, tourists would regularly camp out on the starting line for the best view. "Once, about 20 years ago, some tourists pulled up and parked their Winnebego right on the start line on the morning of the Marathon," said Hopkinton Police Chief Thomas Irvin. The out-of-towners were politely encouraged to relocate.
After the noontime starting gun, the runners are off -- although it will take more than 10 minutes for the back-of-the-pack runners to cross the starting line. The second the final pair of Nikes has passed, the cleanup begins. A dozen volunteers are placed on wardrobe duty -- assigned to collect for charity the hundreds of windbreakers, sweatsuits, and T-shirts the runners will shed within the first 2 miles of the race.
As the runners move onto Main Street, they encounter a lighthearted, almost festival atmosphere. A bluegrass band plays at Art's Auto Body Shop on East Main Street, and about a mile up the road, a homeowner blasts the theme from "Rocky" on outdoor stereo speakers.
Mile 7: Framingham-Natick line. A jokester has posted a hand-painted "Short Cut This Way" sign, with an arrow pointing to his own backyard, for as long as anyone can remember.
Mile 12: Wellesley College. You don't know loud until you've passed the cheering section posted outside Wellesley's Munger Hall, shortly before the race's halfway mark. The annual scream-fest has been described as "a wall of sound," "ear-piercing," and "inspiring."
"I haven't met a runner yet who says that they were not affected by the cheering at Wellesley College," said Jack Fleming, a Boston Athletic Association spokesman and experienced marathoner. "It's one of the most memorable spots on the route."
Mile 16: Newton-Wellesley Hospital. Race officials say runners rarely jog into the emergency room on Marathon Day, but dozens are expected to hobble into the post-Marathon injury clinic held here Tuesday.
Mile 18: West Newton. The marathon's first-ever kosher food snack will open for business this year at the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Chestnut Street. Volunteers from Temple Reyim in Newton will sell bagels, lox, cotton candy, and other kosher treats starting at 11 a.m. (No word if marathoners get to nosh for free.)
Mile 20: Heartbreak Hill. "This is where the cream rises to the top," said Hal Gabriel of Newton, who ran 23 Boston Marathons between 1962 and 1985. "I'm a purist. I like to watch the top runners making their moves. I see it as almost a religious experience. These are some of the greatest athletes in the world."
Mile 21: Boston College. As the runners reach The Heights, they are likely to find less cheering and more drinking. Brigham Prescott, a BC senior, reports that he and his friends plan to toast this year's runners as they go by.
Mile 25: Kenmore Square. Runners will pass by an unheralded, and unmarked, spot along Commonwealth Ave. where famous faker Rosie Ruiz is believed to have sneaked into the 1980 race, in which she placed "first." Her short-lived "victory" ushered in a new era of runner tracking and post-race testing. The BAA isn't likely to dedicate a plaque here anytime soon.
So, the sidelines spirit is as fleeting as the race itself. McGillivray, the race director, gets to see it evaporate firsthand. He spends the race riding triumphantly at the front of the lead police convoy. But around 4 p.m. Monday afternoon, McGillivray returns to Hopkinton to start running. By then, the crowds are gone, and the water stations have been dismantled.
He jogs along, sometimes with a friend or two, dodging traffic and overlooked trash. The few straggling spectators still hanging around tend to yell joking comments instead of cheers.
But in every town there is someone -- a race volunteer, police officer, or highway worker -- who waits by the side of the road to offer him water, oranges, and a lone cheer. The support touches him deeply, McGillivray said, and encompasses the spirit of the Boston race. He won't make it to Boylston Street until after 7 p.m., recorded as the last finisher on the books.
"When we organize the race, we have what we think people need -- water, clocks, and information," he said. "The only things we don't provide are the cheering, emotion, and enthusiasm. But those are the things that make the most important difference between finishing and not finishing the race."
Erica Noonan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.