Part of a series about a running enthusiast who participated in last year's Boston Marathon.
Believe it or not, if you were to ask a Peruvian about Boston, chances are she wouldn’t mention the Red Sox. An Algerian probably doesn’t imagine a bowl of chowder. Baked beans? That’s not what most Belgians likely know about Boston. I'd bet most Koreans probably aren't hip to the Boston Tea Party. Down under, the average Aussie might not picture Boston as a major hub of higher education.
No. To the world, our fair city is best known for one thing: the Boston Marathon. Home of the oldest continually run marathon on the planet, we Bostonians host the world’s premier event of the world’s number one sport. From Timbuktu to Tijuana, children across the world learn to run almost as soon as they learn to walk. It’s the one activity that every able-bodied human is born able to do. And for those without functioning legs, the Boston Marathon has a wheelchair division.
These are some mean athletes, too. South African Ernst van Dyk has won nine Boston Marathons in the wheelchair division. Nine! He set the world record in Boston in 2004—1:18:27. For those of you keeping track at home, the marathon record on foot for men is 2:03:59, set by running legend Haile Gebrsellassie of Ethiopia at the Berlin Marathon in 2008 (breaking his previous world record of 2:04:26 set at Berlin the year before). If Ernst and Haille were to show up in Hopkinton, shake hands, and set off toward Boston, the South African would be in Copley enjoying a cold Harpoon draft forty-five minutes before his continental counterpart showed up.
An unbroken history is part of what makes the Boston Marathon so special. In 1897, the first Boston Marathoners showed up in Ashland to get underway. (Wait, Ashland? Not Hopkinton? Yes. The first twenty-seven editions of the race began in Ashland. The race as we know it today—Hopkinton to Copley—began in 1924.) Monday marked the 115th race meaning that Boston Marathoners have run through the Great Depression and two World Wars. It just goes to show that when the times get tough, the tough keep running.
The goal of any elite marathoner is the win Boston; the goal for any amateur runner—my goal—is to qualify. And the ironic thing is, Boston isn’t even an Olympic Qualifier. But for runners, that isn’t really the point. Running from A to B is a better race anyway (Olympic qualifiers start and end in the same spot). And dramatic changes in elevation (disallowed for Olympic qualifiers) make Boston particularly challenging and exciting—and heartbreaking. That we have a section of the course known the world over as “Heartbreak Hill” is pretty darn sweet.
Until recently I failed to fully appreciate all this. Last April I somehow mustered the chutzpah to run the same hallowed ground as the titans of running, as an unregistered bandit. I was naďve then. A year older, though perhaps no wiser, my profound respect for the sport and its masters has grown immensely, giving me an entirely different perspective on the Boston Marathon. As the banners have gone up across Boston in the past few weeks, featuring male and female runners and wheelchair racers from across the world, it has really struck me. The entire world will be watching us. As we cheer in Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Newton, Brookline, and Boston, people from Helsinki, Accra, Frankfurt, Nairobi, Warsaw, Nassau, Beirut, and Belfast will be watching too. This is both our gift to the world, our moment to share our fantastic city, as well as their gift to us, a pilgrimage that many have worked a lifetime to make.
To those of you who ran, I salute you. This was a truly exceptional race and a very special day.
John C. Scott is a North End resident. Read more about him and his running adventures at www.therunningbostonian.com.