Chat only for a moment with Tom Grilk, the affable executive director of the Boston Athletic Association, and you’ll quickly come to appreciate his perspective on the appeal of the Boston Marathon, the BAA’s – and in a certain way, the city’s – marquee event.
Actually, make that perspectives, plural. Grilk has seen the race from three distinct vantage points. He’s been an executive, moving into his current role in 2011. He’s been a competitor, running the race from 1976-78, finishing with a personal Boston best of 2 hours and 54 minutes in his final year. And he’s been the primary finish line announcer most years since 1979, though his other responsibilities will limit his contributions in that role this year.
Grilk has seen it all and nearly done it all, and his different frames of reference through the years have given him an added appreciation for the various ways the marathon matters.
“It’s part of the fabric of the community of all of our lives,” said Grilk. “If you grew up around here, you grew up with it. The opportunity that I’ve had is to experience it from a few different facets. One gets to see more of the event, but one also gets to see more elements of the community, which are so inextricably intertwined.
“In a way, that’s the most interesting part. That comes from people who come at it from different ways. It might be runners, it might be people who work on it a lot, who work on it a little, volunteers, spectators, people who don’t know much about it and suddenly become interested in it. All those various different perspectives combine to make it what it is.”
Grilk’s personal connection to the Boston Marathon was born almost serendipitously. He began running not for competition, but for clarity.
“I was never a runner, never a runner in school or anything,” he said. “I mostly did it to deal with stress. I’m a recovering business lawyer. Way back when I started in the practice, pretty much everybody seemed like they were smarter than I was, which brought a measure of stress. So I would run to deal with all of that. It just got to where I was running an hour, hour-and-a-half in the evening, to get it straightened it away.
“It was time to calm down, to think, to work through any problems that presented themselves. It always seems to me that to the extent that I ever had a clear thought, it was out on the run.”
“So I was running and then the notion of running the marathon became a challenge. I just wanted to see if I could do it. I was undistinguished, struggled to qualify, failed here and there, finally made it.”
Grilk was no slouch as a marathoner. He was a member of the Greater Boston Track Club team that had four runners – including winner Bill Rodgers – finish in the top 10 en route to taking the team prize in 1978. So how did it come to be that just the next year he was describing the race rather than competing in it?
“It could best be described as an accident,” said Grilk. His friend, a runner and well-known track announcer named Larry Newman, along with Grilk’s now-wife, were the finish line announcers in ’78. “Larry really wanted to run in ’79, and I had strained something, I forget what,” said Grilk. “So we agreed to trade. And then I just sort of stuck with it.”
He took it seriously, too. He followed the sport year-round, making sure he was always up to date on notable runners’ health and the tactics they were using in competition.
Back in the days before his BAA executive responsibilities took up so much of his time on race day, he would arrive at the press center downtown a few hours before the race would begin. He would put on his headphones, gather a pile of notes, and go over the names and feats of the world-class runners one more time. Grilk, who also speaks French and Japanese, emphasizes getting the pronunciations of their names exactly right.
“It’s important to have something to say about everyone [when the winners are honored],” said Grilk. “This moment should be just right for them.”
But the race – and the announcer’s obligation, in his mind – is about so much more than recognizing the elite runners.
“[Being the announcer] gives one a tremendous opportunity to feel the commitment, the enthusiasm, the passion that everyone has for the race,’’ he said. “Everything is right there. You see runners coming in, they’re first. And they are either working really hard and struggling, or they’re exhilarated. The entire range of emotion is on display in those runners’ faces.
“Then there are the volunteers who are out there cheering them on or helping them in any way that they can. The course marshals, the medical volunteers, the public safety officials, the police who do an unobtrusive job of keeping people safe. And then there’s the fans who come out and cheer, and not just for the winners. They’re out there for hours. The perspective that I have brings it all together. It’s great.
When Grilk is asked how the marathon has changed over the decades he has been involved, he first cites the advent of sponsorships – particularly John Hancock and Adidas – and how that allowed for a more professional and organized atmosphere. But it is not long before he acknowledges the changes – in our collective perspective in particular – that were inevitable after the tragic bombings in 2013.
“The horror of three years ago and the way that it brought the community together was of course a significant change,” said Grilk. “Lots and lots of reactions can be engendered by horror. What we saw here in Boston was resilience and strength and an unwillingness to bend. That leaves one with an immense sense of obligation, to live up to the standards of the community.”
This year, Grilk’s race day will begin around 6 a.m. in Hopkinton, “getting engaged in things out there,” he said. But his plan this year is to come to the finish line in one of the lead vehicles.
“Believe it or not, I haven’t been down the race course since I ran it in 1978,’’ he said. “It’ll be fun to see it from that perspective again. There’s always something new to see.”