What the Boston Marathon is now

Runners near the finish line on Boylston Street during the 120th Boston Marathon.
Runners near the finish line on Boylston Street during the 120th Boston Marathon. –Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

COMMENTARY

When the 120th Boston Marathon began on Monday morning, I was having breakfast with my daughter at a little restaurant in Waltham. The place was filled with people wearing gear from marathons past: participation jackets from 2014, official’s jerseys from the tragic race in 2013. Outside on the sidewalk, waiting for tables, even more people festooned with the Boston Athletic Association logo and wrapped in fluorescent colors probably visible from the moon gathered in small knots and watched through the windows as the elite runners wound through the woods in Hopkinton on the television screens above the restaurant’s counters. It was a glorious, sunny day in the spring, and the race encompassed so much more than the 26 miles and change it takes to get from Hopkinton to Copley Square. I was part of the race, even though I was miles away from it.

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In 2013, when the Tsarnaev brothers marked the race’s history with indelible blood, I wondered if the most basic element of the Boston Marathon had gone up with the smoke that rose from Boylston Street. The essential heart of the event always was that it was far more of a festival than it was an athletic event. Back in the dim times, before corporate sponsorship and elite runners and cable television, that’s pretty much all the race was. It was an extended party annually held on a ginned-up holiday that is celebrated nowhere else in America. The winner got a medal and a laurel wreath. Everybody else got a bowl of beef stew. The finish line was the world’s largest soup kitchen. In 1980, for pity’s sake, the organizers couldn’t even figure out who won the women’s race for a couple of days. In fact, it was the Rosie Ruiz episode that first brought professionalism in all its guises to the Boston Marathon. It was inevitable, but I was of two minds about it. I didn’t think the race’s traditional charms could survive a deluge of corporate money. Very few traditional charms can survive that kind of prosperity.

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To my surprise, the zone of corporate influence seemed to encompass only the final stretch of the course along Boylston Street and the 15-odd runners every year who have a chance actually to win the thing. The renegade democratic spirit of the annual carnival lived on in hundreds of front yards and parking lots. It lived in the people running for causes and in the people running dressed as Disney characters and in the people dressed as livestock. It lived in the people running the course in three, four or five hours, and in all the people who hung around to cheer and sing and whistle, or just because they never saw someone run 26 miles dressed as a cow. This allayed all my fears about the corporatization of the Boston Marathon. No matter how many trademarks they hung over the finish line, they couldn’t trademark the joy of the preceding 25 miles.

Then the bombs went off three years ago and, suddenly, there was a similar, but more deeply serious, concern about the survival of all those things that make the Boston Marathon what it is. When echoes of the explosions, and of the midnight gunfire in Watertown, had faded, there was talk of tightening up the security around the race. This was not surprising. Besides the chilly embrace of corporate America, the other most obvious characteristic of our modern sports extravaganzas is that they are guarded like nuclear missile silos.

From the start, the logistics of securing a 26-mile course were impossible. It was not going to be possible to put a metal detector in the front yard of every house along Route 30 in Newton. Granted, there’s a lot that’s changed about the race; motorcycles backfiring are not as funny as they used to be. The area around Copley Square bristles with security now, a sensible reaction to what occurred in 2013. But the Boston Marathon had proven too big even for big money and now it is proving itself to be too big for fear as well. The crowds along the racecourse remain huge and loud, and if law-enforcement officers are scrutinizing them a little more closely, it doesn’t seem to have dampened their enthusiasm in the least. It’s not a matter of congratulating ourselves that our affection for this sprawling festival remains indomitable. Rather, it’s an assertion of life’s going on pretty much as it should. Once a year, a substantial section of eastern Massachusetts chooses to inconvenience itself with a footrace and, instead of wallowing in the aggravation of it all – which is, let us be honest, the basic resting pulse of everyday life around here – we throw a rolling party and give ourselves a day off of work.

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The Boston Marathon is not simply a straight line. The course winds and dips and rises and falls. The story winds through thousands of individual narratives until it has knit a vast and sprawling fabric, a different design and texture every year. That fabric reaches out and embraces the region, its reach as gentle as the spring air. That is something that cannot be sold. It resists being branded. It resists being named for profit. That also is something immune to terror and to the overreaction to it, which can be the harder thing to resist. It cannot be frightened into silence. It cannot be made into an instrument of either terror or oppression. There is too much joy in it for profit or fear to contain. It is bound to burst loose.

So, while I did not watch the race this year, did not see Lemi Hayle or Atsede Baysa win their medals and their laurels and their money, I was part of the race just through the part of it I watched on television a few miles distant from where the runners would pass. I was part of it because, on a day like Monday, the Boston Marathon was as general and as warm as the sun.

Charles P. Pierce is a Writer-At-Large for Esquire and a former staffer at The Boston Globe Magazine.

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