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Hal Higdon

Art - Boston Marathon 1996

A collage commemorates the 100th running of this classic race

Boston Marathon 1996On April 15, 1996, 35,868 runners ran and finished the Boston Athletic Association Marathon celebrating the centennial anniversary of that milestone event, the world's oldest continuously held marathon. It had been founded in 1897 by BAA members inspired by the long distance race at the 1896 Olympic Games commemorating the legendary run in 490 BC by Pheidippides from the plains of Marathon into Athens with news of a Greek victory over the Persians.

Pheidippides reportedly shouted "Rejoice we conquer" and fell dead. Almost certainly, this incident never happened, because it was reported only by later-day historians. Nevertheless, we accept the Pheidpiddes legend as the origin of our sport. Today, we run an established 26-mile-385-yard "marathon" to prove that we can cross the finish line vertically, not horizontally.

I ran that 100th Boston Marathon in 1996. It was warm at the start in Hopkinton, but as we crested the final (Heartbreak) hill near 21 miles, we found ourselves confronted by a chilling headwind off the ocean. I picked up a silvery Mylar blanket from the gutter for warmth and ran with it in the closing miles, eventually discarding the blanket before crossing the line, but I was handed another after exiting the chute.

And for nearly ten years I kept that Mylar blanket, packing it carefully before leaving Boston and tacking it to a cork wall in the basement of my home in Long Beach, Indiana. At some point, I tired of seeing the blanket covering the cork wall, which I previously had been used mostly for posters. Or maybe I sensed that the blanket, which because of its silvery finish changed shades when struck by light at different angles, could be an integral point of a work of art.

I decided to do a collage.

An Amalgamation of objects

A collage is an amalgamation of objects you attach to a canvas or other vertical space to create a work of art. The Random House Dictionary of the English Language in its Second Edition defines "collage" as, "a technique of composing a work of art by pasting on a single surface various materials not normally associated with one another, as newspaper clippings, parts of photographs, theater tickets, and fragments of an envelope."

I hadn't retained a large collection of memorabilia from that 100th running of the Boston Marathon, but I still had the singlet that I wore in the race. Red, white and blue, it had "Boston" on the front and "A Century of Running" on the back to promote the book by that name I had written for Rodale Press in 1995 on the history of that race. About the same time, I had acquired a vanity license saying "BOST MAR." Most runners who saw my car knew instantly the meaning of those letters, although a non-runner once asked me why I was promoting the restaurant, Boston Market. Boston: A Century of Running contained numerous photographs that could become part of a collage. I had the long-sleeved shirt that participants received in lieu of a T-shirt. As I attached these items to a horizontal canvas sized 4 by 5 feet, I also included a finisher's medal and ribbon given to everyone who crossed the line. I knew Boston medals were cherished by those who possessed them; many certainly hung in frames and were attached to walls in homes and offices.

I didn't need to give up my finisher's medal to create the collage, because I was offered one by Jack Fleming, the media director for the Boston Athletic Association. Jack was a good friend, who had cooperated with me when I wrote Boston: A Century of Running, providing reams of research material from the 100 years of the race. In this case, he provided additional items including, in addition to the finisher's medal, two race numbers one of them 1996, the other a more anonymous number in the 29,000 range.

Unattended art

And so I began work on my collage. But before I could complete it, we left to spend the winter in Florida at our condo near Jacksonville. The collage stood unattended on its easel in my office for four months. When we returned in spring, the inspiration that had caused me to begin the collage temporarily had fled. As the Mylar blanket had hung unceremoniously in my basement for too many years, so now did it also hang ignored attached to the canvas.

In the fall of 2005, I gazed at the unfinished collage still on its easel, still occupying a corner of my office. We would be leaving for Florida soon, and it was time to fish or cut bait. Inspiration returned. Over a period of several weeks I completed work on what I titled "Boston Marathon 1996." I exhibited the collage for the first time at the Vickers Theatre in Three Oaks, Michigan in connection with a showing of the movie Saint Ralph (about a 14-year-old boy running the Boston Marathon). I will continue to look for opportunities to exhibit this work of art. Perhaps I will sell it if the price is right, offering "Boston Marathon 1996" on eBay for someone to purchase and enjoy along with the memory of what arguably was the most important running event of the last century.