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This year's marathon helped erase bad vibes from 2013


By Hal Higdon  

In the annals of the Boston Athletic Association Marathon—all 118 races between 1897 and 2014—some races have left a mark more meaningful than others. Looking historically at Boston, each of the years, seven told, when Clarence DeMar secured a victory remains memorable. Similarly 1936, the year when Tarzan Brown broke John A. Kelley’s heart on the fourth of the Newton hills, when Heartbreak Hill earned its name, possesses a gravitas above many marathons before and many marathons after.

Then in the 1960s, as change was sweeping the country, Boston changed too: 197 entered in 1960; 1,342 in 1969. The focus, subtly shifted from those up front to those midpack. Roberta Gibb in 1966 and Kathrine Switzer in 1967 seized their space on the course when they had no right to be on it—at least by the archaic rules of the era. Yes, at the end of the 1970s, Billy Rodgers left his mark on the decade with four wins. Yes, at the beginning of the 1980s, the classic duel between Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley arguably became Boston’s most dramatic race. But the years 1983 and 1985 also marked the beginning of The Embarrassment. Those years became reference points for failure: the last years an American man (Greg Meyer) or American woman (Lisa Larsen-Weidenbach) could claim victory. Who could ignore the fact that the Africans and Eastern Europeans were best in the world, but couldn’t now and then someone finish in front who could wrap himself in an American flag? For stories, reporters found themselves increasingly looking behind the winners, behind even the midpack to the back of Boston’s pack. It didn’t matter whether you finished in two hours or three hours or four hours or five hours or even longer: “Tell us why running this iconic event means so much to you and all of your friends back home tracking you on the Internet?” That was the question as the 1980s merged with the 1990s. 

The 100th running in 1996 offered at least some solace for lovers of the Boston Marathon. The historic race had to be special, and it was. The B.A.A. widened its arms and added a lottery. Those without qualifying times and those raising money for charity were made welcome. They could secure their space on the starting grid behind if not beside the world’s best runners. The record number of entrants before then had been 9,629 in 1992, a number that seems almost paltry now, the B.A.A. for so long a time comfortable with a four-figure limit to its field. But for the 100th running, the B.A.A. accepted 38,708 entrants with 35,868 of them finishing, more than any other marathon at that time. How could anything be better than that? 

And how could anything be worse than what happened in 2013? 

We knew we would do better in 2014. We had to do better. The running world expected no less of us. And in those final weeks in April, when all those who had trained hard through a ruthless winter completed the longest of their long runs and entered the tapering phase of their training and packed shorts and singlet and shoes (carried in separate carry-on bags) and boarded planes headed for Logan and checked into hotels filled with our own kind and picked up bibs at an Expo that lasted three marvelous days and wandered the streets and sidewalks already divided by barricades determining where you could go and where you could not go and ate pasta meals as much ritualistic as for loading muscles with glycogen and slept nervously eyes open and focused on the ceiling and dressed and boarded yellow school buses headed to Hopkinton returning through eight separate communities to those last 385 yards on Boylston Street, we finally had one more Boston Marathon that we could look back on with pride, not shame. Topping the list of glories in Boston 2014, one of our heroes finally—that word needs to be repeated again, finally—wrapped himself in an American flag and bowed his head to have a laurel wreath signifying victory placed atop it. Meb! Shout the name for all to hear! Meb owned those last 385 yards on Boylston Street. We owned them too, because Meb shared them with us. He had reclaimed for every runner around the world those sacred yards on Boylston Street, those holy yards, no longer profane, no longer marred by some innocent’s blood. 

Boston strong! The streets reverberated to the shouts of the runners and the shouts of the spectators cheering the runners, as it always was and always will be. 

Boston 2014 boasted 31,931 finishers, almost as many women (14,356) as men (17,575), Boston’s biggest field with the exception of the 100th running in 1996. And each of those who came to Boston this past April had a story to tell: 

Ryan Kershaw, 33, of Calgary, Alberta, decided to run 2014 after watching the bombs go off on TV in 2013.”Not my fastest marathon, not my best marathon,” he would say afterwards, “but by far the most rewarding.”  

Jill Guesman Standley, 36, of Clarksville, Tennessee, talked about tears: “I would cry on my long runs. Turning onto Bolyston, I felt tears well up in my eyes, I felt chills crawl up my arms, then I felt a smile creep across my face. This was a new race. I had a new PR, I had closure, I had Boston.

Caitlin Stokes, 28, of Groveland, Massachusetts last year found herself caught between the explosions. This year, she ran the marathon despite hip pain that surfaced at 15 miles. She says: “The day was not about the physical pain. It was about never being alone on the course. After I turned left on Boylston and looked directly at the spot where I had been standing in 2013, Boylston was finally mine again.” 

This was a day—a very special day--when people all over the world shifted their attention away from the NBA and the NFL and NASCAR to focus on an event that had taken on an importance beyond that normally present on a Patriot’s Day in New England. Marathon finishes almost always provide an emotional high, but also simultaneously an emotional low. How could this not be so? You have trained for months for this special moment. You have anticipated for all those same months that moment when after 26 miles of running, you finally reach the point where, Citgo sign in your rear view mirror, you can look ahead and see the overhead clock above the finish line ratcheting numbers, each click adding to your time on that day, making your time slower, but also bringing you closer to that glorious instant when you step across a yellow line painted on the street and raise your arms in victory, or try to raise your arms, or at least think about raising those arms.

Last year, 5,633 runners were deprived that priceless moment. 

In the immediate aftermath of Boston 2013, while the attention of the world remained riveted on Boylston Street, while Anderson Cooper wearing a black T-shirt and jacket was anchoring his nightly show from as near to the site of the twin explosions as the Police would allow, one of the CNN Talking Heads wondered why the Boston Marathon had been made a target for terrorists: “It is not quite an iconic event,” opined the Talking Head. Excuse me: Not an iconic event? Define “iconic!” I posted the Talking Head’s comment on my Facebook page, resulting in an angry response from dozens who felt that our Boston Marathon was as iconic an event as the Super Bowl or the World Series (sports paid little attention worldwise), as iconic also as Wimbledon or World Cup soccer. Interestingly, a large number of responders defending Boston’s iconic credentials came from outside the United States: Scotland, Germany, Australia, South Africa, Poland. Many of us who stir to the Star Spangled Banner often do not offer Boston its full respect, do not realize its worldwide impact. If the Boston Marathon had not been an iconic event before, it was (sad to say) one now. 

Every year Boston attracts the best and the brightest because of its rigorous qualifying standards. You don’t get to line up in Hopkinton unless you’ve run a fast time, or at least raised a lot of money. Anyone who runs Boston is a hero, as long as they finish and no matter how fast they finish. Was Boston 2014 a more emotional experience for these heroes than previous marathons they might have run? How could it not be. 

There was a lot of talk after 2013 and before 2014 about “taking back the streets.” Amby Burfoot, champion from 1968 and Runner’s World Editor at Large, was among the first sounding that theme. He told a reporter from the Washington Post that the tragedy “was an attack against the American public and our democratic use of the streets.” 

But are the streets now ours again, or did we ever yield them? Was it the 5,633 unfinished runners who needed closure, or was it more the City of Boston, the million or so spectators, who every year give us their support, those who now identify themselves as “Boston Strong?” 

Boston is ours. Boston will always be ours. And 2014 has marked itself as one of the most memorable of all Boston Athletic Association Marathons.



Hal Higdon is a Contributing Editor for Runner’s World and author of 4:09:43: Boston 2013 Through the Eyes of the Runners.