If you are reading this during the morning hours, currently 20,000 (or so) runners are sitting in a high school baseball field in Hopkinton, Massachusetts about to embark on what for many will be the fulfillment of miles upon miles of dreams.
With all due respect to those who will run later today, as a charity runner, this piece is dedicated to those who have taken up the dream to struggle through the “miles of trials, the trials of the miles,” to qualify and then run the Boston Marathon.
In 1970, the “qualifying time” was introduced by the Boston Marathon, and thus began the legend of the Boston Marathon being THE RACE for those who would never be able to fulfill an Olympic marathon dream.
I’ve been lucky enough to qualify every year since 2003, and every year my soul returns to the small, quaint village in central Massachusetts.
It’s Marathon Monday: Welcome to the Boston Marathon!
“The marathon,” as those in Bay state call it, has always taken place on Patriot’s Day, a state holiday commemorating the anniversary of the Battles of Concord and Lexington. Early this morning, school buses began rolling out of Boston Commons to a point 26.2 miles outside of Boston.
Exiting the bus, runners are treated to the “Athletes’ Village.” Everything a runner could want is in “the village”: coffee, bagels, every type of “energy” bar you can think of, water (Poland Springs, of course), Gatorade and of course, port-o-lets.
In Hopkinton, the entire town is shut down for the marathon. The residents proudly represent the city by welcoming runners with music, extra port-o-lets, water, orange slices and cheers. When you are called to the start line, it is only then you start to notice all the helicopters and air traffic buzzing above you.
The main city street is cordoned off, and you make the walk from the Athletes’ Village to the start line.
Residents line the streets cheering you to the line, sounds of “Gonna fly now,” “Shipping off to Boston,” “We are the champions,” and all the other music one might play to encourage runners. The runners, meanwhile, shuffle down attempting to calm the excitement and nerves building inside.
For me, I always tried to recount the miles I put in to get me to the starting line and those friends and frenemies who would be tracking me online. As you stand at the start, you literally look over the edge of a long downhill.
I’ve never seen anyone win the Boston Marathon at the start, but I have certainly seen runners lose it — barreling down the hill only to implode 18 miles or so down the road.
The start time used to be high noon, but now the race goes in various waves with elite women going off at 9:30 a.m. and the elite men and Wave 1 start at 10 a.m.
I assure you, standing on the start line of the world’s most famous footrace is extraordinarily humbling.
When the gun goes off, smart runners try to ease onto Route 135 to their race pace; others take off for what may be a few minutes of television glory, others run into the fables and history books. BBQ’s have already begun—I’ve run the race at the noon start time and at the 10 a.m. start time the BBQ smoke envelopes the road as people have started drinking and partying along the course no matter the start time.
People are hanging from trees, kids screaming for high fives and Red Sox score updates come often. The Red Sox begin their game at 10 a.m. or so to time the end of the game with the end of the marathon—swelling the streets of Boston.
Arriving at the original start line of Ashland at the 4-mile mark, runners are still going slightly downhill and will encounter their first incline halfway through town. Once you enter Framingham, the course has mostly flattened out and continues this way through Natick. In Framingham you run over a series of railroad tracks, on which 111 years ago a train brought runners in a chase pack to a complete stop, interrupting the marathon and ended any chance of those runners from winning the race. I always crossed those tracks and laughed to myself, until a few years ago toward the end of a run when I trailed the first-place runner by about 30 seconds with about 2 km’s to go when a train appeared—the first-place guy made it, I didn’t and angerly finished second.
The running gods are vengeful, and I’ve respected those tracks in Framingham ever since.
As you wind through Central Street in Natick, the crowds have become boisterous, especially if the Red Sox are winning. At this point, people are offering BBQ and beer. Sadly, I’ve never taken any of them up on the offer.
The first year I ran Boston, it was around mile 11.5 or 12 when I kept looking up for the jet plane I swore I heard. It would randomly get louder depending on the curve of the road. And then I witnessed it — “The Scream Tunnel.”
I am not sure when the women of Wellesley College started one of the iconic marathon traditions, but they are as surely a part of the marathon as the Citgo sign or the Red Sox themselves. As you pass Wellesley, thousands of students’ line what might be a quarter of a mile or so and literally scream for hours on end.
Motivating runners with their screams, signs, bells, whistles, high-fives … even kisses!
I am a happily married man, so I won’t say if I have ever partaken in the tradition of kissing the girls, but Wellesley Scream Tunnel is so loud and thrilling, the pace of the race indeed quickens here. The town and stories surrounding Wellesley and its place in the marathon are so iconic, my wife, who has qualified every year since 2010, and I named our first-born daughter after it.
A few yards beyond Wellesley is a row of pine trees on the right side of the road. Usually, the ground is covered in pine straw. I’ve stopped here a few times—usually when I am having a good day — to prove I have properly hydrated and then quickly jump back onto the course.
This is the halfway point, and it’s time to get to business.
From mile 15 to 16 the course drops another 160 feet or so. Steady lads, steady. If your quads survived the declines in Hopkinton and Ashland and the flat 7 miles after that, you still have a chance.
Lower Newton Falls is the next township you enter, another slight decline and then you see it … the Newton Fire Station.
At the fire station, you take a sweeping right-hand turn and begin to make your way through Newton and the fabled Heartbreak Hill(s). Here runners will cross the 20-mile mark. Experienced runners know this marks the “second half” of the marathon.
Heartbreak Hill is really a series of three hills, and the crowds here are epic. I’ve run the race and seen the crowds look like the crowds in the Alps of the Tour de France. I’ve also run in two of the three hottest Boston Marathon on record, and the crowds in Newton certainly saved my and others lives by handing out ice, ice pops, snow cones, and water as you ran through the hills.
In 1936, defending Boston Marathon champion Johnny Kelly raced through the Newton Hills in second place and caught leader Ellison “Tarzan” Brown, a Narragansett Indian.
As he passed Brown, Kelly patted him on the shoulder. Brown responded by overtaking Kelly and going on to win.
In honor of Kelly’s misery, the term “Heartbreak Hill” was coined in a newspaper article the following day.
Depending on the day you’re having at this point, you may not even notice you have crested Heartbreak Hill, minus the graffiti on the road and the signs in the crowd. If your race is going well, it’s just another bump in the road on the way back to Boston.
But if you are having a dreadful day, the hills of Newton will throttle your legs, eat your soul and crush your spirit. Those who hammered out too quickly back in Hopkinton and Ashland will pay a dear price in Newton.
The course meanders downhill for about 3 miles after you crest Heartbreak Hill and you head toward Chestnut Hill. Sounds nice right? A few downhill miles after the pounding of Newton. Wrong. At this point your calves and quads are shredded, and you are trying to regain your composure and make it to the Citgo Sign.
When I ran the race in 2012, the temperature was 88 degrees (I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of two of the three hottest Boston Marathons on record, and in 2012 it was my wife’s first Boston Marathon — tough luck) and while I was making pretty good time through the course despite the weather, when I got to Chestnut Hill my calves were beginning to quiver.
I had to stretch them out and found a light pole to and work out the stiffness. At this point, four Boston College frat boys saw me and had no pity.
“This is the FN Boston Marathon! There is no stopping in the Boston Marathon!” they yelled in my face.
I’m certain at this point they had been drinking since sunset the day before. Though I was tempted, I tried to explain their offer of beer and Irish whiskey they were drinking probably wouldn’t help in my dehydrated state. When I started up again, walking a few steps to get running again, they saw me walking and screamed “HEY MAN! This is the FN Boston Marathon; there is no walking in the FN Boston Marathon.”
I quickly started back running, and they cheered louder than they screamed. I love those guys.
At this point, the runners are now exiting Brookline and can see the glorious Citgo sign. 1.5 miles to go! Runners cross the Mass Turnpike, and if you still have your wits about you, runners see the green walls of Fenway Park on the right while the crowds now righteously scream “almost there!”
From here, runners enter Kenmore Square where the crowds are enormous and the “1 mile to go” painted on the pavement sends chills up your spine. Drop underneath Mass Ave., then the historic slogan of “right on Hereford Street and left on Boylston Street” plays on your mind. And then … there it is.
The finish lines.
I cannot put into words what it feels like to see the finish line. I can tell you some guy cut me off one year and I had to push him out of my way with a proper “excuse me, hold your damn line.”
At this point, nothing will stop you from crossing the line and join the others on Copley Square where the storytelling begins.
In 2010, a training buddy had worked hard to beat me. He had one race victory over me in our, at that time, 16 years of racing. I had burned too bright and to fast that day, and he didn’t. It happens to everyone, right? On this day, he found me before I saw him. He grabbed me and asked, “well buddy boy how did you do.” My heart sank, he was pumped to tell me his time.
Had he got me again? He told me he had PR’s that day. Not just a course PR but a marathon PR.
He proudly announced his time. I beat him by 7 seven minutes. We quickly made our way to the airport post-race to make our flights back to Florida where we would split in Atlanta. He was headed to Orlando and me to Tallahassee for Session. I am pretty sure the bar in the Atlanta Chili’s has never recovered adequately from our celebration. The stories aren’t always filled with happy endings.
While I typically train solo, I finished ahead of my long run training buddy in the 2014 race.
We have never run with each other since.
Mostly, the Boston Marathon is a celebration for fans and runners. In 2014, my wife and I both set course PR’s and celebrating the first victory by an American male since 1983. We will always happily share our Boston individual victories that year with Meb Keflezighi. We quickly made our way to the Whiskey Priest before getting on the plane back to Florida like conquering heroes. I hope someone paid the tab at the Whiskey Priest; I don’t recall if it was me.
We, Meb and Boston already shared a bit of history.
At the end of the 2012 Boston Marathon, I ended up post-race where I would usually end up — the med tent. It was Meb who approached my wife and eventually got her to and into the med tent to find me. Long live Meb!
The weather looks to be a bit windy and rainy Monday. The temperature will be near perfect, and the falling rain won’t really be an issue, but the wind might play into who will win and who will mentally break.
On the woman’s side, the American women have rounded into shape.
Shalane Flanagan, a Mass native and winner of the 2017 NYC Marathon, is the emotional pick. However, I think the race will come down to the tough as nails, blue-collar runner Desi Linden and the methodical Molly Huddle. An American woman hasn’t won Boston since 1985.
I’ll take Molly for the win for the USA, beating Desi by less than a quarter mile.
On the men’s side, American Galen Rupp is certainly firing on all cylinders, but my belief in the idea of “clean sport” forbids me to pick Galen. Please note, I’m not accusing anyone of anything, but if he wins, as Thomas Heynk wrote if he wins its because “sometimes it gets worse before it gets better.” Give me Geoffrey Kirui.
The course can be a beast to master and few ever do. I’ve certainly had my issues. A training buddy of mine, a 2:20-something marathoner and possibly the fastest member of the elected class in Florida history, has never fared well on the course and while he could easily qualify if he wanted, he has sworn off Boston.
However, because Boston means so much to so many, he still encourages and celebrates the race and the runners every year.
To those trying to qualify, keep working. Trying to qualify and then run Boston is worth the time and troubles; if I can qualify, you can too.
My father went with me to my first Boston Marathon because I am sure he (a Boston native) was just as surprised I was there as everyone else who knew me back then. Keep putting in the work – it’s worth the lifetime of memories.
Happy Patriot’s Day!
Kevin Sweeny is a runner and political influencer. He runs with his wife (3:18 Boston pr) and occasionally pushes his daughter Wellesley in her jogging stroller through St. Augustine Beach and other fun places. His PR on the Boston course is 2:52. Follow him on Twitter or Instagram at @djmia00.