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The Boston Marathon Is Not About Running

We analyzed how the Boston Marathon has become one of the most popular races in the world and what it means for the city and for running.
“At 12:15 Tom Burke scraped his foot across the narrow street in front of Metcalf's mill and called the contestants' number. Fifteen men answered. At 19 minutes past noon starter Tom Burke gave the word "Go.'' All the contestants went away quickly, but after going about 50 yards they seemed to realize that they had just 25 miles of hard road before them and settled down to a comfortable jog.” Boston Globe (19/04/1897)

This is how the oldest Marathon in the United States started on April 19, 1897: the Boston Marathon. Of those 15 runners only 10 made it to the finish line and John J. McDermott won with a time of 2h55’10”.

The marathon started under the initiative of the Boston Athletics Association (BAA) inspired by the race held at the first Olympics in Athen the year before. John Graham, the U.S. Olympic team manager, wanted to replicate the original course with hills and a finish inside a stadium in his hometown to commemorate the recently established holiday of Patriot’s Day. Metcalf's Mill in Ashland was the starting point and the finish line was placed at the Irvington Street Oval for a total of 24.5 miles. The correct marathon’s length was reached only in 1924 thanks to one of the many course changes. The finish line had been moved multiple times during the years in order to accommodate the increasing number of participants, safety matters, and sponsors. In the end, crossing the finish line can happen everywhere, the 26 miles before are what matter.

“I really think that between the start and the finish is more like the victory lap, it’s the reward” Dave McGillivray, Boston Marathon Race Director

The course and its inception are only two factors that established the Boston Marathon brand in the running world. Since the first edition, the event has been a big deal for the local communities with early accounts of the race reporting thousands of spectators following the runners using bikes along the whole course or cheering along all way. Today, all of this has not changed with supporters pushing the runners up Heartbreak Hill at mile 21 with their warmth and on every single meter of the course.

Boston Marathon runners 80s
Runners from the 80s

What organizers built in 120 years is an event larger than itself embodying the ethos of overcoming obstacles through perseverance and hard work. These values are visible across the whole communication and brand identity of the event, from the medal design to the logo. Moreover, the entry requirements are strict and the qualifying times for each age group can only be achieved by trained runners after years of dedication and hard work. Despite this entry barrier, more than 30,000 runners usually run the Boston Marathon, one of the most participated in the world. The race is among the most influential events for runners at all levels. Thanks to its prize money and being one of the Majors, a deep field of elite athletes join the race every year. In 2023, Eliud Kipchoge will be at the starting line in his chase to win all the Majors.

Bobbi Gibb Boston Marathon
Bobbi Gibb at the 1967 edition

With regard to participation, the Boston Marathon proved to be a front-runner in female inclusion. When the event started, only men were allowed to run the distance - this was the rule across all the events at that time, the first woman officially timed on a marathon was only in 1925. Even though the event’s rules written by the BAA did not mention gender, female participation at the Boston Marathon came to life through two historical acts of rebellion. In 1966, Will Cloney, race director at the time, published a letter claiming that women were not physically able to run the marathon distance and, that the same year, Bobbi Gibb hid in the bushes and ran the race without an official bib. She finished the race in 3h21’40”. She opened the path to female participation.

"I hadn't intended to make a feminist statement. I was running against the distance [not the men] and I was measuring myself with my own potential." Bobbi Gibb

Female runners Boston Marathon
Female runners at the Boston Marathon

The following year, Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to officially register for the race. She did not clearly identify herself as female at the moment of registration and this caused a disqualification on the day of the race when officials realized her gender. This did not prevent Switzer from completing the race. Another brick on female participation was placed. The day after the race, newspapers covered the story bringing the issue of women's long-distance running to the public. The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) held its position and issued an official ban on women.

"I think it's time to change the rules. They are archaic." Kathrine Switzer

Women had to wait until 1972 before the first official female field ran the Boston Marathon. Nina Kuscsik became the first official Women’s Boston Marathon champion. In 2016, on the 50th anniversary of her unofficial finish, Gibb was the grand marshal of the race. Nowadays, women constitute 47% of total participants - who said women couldn’t run.

Boston Marathon bombing 2016
A runner during the 2016 Bombing

Sadly, any article about the Boston Marathon would be incomplete without a note on the 2013 bombing. At 2:49 pm two explosions went off close to the finish line leaving 280 people injured and 3 deaths. The two perpetrators were identified through surveillance cameras and discovered. One of them died in the fight against the police while the other was sentenced to death. The event led to the #Bostonstrong movement which symbolized the unity of the Boston community around the injured and anyone who was there that day. The community’s reaction and mobilization were the results of how much this event is rooted in the soul of the city. During its history, the event raised several million in charity with runners themselves joining the race for a cause. The year after the bombing, more than 1 millions spectators gathered on the course to cheer runners in what was a collective healing moment for Boston.

Boston Marathon runners
More than 30,000 runners and 500,000 spectators join the race every year

Despite being born from a tragic event, the #Bostonstrong movement enhanced the magic aura around the Boston Marathon for millions of runners across the world. If an event means that much for a community, it must be special and something to work hard for. Haruki Murakami translated the atmosphere of the city and what running is all about in his memoir What I Talk about When I Talk about Running: A Memoir in which he goes over life through his relationship with running. Even though when he wrote the book he wasn’t training for the Boston Marathon, he lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts where he ran almost every day and translate into words Boston's running community from an outsider's perspective.

While researching for this article, I bumped into the highlights from Yuki Kawauchi’s win in 2018 which left me without words. Kawauchi was a fairly unknown runner, despite multiple sub 2h20’ finishes, and nowhere near the favorites that year. He was able to win the race under torrential rain and left everyone without words while he sprinted to the finish line. The video made me feel the pain and joy he experienced during the last kilometer when he realized he could make it. Commentators were amazed. The rain did not stop the crowd from cheering and applauding the Japanese winner. This is just one of the many Boston Marathon moments that made the race what it is today. You better watch the video and work on your qualifying time for next year now.


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