Checking in at my hotel, I smile at a man wearing a jacket which reads ‘Boston Marathon 2013.’ Despite marking a year that was memorable for the wrong reasons, I sense the pride he has in showcasing that he’s completed the great race before. I feel similar as I proudly zip up my own coat, which is printed with ‘Media’ across the chest. There’s something about being part of this event that feels special. In this, perhaps, lies the reason that endless queues seem to stream from the Adidas merchandise stands, each runner marking the occasion with a new purchase, ready to show off to the world for many years to come.
It is Boston after all, the greatest marathon in the world.
As people disperse out of the Expo, an endless array of selfies are ready to hit social media. For most, this is the big day. A day that represents a mental and emotional journey as much as it does a block of physical training. For the young family I met in a nearby Starbucks the day before the race, the trip to Boston had been booked over a year in advance.
In that time, the father had failed to get the qualifying time – but his wife, who spoke little English, smiled anxiously as I wished her good luck for the race. The 4829-mile journey from Brazil to run for 26.2 miles is a statement of the draw that Boston has for runners around the world. That’s a long way to come for a race.
Yet, tourists flock in their thousands to pound the pavements of this historic marathon course. A course which, in many regards, isn’t all that impressive. It doesn’t hold world records like Berlin, lacks the iconic landmarks of London, and isn’t as flat as Rotterdam, Manchester, Tokyo, and more. So, why Boston?
Well, this city breathes running. From the police officers to the garbage men, Bostonians understand what this event means to their great city.
It is more than just a race.
Where you might imagine angry drivers, impatient locals and a sense of frustration at the 30,000 runners descending on the city over the Easter weekend – instead there isn’t the faintest sense of tension in the air. The city is welcoming and positive. Cafés and bars spill out into the street, hotels are fully booked, and the food vendors on Boston Common are selling out of ice cream. The local economy is thriving, and the reason is running.
On race day, the atmosphere suffers little change. Lines of school buses shuttle runners out of the city to the start line in Hopkinton. Friends and family wave them goodbye, each with their own plan for spectating, holding high hopes of seeing their loved ones make it to the finish. Positioned on Boylston less than one hundred meters from the end, I wait as the sidelines begin to fill with supporters.
It’ll be over an hour until the first finishers appear and even longer for the masses to eventually arrive, yet the crowds grow with momentum as the noise and excitement begins to build. Tens become hundreds, which become thousands as the lead runners make their approach.
It’s at this point that you realize how special it must be to finish this race.
Kenyan, Ethiopian, British, American. Man, woman, wheelchair athlete, or fancy dress fun runner – it doesn’t matter who is arriving at the finish, the crowd only seems to get louder. Occasionally, the announcer bellows the name of a local Massachusetts finisher, which only brings more energy from the patriotic supporters. This is a celebration of anyone and everyone that has completed the 26.2 miles from Hopkinton.
Anyone that has braved the rolling hills, survived the April sunshine, and battled the inevitable winds deserves to be welcomed back into the city in style. That’s exactly what they’re getting here in Boston.
A non-stop flurry of runners stream through the finishing straight, each having overcome their own battles to make it this far. For some the emotion is clear to see, with fist-pumps and tears present in equal measure as they cross the line one by one. For others, an emotionless and bewildered look is all they can muster, as exhaustion takes over and they collect their medals as if nothing has happened. It’ll be a few minutes before the achievement begins to set in.
Finally, there are those who feel an overwhelming sense of disappointment. Coming up short of their target times, falling victim to illness and injury, likely to feel no sense of pride despite making it to the end.
Our sport is often focused on outcomes. Success is a judgment passed on the final destination, overlooking the individual journey that every athlete takes in the pursuit of their goals. In an event measured using time, we forget that sometimes just making the finish line represents a story far more complex than any numbers on the clock can tell.
As athletes, brands, media outlets, and fans of the sport, we can all do more to tell real stories from real people – showcasing the true power that running has to change lives and create everlasting memories.