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Boston has mythical qualities

by Tim Heming
Friday 24th April 2015

Race report: Tim Heming reports from the Boston Marathon, America's premier marathon, which has played host to some memorable races in its time

Consider the terms ‘bucket list’ and ‘endurance sport’ and the Boston Marathon bounds to the fore. With its 119 years of history and the faint promise of a point-to-point route blessed with a tailwind, few under the 26.2 mile spell would turn down a Patriots’ Day out in Massachusetts tackling America's premier marathon.

Perhaps it’s a little misty-eyed, but Boston has mythical qualities: The trailblazing Kathrine Switzer resisted being hauled off the highway in 1967 after affronting male-only traditionalists; Ron Hill broke the course record in becoming Britain’s first winner in 1970; Dick Beardsley and Alberto Salazar staged an epic race in 1982 that became the focus of a book titled Duel in the Sun. And, perhaps the one that will stand the test of time more than any other, naturalised 38-year-old American Meb Keflezighi, written off by previous sponsors Nike, won the 2014 race a year on from two bombs exploding near the finish line that killed three spectators.

But it’s not just the alumni that draw you in. The quirky course, with a net fall of 480 feet, does not meet IAAF standards so is not recognised for official records. Yet despite all that downhill it is not considered fast either, unless there’s a breeze on your back as there was in 2011 when Geoffrey Mutai stormed home in 2:03:02 - the quickest time ever recorded over the distance until Dennis Kimetto’s effort in Berlin last year.

The famed Newton hills and fluctuating weather conditions also play their part in an unpredictable narrative. An icy blast can whip in from the Atlantic dropping windchill temperatures close to freezing, yet three years ago runners were strongly advised not to take part due to a heat wave.

And then those wretched bombings of 2013. A watershed moment in the history of the city, amping the emotion and security in equal measures for future editions and bearing forth the Boston Strong slogan that has permeated global running. No reminder was needed, but added poignancy was given with the trial of the surviving bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the eve of the race. A happier attachment would come later as 2013 winner, Ethiopia's Lelisa Desisa, again lifted the title and this time was afforded the chance to celebrate.

This is a race that’s popularity is never in question. If the proximity to Boston’s World Marathon Majors brethren in London often means Brits forego a trip to Suffolk County in favour of the relative logistical ease of a finish in The Mall, then for Americans the reverse hop is virtually a non-starter.

To illustrate, a friend from the States stayed with me in London on a quest to complete all the World Marathon Majors in 2012. He finished leading American in 2hrs 56mins. Commendable sure, but hardly express pace to lead a country of almost 320million. The reality is that the hallowed BQ, the Boston qualifying mark, means that for those from the USA, all roads lead to Boylston Street.

So race day morning in Hopkinton, and as the four staggered wave starts gathered in the Athlete Village there would be no basking in early morning sunshine. Instead, thousands huddled under giant canopies, cradling coffee and wrapped in heat-sheets, with human chains snaking out to form queues to the surrounding Port-O-Johns. The Boston Globe would later term the weather ‘sloppy’ as if to suggest it was within the organisers’ control, but given Boston Athletic Association’s clockwork precision for every other arrangement, you did half expect them to have a hotline to the weather gods.

The rain had desisted by the time we made the half-mile trot to the corrals as the elite wheelchair racers departed with a first mile taking barely over a minute (yes, you read that correctly), followed by the elite women minus disgraced defending champion Rita Jeptoo after testing positive for erythropoietin. Gutsy front-running Shalane Flanagan once again shouldered much of the home hopes (she would ultimately fade to ninth, with Desiree Linden the top American in fourth), while Kenya’s Caroline Rotich secured victory in a sprint finish.

The national anthem was belted out as the mass field stood at the precipice readying for the charge of the (exceptionally) light brigade - a stampede like none other for the start of a big city race. The male elites went through the first mile in 4:27 headed by the cheeky presence of amateur Derek Yorek who sprinted from the mass start and lasted a few hundred yards more before detonating. The course dips 130 feet in the first mile and continues to fall almost unabated until leaving Ashland at mile four. Even those determined to start gently, struggle to hold back.

Then it was onward, rolling through Framingham at six miles where it felt as if the vast majority of the 26,610 that finished the open race had already zipped by; time would tell whether it was over-exuberance or taking advantage of the favourable terrain. There was little sign of Boston’s distant Hancock Place or Prudential Tower buildings that on a fine day would offer a city centre landmark to target, but despite the grey skies the locals lined the roads in growing numbers as we arrived at successive urban destinations. The  fervour hit fever pitch and rose several octaves as we approached Wellesley College for women, with anyone left blushing by the indiscriminate indecent proposals moving hastily to the centre of the road. Its reputation as a scream tunnel is well deserved.

The crowds were out in force again by the time we made a right turn at the 18-mile mark and Newton Fire College signalled the first of three hills in as many miles that would culminate in Heartbreak and leave the long run into the finish. The hills are worthy of more consideration. They are, after all, where four-time winner and all-American hero Bill Rodgers twice dropped out and 61-time finisher (15 times inside the top five), the late Johnny Kelley has a statue erected in his honour.  For course novices like me, their notoriety demands caution on the approach, yet the reality is that Heartbreak, the third and final incline, averages only a 4.5 per cent grade and scales just 88 feet.

I’m settled that the reason Boston is not a traditionally fast course is not these short-lived speed humps, it’s the aggressive quad-killing downhills between the start in Hopkinton and the mouth of the Charles river that leave the majority of legs too debilitated to power through the last five miles.

That home stretch in 2015 was more a case of chalking off traffic lights through the drizzle and if anything was Boston Strong it was the crowd that lined the streets manfully clutching Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks coffee and urging on the human tide that swept before them in the gloom. At this point, at just under three-hour pace, there is probably no busier marathon course in the world and among us this year was Joan Benoit Samuelson, running a sprightly 2hr 54mins aged 57, 31 years on from being crowned the first women's Olympic marathon champion and home hero in Los Angeles.

The left turn on to Boylston Street marks the end of this pilgrimage on a day when the space blanket was more cherished than the medal. In the aftermath, over 1,300 runners were treated for hypothermia-like symptoms, the cotton blankets were rolled out and the medics could utilise their hi-tech ‘Bair Hugger’ airflow systems. Not that anyone was complaining. The Red Sox called the annual Patriots’ Day game at Fenway Park after 6 ½ of the allotted nine innings, but few were struck out in the marathon. As one finisher said to me through chattering teeth and a shrug as we headed to the family meet area: “Welcome to Boston.”


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