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Gill Bland

Boston Marathon - does chasing unicorns live up to the hype?

by blandontherun
Monday 24th April 2017
I BQ'd in my first ever marathon. I don't say this to boast but rather to show how little I was 'in the know' about the prestige and history of this World Marathon Major. I had never even heard of it until the sad event of the bombing in 2013 and it took me 6 years between my first opportunity and finally banking my time, flying to Massachusetts and standing on the start line of the worlds oldest continuous modern marathon. 8 years when I could have been chasing unicorns.
So, having finally made it there. Does it live up to the hype?
I would argue that the course and controversially even the support in London is more enjoyable and impressive and no, I'm not just bitter about those hills. Instead of the sightseeing tour that London offers, Boston traverses small, fairly sparsely populated towns south-west of the city with no notable moments of natural beauty or particular landmarks, bar those which have become them because of the race. Even the "scream tunnel" of Wellesley" is only on one side of the road and whilst it does indeed have an enthusiasm which could only be found in the USA, it does not have that jubilant, packed atmosphere of somewhere like the Cutty Sark on London Marathon Day. It does however have consistent support along the whole course (est. 500,000 people), a testament to the complete commitment the locals have to this race and to supporting the crazy bunch of strangers that descend on their homes and infrastructure each year. The route also benefits from being point-to-point, since it loses that feeling of mild futility that one can occasionally experience in races which begin close to their finishing point. On the other had it does therefore lack the chance to high-five runners coming the other way or catch a glimpse of the elites as the storm towards the end while the mere mortal is still only just hitting half way.
But yes, it is true that Boston is a race like no other. It is not the race as much as the setting, the history and the expectation of the participants that makes it special.
Arriving in Boston on the Friday before Patriots day even security staff at the airport (normally a job reserved for grumpy, tired passport checkers) recognise the runners as they pass through and wish them luck. The whole city is decked out in yellow and blue and pop-up sports shops and events abound. Even the queues to get into the expo and then again to collect your bib do not dull the fizz of excitement amongst those waiting to toe the line or amongst the army of volunteers whose attitude and demeanour are the right kind of disney-land style optimism, high five-ing and congratulating at any possible chance.
The day itself, like London is a well-oiled machine. The yellow school busses leave in swarms. There is no waiting in line this time and the highway becomes a hamster wheel of athlete transportation. I was particularly surprised at how low key, yet careful, the security was. There were no guns and very few uniformed officers in view. Instead the volunteers were spot checking in their normal happy way and with the strict rules on bag checks and clothing there was little room for error anyway. The athletes village is a sight to behold as people nervously pace, pyjamas over race gear, or blithely snooze on borrowed pieces of cardboard whilst snacking on bagels and fruit. It is a time to make friends with those around and hear their stories of qualifying. If you care enough to be here the chances are you're probably not shy about calling yourself a runner. Then, just before the event that all these runners have been waiting for and after the Elite men have emerged to take their place on the starting line there is a spine tingling moment as participants are asked to focus on the nearest American flag while the national anthem is sung. The silence is complete - a moment of odd calm only magnified by the thundering of two fighter jets performing a flypast seconds later and followed immediately by the starting gun.
The race itself, well you can read about that in countless places. There's the fabled downhill where everyone goes out too fast, the hills of Newton than are not that hilly but come just at the worst time in the race (18-21miles) and the Citgo sign that taunts or comforts from 2 miles before the end. It reality I found that the downhills and the uphills were never long enough to really be a pacing issue in themselves. On the contrary, the shortness of each one was itself the challenge as it upset any kind of rhythm and I struggled to gauge how I was feeling and whether I needed to push or ease off.
Yes there are a few killer last-ditch dips and inclines but Boston nails the perfect marathon finish with its right on Hereford, left on Boylston, acheiving what so few races do in giving finishers just the right length of time between seeing the finishing gantry and arriving at it - not so long that it drags but long enough to slap ourselves round the face and put on some semblance of finishing effort.
The reward - a pleasingly weighty medal held on a silky blue and yellow ribbon. The unicorn earns you rounds of applause as you walk through the streets and single roses from florists. The following day there's still nods of appreciation to those wearing the jackets. The Boston Marathon legend is self-fulfilling. We hear it is magical and so we make it magical. The qualifying time and the buy-in of the whole city make for an experience that feels exclusive and yet tantalisingly attainable. It makes us believe that we can be part of a club and when we get there it tells us we're special. It's a tough course and for those who can handle it (hello Sorrell Walsh, 50th Lady, 1st female Brit and finisher in 2:54:50 on a day when all others just wanted to finish) it is a worthy opponent that offers a brilliant reward. For those who don't quite reach our hopes it still offers enough moments where they feel just a whisker away from our grasp. As for me, I leave Boston with a little bubbling knot inside me. If you could stay in the city and preserve that marathon community permanently, perhaps that niggling voice inside which says "what if" would be drowned out by the atmosphere, but as the train pulls away from Beantown the fairy dust starts to fade and I think that's exactly why people keep going back. Yes there are races which are just as good, better value and probably as much fun (I see you London). But whereas London gives you everything in the moment of racing, the bridge, the palace, the mall are your reward on the day, Boston gets under your skin. I'm only a few days after the event but I suspect it always feels like it is waiting for you to take it on again, waiting to reward you with your bit-part in the big runner's fairytale.

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