April 12, 2006

Boston Marathon: 26 miles of sights

The 110th edition of the Boston Marathon gets under way at noon on April 17, Patriots’ Day, when Massachusetts commemorates Paul Revere’s midnight ride.

As I tucked my spring marathon away two weeks ago, my work is done, so I plan, weather permitting, to snake an extension cord out to the deck, put my legs up on the railing, enjoy a few Coronas with lime, and watch the race on TV. Here’s to you, runners. May you have wings on your feet. (OLN will carry the race live starting at 11:30 a.m. EST and will rebroadcast it at 5 p.m.)

There’s nothing like running Boston. A piece of you becomes part of the history of the world’s oldest continuous annual marathon, and the race gives back far more than it takes out of you. Closing in on the Boylston Street finish (above) in Boston’s Copley Square – crowds clapping, the Prudential and Hancock towers touching the clouds above your head, H.H. Richardson’s masterful Trinity Church visible just beyond the finish line clock – is a rich moment. You feel it forever.

But the 26 miles that you cover before hitting Boylston Street offer their own magic, and if you’re a middle-of-the-packer like me and not focused solely on the time clock, there’s a lot to see along the way. Some highlights from the route:

* Hopkinton Common – Both the Boston Marathon and the Charles River begin in Hopkinton, incorporated in 1715. Revolutionary War-era homes line the Common, and some of the owners open their homes on marathon day to athletes from specific running clubs or geographic areas. One house hosts Texans and another welcomes runners from Oklahoma. The hospitality of the people of Hopkinton is remarkable, given that on race day their bucolic New England village is besieged -- overrun you might say -- by 20,000 microfiber-clad strangers. On Patriots’ Day, runners outnumber residents by about two to one.

* Natick’s historic district – The town was chartered by English settlers in 1650, when it was home to a tribe of Narragansett Indians. At the outbreak of King Philip's War in 1675, the community's British colonists imprisoned the native Narragansett on Deer Island in Boston Harbor, where most died. Natick surrounds Lake Cochituate, which runners pass at about Mile 8 before entering the welcome shade of the Henry Wilson Historic District. The tree-lined district, named for the man who served as Ulysses Grant's vice president, brims with impeccably maintained Victorian, Queen Anne and Gothic revival mansions.

* Wellesley – At mile 12, when I ran past the screaming gauntlet of Wellesley College students who line the route outside the gates of the venerable, all-female institution, I was one of the only women in the knot of runners I’d fallen in with, and the cheers of support from the ladies of Wellesley overwhelmed me. I nearly cried. In the din, I heard some half-dozen variations on the “You go, girl” theme. You hear the roars from the Wellesley students long before you reach the college, and runners call this uplifting stretch the “tunnel of sound.” Just beyond the college sits a food store, Bread & Circus, opened in affluent Wellesley in 1980 and a beacon for the natural food-inclined ever since. (I used to drive the 15 miles one way to get there until grocery chains wised up and began stocking [ little teasing bits of] chemical-free food.) Owned since 1992 by Whole Foods, the orange slices held out to runners here are different from oranges proffered elsewhere along the route: these are organic.

* NewtonNewton is where things fall apart for some runners. Newton is hilly, and Heartbreak Hill, which grinds you down as you chug upward toward Boston College, is only a small piece of the eight miles that wind through this city’s various and distinct parts. Cruelly – or perhaps thankfully – the Woodland MBTA train station (just after the Newton-Wellesley Hospital), welcomes you to – or delivers you from – Newton. More runners drop out in Newton than anywhere else on the course. At sprawling City Hall, Mile 19, runners in the know look for “Young at Heart,” the bronze dual statue of a young and an old Johnny Kelley, which sits under the trees on the left side of the road. You glance at the statue and pay homage to and absorb all the good karma you can from this legend who ran Boston 61 times, won it twice, finished second seven times, and left our earth at age 97.

* Brighton to Beacon Street in Brookline – At Brighton, Mile 22, the route goes urban. Cleveland Circle (which isn't– it’s just a rounded corner where the course starts to parallel the MBTA’s Green Line trolley tracks) marks the transition from suburbs to city. In Brookline, only seven miles square and once a place for country homes for well-to-do Boston merchants, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born in 1917. The course here is narrow and close.
Runners are wedged between the trolley tracks and the cheering, banner-waving crowds that stand in front of Beacon Street’s lineup of wise old brownstones.

* The Citgo Sign – When you see the iconic Citgo sign towering over Boston’s Kenmore Square near Boston University, you know you’re going to make it. Just a few miles to go. It may be the logo of a Venezuelan gas company, but Bostonians, and Boston marathoners, love their Citgo sign. “You did it," it says to 20,000 runners every Patriots' Day. "Bring it on home."

* Fenway Park – Your legs kill but your brain bubbles with the anticipation of finishing when you near Fenway, the Green Monster, which got a $40 million extreme makeover in time for the 2006 baseball season. (The home opener was yesterday. The Sox beat Toronto.) Since 1954, the Red Sox have scheduled every Patriots’ Day game at home to make their baseball coincide with the running of the Boston Marathon. Game time is rigged so baseball fans exit the park at about the same time that the marathon’s lead runners pass. If the Sox win, fans come out happy and cheer on the dog-tired runners. If the Sox lose, fans come out sad and get reinspired by the dog-tired runners.

To those making the journey on Monday, Godspeed, and enjoy.