April 05, 2007

Boston Marathon: Sights along the course

It's that time again. The 111th edition of the Boston Marathon gets under way at noon on April 16, Patriots’ Day, when Massachusetts commemorates Paul Revere’s midnight ride.
There’s nothing like running Boston. A piece of you becomes part 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 (photo) in Boston’s Copley Square – crowds clapping, the Prudential and Hancock towers 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 certain 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 nearly 25,000 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, originally called Bread & Circus, opened in affluent Wellesley in 1980 and a beacon for the natural food-inclined ever since. 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.
* Newton Newton 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 – just as you start to feel your body rebel big time, you pass Newton's Woodland MBTA commuter rail station. Thoughts of cheater Rosie Ruiz help you resist the urge to veer off the course and hop on the train. But it does get tough here, and more runners drop out in Newton than anywhere else on the route. A few hills after the "T" stop, at sprawling Newton City Hall at Mile 19, runners in the know look for “Young at Heart,” the bronze dual statue of both a young and old Johnny Kelley. The sculptures sit 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 Kelley, who ran Boston 61 times, won it twice, finished second seven times, and lived to 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. About a mile 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. "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, home of the Boston Red Sox, the stadium still fresh from a recent $40 million extreme makeover. Since 1954, the Red Sox have scheduled every Patriots’ Day game at home to coincide with the running of the Boston Marathon, making the city one giant, cheering sportsfest on that day.
Good luck and Godspeed to everyone who tackles the course a week from Monday. And to all the folks I know who'll be out there trying to achieve their personal goals -- beating three hours; beating four; running as a marathon virgin and bandit for the life experience; running to raise money for cancer research; running with breast cancer and vowing to reach the finish line no matter how long it takes -- to all of you, I'll be watching and rooting you on. May you have wings on your feet.