Five things I know about the Boston Marathon and one I don’t

It’s almost April, which means the Boston Marathon is coming up. And this year, on April 15, I will be part of its 128th running. As I wind up my 20 week training plan, I’m also reading up on the history and lore of this storied race. So I have some head knowledge about this thing.

The Boston Marathon is a major.

That is, it’s one of the six Abbott World Marathon Majors, drawing the world’s best marathoners but also hoards of regular people who literally follow in their footsteps. Some, like my across the hall neighbor Tracy, are on a mission to run all of them: Tokyo, London, Berlin, New York, Chicago, and Boston. It’s also the oldest and longest running modern marathon.

The Boston Marathon traces the evolution of physical fitness.

When the Boston Marathon was established in 1897 on a wave of marathon mania following the 1896 Olympic Games, it was an extreme sport. Competitors were thought to be risking death by running so far. Spectators flocked to the course to see who might collapse along the way. Only a handful of young, male competitors toed the starting line the first several decades. Until the 1960s, each one was required to get a physical exam before the start.

Then in the 1970s and 80s, long distance running morphed from that thing you do when you want to face your Maker to that thing you do when you want to get healthy. A change for the better, I think, bringing us present day sedentary office workers and car commuters around to what manual laborers have always known: that a working body is a strong body. And in the case of road racing to the beautiful situation where mere mortals get to compete on the same course on the same day as world- and Olympic champions. Not that it’s easy to run 26.2 miles. But it’s no longer limited to a few [young, male] daredevils. Quite the opposite: far more runners qualify than will fit at the start.  

If it’s daredevils you want, we still have, say, kite boarding, or cliff diving. The Cliff Diving World Series has a stop in Boston, where competitors launch themselves off the roof of a museum into Boston Harbor.

The Boston Marathon is hyperlocal on a large scale.

Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham, Natick. Wellesley, Newton, Brookline, Finish… I mean, Boston. The Marathon cuts through the hearts of several towns that are tied to the race in the world’s imagination. Each community contributes a unique spirit. In Hopkinton, residents open their homes to racers from specific running clubs, or even entire states. Downtown Natick was decorated weeks in advance. Wellesley College students form a scream tunnel around Mile 13. The Newton fire station at Mile 18 sets out a boot for cash donations in support of a local charity—not on Race Day but on Sundays leading up to it, catching donations from marathon participants in training. And of course the last stretch, along Boylston Street in Boston, is one big party on race day.

A shop window in Natick celebrates the Boston Marathon and its communities.

The Boston Marathon is on a Monday.

Happy Patriots’ Day! A handful of states – Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Florida – commemorate three early battles of the American Revolutionary War fought on April 19, 1775: Lexington, Concord, and Menotomy. Here in MA it’s the third Monday in April. School kids are on break. Re-enactors on horseback retrace the midnight rides of Paul Revere and Williams Dawes, touching off choreographed battles in the three little towns the battles are named after. Oh, and the Boston Red Sox always play at home in Fenway Park, at Mile 25 of the marathon course. Most people either get or take the day off. Who could concentrate with all this commotion?

I almost forgot to request a vacation day.

I know every step of the Boston Marathon course.

Following a training plan put out by the Boston Athletic Association, I’ve completed a long run every weekend since January, some on the actual course. Once, my crew (husband and 2-year-old son) dropped me off at the start. Another few times, they dropped me at the finish and I did an out and back while they went for pancakes. Last weekend, they left me in Ashland, 22 miles out, and appeared at the finish line the exact moment I crossed it. My feet have traveled every inch of the course.

But not all in one go. That’s the one thing I don’t know about the Boston Marathon yet –

I don’t know what it feels like to finish.

Right onto Hereford, left onto Boylston: I’ve spotted this on several t-shirts while running along the Charles River this spring. It’s the last two turns on the Boston Marathon course, which I’ve memorized not only with my head but with my feet, too. I’ve had fun thinking about what it’s going to be like on race day.

“My last mile was my fastest mile,” my neighbor Tracy told me about her first Boston Marathon. That’s become a mantra for me during training runs, and it usually pushes me to go a little faster. Like the Revolutionary War re-enactors in reverse: I don’t know the outcome of the battle yet, so I can imagine the best.


  1. Raymond Shuster on April 2, 2024 at 7:32 am

    This is a great article. I wish we could be there to see you finish. Your family are all excited for you. I love the line: …”that thing you do when you want to meet your Maker,”. I know I’d feel that way about mile 5. Have a great run.

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