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The Boston Marathon Is More Than A Race — It's A Community. This Year, That's What I'll Miss Most

Wave one of the general runners at the start to the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. (Joe Difazio for WBUR)
Wave one of the general runners at the start to the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. (Joe Difazio for WBUR)

I ran my first Boston Marathon more than 20 years ago, on a dare. I trained for six weeks, carpooled to the Hopkinton start with a couple of friends and somehow reached the Boylston Street finish.

The last time I ran Boston, it was against my better judgment. It was 2018, the year of torrential rains and brutal headwinds and temperatures in the 30s. When I crossed the finish, my entire body was numb and my lips were blue. I remember the race volunteer who approached me with a look of concern, but not much else about the minutes and hours afterward.

The author after finishing the 2018 Boston Marathon. (Courtesy)
The author after finishing the 2018 Boston Marathon. (Courtesy)

Still, I knew I’d be back. That’s the power of the Boston Marathon.

For distance runners like me, the history, the crowds, the qualifying standards, the Newton hills and Heartbreak Hill create a uniquely addictive experience. But it’s about more than the race on Patriots’ Day. From the qualifying window to my last long training run on the course, I mark time with the Boston Marathon calendar. That’s why its cancellation leaves such a void. Its absence interrupts rituals and traditions and circadian rhythms.

Like 30,000 others, I’d planned to run the marathon again this April. When it was postponed until September 14, I adjusted my training. But even as I looked ahead to the rescheduled race, I knew 2020 was likely a lost year because of the coronavirus. Having crammed into countless starting corrals and run shoulder-to-shoulder in crowded races, I don’t see how major marathons resume without a vaccine.

The virtual Boston Marathon option makes the best of an impossible situation. But so much of what makes the race special happens along the course.

I mark time with the Boston Marathon calendar. That’s why its cancellation leaves such a void.

Whether racing on Patriots’ Day or training on the course, I’m always struck by the route’s beautiful simplicity and its little quirks. The Hopkinton start that’s beyond quaint, especially compared to other major marathons. The downhill plunge before the I-95 overpass. The dramatic right turn at the Newton Firehouse. The small, short rise before the true crest of Heartbreak Hill.

I love how the uphills and downhills provide a test that goes beyond 26.2 miles. And I love that no matter how many times I run the course — nine Boston Marathons and hundreds of training runs to date — it defies mastery.

On race day, fans create “only in Boston” moments. The Wellesley College “Scream Tunnel” is an obvious one. My favorite? All the times I’ve seen runners ask spectators for the score of the Red Sox game. They always get quick answers back: 3-1 in the second, 4-2 in the fifth. Sometimes you see dry erase boards with Sox game updates. There’s such pride of place in the scorekeeping. Never was that pride more noticeable along the course than during the 2014 Boston Marathon, the year after the bombings.

FILE - In this April 15, 2013 file photo, medical workers aid injured people at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon following an explosion in Boston. (Charles Krupa/AP)
FILE - In this April 15, 2013 file photo, medical workers aid injured people at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon following an explosion in Boston. (Charles Krupa/AP)

I covered the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15, 2013 as a journalist, reporting from the press room at the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel. That day, I vowed to run the following year.

In 2014, the experience was everything I hoped it would be — a show of resiliency and generosity and community spirit. I will never forget all the thank yous I heard on the course. Runners thanked police officers and race volunteers and spectators. In return, the police officers and race volunteers and spectators thanked runners for coming back to Boston. This happened all along the 26.2 miles. That day, it seemed everyone recognized how much the Boston Marathon is connected to the city’s identity, how the traditional running of the race symbolizes normalcy.

Of course, it wouldn’t be the Boston Marathon without the prospect of a Nor’easter or unseasonably hot temperatures on race day. The unpredictability of spring in New England is another part of the race’s charm. Before any marathon, runners become weather nerds, checking forecasts with compulsive frequency.  I’m sure that frequency doubles or triples before Boston. How hot or cold will it be? Tailwind or headwind? A perfect day — temperatures in the low 50’s with a tailwind — is rare.

Hundreds of runners pour into Kenmore Square at mile 25 of the Boston Marathon. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Hundreds of runners pour into Kenmore Square at mile 25 of the Boston Marathon. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

In 2012, race weather forecasts predicted temperatures in the high-80’s and prompted race officials to offer deferments to the next year’s event. But marathoners being marathoners, most showed up and struggled through the heat. I ran that race. Temperatures reached 89 degrees and the day went down as one of the hottest in race history. I remember zig-zagging between hoses spraying from front yards, and grabbing ice cubes from spectators and dropping them down my running bra. Without all the hoses and ice cubes, the practical ways the crowd kept me moving forward, I’m not sure I would have finished.

That race reminded me how intimate the Boston Marathon can feel, how under the toughest conditions it can seem like a collective effort, how the towns and cities along the route can offer more than open road.

Today, I’m reminded of the terrific sense of community the Boston Marathon creates on race day. That community reemerges every April in new and different ways depending on what race day brings. I hope that will be true again next year.

If there's a race, I plan to run it.

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