How Boston Is Taking Back Its Marathon
It's the finish line of Boston where Bill Rodgers has etched a significant portion of his Hall of Fame legacy, having won the event four times between 1975 and 1980, including three straight between 1978 and 1980. "Boston Billy" has crossed that finish line a total of 14 times in his career.
But Rodgers's love for the Boston finish line is not just about his personal accolades. He loves seeing the triumph in each runner's eyes, loves wondering what each runner's story is, pondering what finishing the event means to that runner and what he or she had to endure to get there, in whose honor that person may be running.
"Every runner has a story; people come to Boston from everywhere, every year, to be a part of this event. This is as good it gets," he says.
For a true running legend who loves everything about his sport, who has made carrying the mantle of long-distance running his life's work, the finish line of the Boston Marathon is it, the culmination of the sport's seminal event, a sport where competition is as simultaneously fierce and friendly as the sports gods could possibly allow.
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Boston's finish line is truly a runner's heaven.
And last year we were jolted with the harsh reality that, in this day and age, even heaven's not safe.
It was April 15, 2013, Patriots' Day in Boston, a Massachusetts holiday and the day of the Boston Marathon. It was 2:49 p.m. local time when two pressure-cooker bombs placed about 210 yards apart ripped through the crowd at the Boston Marathon finish line, ultimately killing three and injuring 264 others. A weeklong manhunt for the perpetrators, two extremist Chechen brothers, eventually led to one being killed in a firefight and the other being captured by the police.
To say that anywhere is "the last place on earth that we would expect something like that to happen," in 2014, is a little naive and empty. Evil can, and does, happen everywhere.
In the aftermath, Boston did what American cities seemingly always do at times of collective tragedy. Its people banded together; dusted themselves off; told evil, "You won't take our city" (David Ortiz of the Red Sox put it far more colorfully than that); and started to heal.
And Boston immediately looked ahead to 2014's Marathon and began planning how to make it bigger and better than it's ever been, in large part to remind everyone what the Marathon truly stands for, and in small part to tell the evildoers who stained it in 2013 to go bleep themselves.
Everyone's heard of the Boston Marathon, but not everyone knows its history or its place on the sports landscape. Inspired by the success of the first modern-day marathon competition at the 1896 Summer Olympics, Boston is the world's oldest annual marathon, and one of six marathons that make up the World Marathon Majors.
Appropriately, Rodgers compares the event to one of the majors in another individual sport, the Masters in golf. It's a comparison that works on so many levels, right down to each course having its own signature feature indicating the home stretch is nigh, Amen Corner at Augusta and Heartbreak Hill in Boston.
"The Boston Marathon started as a grassroots thing, and it's grown to where people come from all over the country and all over the world to participate," Rodgers says. "It's, in a way, kind of a hidden sports gem."
Runners are a different breed of athletic competitor, as they somehow manage to balance a burning desire to win with a kinship bred through the physical punishment they all endure for the love of their sport. Other sports have that bond in their DNA as well, but according to Rodgers, none like the running community.
"There's a connection that runners have, a camaraderie, to the point where if we see another runner who has fallen, our first instinct is to help them up," Rodgers says.
It's that very instinct, the default mode that is set to "help others," that will be on full display on April 21. That's this year's Patriots' Day, this year's Boston Marathon.
Yes, this one will feel different. That's natural after what occurred in 2013.
Some 3,500 police officers will line the 26.2-mile course. Bags for runners will be banned at the starting line, as will backpacks and knapsacks for spectators around the finish line. There will be checkpoints. There will be inspections. Machine guns. Dogs.
This is the world we now live in.
The tragedy in Boston last April has put all marathons on high alert. At January's Chevron Houston Marathon, organizers added more uniformed officers around the course as well as four different security checkpoints to prevent as best they could any sort of copycat of the Boston crime.
Now, in the face of 2013's tragedy and 2014's new set of rules, the hallowed immortals of the Boston Marathon plan to recapture its magic.
Former champions are returning from far and wide, including Joan Benoit Samuelson (1979, 1983), Amby Burfoot (1968) and Gelindo Bordin (1990), all of whom will join the 36,000 entrants running Boston this year.
Bill Rodgers had hoped to run, but a leg injury will prevent that. Instead, Rodgers will serve as grand marshal, riding in a pace car ahead of the lead runners, heralding to the spectators along the course that soon the runners will be coming.
Nothing could prevent him from contributing to the 2014 Boston Marathon in some way.
"I've been thinking about the 2014 Marathon all year and how committed we all are to what the Boston Marathon stands for," Rodgers reflected. "It's going to be a huge celebration."
Eventually next Monday, Rodgers's pace car will stop at the finish line, and it's there that he will settle in, watching everyone from close friends to perfect strangers achieve their goal of finishing Boston. They all have a story, all have a purpose and are all bound by a collective spirit unique to the long-distance running community.
Rodgers knows. This has been his sport for nearly five decades.
"It's really more than a sport," he says.
This year, in Boston, that's never been more true.
Marathon Man: My 26.2-Mile Journey from Unknown Grad Student to the Top of the Running World, by Bill Rodgers and Matthew Shepatin, 2013, St. Martin's Press.
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