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The Harbus Guide to the Boston Marathon

There is nothing HBS students like more than a long weekend. Next Monday, April 19, is Patriots’ Day, an incongruous Massachusetts state holiday commemorating the Revolutionary War battles of Lexington and Concord. To most Bostonians, however, Patriots’ Day is known as “Marathon Monday” because it marks the annual running of the venerable Boston Marathon.

The Boston Marathon is one of the oldest and most famous footraces on Earth. For runners around the world, a Boston qualifying time is a cherished achievement. For participants, the race is a thrilling life experience. For the average Bostonian, it’s a great excuse to enjoy the spring weather, drink a beverage or three, and spend a guilt-free afternoon heckling complete strangers.

This year’s 114th Boston Marathon features a strong HBS contingent and serves as a perfect day-off leisure activity. It is for you, Gentle Reader, that the Harbus has assembled this spectator’s guide.

TRADITION AND LORE
Boston is one of the five “World Marathon Majors,” along with New York, Chicago, London and Berlin. Although Boston has the slowest course of the five, it has by far the most history, tradition and prestige. This year’s race has nearly 25,000 participants and includes a stellar elite field with some of the world’s finest athletes. Nearly all athletes in the field must meet an age-graded qualifying standard to enter the race, which makes a Boston bib number a sought-after goal among runners around the world.

Over the years, Boston has developed traditions that make it unique among major marathons. Due to the Patriots’ Day holiday, the entire course is lined with spectators, including young children home from school who pass out orange slices and collect high fives. The women of Wellesley College form a raucous “scream tunnel” that can be heard literally half a mile away. (It is also good luck for runners passing through the scream tunnel to kiss a Wellesley senior.) The Red Sox play an early-morning game that lets out as the elite runners pass, flooding Kenmore Square with rowdy fans. And participants steel themselves for Heartbreak Hill, the infamous incline at the 20-mile mark.

The storied history of the race is filled with great champions, such as four-time winner Bill “Boston Billy” Rodgers and Olympic gold medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson. “Joanie,” a Maine native, was unknown in 1979 when she won the race wearing a Red Sox cap. It is also filled with colorful characters. The two Johnny Kelleys, known as the Elder and the Younger, were unrelated despite their similar names and won the race twelve years apart. Rosie Ruiz was declared the winner in 1980 until it was discovered she had not run the whole race, but instead had jumped onto the course near the finish. It was later revealed that Ruiz had achieved her Boston qualifying time by using the subway to cut the course of the New York Marathon.

THIS YEAR’S RACE
This year’s elite men’s field features the defending champion, Deriba Merga of Ethiopia, as well as top Americans Ryan Hall and Meb Keflezighi. Keflezighi won the 2009 New York marathon and was the Olympic silver medalist in 2004. Hall, third in Boston last year, won the 2008 US Olympic Marathon Trials and has the second-fastest time in American history at 2:06:17. (Disclosure: Hall was a college teammate of this writer. Please support him lustily.) Hall and Keflezighi look to become the first American man to win the race since Greg Meyer in 1983. If either of them can pull it off, it will be a very big deal.

The women’s elite field, while not as deep as the men’s, features defending champion Salina Kosgei along with prior champions Dire Tune, Lidiya Grigoryeva and Catherine “The Great” Ndereba.

The elite women start at 9:32 a.m., unencumbered by male interference. The elite men and first wave of runners start at 10 a.m., while the second wave of runners starts at 10:30 a.m. The elite men take between 2:05 and 2:10 to finish, the elite women 2:20 to 2:35, and “normal” runners anywhere up to five or six hours.

THE COURSE
The 26.2 mile point-to-point course stretches from the town of Hopkinton to Copley Place in downtown Boston. The course follows Route 135 and Route 16, then takes a right turn onto Commonwealth Ave. at the firehouse in Newton at 17 miles. The course is slightly downhill for the first 14 miles, but after the Newton firehouse, participants hit the four “Newton Hills” between miles 16 and 21. The last of the Newton Hills is the infamous “Heartbreak Hill” at mile 20. Heartbreak isn’t a big hill, but because it occurs so late in the race, it exacts a brutal toll.

After mile 21, the runners go downhill through Boston College to Cleveland Circle, turning onto Beacon Street and taking it all the way downtown. It is a quick right on Hereford Street and a quick left onto Boylston to the finish in front of the Boston Public Library at Copley Square.

WHERE TO WATCH
For HBS spectators, ideal spots are either on Commonwealth Ave. at Boston College or along Beacon Street anywhere from Cleveland Circle through Hereford Street downtown. Kenmore Square and the finish line (on Boylston) tend to be prohibitively crowded. Amy Sennett (NE) recommends the bridge over the Mass Pike right by Fenway, saying “Last year, just as I was struggling over the bridge and wanted to quit, a Red Sox fan looked me in the eye and said, ‘Don’t stop!’ and it totally kept me going to the end of the race.”

Make sure to arrive early enough to see the elites pass. A pack of world-class distance runners at top speed is an amazing sight to behold. If you have a bunch of beers and are looking to hang out, there will be a solid stream of participants for another 2 to 3 hours after the elites. If you are following a particular person in the race, you can track their progress online at //www.baa.org.

IN SUMMARY
The Boston Marathon, in addition to being a world-class sporting event, is a unique Boston tradition and occupies a special place in the city’s heart. Whether you are a world-beater or a couch potato, it is a great way to spend your Patriots’ Day.

AUTHOR’S BIOGRAPHY
Andrew Hill loves the Boston Marathon but will run much slower this year. Comments welcome at ahill@mba2010.hbs.edu.

April 12, 2010
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