The 118th Boston Marathon Was About People — Just Like The 117 Before

tlumacki_bostonmarathon_metro722_rThe Boston Marathon is special for its steep history, its fabled point-to-point course, the many well-known landmarks along the route and the great runners who have worn the champion’s olive wreath. This Boston though, will be remembered for those who never ran a step.

Spring was slow returning to Boston for the 118th running of the world’s most famous marathon. The green ash, maple and flowering crab trees that typically greet the current of runners in full bloom were naked and exposed along Commonwealth Avenue and in the Back Bay; their stark branches a reminder of the cruel winter much of the nation was trying to forget.

But spring always finds a way – as does the American spirit.

One year after two cowards turned the 2013 Boston Marathon party into a chaotic life-changing real-life horror movie, the marathon returned to Boston with a resolve and determination to live and survive that even a dandelion would envy.

thankyou“Thank you!” screamed the voice from the crowd of onlookers as my second wave of runners rolled down the steep hill out of Hopkinton. “Thank you for coming back to run! You are our heroes today!”

Me? A hero? I wasn’t the only runner surprised to hear this reaction over and over and over from the crowds that lined our 26.2-mile race. I will take many memories with me from this historic marathon but one that will be most special is the unfiltered adulation showered on the runners from start to finish – and even beyond.

And it wasn’t just those who came out of their homes to cheer us who wanted to express their gratitude. That feeling that we helped Boston heal came from everywhere. As I haltingly limped back to my hotel after the race on my two-mile walk, I was stopped, cheered and congratulated by almost every person who saw my Boston Marathon post-race silver poncho draped over my stooped shoulders.

And when I say everyone, even a pimp stopped me to offer his congrats. “Dude,” he breathed as he let out a stream of smoke from his Camel. “I couldn’t even run one mile.” And then back to work he went, ushering his cadre into his Camry. (I am guessing he’s working his way up the pimp chain.)

An Asian woman on her bicycle rode beside me as I painfully trudged along the sidewalk and smiled as she gave me a thumbs up sign and shouted congratulations – all while ringing her handlebar bell.

A car full of African-American women screeched to a halt on State Street, rolled down their windows and started screaming at me – with huge smiles on their faces. “We are so proud of you!” they yelled. “Thank you so much for helping our city heal!”

securedownloadThis was about the tenth similar salutation I had received since leaving the race area and encountering traffic. I had greeted most with a tired return grin and a humble but mumbled, “Thank you.” But these five ladies got me a bit emotional. I turned to face their car and ripped open my Velcro-sealed silver cape to display my sweaty race singlet, complete with the phrase, “KC Loves Boston,” expertly stenciled on the front by Overland Park’s Nill Bros Sports. This view sent the five-some off into another level of hysteria. Their horn started honking and their screams grew even louder. The last time I received that kind of a reaction from five women was, well…never.

Kevin is a Kansas City-area runner who traveled to Boston with his wife and two teenage daughters. When he and his family stumbled into a small German restaurant shortly after he finished his marathon looking for a bite to eat, the guests in the restaurant rose to their feet and gave him a standing ovation! They repeated this gesture of gratitude for every medal-draped, silver-cape-wearing runner who entered. It is not often we experience raw gratitude from strangers. It was everywhere in Boston on Marathon Monday.

I was still a half mile from my hotel as I shuffled along on spent legs after the race (having somehow taken a wrong turn that put me an extra mile out of the way in Chinatown). With no money or credit cards in my running gear, I took a chance that the 7-Eleven clerk would allow me to purchase a Diet Pepsi on the promise I would return later with payment. Apu stared at me and my superhero cape and shot down my request with the speed that Homer Simpson downs a donut. “NO!” was his quick and no-nonsense reply. He sternly waved me off with his right hand and quickly returned to his paying customers.

I started to leave but was stopped by a man in his 50s who appeared to be just getting off work on the Boston Harbor docks. He was in line with two children, waiting to check out. He sported Popeye-like forearms, complete with sailor tattoos.

“Here,” he said as he fished into his back pocket for his billfold. “We watched some of the marathon and I would really like to buy you a couple of sodas.” He shoved a five-dollar bill into my hand and added, “Don’t worry about paying me back,” he added. “You already have.” He was gone before I returned to the check-out desk with my drinks.

The names of the small towns that serve as hosts for our race to Boston were well marked at each entry point. Flags billowed in the afternoon breeze with the names of Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Newton, Brookline and finally Boston.

My pace for this Boston was measured – another word for slow. A lady ahead of me at the ten-mile mark had printed “Mother of 7” on the back of her shirt. But I chose to experience and enjoy this Boston rather than race it. And there was so much to enjoy!

boston-marathon3The first few miles out of Hopkinton are run on a narrow stretch of Highway 135 that doesn’t allow much room for the 9,000 runners each wave sends forth every 25 minutes, let alone spectators. But almost every bit of road shoulder and front yard housed locals who were there simply to make sure their screams of gratitude found our ears. It was so loud at some points along the route that it became a cacophony of sound, with individual voices indistinguishable.

The famous brownstone train station in Framingham marks the 10K point in the race and the road widens here to allow for a large gathering of folks to enjoy the race. This was the point in the race where I knew this Boston was going to be unlike any other Boston.

It seemed that every father, every mother, every daughter and every son wore a blue and gold shirt or waved a sign that read, “Boston Strong.” And the runners responded with arms raised, clenched fists thrust overhead and impromptu stops to high-five a child, accept a wet nap, hug a stranger and enjoy the fleeting yet undeniable bond between runner and motivator.

WellesleyThe Wellesley coeds had promised, “a Wellesley experience like no other,” for this 118th Boston. They did not disappoint. The line of college women leaning forward to greet each runner with a kiss began well before its traditional starting point and lasted far beyond where it usually ends. I considered imbibing on this forbidden fruit as I slowed my pace for a better view. I have always declined on my other three trips past the Wellesley gauntlet.

A “Kiss me, I’m Ovulating,” sign got me to grin but not pucker. The 60-something runner in front of me showed none of my grandfatherly inhibitions. The small bald man hopped up and stole a peck on the cheek from a buxom brunette. He was back atop the fence a few seconds later sampling a cute Korean. I started thinking that gramps here might run Boston just for his otherwise illegal dalliances with underage coeds. There are worse vices.

The town of Wellesley immediately follows the tunnel of love at the all-girls college. It is an upscale, preppy burg with expensive shops, restaurants. Its inhabitants share equally gourmet tastes. The run past these Boston aristocrats is usually sedate and proper. As a runner, you feel a bit like a rhino in the zoo as the folks in Wellesley look on and sip a spritzer with their crab spread and crisps.

But this was a different Boston Marathon – and this was a far different Wellesley! The crowds in the square were triple their normal size and their screams were as loud as the coeds’ yelps we had just left. Prim, proper, perfect and perfunctory Wellesley was acting like Arrowhead on game day. And we, the runners, were the Chiefs. It was glorious.

One of the most dreaded portions of the Boston Marathon is known as “The Newton Hills.” Old John Kelly is credited with saying his heart was broken here in Newton in 1936 when Tarzan Brown passed him on the final steep grade that zapped his legs and his willpower. Newton and its Heartbreak Hill at the 20-mile mark is where many believe this race really starts…and ends for some.

761535_1352_0043There is a fire station and a large intersection in Newton that marks a sharp right turn into the Newton Hills. The party that was taking place at this spot on this course on this day was so loud and so damn fun that I was tempted to stop and party right along with those wicked crazy Bostonians.

The Red Sox anthem, Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline, happened to be blaring from the massive speakers set up by the firemen as I rolled on by. The pounding of the bass had my racing bib dancing.

“Warm, touchin’ warm, reachin’ out
Touchin’ me, touchin’ you…”

I was tired here at almost 18 miles but not too tired to get a little feisty with the crowd. I raised my hands and asked the crowd to give me their best. They answered and so did Neil.

“Sweet Caroline
Good times never seemed so good, SO GOOD! SO GOOD!”

I don’t know if the Newton firehouse played that song on a loop all day long or if I was just lucky enough to hit that intersection at the perfect time – but I pumped my fist heading into those hills and smiled right through Heartbreak.

dave-mcgillivrayEach town, each neighborhood and each street seemed to bring their game to unprecedented levels for this race. Dave McGillivray, the Boston Marathon race director for more than 25 years, talked about how the bombings stole the marathon from him and Boston. As he tried to enter the finish-line area last year after the disaster, he was abruptly and rudely stopped by a policeman guarding the area.

“But you don’t understand,” McGillivray sputtered. “THIS IS MY RACE!”

“Not anymore it isn’t,” the stoic cop answered.

McGillivray’s desire to make the 2014 Boston Marathon his race once again motivated him throughout the next 12 months. I listened to him speak to a room full of marathoners the day before the race – a room that included Bill Rodgers and five other past Boston legends. He ended his speech with these words.

securedownload“We’re taking back Boylston Street,” McGillivray began slowly. “We’re taking back our race! We’re taking back our sport! We’re taking back our city!” He left the room high-fiving the audience under a crescendo of applause. I was left shaking from the passion he displayed.

The people of Boston may not have been in the room with McGillivray but they heard his words. More importantly, they responded. They responded like nothing I have ever experienced. It is one thing to be loud in an arena or stadium for a two- or three-hour game and cheer the big plays as they unfold. It is another thing entirely to cheer like a maniac for five and six hours for every nameless runner who crosses your path.

Additional security was omnipresent throughout the day, starting with armed gunmen on school rooftops in Hopkinton. I was extremely concerned about how the increased security at this Boston Marathon would diminish and change the atmosphere at and near the finish line. In years past, these are some of the most vociferous crowds along the 26-mile course. Fenway sits near here and Red Sox fans pour onto Commonwealth Ave. and up near Boylston Street to catch the runners in their last two miles.

What I saw and heard those last few miles will remain stored in my memory when I want to recall a moment in my life that was perfect. I was overwhelmed with the sincerity and adoration from these strangers. That sounds nuts and let me tell you – it was!

Marathon09_rThe last few miles of any marathon are difficult. The stretch along Commonwealth Avenue from mile 23 on is just crushingly hard. You so want the pain to end but those last three miles feel like an impossible task. The final 600 feet on Boylston is known to marathoners as the longest 600 feet in Boston.

But these last few miles flew by for me this trip. Not that I ran them quickly, but more because I wanted to drink in the crowds that stood so thick and so deep that they appeared to be one, not many. As we ran as one, they screamed as one. Their screams were truly deafening – I met runners the next day whose ears were still ringing.

greghI could no longer make out, “Go KC!” or “Boston loves KC, too!” I was almost two hours late to Meb’s winning finish and these folks were acting like I was the winner. There is no question in my mind that I was.

Greg Hall [email protected] and Twitter @greghall24

About Greg Hall

Software guy who has been writing my Off The Couch column in KC newspapers, publications and websites since 1994. Has been bounced from some of the finest media establishments this side of State Line Road. Dad first and everything else second...and there are a lot of everything elses.
This entry was posted in Greg Hall OTC, Greg's Marathon Stories. Bookmark the permalink.

38 Responses to The 118th Boston Marathon Was About People — Just Like The 117 Before

  1. Kyle R says:

    What an incredible sounding experience Greg! Congrats on completing it again!

  2. Phaedrus says:

    Wow…sounds like a great experience Greg! One of the best parts about running any marathon is the sense of accomplishment and the appreciative (or bewildered) responses from the spectators. This sounds like a normal race X 10!

    It’s a shame Apu had to rain on your parade. But seriously, a diet pepsi after a marathon??

    I read Dave mcGillivray’s autobiography, The Last Pick, about 6 or 7 years ago. It was a pretty good read…the guy is still driven because he was the last pick for the sports teams in elementary school gym class.

    • Greg Hall says:

      I didn’t resent that Apu declined my offer to drink now and pay later. I just thought it was worth a shot. Heck, he probably took one look at this old man and thought, “That old guy isn’t going to make it to the hotel let alone back here with my money!”

  3. Gavin says:

    Every year I look forward to the Boston recap and this year’s did not disappoint. Congratulations, Greg, on another race well run and another great experience. I’m already looking forward to the vicarious thrill of next year’s race.

    • Greg Hall says:

      Glad you enjoyed it, Gavin. There were a lot of great stories to tell this year but those folks in the crowd made this one all the more special. Now, about next year…

  4. SDPETE says:

    Congratulations on your run, Greg!

  5. HARLEY says:

    STORY!!!!!! BEST YOU’VE EVER WRITTEN!!!!! BEST ON ANY KC media!!!!!!!!
    LOVED IT!!!!!!
    Now maybe the politicians and their greedy handlers can understand that we are
    not a nation divided. we are united. and that the sooner they realize we’re sick and
    tired of them trying to divide this nation the sooner we can move on.
    Noone cared that you were white…even people of color cheered you on.
    It’s time that the people who run us get the message real quick.
    We are one nation. White/black/brown/jew/Christian/catholic/atheist/left wing//
    right wing/muslim/….a melting pot.
    Thanks for an incredible story!!!!!!!!!

    • Greg Hall says:

      Harley, You touched on one thing that this odd event called the marathon really does spotlight — we are all an awfully lot alike. Strip us down to shorts, a t-shirt and manual labor and we find a way to get along really quickly.

  6. Tigerpiper says:

    I hope no one comes into my office for a few minutes as I am crying. Greg, ever think of writing a book on running based on these columns?

  7. Kenny G says:

    Greg, Excellent article. Congrats on another marathon victory!

  8. Markus Aurelius says:

    Thanks for sharing. Great article with a personal perspective that made it better than any media report from any of the big 4 networks and their progeny. Good stuff. It does give one hope that better days may still be ahead.

    • Markus Aurelius says:

      Congrats also on the marathon (yet again) — that’s a heck of an accomplishment no matter how many times you’ve done it. I’d like to think (hope) Kansas Citians would respond in a similar way after a tragedy like that but I just don’t know. Hope so.

      • BlackJack says:

        What makes you think Kansas Citians (or any other community) would not respond in a similar way after a tragedy? Because they are so inferior to Bostonians? People are who they are because of human spirit, not due the geographical area they are residing..

      • red says:

        Every community would, though I am not sure all would feel the need to talk about their response as much. Many communities have taken much larger blows and not blinked, just got on with it. Londoners survived numerous IRA bombings over decades, financed to some extent by people from Boston, without stopping any part of their daily routine. Oklahoma City had a much more devastating attack and moved forward. Its what people do.

  9. BlackJack says:

    Greg, great article and glad you had fun and everything. I don’t mean to minimize everything you all did, but: you guys must have tired arms and sore backs from all the back-slapping and self-congratulating you all did. I mean, it was only a race, it’s not like anyone cured cancer, or fed starving children.

    Running the race and completing a marathon is great personal acheivement, but I just don’t get all the hero worship, and self-aggrandizing that goes on anymore with these type of events; especially when there is actual, real civic and charitable behind-the-scenes work and saving lives that take place all over the world, that deserves our attention and gratitude.

    Sorry, don’t mean to be a dick..

    • MightyMo says:

      Resist the urge. Great good in the world is not discounted because others are doing more or because we could do more. Just be an individual source of light and hope and let someone else do the math.

    • SDPETE says:

      BlackJack…that’s EXACTLY what you meant to be.

    • Greg Hall says:

      BlackJack, We all view events from a different perspective. Just because yours may be different than mine makes neither the more correct. The 2014 Boston Marathon was one very big kick in the ass to those cowards who believe they can dictate how we live, work and play. We celebrated that on Patriots Day and I and a few others thought it was wicked cool.

      • Markus Aurelius says:

        Those cowards may not be able to dictate how we live, work and play but as a result of those cowards we’ve allowed our own government to dictate how we live, work and play and that’s a much scarier and disappointing scenario. So nice to have everyone treated like terrorists in the name of security. Truth is security, real security, is fleeting — unfortunately, no freedom is as well.

        I have no idea why all educated, thoughtful people don’t understand that allowing the NSA, Dept of Homeland Security and this administration (and the last one as well) to crap on the constitution in the name of “keeping us safe” is a hollow premise. We are starting to head down a road that only has one way back and they way back would not be pretty. People need to wake up and right the ship or history will not judge this generation too kindly I suspect.

    • Markus Aurelius says:

      Can’t disagree with the premise of your post but I guess my only comment would be this. Why is it an either/or proposition? I don’t think an article like Greg’s is mutually exclusive from articles about those people doing incredible, civic and charitable work around the world. In truth, they are not. Keep in mind this is Greg’s blog – it’s not a compendium of what is good and right in the world that prioritizes what is meaningful in life.

  10. brett says:

    nice job, greg. I always thought running a marathon was crazy. but due in part to your boston recaps, I signed up for my first 26 this fall in Chicago.

    • Greg Hall says:

      brett, There is still time to remain sane! All kidding aside, more marathoners start off like you than you can imagine. I ran my first at the age of 55. Before that I thought marathons were for those too touched in the head to know how ridiculous running 26.2 miles is. Now I know for sure! Chicago is my favorite marathon. I love Boston to death but Chicago is fast, friendly and in October — you are going to be back.

  11. mileswithstyle (@AliHatfield) says:

    This is awesome. Made me get all sappy once again. It was an AMAZING experience!!!

  12. Hot Carl says:

    Greg, great story! Nice to see that the marathon can bring everyone together in such an amazing way. I’m sure being there was one of life’s highlights. But like Blackjack, the Grinch in me is glad it’s now over so I don’t have to listen to that “BostonStrong” crap anymore.

    • Greg Hall says:

      HC, I can understand how the BostonStrong message can appear to be overkill by some. But you have to consider how important the Boston Marathon and Patriots Day is to Boston and the Northeast. This is THERE DAY. It’s like their St. Patricks Day x10 but no one else celebrates this St. Patrick’s Day. Schools close, it’s a work holiday and much of the surrounding area closes roads so crazy people can run down the middle of the street for six or seven hours. When the bombers invaded that sactuary, they torched a very respected tradition. We don’t and can’t understand how precious Boston holds this race and this day. I for one have no problem with those who feel that strongly to correct such a wrong.

  13. mike t. says:

    well, greg, like the others, congratulations on running the 118th and crossing the line. i’m a regular otc reader, sometimes commenter, and didn’t really think i had that much to offer in that regard. however, you did write a good story and like markus stated above, better than any of the network stuff. thanks.

  14. playa hater says:

    funny how native Africans always win the Boston Marathon ..

    in which the participants are 99.8% self-absorbed affluent White people..

    • Phaedrus says:

      99.9% of the people don’t run the race trying to win.

      Why self-absorbed?

    • bleary says:

      hearing an “American” was leading, the finish line DJ cued up Bruce’s patriotic “Born in the USA” to greet him..

      then got one look at him, and changed tunes

  15. Trish Herzog says:

    Wonderful story, Greg! You have such a way of putting all of us there with you through your words. I was running right along beside you and that’s the closest this slacker golfer will ever get to running in the Boston Marathon. Congratulations on another great year for you! Trish

    • Greg Hall says:

      Trish, When you’re like me and you can’t put the ball in the fairway, you are left to jog around the golf course. Glad you like it.

  16. Jeff says:

    Great work here Greg. You really it the nail on the head with your description of the race. The fans, the city, and the volunteers were “all in” all weekend. Much healing occurred and much money was raised for lots of charities local and national that benefit so many. Congrats!

  17. Kevin Knapp says:

    Fantastic recap on a truly incredible event Greg! Thank you for all you’ve done to help make it fun and bonding for all the KC area runners!

  18. Maria D. says:

    While I enjoy reading your comments daily, these are always the best! I share then with one of my brothers, a Boston marathon alum (his last one was a few years ago) who enjoys them as much as I do.

  19. OlatheCat says:

    Greg, great stuff as usual. Just a couple questions…did you stay at the guy’s house you did last year and did you visit that Catholic church again for a pre-race mass? 🙂

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