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Watching Boston run: the lessons of the Marathon

By Rushworth KidderStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 30, 1981


By all accounts it was a glorious day. In the drizzly 49-degree weather, the course was thick with spectators. The 6,845 entrants, a forest of bobbing heads awaiting the starter's signal out in Hopkinton, sported a dazzle of hats, shirts , and shorts. On the street beneath the Prudential Center, 26 miles and 385 yards away, the photographers jostled for position at the finish line. Blue and white balloons drifted skyward. A sign in a high window of the Sheraton Hotel nearby said, "Go, Dad." In the air above, among the invisible radio and TV signals beaming the event around the globe, helicopters circled and light planes towed advertising banners. It was, after all, one of the world's greatest sporting events: the 85th Boston Athletic Association Marathon.

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I am not, I confess, a runner. Nor, more significantly, am I a native Bostonian. I regard this marvelous, mad city with the awe of a foreign correspondent, trying to figure out who these people are and what makes them tick. Those more seasoned than I tell me that this annual celebration -- for it is more than simply a race -- represents the quintessence of all that is Boston. So, fortified by research into past races and decked in a complimentary visor labeled "BAA Marathon," I plunged into the thicket of dignitaries on the grandstand at the finish line on April 20.

I came away with a brace of contradictory feelings: a profound sense of exhilaration, and a deep puzzlement.

The exhilaration was undeniable. First to arrive were the wheelchair racers, blistering down the Boylston Street slope in times well below those of the runners. The names of their hometowns, barked out by the race announcer as they crossed the wide yellow line, filled the Boston air with a transcontinental litany: Puyallup, Washington (home of winner Jim Martinson); American Fork, Utah; Stanfordville, New York, Holiday, Florida; and, of course, Belmont, Massachussetts.

Then, without further warmup, came the moment so many thousands had gathered to see: the lone figure of Japanese contender Toshihinko Seko, far ahead of hometown favorite (and defending champion) Bill Rodgers, breaking through the tape and into the arms of his waiting father.

A few minutes later, as the hundreds of others pistoned to the finish, came Allison Roe, the New Zealand blonde who blew apart the Boston women's record with what looked like a laugh as she leaped across the line. And, of course, there was Johnny Kelly, the much-loved former winner who this year completed his 50th Boston Marathon.

As sporting events go, this one seemed a model or organization. The police, out in force despite threats of a strike over recent layoffs, had little to do. The race officials, herding the finishers into various roped-off areas, managed to keep the bottleneck of the finish line open. Nobody threw bricks.

So it was worthy of exhilaration -- of the tears of the woman in front of me, of the cries of "Oh, the poor man!" as exhausted finishers tottered past, of the ecstatic gesturing of a Japanese spectator trying to catch a friend's attention, of the quiet interest of 1921 winner Frank Zuna to whom I gave my chair.

And yet, I found myself asking, what does all this effort mean? In a world filled with so many causes needing organization and help, what do we make of an increasingly media-oriented event whipping Boston into such annual fervor?

For there are some good reasons why marathons should draw hardly any spectators at all. Long-distance running however appealing it may be to those who participate, has one undeniable characteristic: It is among the worst of spectator sports.To watch at the beginning is to see milling confusion break into a gallop. To sit somewhere on a hillside in Wellesley, the halfway mark, is to see a mob thunder past and get no clear sense of the probable winner. To crane through the crowd at the finish is to see a lone figure, oddly out of context, run down a hill, looking surprisingly like any other figure running down a hill.

It is not, for example, like tennis -- a fine spectator sport, where you see the beginning, middle, and end of every point. Imagine sitting at a tennis match where you could see only one player, and where the action went on behind a curtain which only opened once for the final stroke, and you have some sense of what it is like to watch a marathon. Add the fact that, by the standards of any dramatist, marathon running destroys its own suspense -- by showing the spectators at the finish line, its most exciting moment, first, followed with progressively less potent thrills -- and you can gauge the problem. The best way to see the race, in fact, would seem to be as a front-runner -- which rather limits the number of good seats.