Watching Boston run: the lessons of the Marathon

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.

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.

Then what is it that draws Boston to its marathon?

Most obvious, perhaps, is the vicarious delight we take in seeing persistence and determination overcome all the obstacles, pain among them, that exhaustion can assert. Even the most sedentary among us like to imagine ourselves having that kind of strength and stamina. More than that, we enjoy the vision of so many men and women being physically fit. There is, in such a sea of athletes, a kind of discipline and wholesomeness which, like morality, is brightly attractive.

But the arenas and playing fields are full of such specimens. Why should our fancy have fixed upon running?

Partly, I suppose, because it is a demotic sport, a sport of the people upon which almost anyone can embark without special clothing or special training. Boston, in particular, is awash with runners, from the dilettantes in spiffy duds to the lumberers in old college sweat shirts. It is, I am told, one of the runningest cities in America. Its citizens course through the streets and parks , combining the delights of speed with the joys of travel and, not infrequently, the pleasure of conversation. So the Boston marathon has a built-in audience: the novices who come to see how the experts do it.

Beyond that, however, is an even deeper attraction, as valid for participants as for spectators. For running, by all accounts, is a sport for thinkers. And thinking is a solitary task. The British fiction writer Alan Sillitoe caught that sense in the title of his famous tale, "Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner." Running is for those who are content with their own company, and who come to know the difference between mere loneliness and creative solitude. It is for individuals who would rather battle with themselves than with an opposing team.

That quality, I suspect, draws the runners themselves to Boston each year -- to nights alone in hotels, to solitary practice runs through unfamiliar streets, to the 1-among-6,000 feeling at the starting line, and to what is often a lonely ending. In the thick of finishers, the announcer cannot call out every name. Runners crossing the line reach for their wrists to click off their own stopwatches. And afterward, behind the grandstands, a good number of them stroll about alone, apparently wihtout family or friends, wrapped for warmth in aluminum-foil moon blankets setting them apart from the crowd. They don't seem to mind. They have not come for the crowd, but for themselves.

And if that willingness to endure solitude draws the runner, so, I think, it draws the spectator. For we live increasingly in an age where accomplishment appears possible only to groups. In some ways, that is good. We delight in the flight of the Columbia, taking new stock of ourselves because of the nation's collective achievement. But in many ways the necessity for group activity is frustrating. It breeds a disquieting sense that the loner cannot survive against the group, that mobs in protest can accomplish what the clear thought of individuals cannot, that the only cure for individual difficulty is social action.

Perhaps what draws the spectators onto the tree-branches of Natick and the rooftops of Kenmore Square is this sense that individual accomplishment is more than ever worthy of esteem.For surely, in this mass-produced age, the runners themselves are not stamped from a single mold. Some seem hardly to touch the pavement. Others churn along like tanks. Some stand upright, rigid against the wind. Others fall forward into each step. They puff, or smile, or wear looks of agony or resignation.

And a remarkable number finish. They get there not because of someone else's assistance but because of their own fortitude, husbandry, and desire. They do something which New England has always held in high regard: They master external and internal elements with dogged independence.

What, then, does this tell us about Boston? Oddly enough, it seems to be summed up in a comment of Toshihiko Seko. "I respect Bill Rodgers," the crew-cut winner said through an interpreter, adding, "In Japan when you respect somebody, you show your respect by going beyond his achievements."

Boston, for all its unconscionable political turmoil, has this sense of respect, this faith in its own qualities and abilities. It has several centuries of experience in going beyond its own and others' achievements. It would seem to be the natural home of the marathon.

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