24 Days: Big crowds will provide extra push

Organizers expect double the number of spectators who will be on hand to bolster the runners. David Madison/Getty Images

In the 26 days leading up to the Boston Marathon on April 21, ESPNBoston.com will share inspiring stories, detail important logistics and go inside the planning for what promises to be an event like no other in the wake of last year's bombings. There are 24 days until the race.

BOSTON -- While there is no definitive measure to determine how many people will line the course of the Boston Marathon this year, the Boston Athletic Association estimates there will be about a million spectators, twice the usual number. Perhaps it is best to determine the impact of race fans and supporters through other means, such as the volume of their cheers, acts of kindness, tears of joy. By all accounts, those will reach epic proportions at this year’s race, as the racing community and the Boston area bounce back from the horrors of 2013.

The increase in energy will be felt at some of the route’s iconic points. Roughly halfway through, as the legs of many runners are beginning to get heavy and the need for a distraction or two becomes urgent, the women of Wellesley College annually provide a much-needed boost.

Dubbed the "Scream Tunnel" for the insane volume of the cheers from the students, this is also the most sign-heavy point of the route, an endeavor organized this year by Molly Tyler, the president of Munger Hall. Some signs are simple messages from Wellesley students, but the program recently was expanded to allow anyone to request a custom-made sign for the runners. They can be personalized to speak to that individual, perhaps from parents who can’t make it but want to offer words of encouragement for their son or daughter.

This year, the messages are carrying a little extra weight.

“We’re getting a lot of personal messages,” Tyler said. “Last year we would get, ‘Go such and such’ and ‘You got this.’ They were more generic. These have the same thing but then they say something like, ‘Thank you so much for doing this,’ or ‘I didn’t finish last year so this is really important to me.’”

Tyler said there were 250 sign requests last year. That number was approaching 300 this year, with a month to go before the deadline. She hinted the group may need to request more money from the school to purchase materials for extra signs.

“It’s especially important for people to feel like they’re supporting their friends after last year,” Tyler said.

Wellesley students also are known to offer hugs and kisses to runners who want them. Some runners have lingered in the area; Tyler knew of a man who ran the mile twice a few years ago, and others who have slowed to a 20-minute pace for the mile through campus.

Roughly seven miles later comes the most famous stretch of the race, Heartbreak Hill, a daunting climb out of Newton that, aside from the finish line, provides the largest spectrum of emotions.

At the base sits Heartbreak Hill Running Company. Owner Dan Fitzgerald coaches charity runners for Team Red Cross and the Beth Israel marathon team and is well-connected to the running community. Through interactions with residents and shoppers, and his intimate knowledge of the race itself and how last year’s events sent a shock wave through the community, he has a keen sense as to how runners will be received along the route.

To some, it might even be a bit jarring.

“There’s nothing that they’ve felt like [the support that will be there this year],” he said. “They haven’t trained in that. They haven’t seen that.

“Yes, it will make them faster. It is a completely different environment and I think this year in particular is going to be off the charts for that.

“Every person is going to feel it that day, stronger than ever.”

Across the way sits Blacker’s Bakery, which has been in operation for the past 50 marathons, the past six under owner Rich Blacker and his wife.

“It’s usually a pretty good crowd, but I imagine there will be much more jumping up and down,” Blacker said while leaning over a case of baked goods like the ones that have fed onlookers over the years.

From there, the crowds run deep to the finish, where emotion and support are words far too small to describe what will be felt by onlookers and runners alike. Dan Soleau -- brand development manager at Marathon Sports, a witness to the destruction after one of the bombs exploded outside his store and a key figure in the community’s rebuild -- will be running as part of the One Fund marathon team.

He admits there will be fear on the part of some runners and spectators, but believes it will be overwhelmed by a more powerful vibe that will only increase as runners approach 26.2 and crowds build.

“There’s a great sense of purpose and reverence to everyone who’s participating in the race this year. There’s a reverent feeling about the idea that everybody is participating in something much larger,” Soleau said.

Indeed, it will be something impossible to truly measure.