very sport has its crown jewel event. In horse racing it's the Kentucky Derby, auto racing has the Indianapolis 500 (though NASCAR fans may suggest the Daytona 500), and in golf it's the Masters. But in the sport of distance running the ne plus ultra is the Boston Marathon, a race whose roots reach back to the very mist of myth from which the marathon itself sprang.
Now celebrating its 117th anniversary, this event that emerged out of the inaugural Olympic Marathon of 1896 retains not only the quality of the sport's oldest continuously conducted marathon, but since 1970 has added the distinction of being what some have called the people's Olympics, as it is the only major marathon that requires its entrants to qualify. This combination of ancient heritage and abiding excellence can still bring people to tears upon qualifying and engender fulfillment beyond measure upon completion.
"Finishing the Boston Marathon is probably the athletic achievement of a lifetime for many people," said Honolulu Marathon president Jim Barahal, a three-time Boston finisher with a best of 2 hours, 48 minutes.
According to the Association of Road Race Statisticians, there were 3,586 marathons conducted worldwide in 2012, 881 in the U.S. alone. Each of them measured 26.2 miles, each produced champions, and each saluted finishers of all abilities. But in many ways each is a child of the Boston Marathon.
From its start in the sleepy western hamlet of Hopkinton all the way to its finish in bustling Copley Square in Boston's Back Bay, the Boston Marathon course is lined with a special breed of spectators, some of whom hold their grandchildren atop their shoulders at exactly the same place they were held by their own grandfathers 75 years ago.
"It's a feeling that makes you dizzy to think you are leading the Boston Marathon," said Minnesota Olympian Garry Bjorklund following a fifth-place finish in 1979 after leading through 19 miles. "Boston isn't the course. It isn't the people who run the race. I'm sincerely convinced it's the people who line the course. At times the noise was deafening. You know, you don't have people like in Boston anywhere else."
There are now six World Marathon Majors, as Tokyo has joined the original five of Boston, New York City, Chicago, Berlin and London. And though London unquestionably offers the highest professional payouts, New York is a colossus now in its fifth decade, and Berlin is the world's fastest marathon, there remains only one Boston.
"Boston is still the race that people want to be sure to do at least once in their career," said top running agent Brendan Reilly of Boulder Wave. "I remember one of my athletes [two-time Olympic medalist Yuki Aomori of Japan] instructing me to get her into Boston; 'I don't care what the appearance fee is.'" Aomori would go on to finish a close third in the 1998 Boston Marathon, fulfilling her goal of running the famous race before retirement.
Throughout the decades when the sport remained small and quirky, Boston kept the marathon's light burning, at times more brightly than others. And though it has gone through both scandal and error -- think Rosie Ruiz jumping in late and initially being awarded the women's title in 1980 -- the underlying majesty of its human output has never wavered. And when Boston's own Bill Rodgers was the undisputed No. 1 marathoner in the world in the late 1970s, the wattage was never more brilliant.
In those halcyon days of the Running Boom, when the open-division qualifying standard was significantly stricter than today's, not just anybody could sign up or train hard for it -- there was some measure of talent required. Back then you needed a sub-2 hour, 50 minute time, just under a 6 minute, 30-second per mile pace, to enter.
Riding through downtown Lisbon, Portugal, with 1997 New York City Marathon champion John Kagwe of Kenya, I asked, "John, back home, what is the difference between the Boston and New York City Marathons?"
A thoughtful man with a wry sense of humor, who would go on to defend his title in New York in November of 1998, John thought for a second, then turned and said, "Toni, if you win in New York they speak your name two days on the radio. If you win Boston, they speak your name for seven days."
It can stir the blood just thinking about it. Thus, combing through interview files from my old Runner's Digest radio show in Boston (1977-88), the first such radio program in the country devoted to the sport, I found words which still set fire to the soul.
How can I not run the Boston Marathon? [There] You become a part of history, part of the making of the marathon. -- John Campbell, 2:11 masters runner from New Zealand
It's overwhelming. It's the marathoners' experience of a lifetime. -- 1968 champion Amby Burfoot
It really has turned into a monster, hasn't it? -- 1926 and '28 champion Johnny Miles of Canada
It's a day that belongs to the runners and the spectators, the whole million of them. -- Greater Boston Track Club's Randy Thomas, fifth place in 1978 (now the Boston College track coach)
When you have a crowd that big it's almost physically impossible to control them if they don't want to be controlled. -- Will Cloney, Boston Marathon race director, 1946-82
Boston. That's really something. The fans, they make you work. They make you run out of your mind. -- Patti Dillon (then Patti Catalano, 1979-81 women's runner-up)
I think it's the single greatest public spectacle in the life of the city each year. -- Kevin White, Boston mayor, 1968-84
I have run over 35 marathons and none have come close to the camaraderie that Boston shares with its marathoners. Thank you Boston for making 'My Dream Come True Marathon,' better than I could have ever imagined!! -- C.J., Painesville, Ohio
Need we say more?
A version of this story appeared in the April 2013 issue of Competitor Magazine.