The Heart of the Boston Marathon by Brian S. Ellis

Editor Staff, Editor's Choice, April 24th, 2013

People who know how to run a crooked path...

boston marathon


……………………………….This is what I learned it means to be a Bostonian.

……………………………….It doesn’t matter if you win.

……………………………….As long as you run.

……………………………….As long as you stay stubborn

……………………………….and vulnerable through all of it.


…………………………………………– Brian S. Ellis, “Heartbreak”

+ + +

Marathon Monday is the holiday that belongs to all of us. Not St. Patrick’s Day. Not the Charles Regatta. Not even opening day at Fenway. The Boston Marathon is our purest self. It’s the marathoners who are our better angels.

The Boston Marathon represents the city of Boston at its best. This race, that is the one event that truly captures the entire city. Thousands run every year and hundreds and hundreds of thousands watch. The Bramhins and the Radicals and the Sox Nuts side-by-side rooting for the runners, the famous and the unknown, experiencing this ancient test of endurance. Endurance of the body, of the mind, of the spirit. A celebration of freakish survival, of stupid single-mindedness, of rhythm and grace. A celebration of the trait Bostonians covet over all others: stubbornness.

There are four people I want to talk about who I am concerned are getting overlooked. Their names are: Lelisa Desisa, Rita Jeptoo, Tatyana McFadden and Hirouyuki Yamaoto. They are the winners of the men’s, women’s, women’s wheelchair, and men’s wheelchair division of the 117th Boston Marathon, respectively.

Lelisa Desisa is twenty-three years old, has been in two marathons and has won both of them. He took the Dubai Marathon in January in an incredible 2 hours 4 minutes and 45 seconds. Last November he came in 2nd place, just seconds behind Geoffrey Mutai in the Delhi Half Marathon. I mention Mutai because in 2011 he broke the record in Boston to become the fastest person to run a marathon ever.

Rita Jeptoo first won the marathon in 2006. She set a time that year that she chased for the next six years. We all thought she was going to take it in 2011, a particularly cold year in Boston that ruined her pacing. She broke her own record in the Chicago Marathon in 2012, then stormed Boston this year.

Tatyana McFadden is a 3x Olympic Gold Medalist, an 8x World Champion, and a 4x marathon winner. She was raised in Maryland but born in St. Petersburg, Russia, an orphan with the deadly condition, spina bifida. So, you know, she hasn’t had to overcome anything.

Hiroyuki was out in front this year and stayed there. He made the decision to win this race and no one was going to convince him otherwise. This was his first time in Boston and he was worried about the hills. He didn’t give anyone else the chance to outmaneuver him.

The Boston Marathon is not just the city’s most beloved celebration. The Boston Marathon is Boston, as perfect a metaphor as anyone could construct for the city. There is no other marathon like ours. Literally. It doesn’t count. The oldest annual marathon in the world doesn’t register for world records because it’s too weird. Geoffrey Mutai, who ran 26.22 miles in 2 hours 3 minutes and 2 seconds, is not eligible for world record status because Boston’s route does not satisfy the two major requirements of the International Association of Athletics Federations.

Surprisingly, the course drops 459 feet from the point where it begins to where it ends (too big of a drop, according to the IAAF), but not before it puts you through a brutalizing series of hills in Newton, the most notorious of which is Heartbreak Hill, a 0.4 mile ascent in less than a mile. It comes at the twenty mile mark in the race, after you’ve climbed up and down three other hills. The IAAF criteria is in place to keep world records from being awarded to courses that give the runner an unfair advantage, but in Boston the slopes are so sharp that the down-hills are as troublesome for the runners as the up-hills. After the energy expense of pushing yourself up these peaks, even experienced runners can hurt themselves trying to keep an even pace as they plummet down the other side.

The other major criteria of the IAAF is that “the start and finish points of a course, measured along a theoretical straight line between them, shall not be further apart than 50% of the race distance.” What does this mean, in a practical sense? The race is too damn crooked for these people. It’s too bent, too complicated. It takes too much time winding through every city it can. In other words, it’s like Bostonians. People who know to fear down-hills as much as up-hills. People who know how to run a crooked path. Like the crooked staff of the Charles; like the crooked streets of the city itself; like the crooked finger of Cape Cod, openly daring the Atlantic.

Since 1897 the Boston Marathon has gathered nearly as many stories and legends as people who run in it each year. Amby Burfoot won the race in 1968 at the age of twenty-one. For his 45th anniversary he ran again. This year he was halted at the 25.5 mile mark, just after the bombs went off. He was interviewed later that day by the Washington Post and everything he said to them was poetry. I’ve long believed that poets and runners have a deep connection because we’re both obsessive loners with no chance of financial reward. This is my favorite quote from that interview:

“To me, the marathon is nothing more than the fact that America is a country of freedom and democracy. We have huge public parades on the streets and massive political protests on the streets and marathons on the streets. It’s all part of our great democratic tradition.”

The Boston Marathon hasn’t always been the paramount of community and unity. It wasn’t until 1972 that women were officially allowed to run the race. Despite this the first woman to complete the race was Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb in 1966, who ran the course without entering. The following year Kathrine Switzer entered the marathon as “K.V. Switzer.” Boston Athletics Association official Jock Semple attempted to chase her down and physically eject her from the race, at which point her fellow runners swarmed around her, keeping Semple at bay so she could finish. Switzer, another runner/poet said, “If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.”

I don’t think that winning the race is the most important facet of the Boston Marathon. In fact the egalitarian nature of the event is what is the most inspiring to me. The fans of the race stay watching long into the day: hours after the race has technically reached a conclusion. It was with this knowledge, that the most amount of people would be at the finish line two hours after the winners had crossed, that the 2013 Boston Marathon was bombed. But I do think that winning the race is a fantastic accomplishment, one worth celebrating. I can’t imagine what it must be like to have such an achievement marred and overshadowed by such an act of horror.

These incredible athletes ran to prove something to themselves, but in doing so they prove something to us: the impossible things human beings are capable of. The cities of Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Newton, Brookline and Boston flood the streets to spend the day screaming and laughing and drinking and cheering; for strangers and friends who are attempting to push their bodies and minds further than any person should reasonably go. Long-distance running is, to borrow a phrase from my friend Simone Beaubien, “older than the word sport.” Running is a test of human physics. If nothing else, Monday proved that human beings are capable of anything.

+ + +

I grew up just over the Blue Hills, and I have always put the city on a pedestal. I love the Red Sox and the Celtics. I hate the Yankees and the Lakers. I love the Charles River and the entire MBTA system. I love Jamaica Pond and Winter Hill. I love Central and Harvard (not as much). I am a fan and a fanatic. I am obsessive and stubborn, and when I’ve been drinking I have an accent. Displays of spirit and endurance make me weepy. All of these things are a part of Boston, and a part of the marathon that bears our name. The running of the marathon in our modern era is at its core a refutation of death. The original marathoner Pheidippides whispered “victory” before his collapse. Who else but these stormy, dark-humored New Englanders to carry the echo of that word into the face of exhaustion?

+ + +

For another take on the Boston Marathon bombing, consider reading “The Line Between Honor & Hypocrisy,” by Matty Byloos, here.

[Photo credit: photo series of Kathrine Switzer at 1967 Boston Marathon, 1000girlfriends]

+ + +

brian S. EllisBrian Stephen Ellis was born in Manchester, NH and currently lives in Portland, OR. He is the author of three collections of poetry; Uncontrolled Experiments In Freedom, Yesterday Won’t Goodbye, and American Dust Revisited.



More than one editor and/or contributor was responsible for the completion of this piece on NAILED.