HOPKINTON, Mass. – “Everything Begins Here.”
The motto was posted on the Hopkinton website, placed on the Marathon Elementary School floor and painted on a sign that sent Boston Marathon participants to Copley Square. Since 1924, this 300-year-old city which happens to be located 26.2 miles west of Boston has been the starting line for the most prestigious road racing in the world and, like Marathon and Athens itself, are well connected.
“It’s getting stronger and stronger every year, this relationship,” said Tim Kilduff, a longtime Hopkinton resident and former Boston Marathon race director. “We see it as: Marathon spirits live in Hopkinton, and we lend it one day a year.”
From the starting line in this lush colonial city to the finish on Boylston Street, residents and runners are preparing for spring without the Boston Marathon – the first in 124 years. Organizers and authorities have postponed the race which was originally scheduled for Monday to September 14 due to the race the corona virus pandemic, stripping the streets of brightly colored singlets and opening gaps in sports schedules for runners from all over the world.
“Tradition is a word that is used too often. But this is really a spring ritual,” Kilduff said. “So this year will be a beautiful fall in New England.”
On the weekend of the regular marathon, Hopkinton tripled from 16,000 residents to absorb more than 30,000 runners, wheelchair racers and cyclists. Town Common is full of people, along with food carts and other traders who serve tourists and contest participants to look around the course.
But while others might think about Hopkinton only on the third Monday in April, marathons and their essence penetrate the city throughout the year.
Residents cross the starting line painted on Main Street on their way to work or to a concert in the gazebo. The International Marathon Center is planned for the city, which is the sister city of Marathon, Greece, where long-standing traditions were born. There are three statues associated with the marathon at Hopkinton, including “The Starter,” which stands at the starting line, the gun raised, ready to send the field to another race to Back Bay Boston.
These days, his face is covered with a cloth mask.
“This is not the NBA or baseball or the NFL. This is ours,” said Kilduff, who was racing director in 1983-84, running a marathon in 1985 and for the last 33 years has been a lookout on trucks that lead men’s fields to the finish line.
“Whoever runs the race, volunteers for the competition, supports the competition, feels that they have a part of the race. They have little. So that is ours,” he said. “The Boston Marathon is almost greater than itself in the emotions it evokes and the respect people have towards it.”
Training for marathons can be a solitary endeavor, but the event itself is a distant social disaster.
Participants jostle in the coral to wait for the start, then run in a package to minimize air resistance. Volunteers distribute water in the field and medals at the finish. Fans and families are waiting with high fives or hugs.
At Wellesley College, the place where the loud cheering is known as the Scream Tunnel, students traditionally wave signs that encourage runners to stop to kiss. It is hard to imagine this habit – which is a relic of another era – that is still alive after the pandemic.
“There are many signs joking about kisses. It’s part of tradition too,” said Erin Kelly, a senior who returned home to San Diego when the campus closed. “Marathon is only a big part of Wellesley’s culture. I can’t wait to see him as a student for the last time.”
Oncologist Amy Comander decided to run the Boston Marathon in 2013, when colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital treated many of those injured when two pressure-cooker bombs exploded at the finish line.
“I just said to myself: You will run next year. And I do it,” he said.
And every year since then.
After starting work at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, right around Mile 16, Comander had used it as a base for his training. During the race itself, the views of coworkers, friends, and even patients in front of him supported him to energize him exactly when he needed it: right before turning toward Heartbreak Hill.
“I see it as a true privilege that I can go to work and I am on the path of a marathon,” Comander said. “You are talking to someone who truly loves everything about the Boston Marathon.”
The commander was registered to run for the seventh year in a row, this time to raise money for cancer sufferers and their families; he is still determined to do it in September. But on Monday, he will treat cancer patients, a more stressful task because of the danger posed by the corona virus to their weakened immune system.
“I will be a little sad,” said the Commander, who plans to take a break from the clinic to run 8 miles – but not on the ground, according to the request of authorities who are worried about the crowd. “I feel the need to do that for myself.”
Daffodils are in bloom now from Hopkinton Green to Copley Square and along the route 26.2 miles in between. Thousands of bright yellow flowers were planted after the 2013 bombing as a symbol of rebirth and resilience, and they have the benefit of blooming in mid-April – right around Patriots Day – to entertain the runners together.
Thousands more pots of lilies have graced the course every year since the explosion at the finish line that killed three people and injured more than 180 others. With state holidays and the race postponed until autumn, the bloom will long wither.
In exchange, many flowers planted to decorate the course were placed outside the hospital to thank health workers for working through a pandemic. Outside Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, not far from the 1 Mile To Go marker in Kenmore Square, flowers are arranged in the heart. A sign encourages workers to bring plants home.
Just steps from the finish line, the Marathon Sports shoe store on Boylston Street became very busy during the weekend leading up to the race, when tens of thousands of runners descended on Back Bay. Things usually cool on Monday, giving staff the opportunity to come out and entertain the finish.
“We don’t have an official party,” said Dan Darcy, director of marketing for the chain. “This was really just a runner’s celebration that day.”
Marathon participants are easily recognized after the race: of course there are medals around their necks, and Mylar warm blankets cover their shoulders when it is cold. Often their bib numbers are still pinned to their chests.
“If runners come to our house on Marathon Monday, I can tell you that they will be recognized and they will hear support from our staff,” Darcy said in a telephone interview from Fairbanks, Alaska, where he works remotely.
Marathon Sports has been a reluctant landmark since the first of two bombs exploded outside the window at 2:49 pm. on April 15, 2013. Darcy watched the race from a different place that day and tried for hours unsuccessfully to contact her coworkers. Some injured; others turn shops into field hospitals, treating the injured until the first trained respondent arrives.
A warning stood on the sidewalk outside to honor three people killed in the blast and two police officers killed in the ensuing hunt, which closed the city and the surrounding area for most of the week. The shop reopened about two weeks later.
Now it’s closed again.
“We will encourage runners to get out and run on their own, maintaining social distance, but not running the race route itself,” Darcy said. “We cannot do any celebrations.”
Last month, when Americans began isolating indoors and a sports match was canceled, the Boston Athletic Association sacrificed early spring in hopes of keeping the 124-year tradition alive.
Since the first edition in 1897, the race has always coincided with the Patriots’ Day holiday which commemorates the first shots in the Revolutionary War. When the snow melts in New England, this path becomes increasingly congested with runners emerging from winter inside the house to attend their training.
For Kilduff, this fall race will be an opportunity to get out of a different kind of isolation.
“You know what happened in the year after the bombing: There will be a huge accumulation of latent energy. And it will be exhibited on the ground,” he said. “This will create a new chapter in the history of the Boston Marathon.
“I’m really excited about this.”