Missing Boston, and a Bus Ride, on Marathon Day


Everyone who has run the Boston Marathon has a favorite moment of the race.

For some it’s the scream tunnel that the women of Wellesley College create at Mile 13. Masochists love the turn to the hills at the Newton firehouse 17 miles in, when the business part of the race begins. Then there are those glorious last 800 meters and the most wonderful six words in distance running: “Right on Hereford. Left on Boylston.”

Me? I love the bus ride to the start line. It’s what I will be missing most on Monday, when 30,000 other runners and I were supposed to be massing behind Hopkinton High School, waiting to start the granddaddy of all marathons — one of the many races that were postponed or canceled this spring because of Covid-19.

Race organizers set aside 6,000 entries for those who were raising money for charity. Everyone else had to beat a qualifying standard to gain entry. It’s what makes Boston different from all other marathons.

The standards range from sub-three-hours for men under age 35 to 5 hours 20 minutes for women over 80. That translates into roughly the top 5 percent to 10 percent of your age group depending on how old you are.

Those standards have made Boston the North Star for countless people who have laced up a pair of running sneakers. I think I was a teenager when I set a goal of one day qualifying for Boston. It only took me 25 years of training to figure out how to do it. Getting older and having a slower qualifying time to beat was very helpful. And each time I qualify, the first thing I think of is the privilege of being on that bus heading west from Boston Common early in the morning on Patriots’ Day.

It’s a pretty long ride out to Hopkinton, longer, it seems, than 26.2 miles. It takes the better part of an hour. Every time, I think the same thing — I can’t believe I have to run all that way back.

Sitting there on that school bus, relieved of its usual duty as all of Massachusetts plays hooky, I am surrounded by my people. They are wiry and wired, on the edge of a dream. We are clad mostly in stretch nylon and whatever old sweatshirt or sweater we have decided to give away. Whether it’s 60 degrees and sunny or 40 and raining, none of us would rather be anywhere else.

In the grand scheme of things, it matters so little whether I can run a marathon a few minutes faster than some other guy trying to run through his midlife crisis. Except for some reason it means everything to me. I know. It’s a little pathetic. But everyone on that bus gets it. If you don’t, I can’t help you.

We trade stories about our training, what we did to prepare for the Newton hills. We talk about the races where we got our qualifying times, and what time we hope to run this day.

When the rookies ask for advice, we all say the same thing: Don’t go out too fast. We know they will not listen. The first 16 miles are essentially flat or downhill. And it’s Boston. The urge to push is irresistible. Most of us have to learn not to the hard way, through the suffering that awaits in the final six miles. I may be the slowest of learners.

A secret: A couple months back I decided not to kill myself in training, to treat the race as a celebration. After melting last year in the heat and humidity, I had kind of let go of the dream of ever having a great race in Boston. I train all winter in New York, then I arrive in Boston on what is often the warmest day of the year so far. Or a nor’easter is rolling through. (Monday’s forecast called for clouds and a high of 52 degrees. Nearly perfect for marathoning. Alas.)

Around Boston College — Mile 22, as the Citgo sign outside Fenway Park first comes into view — the undergrads offer Sam Adams along with Poland Spring. I thought this might be the year I tipped one back with them before heading down the hill into Brookline. I’ve already got my qualifying time for 2022. Why not?

Last month, when the coronavirus shut sports down, Boston rescheduled the race for Sept. 14, when, God willing, this outbreak will be under control. It will be another marathon Monday, because it wouldn’t be the Boston Marathon if Boston wasn’t having a party while the rest of the world worked.

I’m pretty sure it is going to be beastly hot that day. There are few things less fun than running 26.2 miles when it is beastly hot. I love running in the cold. Had they scheduled the race for late November, even early December, I would not have complained.

For a moment, I thought, maybe I’ll skip the race this year. And then I thought of the bus.

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