I know it’s been weeks since I ran the Boston Marathon, but I promised a post on the atmosphere and experience of the race without all the nerdy, technical, runner-oriented stats and details. And I have wanted to write about this, too, because for those of you who aren’t runners, or aren’t marathoners, I want to evangelize a bit about Boston and marathons in general. I tell you all this because I want you to know that I didn’t always run marathons. And it wasn’t long after I started running at all that I started making marathons my goal. What’s more, running is a great exercise activity for grad students and academics because it’s relatively cheap. And running is a great way to be a tourist. And then there are the health benefits — cardiovascular health, weight control, strength and general fitness. But note I put those last. Honestly, these days I think of them as a side-effect.

If I made them my main reason for running, I’d think of running in the way one thinks of dieting — as onerous and hard to maintain. So, back to Boston and marathons in general. I’ve given you all this background, because when I joined the marathon training group back in 1999, I did so because I wanted to meet new people and learn how to train for a marathon. Having running buddies for the long runs each week was essential to me then. That’s where big races can actually help, if you’re not concerned about losing time running in a large, tight pack for the first few miles. I think the crowds of spectators are what set Boston apart. Sure, most runners there had to qualify, so you’re in an elite crowd of serious runners, and there’s an instant comaraderie among the runners because of that. But the specators are what make Boston better than any race I’ve been in despite its difficulties (though granted, I haven’t run NY or Chicago, so I don’t know if those mega-races compare).

The specators are what make it so much fun, even if, like me, you’re running your worst time ever. But Boston gets it right. The first half of the race has fewer spectators, but that’s the easy part — it’s early in the race and there are lots of downhills, plus it’s often pretty scenery and you’re surrounded by other excited runners. The crowds start to pick up just when you need them and get bigger and louder and more intense the closer you get to Boston. The first really huge crowd consists of the women of Wellesley just before the half-way point. I swear to god you really can hear them a mile away — that’s not just a cliched turn of phrase. And between Wellesley and Boston, there are all sorts of people along the route, since most of it is accessible by commuter train. For the most part it’s people cheering on their friends and family, but they cheer everyone else as well.

Thanks again, Kate, for the sign. And after that, as you start getting closer and closer to Boston, the crowds get freaking crazy. I think it starts in Brookline, maybe a bit before. By then you’re in an urban space, and bars and pubs are walking distance from the route. I can only imagine what the crowds might have been like in good weather! I’ve always known that Boston is a big sports town with intense attachments to their hometown teams (and the equivalent hatred for longtime rivals), but I had no idea that they’re so enthusiastic for any local sports tradition. And that is what’s so amazing about marathon running in general. All races have some eager spectators — Boston just has more of them, and they’re exponentially louder — and they’re as happy to cheer on strangers as they are their friends. Many spectators make a day of it, bringing camp chairs, coolers, music, etc. And if you write your name on your shirt, they’ll call it out. If you don’t sometimes they’ll call out your bib number (as in, “Go number 2435! You can do it!”). What the heck other sport is there where an ordinary, unexceptional, non-gifted, non-celebrity athlete gets to have people cheering for them? What other sport could I possibly take up at age 29 and have fans, however temporary? Running marathons — and epsecially running the Boston Marathon — gives an ordinary person a chance to feel like a sports idol for the day. And that’s the real reason why it’s worth the time and effort and training, because adulation is addictive.

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