John McGrath: Marathon reflects same growing pains as nation of origin

Staff WriterApril 21, 2014 

Monday will be like no other day on the 2014 calendar in Boston, and perhaps like no other day in the city’s 384-year history.

While a crowd is watching the Red Sox play Baltimore in the annual Patriots’ Day baseball game at Fenway Park, a much larger crowd — expectations are for 1 million — will cheer on some world-class distance runners from Ethiopia and Kenya, who’ll be followed by more than 36,000 runners from every corner of the planet.

A Beantown tradition since 1897, when 10 of 15 competitors finished what then was called the Boston Athletic Association Road Race, the 118th Boston Marathon will reveal sports’ power as a healing force and a source of solidarity.

The 117th Boston Marathon abruptly ended after the explosion of two homemade bombs left three dead and 264 injured. Sixteen victims lost one or more limbs.

Far less tragic — but not inconsequential — was the incident’s effect on the race: 25 percent of the 26,839 contestants were prevented from finishing, including Jeff Glasbrenner, a wheelchair-division entrant who lost his leg in a childhood farming accident.

Glasbrenner has come back to Boston.

“I’m not gonna let a couple of bad guys steal my finish line,” the three-time Paralympian told The Associated Press.

Last week, in a speech dedicated to the victims of the bombing, Vice President Joe Biden took a similarly defiant tone.

When the race begins Monday, Biden told his Boston audience, “you will be sending a resounding message around the world — not just to the rest of the world, but to the terrorists — that we will never yield. We will never cower. America will never, ever stand down.

“We are Boston. We are America. We respond. We endure. We overcome ... and we own the finish line.”

Although the U.S. hasn’t literally owned the Boston Marathon finish line for three decades, the marathon is the quintessential American event — and not just because it’s held on Patriots’ Day. (A state holiday in Massachusetts, Patriots’ Day honors the Minutemen who fought in the Revolutionary War’s Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775.)

The story of the Boston Marathon mirrors the story of the nation, from its humble origin to its status as international kingpin.

Along the way, there have been triumphs and scandals, advancements in technology, necessary but sometimes awkward alliances with corporate interests, and amendments of old laws that restricted basic rights into new laws designed to ensure equality for all.

The process of evolving from a field of 15 men in 1897 into a field of more than 36,000 participants in 2014 wasn’t without severe growing pains.

When runners from Korea finished 1-2-3 in 1950, during the Korean War, Walter A. Brown, president of the Boston Athletic Association, put his foot down and clenched both fists.

“While American soldiers are fighting and dying in Korea,” he said, “every Korean should be fighting to protect his country instead of training for marathons.”

In 1967, Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to officially enter the race. Her participation was not welcome. She used a gender-neutral name — K.V. Switzer — to register, and was off and running when Boston Marathon official Jock Semple noticed the horror of horrors — a woman!

Semple attempted to remove Switzer’s race badge. She told him to get lost (or something saltier), and when the opportunity to get lost was not taken, Switzer’s boyfriend, running alongside her, shoved the guy out of the way.

Women finally were sanctioned to run the marathon in 1972. In 1975, a men’s wheelchair division was established, followed by a women’s wheelchair division in 1977.

Among those set to compete will be blind/visually impaired runners, and wheelchair duos such as Team Hoyt: Dick Hoyt, 73, will push son Rick, 52, born with cerebral palsy, in their 32nd and final Boston Marathon. The Hoyts had planned on retiring from the marathon a year ago, but the bomb detonation forced them off the course at the 23-mile mark. So they’re back, participants in a distance race symbolic of “Boston Strong” pride and American resilience.

Who owns the finish line?

When the last of more than 36,000 competitors crosses it Monday, and the idea of a safe, secure Boston Marathon is realized, the answer will be obvious.

We all do.


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