A Love Letter to the Boston Marathon, Postponed for the First Time in 124 Years
I went for a run in Boston last week and felt alone.
Every year, during the buildup to the third Monday in April when the Boston Marathon is usually held, the city swells with visitors and pulses with anticipation. This year, however, the Charles River Esplanade running paths were uncomfortably quiet. There were a few solo runners, but everyone kept an anxious “social distance” from one another.
Because of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, the Boston Athletic Association (B.A.A.) made the unprecedented decision to postpone the 124th Boston Marathon until September. This is huge. Even during the Great Depression and both World Wars, the Marathon kept its scheduled date. If you aren't a runner and you aren’t from Boston, you may not understand how important this race is to all of us, or how momentous this feels — so allow me to paint a picture.
The Boston Marathon is the oldest, most prestigious marathon in the world. Since its first running on April 19, 1897, it has attracted some of the most elite athletes in history. Entry is earned only if you have run a qualifying time in another marathon, or you have raised a significant amount of money for charity (for context, the New York City Marathon’s charity entries require a fundraising minimum of $3,000, but Boston’s require $5,000). You have to be committed — and vetted — to step foot on this course.
But athletics are just one piece of the Marathon. Runner or non-runner, whether you know a competitor or not, we all have a stake in this race. It is the second largest single-day sporting event in the country after the Super Bowl, generating some $200 million in economic benefits and drawing in over 500,000 spectators.
Boston is the only major international marathon held on a Monday, and, to my knowledge, the only marathon that has its own de facto state holiday. (Although the Massachusetts tradition of Patriot’s Day predates the Marathon by three years, the two events have become synonymous — it’s common for locals to identify the holiday as “Marathon Monday” at this point.) Having the day off work or school and congregating around the course is a seamless part of living here, according to Matt Taylor, founder of the running apparel brand Tracksmith. “For the younger folks it is an excuse to party, and you see that going through the college campuses at B.C. and Wellesley,” he said. “But it’s also a great family atmosphere, with people lining the course having picnics on the side of the road.”
To move the Marathon date was a logistical behemoth. Here is just a taste of what it required: cooperative leadership between the B.A.A., Mayor Marty Walsh, and Governor Charlie Baker; legislating a new, one-time state holiday on Monday, Sept. 14; securing buy-in from the seven other towns through which the course passes; nimble support from major sponsors including John Hancock and Adidas; coordinating with numerous area hotels to confirm availability during what is normally the peak of Boston’s busy fall conference season; confirming the availability of over 2,000 medical professionals and many more volunteers; liaising with public safety officials; and rescheduling vendors to build course infrastructure and provide timing technology. And let’s not forget all of this unfolded during the early days of a global pandemic, when it seemed that the very foundations of American life were grinding to a halt.
“It goes back to 1776, there’s nothing new about it,” said B.A.A. CEO Tom Grilk. “And we were reminded of this in 2013 when there was a terror attack at the finish line. People’s response was that we’re going to move forward, we’re going to help those who need to be helped, and we’re going to keep the spirit of Boston alive. It’s what we do.”
I asked Mr. Grilk if he felt the weight of the history bearing down on the decision to postpone the Marathon for the first time. “It’s not that history weighs on us,” he said. “The Marathon is an ongoing part of life informed by history, and perhaps every year things happen that modify that history and enrich that history.”
So while this, the first postponement in the history of the race is unprecedented, Bostonians feel a collective sense of understanding and duty. “There’s a greater mission at hand and we all need to play our part in helping,” said Laura Ogonowski, a Boston resident and soon-to-be first-time marathoner. Ogonowski will run in support of Home Base, a Boston charity for veterans’ mental health. “I feel like I’ve been given the opportunity to raise even more money for the cause and train even harder.”
Ogonowski’s attitude is representative of this city’s identity, because if you look beyond its veneer of fanfare and prestige, the Boston Marathon is about something more profound and universal — it’s a running event that is about so much more than running. The Boston Marathon is about transformation, the idea that anyone can strive to become something greater than they already are: an elite athlete looking to set a record, a first-timer just trying to reach the finish line, a stranger taken out of their day-to-day routine to cheer on the sidelines.
So while many of us will have to continue our training runs through the summer, and while all of us continue to hold our breath and try to make sense of what feels like an increasingly chaotic world, remember this: as it has done one hundred and twenty-three times, this city will come together on the second Monday in September for the one hundred and twenty-fourth running of the Boston Marathon. It will feel even more extraordinary and cathartic than ever. On that day, no matter what we lost along the way and how lonely the social distance felt, we will understand that every step — every run — brought us closer to the sense of belonging we feel to this race, to this city, and to each other.