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Running into history B.A.A. Boston Marathon

01 January 2022, 8am

BAA Boston Marathon celebrates anniversary

125 years and counting

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On 11 October Boston Marathon celebrated its 125th edition. Although there were only fifteen competitors in each of the first two races the history of the Boston Marathon runs closely in parallel with the history of Marathon running itself.

1897: The Marathon had been invented as a distance race specifically for the first Olympic Games of the modern era held in Athens on 10 April 1896. Among the 18 starters in the race was Arthur Blake, a member of the Boston Athletic Association. Although he retired at 23km he returned to Boston along with team coach John Graham and 100m and 400m winner Tom Burke full of enthusiasm for the new event. At their urging the BAA instigated an annual Marathon race to be held on Patriots Day, at that time fixed as 19 April (but after 1968 changed to the third Monday in April). The inaugural winner was John McDermott from New York in a time of 2:55:10.

1900: The first two editions of the race were known as the American Marathon but as early as 1898 there had been a Canadian winner. In 1900 the Canadians made a clean sweep of the podium and in the following 15 years provided the winner on five occasions. Boston was overwhelmingly a US contest but individuals from Greece and Germany as well as Canada won inter-war editions of the race. After World War II overseas competition became more varied and much fiercer. Boston had to wait until 1957 for another American victory as 11 runners from seven different countries took the spoils.

1907: Tom Longboat, representing Canada and a Native American of the Onandaga First Nation, won the race in a course record time of 2:24:24 after a freight train cut off the leading pack of six from the rest of the field. Johnny Hayes finished in third place six minutes behind Longboat. The pair met again at the 1908 Olympics in London. Longboat was perhaps the Olympic favourite but retired at 16 miles while holding second place. The stomach problems he suffered came on following ministrations by his coach. At the time brandy and strychnine were among the ‘pick-me-ups’ most favoured by coaches. Hayes meanwhile gradually pegged back the long-time race leader after he had “dropped to a walk” but entered the stadium well behind the Italian Dorando Pietri. Visibly suffering from the symptoms of dehydration, Pietri had fallen twice soon after entering the stadium and was surrounded by officials looking on anxiously as he struggled to finish and fell again with only 30m to go. Helped to his feet he sprinted across the line but, after a protest by the Americans against the assistance he had received, was disqualified – and victory was awarded to Hayes.

The dramatic and controversial nature of the race sparked huge public interest and over the next few years re-matches were staged between Hayes and Pietri – with Tom Longboat or other contenders often included – in many locations both in Europe and North America. These races attracted heavy betting interest and the courses were all carefully contrived to be of the same length as that of the London Olympics: 26 miles and 385 yards. However, it was not until 1924 that this distance was adopted by the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) as the official course length for the Marathon.

1918: The United States entered World War I in 1917 and Patriots Day 1918 fell as Americans were being called to arms. To maintain annual continuity the format of the race had to be changed. Instead of a contest between individuals it became a 10-man relay, with teams drawn from different areas of the military. A team from Camp Devens in Ayer, Massachusetts, won with a time of 2:24:53. Overlapping with the upheaval and destruction of World War I the outbreak of the ‘Spanish’ ‘flu pandemic claimed many millions of lives – more than the war had. The outbreak started in March 1918 and a ‘third wave’ was washing back from Europe to North America at the start of 1919. Despite the huge death toll there was never any question of cancelling the Boston Marathon, or the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp. 101 years later a similar scenario played out somewhat differently

1946: Stylianos Kyriakides ran the 50th edition of the race in an effort to draw international attention to starvation faced by Greece in the aftermath of World War II and with the onset of civil war. His late surge past local favourite Johnny A Kelley could only have helped in stimulating the flow of aid to Greece that followed. He became widely appreciated as the first fundraising runner in Marathon history.

1947: Kyriakides’ win ushered in a period of domination by overseas runners. The very next year the Korean Yun Bok Suh ran a “world-best” 2:25:39 on the Boston course. Marathon courses were regarded as too variable to allow times to be compared but this did not stop journalists calling the time a ‘world record’. Several such performances were acclaimed in this way.

Previously comparisons were problematic because the distance had been variable but the amount of downhill and the potential for wind assistance on point-to-point courses now came into consideration. The IAAF’s position, as the rule-making body, was that the term “world best” covered times set on any kind of course of standard length (defined since 1924 as 42195m) but no world record would be recognised.

1966: Roberta ‘Bobbi’ Gibb, in the 70th edition of the race, became the first woman to complete the course. Boston only offered a men’s division so her feat remained unofficial – but did not go unrecognised. After long and thorough preparation she hid in bushes at the start of the race before joining the race at the back of the field. Despite her attempt to pass unnoticed the male runners encouraged her and both the crowd and the press picked up on her presence. Boston organisers showed flexibility and understanding in facilitating her reception at the finish line by the Governor of Massachusetts and she became the main subject of press coverage the next day.

She finished in 3:21:40 and returned to compete again in the 1967 and 1968 races but despite initial suggestions that the rules would be changed to allow women’s participation that did not happen until 1972. Kathrine Switzer officially entered the 1967 race using just her initials and surname. In marked contrast to Gibb’s experience as an unofficial participant an official attempted to force Switzer off the course. He failed and she became Boston’s first official female finisher. Nina Kucsik became the first official female winner in 1972 with her 3:10:26 win. In 1996, at the 100th running of the Boston Marathon and the 30th anniversary of Gibb’s first run of it, the Boston Athletic Association recognised her three wins in 1966, 1967, and 1968 and awarded her a medal. Her name was inscribed with the names of the other winners on the Boston Marathon Memorial in Copley Square.

1983: Joan Benoit’s win, in a time of 2:22:43 re-ignited the debate about what could be called a world record. Benoit surpassed the 2:25:29 time set by Grete Waitz in the London Marathon the previous day. There was no doubt that the decline in elevation of the Boston course combined with a following wind could significantly improve times run. This eventually led to the IAAF specifying that performances on courses which declined more than 1m for every kilometre of their length, or had starts and finishes with a straight-line separation of more than 30% (later 50%) oof the race distance would not be ‘record-eligible’. Uta Pippig’s 2:21:45 in 1994 and Geoffrey Mutai’s 2:03:02 in 2011 were marks that were inadmissible under the IAAF ruling. Some years after this rule was put in place IAAF agreed that it allowed for sufficient standardisation such that what had been termed “World bests” could be called world records.

1986: For years Boston Marathon had held out against awarding prize money to winners. In the decade since the Bicentennial edition of the New York City Marathon had gone citywide this had been an increasingly anomalous position. A win in Boston still brought great prestige but the class of professional runners now emerging required money rewards for winning and, for those with established reputations, for their participation. England’s Geoff Smith had won the last two men’s races under a separate agreement with a third-party sponsor but winning times in both men’s and women’s divisions had taken a dip. Introducing prize money had an immediate impact, with winning times greatly improved by ‘name’ runners: world Champion Rob de Castella (2:07:51) and world record holder Ingrid Kristiansen (2:24:55).

1988: Professionalisation unlocked the sport for an increasingly significant talent pool from East Africa. Kenyans were first to emerge with Ibrahim Hussein winning Boston in 1988. Kenyans won 11 of the next 13 men’s races – and one of the other two was won by Ethiopia’s Abebe Mekonnen. Among the women East Africans only came to the fore from 1997 but in both divisions it is a dominance that has continued to date both in Boston and at many other of the world’s most competitive Marathons.

1996: The Boston Centenary race had 35,868 finishers – the most of any marathon up to that time (New York surpassed this number in the 2004 race). Qualifying times had been in place since 1970, aimed at containing the burgeoning demand from slower runners who wanted to complete the revered Boston Marathon. Transponder timing had been used at the Berlin Marathon in 1994 but was still in its early stages of development. It was not introduced in Boston until 2006 along with separate start waves to smooth the flow of runners over the start line. These innovations were not available at the start line of the centenary edition where smooth passage of runners depended largely on their own patience and goodwill.

2004: The elite women’s race, with a field of 35, was set off 29 minutes before the traditional mass start at noon. The change was intended to better showcase the women’s race and also had the effect of preventing male runners from pacing the leading female athletes. The new format featured a close duel as World Champion Catherine Ndereba chased Ethiopia’s Elfenesh Alemu for the first 16 miles before opening up a gap in the final mile to win by 16 seconds.

2013: After the runners in the third starting wave had been going for 4 hours and 10 minutes two bombs exploded along the Boylston Street finishing straight. About 17,500 runners had finished before the incident but about 5000 of them who were still on the course were stopped in their tracks and dispersed while the emergency services attended to the injured and secured the area. Four lives were lost due to the explosions and attacks. Marathons had been previously been used as a means of expressing solidarity with fellow citizens after bombings and other atrocities, as in New York (2001), Madrid (2004) and Mumbai (2009) but this was the first time that a big-city marathon had been specifically targeted by terrorists.

In the aftermath of the event runners and citizens from around the globe united as one to celebrate the strength and resiliency of the community. “Boston Strong” became a rallying cry, exemplifying the determination to prevail through adversity. The following year there were 31,000 finishers.

2020: The Covid pandemic did what war, pestilence, bombings and extremes of weather had not managed to do over the 123-year existence of the Boston Marathon: it stopped the race being held. Technology allowed for a “virtual” edition but the physical race had to be cancelled. The 2021 race was shifted to October in the hope that pandemic conditions would have abated sufficiently to go back to staging an “in-person” race. And so it proved, as 15.736 runners showed up at the Hopkinton start line and the 126th edition was announced for Patriots’ Day on Monday 18 April 2022.

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