Boston Marathon turns 100 Excitement: A running celebration is being planned for the April centennial.

November 26, 1995|By Mary G. Ramos | Mary G. Ramos,DALLAS MORNING NEWS

A peculiar ritual takes place each spring in Boston. On the third Monday of April every year, about 10,000 hollow-cheeked people descend on the venerable city from all over the world. These people have worked hard for the privilege of riding in buses to the town of Hopkinton west of Boston, then running -- running, mind you -- 26.2 miles back into downtown Boston.

This ritual is the Boston Marathon, the oldest annual marathon in the world and the most respected footrace in the United States. It is the only marathon, other than the Olympics, that imposes a qualifying standard on entrants. It draws the elite among runners from the entire world. In 1995, entrants were from 50 countries and all 50 states.

"The Boston" will be run for the 100th time April, and the sponsoring organization, the Boston Athletic Association (BAA), is planning a whale of a birthday party.

For starters, the number of runners will swell to almost three times the usual number. Normally, to enter the Boston, a runner must complete a marathon sanctioned by USA Track & Field or foreign equivalent during the previous year within a time limit determined by the runner's age. In 1995, about 9,500 runners qualified to enter.

For the race's centennial, about 15,000 qualifiers are expected. But, in a break with Boston tradition, an additional 10,000 nonqualifying runners will be chosen by lottery to join them. That's 25,000 sweaty bodies making the trip from Hopkinton to Boston.

Even if you aren't a runner, the Boston is a magical experience. The electricity surrounding the event is contagious.

Copley Square, where the finish line is located, is normally a dignified, park-like block occupied by the charming, 1877-vintage Trinity Church, with the elegant Copley Plaza Hotel on one side and the venerable Boston Public Library on another. Between Friday afternoon and Sunday evening before the marathon, it undergoes a transformation.

First, a mobile-home command center appears, followed by the camera bridge over Boylston Street and gaily striped tents for medical and other services. Barricades that will hold back the spectators are stacked neatly along Boylston, and hundreds of portable toilets are placed in strategic areas.

While the volunteers and the work crews are busy outside, the two-day Sports and Fitness Expo is taking place in the nearby Hynes Convention Center.

The Expo is merely crowded Saturday; Sunday you can't stir 'em with a stick.

They're gathering around running-shoe-company booths in anticipation of appearances of champion runners such as Bill Rodgers and Joan Benoit Samuelson.

They're picking up bargains in energy bars and wick-away-the-moisture socks.

They're munching their way through free samples of pasta, pirogi and frozen yogurt. And they're buying BAA jackets, bags, mugs, hats, buttons and T-shirts.

The third Monday of April also is a state holiday in Massachusetts -- Patriot's Day, commemorating Paul Revere's 1775 ride to warn Colonists of the British army's approach. A re-enactment of Revere's ride is staged, complete with lanterns hung in the tower of the Old North Church.

But the runners don't notice. To them, Patriot's Day is Race Day.

Crowds and lines

About 9:30 Monday morning, the runners board the buses that take them to the starting line.

By 10:30 a.m., Hopkinton is elbow-to-elbow with milling runners and their families and friends. The usually mild-mannered town of about 9,000 people is bursting at the seams. The air is perfumed by the smell of Ben-Gay. School buses become shuttle buses for the day, moving people from parking areas into town and back. There are lines for everything: water fountains, buses, portable toilets.

At 11:30 a.m., helicopters from the three local TV stations are circling overhead.

Fifteen minutes later, with march music blaring from loudspeakers, the starting gun for the wheelchair athletes echoes across the Hopkinton town square.

Another starting gun -- this one for the runners -- sounds at exactly noon. And they begin what for the leaders will be a journey taking a bit more than two hours.

For other participants, the ordeal ranges up to five or more hours of running and/or walking into Boston.

Each runner who completes the marathon in five hours or less is rewarded with a pewter medal on a blue-and-gold ribbon and the knowledge that he or she finished the most prestigious annual marathon in the country.

Centennial events

A few of the events being planned in honor of the centennial are:

* A gala honoring past champions.

* An exhibit of historic marathon memorabilia.

* An expanded Expo -- from two to three or four days.

* A noncompetitive fun run for all foreign entrants the morning before the race.

Boston at a walk

Boston in mid-April is usually coming alive from its winter hibernation. But it is sometimes still icy on Marathon Monday, so it's best to take layers of clothing.

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