Every year after tens of thousands of runners have finished the Boston Marathon, Race Director Dave McGillivray stands at the starting line in Hopkinton, ready to run the course. His day started before dawn and was filled with making harried phone calls to town officials and police, handling the logistics of everything from disaster preparedness to water stations and port-a-potties, and generally dealing with higher-than-normal blood pressure. He spent the entire day on his feet, not eating, not hydrating, not getting into a pre-marathon “Zen” mindset. Yet as the sun dips toward the horizon and the crowds of spectators disperse, leaving the course littered with pieces of trash like breadcrumbs leading toward Copley Square, McGillivray finds peace at the start of his journey.
McGillivray has stood at the starting line every year since 1973. He’s made it to the finish line every year except that first year, when he was sixteen years old and ran the race as a “bandit” (unofficial, unregistered runner). His grandfather waited for him in vain until 7 p.m. at Coolidge Corner, 23 miles into the race, and then finally gave up and went home. When he saw his grandson that night, he told McGillivray to train and run the race again next year; he’d be waiting once again at Coolidge Corner to cheer him on to the finish. But he passed away a few months later and never saw McGillivray cross the finish line. McGillivray vowed to run every year in memory of his grandfather. When he was offered a position as Technical Director of the Boston Marathon in 1988, with duties that would occupy him during the race, he started his personal tradition of running the course after all the other runners had finished.
Just a few years earlier, in 1967, another prominent figure of Boston Marathon lore made her way to the starting line for the first time. Because women weren’t officially allowed to run the Boston Marathon until 1972, Kathrine Switzer, registered as “K.V. Switzer,” was the only woman at the starting line that year. A few miles in, Race Director Jock Semple noticed Switzer. Infuriated by the ribbing he was getting from spectators and other race officials about a “girl running in ‘his’ race,” Semple ran onto the course, grabbed Switzer by the shoulders, and tried to tear her race number off her sweatshirt. Switzer recalls that the look on his face was terrifying. Her boyfriend, who was also running the marathon, shoved Semple off the course, allowing Switzer to keep running. She became the first officially registered woman to cross the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
During the remainder of her journey, Switzer let the long miles work their magic and untangle her thoughts and emotions surrounding this experience. She says she went from feeling humiliated to feeling angry to letting it go. She accepted that Semple was acting on the biases he had been taught. She also recognized that her own confidence in her ability to run a marathon was a gift, one that most women couldn’t enjoy until they were given the opportunity to try long-distance running. In the final miles of the race, she decided that she would fight for those opportunities for all women. This decision shaped the rest of her life. Among her many accomplishments for women runners, she was instrumental in getting a women’s marathon instituted at the Olympics, and many elite women runners today credit Switzer with making their successes possible.
Let’s raise the curtain one final time on Hopkinton, on a much more recent Marathon Monday. A Mecca for runners from all over the world, Hopkinton seems to require more public restrooms, hotel rooms, and other necessities on this one day than on the rest of the year combined. According to the April 11, 2013, issue of The Hopkinton Independent, several local families open up their homes every year to meet some of the runners’ basic needs like food, sunscreen, bandages, and a clean restroom. Such simple gestures can make the difference between starting the marathon uncomfortably – and continuing it in ever-increasing pain – and starting it relaxed, refreshed, and ready to go.
One young runner asked for a special favor from his Hopkinton host, Nanda Barker-Hook. Presenting her with a Sharpie marker, he asked her to write “Will you marry me?” on his chest so that, after running his race, he could pull off his sweat-soaked jersey and propose to his girlfriend. Barker-Hook, of course, was more than willing to help him out.
Though I do not know the name or the face of this runner, I can imagine what was in his mind every step of the way from Hopkinton to Boston. I can feel the purposefulness of his stride, the excitement singing in his heart, as he concentrated on the knowledge that every sore muscle and every gasping breath were bringing him closer to the woman he loves.
What does it mean to stand at the starting line of the Boston Marathon?
It’s the beginning of an unknown story, a potentially life-changing journey. It’s a race where a bandit runner who didn’t even finish can become the race director, where a woman whom race officials tried to physically force out of the event can become a heroine for a generation, and where an unnamed runner can win his true love after completing his quest.
Like McGillivray, Switzer, and the romantic runner, all of us running the Boston Marathon have lived unique stories that brought us to the starting line. But standing there in Hopkinton, we all turn to a blank page. None of us knows the words, themes, and metaphors that will emerge in our story, but we believe that both the highs and the lows will make it beautiful. We all know the geographical destination of our journey is Copley Square, but none of us knows what we’ll find on the way there or whether the real journey will continue for years or a lifetime.
In 2008, four runners from Genzyme’s Allston site stood at the Boston Marathon starting line. Through fundraising for the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD), the men had chosen to run this race for a cause they all cared about: improving the lives of those living with rare diseases. At the starting line that day, none of them could have foreseen the explosive growth of the Running for Rare Diseases team.
Two years later, in addition to raising funds for NORD, Genzyme’s runners began partnering with individual patients, creating meaningful connections and relationships that seem too perfect to be coincidences. (Just read other posts and patient stories on this blog to see what I mean!) This year, the team has expanded to 17 members from across the country and around the world, and the Genzyme Running Team now participates in races besides the Boston Marathon, regular training runs, and the Rare Disease Day Relay as well.
Shortly after last year’s Boston Marathon, I was at a Japanese Society of Boston dinner with a few Genzyme Boston Marathoners because our Sanofi colleague Wakako Tsuchida, five-time winner of the women’s wheelchair division of the Boston Marathon, was speaking at the event. At that point, I had barely started running distances between 5 and 8 miles. My colleagues had already convinced me to sign up for a half-marathon at the end of the summer, a distance that was pretty intimidating to me.
That night, they started trying to convince me to run the Newport Marathon in October. I told them they were crazy and I would never be a marathoner, but the thought took hold in me that very night.
Later in the evening, all the dinner attendees were given a little Japanese Daruma doll. We were supposed to color in one of the doll’s eyes when we set a goal (and they told us it had to be a big goal that really mattered) and then color in the other eye when we accomplished the goal.
As I colored in one eye, I promised myself, “I am going to run the Boston Marathon. Because things happen when you run the Boston Marathon.”
There will be 17 of us standing at the starting line this year, each eagerly anticipating our own journey. I can smell the fragrance of new parchment, and I can’t wait to begin writing.