With only a few days until the Boston Marathon, I’m still not sure how to watch the race. Thinking about that problem, I started thinking about another hard-to-watch event: the Tour de France.
I’m not a cyclist and don’t think of myself as a cycling fan, but when a chemically enhanced Lance Armstrong began winning all those titles in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I became a huge fan of the Tour. On July evenings, I would watch replays of that day’s stage, soaking in the urbane commentary of Paul Sherwin and Phil Liggett. Over time, I began to remember the backgrounds of the individual riders, began to root for or against certain teams, and began to use terms like “peleton,” “attack,” and “breakaway” in everyday conversation.
It was certainly a colorful race then, and I feel more than a little embarrassed to admit that it seemed much more entertaining when everyone was doped to the gills. But that’s not really what I want to talk about.
One thing that I never really understood, though, was the insane fan culture of the Tour. I would see these people lining the road up the side of a mountain knowing that they probably had to wake up at 4 a.m., fight thousands of other motorists to find a precarious parking spot, wait for half the day or more, all for a chance to see the cyclists for a few seconds. I imagine that spending the better part of a day sipping wine, snacking on brie and baguette, and having your brains baked by the hot French sun might well turn you into a lunatic with a need to run alongside the leaders for a few steps, before dropping dead from cardiac arrest.
I would shake my head in disbelief. After all, I was able to sit in front of a TV getting second-by-second information about the leaders, the chase pack, the standings, the king of the mountains, along with a historical overview and architectural highlights of the region — and those spectators were getting what? — a momentary glimpse of the riders followed by hours in a traffic jam getting off the mountain that would make keep them on the road until midnight.
I thought about all that this morning when Ann asked me about my plans for watching Boston on Monday, and I realized that I faced a dilemma not unlike the one faced by anyone wanting to actually watch the Tour de France. The problem is that like the Tour, Boston is actually unwatchable. In its entirety, there’s too much going on, so you have to choose between following the race among the leaders or experiencing the race from the course itself.
Watching in front of a TV without ever raising your voice to cheer on a runner is as lame as it gets. But leaving your living room and staking out a spot on the course to watch for the duration means missing just about everything interesting happening with the elites. Technology and athlete tracking shoud be able to help, but I’ve never managed to figure out how. Maybe this year I’ll be able to stream the TV broadcast to my iPad and have the best of both worlds, but something tells me I’ll still be tuning in to WEEI for quirkily uninformative race updates.
Most likely, Ann, Joni, and I will head over to Comm Ave in Newton. We’ll watch the wheelchair athletes, then the world-class women, then the world-class men go sailing by, so quickly there’s barely time to read the numbers on their chests before they’re disappearing up the road. Slowly — so it seems — the merely elite runners will begin arriving, followed by the very good runers, followed by the serious runners whose accomplishments are known only by their families and training partners, and that will be only the beginning.
Of course this is one of the main differences between the marathon and a professionals-only event like the Tour de France. The tour has about 150 elite riders and no friends and family. Boston is mostly friends and family, as well as strangers who could be long-lost cousins if you dug deeply enough into your mutual genealogy.
Back on the course, an hour will pass. Runners from the second wave will arrive. It will be hard to tear ourselves away, but our hands are raw from clapping and our legs are stiff from standing. And still there will be no letup in the number of runners filing past. Eventually we won’t be able to take it any more, and we’ll head home, extricating ourselves from the crowds. But even as we do so, we note the people holding signs who wait for THEIR runner to arrive.
After it’s all done, after I’ve checked the results to see how my friends have finished, I’ll feel as though — once again — I’ve missed something critical, missed the essence of the event, whatever that is. I wonder, do spectators lining the route of the Tour de France feel the same way?
Maybe the problem is that I identify too much with the runners to ever feel satisfied with watching. Unlike a professional bicycle race where I never expect to understand anything about how it feels to climb Mont Ventoux, maybe with Boston the only way for me to truly see the race is to run it myself. Then, even though I didn’t see the winners cross the line, I would know how they felt.
Maybe the real spectators’ dilemma is that for me on Patriots Day, it sucks to be a spectator.