On Not Knowing How to Watch Boston

A few days ago, a friend asked me for suggestions on where to go to watch the Boston Marathon. It was an innocent question, and I wished I had had a simple, straightforward answer. But the question threw me instead into a tailspin of doubt and second-guessing. For each possible viewing location, I easily came up with half a dozen drawbacks, and in the end probably made it sound like there’s no good place to watch the race.

Which is nonsense. The problem isn’t that there aren’t good vantage points, the problem is that there are too many, or, to put it another way, there’s just too much race to watch.

The Boston Marathon is not really a single race in any normal sense. It begins sometime over the weekend with races in Boston, and continues late Sunday night/early Monday morning with cyclists who ride the marathon route in the dark, long before the wheelchairs line up for their start, which in turn precedes the start for the elite women, which in turn precedes the first wave of elite men and the more accomplished amateurs, which precedes waves 2, 3, and 4. Throughout the day, long before and long after the winners are crowned, traffic is stopped across several communities for “the marathon.”

TV tries to cover it all, but can’t help but reduce the astonishing sprawl of the race to the battle for places among the elite athletes, interrupted now and then for historical notes or human interest stories.

The alternative preferred by many is to find a spot on the course to camp out for several hours. From one’s lawn chair or hard-earned place on the barricades, one can watch the wheelchairs go by, then cheer as the pace car for the lead women rolls into view, trailed by a tiny knot of absurdly fit athletes running at sub-5:30 pace. The leaders are followed by a trickle of other, not-quite-so-fast women, and then 10-20 minutes later, the elite men. One hears the helicopters and sees the police motorcycle escorts before the press truck comes rolling into view, blocking the first glimpses of the lead men’s pack. After they pass, which they do in seconds, there are others, but it will be many more minutes before the trickle becomes a steady stream of runners, and then a larger stream, and then a river, and then a flood. They do not call them waves for nothing.

Standing on the side of the road, you always think you’ll be able to “see” the race, but your eyes and your mind can’t possibly take it all in. You watch for runners you know for twenty minutes, thirty minutes, and hour… and still, there are far more to come than have passed. B now, you’ve probably heard from the radio or your Smartphone or someone portable TV that the winners have been cheered down Boylston Street, and another race is “in the books,” but your own eyes tell you that the race is far from over, maybe not even half over. For all the thousands who have passed, there are ten thousand more to come.

And the stories! Every one of these runners has a story, a support crew, someone waiting for them on the other side. You want to leave because you’ve had your fill of the runners for another year, but how can you abandon them when they still have so far to run? Someone you know is in that human river, and if you leave now, they will pass this point and you won’t be here to give them the cheer that might just convince them to keep going. On the other hand, your eyes are stinging from an hour of scrunching them to pick out faces in the crowd. You might miss them anyway, as overwhelmed as you are.

No wonder the Wellesley women scream, and the BC students drink, and families bring picnics. Everyone needs a simple way to celebrate the race, because trying to take it all in without too much empathy runs the risk of being inundated by the humanity of it all. For me, I can’t take it for too long. It’s too much for my poor mind to handle.

Even though I’ve never been one of those runners who pencils in running Boston every year, I wonder whether the best place to watch the race is from within, as one of the drops of water sluicing from the highlands of Hopkinton down to the sea. At least then, you’d travel every inch of the course, and although you wouldn’t be able to see the race in the front unfold, you’d recreate that race, at least a little bit, in your own journey.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for the past thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. About a dozen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past eight years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, MA. I've been writing for as long as I've been running. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and after a two-year hiatus, began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. In my experience, writing about running is way harder than running itself. I also still have a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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