Monday, April 18, 2011

It's hard to be cynical on Marathon day

As someone who runs only when scared, I find it fascinating that anyone would want to run the length of Boylston Street, much less do it after running all the way from Hopkington, Mass. Yet that is just what 25,000 people do every year in the Boston Marathon, an event known both for athleticism and personality.

For the past few years, I have worked in offices that front Boylston Street and offer a great view of the race, albeit from on high (a bit too high, really, though you can hear the crowds cheer even when you're 20-some stories up). A few years ago, I went down to the sidewalk to watch, but usually I just stand in the windows and look on as the first runners enter the Back Bay via Beacon Street and pass the Prudential Center Plaza. Then I'd retreat to my cube and dive back into whatever pile of work happened to have just landed on my plate. One year I was too busy, or too disgruntled, to even stop by the window; I just worked right through the race.

But today I decided to be a good Bostonian — I went down to the sidewalk for about an hour and watched as participants ran, walked and hobbled toward the finish line. And I have to say, it was pretty goddamned cool.

From my spot outside Lord and Taylor, I had a great view of some of the more elite racers as they came by, one every few minutes, and then, as it got nearer to 1 o’clock, of the more middle-of-the-pack runners, who came in a long continuous stream. On either side of the street, the crowd was about five deep. Cheering people also hung from second-story windows, and a few sat on the ledge over the Starbucks storefront. Supporters rang cow bells, blew devices that sounded like car horns, and waved flags (I counted two U.S. and one Greek). Handmade signs urged on "Tom Sanglier," "Kristina, 21888" and "Ted." The runners who got the most applause were the ones whose exhaustion had slowed them to a walk, tho ones who did fist pumps, and the ones who turned to the crowd with outstretched hands, palms facing the sky, and made a "bring it up" motion.

The racers were a varied lot. Many had looks of anguish on their faces, while some were business-like, checking their wristwatches as they came by. Others grinned deliriously. While generally the runners wore colorful outfits advertising "Adidas," "Nike" and other athletic brands, some plugged their schools (I spotted Harvard, BYU and KU), their home countries (I saw South Korea, Costa Rica, the Czech Republic and Texas), and, in at least one case, a laundry detergent ("Tide"). Other runners wore slogans ("Stop Global Warming," "Beat the Kenyans"), and one guy cruised past in a polka-dotted bikini top.

The crowds were also fun to observe. A lively convo was going on behind me in Spanish for much of my visit. Another group compared notes, in English, on what their racing friend was wearing, so they could be sure to spot her. A woman next to me consulted a BlackBerry to figure out when her sister would be coming by, while an older man holding flowers waited to cheer for his daughter.

My favorite part was when a tall guy in the crowd gave up his prime viewing spot so that a woman could look for her husband. As the husband went by, she screamed and thrust two fists in the air — and when he jogged back to give her a big hug, the whole crowd just roared!

Forget Major League Baseball — now this is a sport worth watching!

Copyright 2009-2010 by Sasha Sark. Please don't reuse without permission.
"West African Dark Blue Cloth" image is displayed courtesy of the Richard F. Brush Art Gallery at St. Lawrence University.