Boston Marathon: When the Cheering Stopped
The spectators are the heart of the race, and the bomber knew it
John Stark has held top writing and editing positions at such magazines as Cooks' Illustrated, Body + Soul and People. For 14 years, he was a feature writer and movie critic at the San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle. Follow John on Twitter @jrstark.
The front of the 26,000-strong pack is for the first-class athletes. Many of these marathon elites come from out of state and the country. The rest of the pack is where you find the locals. It’s a diverse compilation of all ages, sizes and economic groups. It’s Boston on parade.
For many of the runners, it’s a one-time event, a unique rite of passage that secures your Boston citizenship.
Those who aren’t running the race are in it, too. They’re the spectators. Everyone in Boston knows someone — be it a friend, family member or work colleague — who has entered. Spectators line the 26-plus mile course the entire way, from the town of Hopkinton, where the race begins, to Back Bay, where it ends at Copley Square. They carry signs with motivational messages, and hand the runners cups of juice and water as they go by. They applaud and cheer them on. I know, I’ve been a spectator.
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A few years ago I went to the race to cheer on a young waiter who I barely knew. He worked at a fancy Boston restaurant. I had gone there for dinner just before Patriot’s Day, the third Monday in April, which is when the marathon is held. I was surprised when he told me he was in training for it. He was obese, and not at all athletic appearing. When I asked him why he was running the marathon he told me it was for his self-esteem. I found out upon further questioning that his wife had left him six months before. He was heartbroken. He needed this personal victory.
On the day of the marathon I gathered up some of my friends and drove to Wellesley, where we stood and waited for him to come by on Route 16. “There he is!” I yelled. He waved back in recognition.
He wasn’t moving very fast, but he did finish. It took him six hours.
The marathon is more like a one-day support group than it is an actual race.
You don’t have to know anyone who’s running to be an impassioned spectator.
The most exciting and coveted place to be for an onlooker is on Boylston Street, at or near the finish line. Although it’s thrilling to watch the first wave of runners come zooming down the street at the two-hour mark, it’s even more exciting to be there around hour three to four, when the everyday folks start arriving. They’re the ones who most need and deserve your cheers.
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“I was a block away from the blast,” said my friend Sean, whom I talked to on the phone. Several years ago he and his partner, Craig, ran the race together. It was the same year I cheered the waiter on. I cheered for them, too.
“I went down to Copley Square with my friend Tim and his little girl, Teaghan, who’s 4 months old,” Sean told me. “Tim called me in the morning and said let’s go clap people on. We decided to go after hour three, which is the sweet spot of the race. That’s when the charity teams and average runners come in — the locals, the moms, dads, students, office workers, the guys with chubby stomachs, many hand-in-hand crossing the finish line. When I ran the race, I did it in 4 hours. I can’t tell you what it was like to get to the finish line and have thousands of people there. It’s an electric experience. Each person on the sidewalk is looking directly into your eyes as they yell, ‘You can do it! Just a few yards more!’
“After the blast throngs of panicked people were running in all directions. When I heard the screams and the sirens — at one point I counted 26 ambulances going by me — I knew the marathon would never be the same. Whoever set off the bombs knew exactly what they were doing. Their timing couldn’t have been more deliberate. To kill and wound people who have come to support their family members and friends. Will marathon runners ever again know the thrill of being met at the finish line? I will never understand what happened, but now I'm determined to run it next year. No one can take this away from Boston — or the world.”