To “BQ” (Boston-Qualify) puts you in one of the world’s most elite racing categories, competing in the world’s oldest annual marathon with a selection of the most exclusive runners. Each year Boston Marathon participants trace the footsteps of some of the greatest pioneers in marathon history, along a course rich with controversy, triumph, and tragedy. From the humble 18 participant field in 1918 to the over 30,000 international athletes today, the course has been a journey of major accomplishments not only for the elite running world, but for women, the handicapped and, after the tragedy of last year’s bombings, an entire nation.
10. A Long History
The Boston marathon is the oldest marathon in the world and the second longest continuously run footrace in the U.S., second only to the Buffalo Turkey Trot. Even with its urban location and lengthy history, the format of this single-man race has only been changed once. In 1918, during Wold War I, the race became a 10-man military relay.
Today, participants must run an age-specific qualifying time in a USATF-approved marathon to enter into the race pool. But the race used to be even more exclusive: it wasn’t until 1972 that women were allowed entry. Boston native and University of California student Roberta Gibb was the first to challenge the all-male criteria, taking a bus from San Diego to sneak into the race on April 19, 1966 and becoming the first unofficial winner in the female category. She finished in 3:21:40, a time that today would qualify her for entry. In 1967, a second female braved the male dominated battlefield, registering as K.V. Switzer. At mile four, she was spotted with a bib by a race director, Jock Semple, who tried to pull her off the course. Friends blocked Switzer, and she finished in an unofficial time of 4:20.
8. Special Divisions
In 1977, a new division was pioneered by Bob Hall. A race director told the wheelchair bound Hall that he would only be recognized if he completed in under three hours. He succeeded, paving the way for an entirely new category of participants. The current record for Men’s wheelchair division stands at 1:18:25, completed by Joshua Cassidy in 2012. The woman’s record is held by Wakako Tsuchida, who won her 5th victory in 1:34:36. The race now has men and women’s divisions for mobility impaired runners and wheelchair and handcycle racers. In 2013, 40 visually impaired runners participated in the race.
7. Team Hoyt
Two of the most famous faces of the Boston marathon have completed the race together 30 times. Dick and Rick Hoyt, father and son team from Holland, Massachusetts, have competed in over a thousand races together, with Dick pushing Rick in a special wheelchair. Rick was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth to parents who refused to institutionalize their son against the advice of doctors. In 1977, Rick asked his dad if they could run a benefit race to support a lacrosse player at his school who had become paralyzed. After the race, the spirit was born in Rick, who told his dad when he’s “running, it feels like I’m not handicapped.” The 2014 Boston Marathon will be their last together, yet they will forever be a fixture in the race, with a bronze statue in their honor near the start of the marathon.
There have been three known cheaters who tried to skip the grueling middle portion of the marathon. In 1909, participant Howard Pierce got a car ride from mile 8 to 25, but was pulled off the course by police before he crossed the finish. Following in Pierce’s footsteps, A.F. Merchant finished fifth overall in 1916, but was called out by a boy scout for not having run the entire course. In 1980 that the next known cheater was caught—this time a woman, Rosie Ruiz, who won the division in a record “run,” in 1980. But questions arose when she didn’t seem winded or sweaty and spectators reported seeing her watching, not running the race. She was later stripped of the title. It’s much harder to cheat today, with RFID transponder timing chips, first introduced in a major US marathon in Boston in 1996, that check runners in throughout the course.
5. 25 Miles
Although it never followed it’s original intended route–Paul Revere’s ride–the course has stayed similar since its beginnings, but the length of the race hasn’t. The course was originally only 25 miles. The race didn’t become official marathon length—26.2 miles–until 1924, when the start line was moved to Hopkinton Green. This was to accommodate the marathon length standards from the 1908 summer Olympics.
4. The Scream Tunnel
One of the loudest and most recognized stretches of the race is the infamous Scream Tunnel, also one of the most popular college traditions at Wellesley College. With the race’s halfway mark about a mile from the school, the student’s line up along the course in Wellesley, MA, cheering on the marathon runners with posters and kisses. It is said that the screams are so loud they can be heard a mile away.
3. A “Downhill” Course
In 2011, Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya ran a record marathon time of 2:03:02—an average of 4:41.5 minute miles—but the win was not eligible for world record status because the course does not satisfy a particular set of rules. The International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) considers elevation drop and the start and finish separation which is intended to prevent tailwind advantage. Despite the infamous Heartbreak Hill, the race actually drops 459 feet from start to finish.
2. The Heat
Race day temperatures have fluctuated between a cool 47 degrees and one of the hottest temperatures recorded in a major marathon. In 1976, Jack Fultz won the race in 2:20:19, with temperatures close to 100 degrees, while 40% of the field never finished. In 2012, 2,00 participants received medical attention and 4,300 participants opted out of the race because of temperatures well into 80’s.
1. The Crowds
Monday, April 21, 2014 was the second largest Boston Marathon in the history of the event. On April 15, 2013, two bombs exploded near the finish line on Boylston Street, about two hours after the winner crossed the finish line. Three people were killed in the explosion and over two hundred people were injured, many losing limbs. The race was halted, with over 5,700 participants unable to finish. The marathon has expanded to accommodate 36,000 participants, allowing the 2013 runners to return and finish their race. This is the second largest field only to the 100th anniversary marathon which saw over 38,000 participants. It is also expected that the spectator crowd could double this year to about a million people. (It should also be noted that the bombings resulted in a fourth casualty on April 18, 2013, when MIT police officer Sean A. Collier died from multiple gunshot wounds inflicted from the bombing suspects).