Believe in Boston: Reflections on the Boston Marathon

A makeshift memorial to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings. Photo: Colette Quinlin.
A makeshift memorial to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings. Photo: Colette Quinlin.

By Michael Quinlin, Contributor
June / July 2013

Following the unspeakable tragedy, the city of Boston showed amazing courage and resilience. Michael Quinlin writes of how the race served as an inspiration from the beginning.

To prepare for the Boston Marathon you must approach it as a pilgrimage, a personal journey into your interior, a promise you make to yourself that you will triumph through sheer endurance and tenacity, and you will take your place alongside thousands of others who ran this course in their time across three centuries.

You think about Boston so much that it becomes dreamlike. You could be pacing yourself through the mountains of Kenya, rare air, scorched sun, bristled shrubs, or galloping down the back roads of Ireland, moss green fields, steady drizzle and cows staring as you pass by. You could be running hard down the California coast, wheezing up the hills of Pittsburgh, chasing exhaust fumes across New York’s bridges. No matter how weary you become, you imagine the finish line in Boston and that keeps you going.

The race has been an inspiration from the very beginning. Officials from the Boston Athletic Association, returning from the 1896 Olympic Games in Greece, had just witnessed a great human drama in sports, the world’s very first marathon.  The runners raced through the Greek countryside as the crowd waited anxiously in the stadium. They heard an Australian was in the lead, then an American, Boston’s own Arthur Blake.  But soon an astonished, exhilarant roar went up in the stands as Spyridon Louis, a Greek runner, entered the stadium in first place, having passed the exhausted front runners, the crowd going berserk, yelling “Hellene, Hellene!”  as Louis crossed the finish line.  The Boston men knew at once they had to stage such a marathon in their beloved City on a Hill, in their Athens of America.

They launched the Boston Marathon the following April, 1897, and fifteen runners showed up. Sprinter Thomas Burke of Boston’s West End, who had won the 100 and 400 meter races in Athens, was official race starter. He drew a line in the dirt with his foot, shouted “Go,” and the runners took off, watched by curious bystanders. Bicyclists rode alongside the runners, offering food, water and encouragement.  John McDermott, a twenty-two-year-old lithographer from New York, won the race. Some say he was from Ireland, others thought he came from the Maritimes. He ran again in 1898, finishing fourth, and then disappeared from the public record.

There has always been an Irish contingent at this marathon – this is Boston after all. Just as Kenyans and Ethiopians dominate the marathon today, Irish Americans ruled the race in the early years, with winners like Jack Caffery, John Lorden, Tim Ford, Michael Ryan, James Duffy and James Henigan.

“Bricklayer Bill” Kennedy, who ran the Boston Marathon 28 times, won the race in 1917. The year was significant, says his descendant, author Patrick Kennedy, because it occurred just two weeks after the United States entered World War I, and Boston Harbor was on alert. “There were already reports of Boston fishing boats being sunk by German subs,” Kennedy says. “Some suggested cancelling the marathon, but others pointed to the race’s military roots (the story of Pheidippides and the Battle of Marathon) as well as the fact that it was held on Patriots Day.”  The race took place, a firm retort to fear, and Kennedy, wearing a bandanna on his head with an American flag stitched on the side, became a hero that day.

The late John A. Kelley was the quintessential Boston Marathon runner. Born in 1907, he ran his first marathons in 1928 and 1932 but didn’t finish either race.  Then, in a remarkable burst of endurance and tenacity, Kelley finished every single Boston Marathon from 1933 to 1992, fifty-nine years in a row! Johnny won the race twice, placed second 7 times, and finished in the top ten 18 times.

Today the race is international in scope, transcending ethnic and national boundaries, but the Boston Marathon is an American original, distinct in all its contradictions: supersized but intimate, brash and orderly, patriotic yet apolitical, cosmopolitan and local, a race for professionals and amateurs alike. Prize money goes to elite runners, while thousands of runners collect millions for charity. Certain runners eye the elusive two hour milestone, others struggle to break five hours. Everyone dreams a similar dream, to reach the finish line, to be part of a grand tradition, of something significant.

Cheering on the Runners
Above all, the Boston Marathon is a great spectator sport. As the race grew in stature and scale, so did the number of onlookers, who showed up initially out of curiosity and even sympathy. But those sentiments turned to pure admiration and respect for anyone undertaking this brave, foolhardy quest, pounding feet up Heartbreak Hill, trying to break from the pack, or to keep up with the pack, staying hydrated, fighting blisters and muscle cramps, discouragement and frustration, imagining the finish line, so far away yet so within reach. For a time, the course ran parallel to a railroad track, and train cars full of passengers chugged alongside the runners, a movable feast of cheering fans.

Marathon runners need their energy boost at various points of the race, and they always get that in Boston: from the families in the outlying rural towns and suburban streets, handing out lemonade and Band-Aids; from the college students screaming out of dormitory windows, waving school colors; from tourists on day trips and business travelers at conventions; from commuters working in office buildings; and from a massive entourage of family members proudly cheering on their kin, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, grandparents and grandchildren, along with co-workers and neighbors. Every runner has a fan club at the Boston Marathon.

Marathon Monday is also Patriots Day in Massachusetts, a state-wide holiday created in 1894 to commemorate the Revolutionary War battles in Lexington and Concord. The battles are re-enacted in those towns by local people dressed in colonial garb, wielding antique muskets and snare drums, pitching tents on the moist fields, keeping tradition alive of how America came to be.

Patriots Day also marks the start of school vacation week, and the Red Sox always play a home game at Fenway Park. That is why thousands of Bostonians come to town each Patriot’s Day, taking their kids to the race, catching the ball game, breathing in the carnival atmosphere of the day, blending in with visitors from around the world.

And that is how it was on April 15, 2013 at the 117th Boston Marathon.  Twenty-seven thousand people registered to run the race, and half a million spectators lined the 26.2 mile route, many of them gravitating toward the finish line at Copley Square in Boston’s Back Bay, to connect with their friends, to witness history being made. Police officers, firemen and ambulance workers lined the route, directing traffic and keeping order.  Thousands of volunteers in blue and yellow tee-shirts gave directions, answered questions, kept the crowd off the course, and encouraged worn out runners.

The elite runners started early, the women leaving at 9:32 a.m., the men at 10:00 a.m., followed by the rest of the pack at 10:40, a virtual sea of humanity, from all nations, walks of life, religious beliefs, stages of fitness. Some were chasing victory, some running for a charity, all of them on their personal journeys, moving in unison toward the finish line.

My wife, Colette, and I have attended our share of marathons over the years, when I worked at Boston City Hall and she worked for John Hancock, the race sponsor. But this Patriots Day, we are in our back yard in Milton, pulling up dandelions, chatting with neighbors, taking it easy. The temperature is mid-50s and the sun shines bright. Our son dribbles his basketball nearby, birds chirp like newborns, and lawnmowers rumble in the distance. Like so many others on this day, we are in our own world, seven miles from the finish line but a million miles away.

How the Race Ended
And that’s where this year’s Boston Marathon story begins, at the finish line.  Who could have foreseen the reckless act of evil on a day when children are on vacation, eating hot dogs and ice cream?  Thousands of people stand at the finish line, awaiting that last batch of runners chasing down their dreams, seeing that final stretch of Boylston Street, heading toward the roar of an enraptured crowd in love with Boston, at this very moment in time when Boston is at its finest.

The news from the finish line comes in short bursts, and there is early confusion about whether the explosion was accidental or deliberate. Word spreads over the wire of an explosion at the John F. Kennedy Library, three miles away, which turned out to be a small electrical fire, but for a moment the thought of 9/11 enters your mind.

Then the heartbreak began to emerge in slow, painful motion. The Richard family of Dorchester was at the finish line.  Eight-year-old Martin Richard was killed, his mother and father were wounded by shrapnel, his seven-year-old sister Jane, an Irish step dancer at the Clifden Irish Dance Academy in Milton, lost her left leg.

Twenty-nine-year-old Krystle Campbell died instantly, waiting for her boyfriend to finish. “Along with her million dollar smile came head-to-toe freckles and gorgeous bright red hair, connecting her Irish roots and kid-like manner,” wrote her employer. Fiddler Tommy McCarthy remembers Krystle as a regular at his pub, the Burren, in Davis Square, where she enjoyed the live Irish music. He has dedicated one of his songs, “Listen, I Know,” to raise funds for the Krystle Campbell Foundation.

Lu Lingzi, a 23-year-old Chinese graduate student at Boston University, died at the finish line, watching her first Boston Marathon. She played the piano and loved dogs. A memorial service at BU played the piano music she loved as friends gathered around Lu’s parents, who traveled from China to Boston to retrieve their only child and bring her home.

Thursday night after the marathon, 26- year-old Sean Collier, a policeman at MIT, was murdered by the bombers while sitting in his police car on campus. All he wanted to do in life was to be a cop, his brother said at Sean’s memorial, which was attended by Vice President Joe Biden and by police officers from around the world, including Ireland.

Later that night our friend, 33-year-old Richard Donohue, a transit cop, was caught in a gunfight and a bullet ripped through his leg, severing his femoral artery. He lost so much blood that he went into cardiac arrest. Firefighters stemmed the bleeding, gave him CPR and rushed him to Mt. Auburn Hospital, where emergency doctors and nurses saved his life. He is recovering now, his wife Kim and their seven-month -old son Richie by his side, along with his close-knit family. A runner himself, Donohue cherishes a more pleasant connection to the race: his great-great grandfather, Lawrence Brignolia, won the Boston Marathon in 1899.

Boston Strong
We visited Copley Square Park recently, where a makeshift memorial has sprung up in the tiny park sandwiched between the Boston Public Library and Trinity Church, not far from the finish line, and right near the medical tent that saved so many of the injured from dying.  Bouquets of flowers and stuffed animals, rosary beads and candles, sports shirts and hats from the Celtics, Bruins, Red Sox and Patriots — all placed carefully, with reverence, in silence. Scrawled on message boards are traces of love, support and resolve from the world over, from Texas to Tibet, California to Japan.

To prepare for the 118th running of the Boston Marathon, you must approach it as a pilgrimage, a personal journey into your interior, a promise you make to yourself, to each other,  that courage can supplant fear, that good must triumph over evil, and that Boston will endure, stronger than ever, the race, and the city.  Boston is strong.


Michael Quinlin is the author of Irish Boston and the editor of Classic Irish Stories. He is founder of the Boston Irish Tourism Association.

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