The Curious Case of the Boston Coincidences

Boston Marathon – Mon 18 April

by Pete Mackrell


The next chapter in my marathon tour took me to Boston for marathon number 13, would it be unlucky?

But first we have to start with a bit of history. Boston is easily the world’s oldest annual marathon with the first event being held in 1897, making this year the 120th race. It is always held on the third Monday in April which is Patriots’ Day, a state holiday. This year’s race also marked the 50th anniversary of the first female participation in 1966. That first lady runner: Bobbi Gibb, tried to enter officially but she was turned down because “women aren’t physiologically capable of running 26.2 miles”. She turned up anyway, hid in a bush before the start to avoid arrest, and joined in. She finished in 3:21:40. It took six years before women were officially allowed to enter.

Boston - marathon finish at the bottom

Boston – Marathon finish at the bottom

In 1970, qualifying times were introduced. The entry form that year read: “A runner must submit certification that he has trained sufficiently to finish the course. This is not a jogging race”.  Strong words. But this wasn’t about being elitist, it was in response to the logistical challenge of organising an expanding race, they wanted to reduce the number of entrants. But it backfired, introducing the Boston Qualifier, or “BQ” as it is referred to in the States, had the opposite effect: the race became more popular because of the need to qualify, it became a badge of honour. The BQ has since become a target for runners worldwide, similar to London Marathon good for age qualification. Except there is no set BQ time, instead there are a fixed amount of places and entries open on a phased basis for different time bands. Once the race is full, that’s it. The actual cut-off varies depending on who enters but typically it’s around 3hrs for senior men and 3hr30 for women. The targets are relaxed for each five year age group over 35.

So finally, moving on to this year’s race. I’ve had some injury niggles since running Tokyo seven weeks previously and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I decided I was going to try and enjoy the trip, have a few beers and not worry too much about the race. It was in a random bar a couple of days before the race that I overheard the words Leighton Buzzard and turned around to see Kassia and friends sat right next to us! That was coincidence number one of the trip.

Pre-race bar selfie

No coincidence that there was also beer involved!

Boston is a point-to-point course so on the morning of the race I made my way to the finish area to catch one of the yellow U.S. school buses that ferry the tens of thousands of runners the 26.2M westwards to the start. On the bus, the person who sat next to me by complete chance was Verity Allsopp from Leighton Fun Runners, coincidence number two of the trip! About half way through the journey Verity said to me: “Isn’t it annoying that you can’t take kit bags to the start area and you have to leave them at the finish instead. How come you’ve got yours, what are you going to do with it?” Oh you £@#%!”^ muppet.

How could I be so stupid. I’d even been warned about this by Glen. I had all my kit with me, lots of clothes I didn’t want to throw away, my phone, headphones, and other bits and bobs. I had to find a way of transporting it to the finish. Once we arrived I spent the next hour frantically rushing about, talking to officials, the police, the fire service, volunteers, but nobody could help me. Out of desperation I left the athlete village to explore outside in the hope of finding helpful locals, but the start town of Hopkinton is tiny and there isn’t much there.

I blagged my way down to the start area even through it wasn’t officially open to the masses yet. I was hoping to pay a spectator to carry my bag to the finish but it was no good, spectators don’t tend to travel this far away from Boston because it’s not well connected. I was about to give up when I spotted a coach parked at the back of a petrol station with a few runners scattered around. A coach… it must be going to the finish, right? I went over to plead with them. Thankfully, they were more than willing to help, they took me under their wing, agreed to ferry my bag, and even offered me their drinks and snacks plus usage of their private toilet. They were a running club from Delaware and bizarrely, a few of their members are friends with Julian Critchlow, one of the UK’s best veteran runners who runs for Watford. When they found out I was British they asked me if I’ve done the Watford Half Marathon because they ran it when they were in the UK visiting Julian. This was definitely a trip of strange coincidences!

The coach that saved me

The Coach that saved me!

So finally, to the race. It was hot, very hot. Half an hour before the start I was able to relax and take stock, I sat in the shade in just my kit and realised I was already sweating. I drank lots but that just made me feel bloated for the race. After three miles I was already feeling thirsty and after nine miles I started to feel tired. I had been warned about the hills but even the flat and downhill bits were undulating. There was no shade whatsoever, and a constant headwind along the whole course. It was just like running in Lanzarote, and I try to avoid doing that too often! I set off fairly quickly to make the most of the early downhill miles but I soon regretted it. I held it together reasonably well until around 16 miles but then the serious hills started and I was already drained. I finished in 2:46, still very respectable. I had wanted to go quicker but given everything that conspired on the day, I won’t lose any sleep over it.

Would I recommend Boston to others? Overall, yes. Boston is an interesting and not overbearing city, you can easily explore it in a short trip. Bostonians are sport-mad and Marathon Monday is a big deal to them, they really make the runners feel welcome and there is a level of respect everywhere you go. If you’re lucky enough to have a BQ it would be a shame not to use it once. But don’t go there expecting a really quick time, and the course itself is a bit dull. If you had the choice to do New York instead, it would be difficult to overlook that.