The Boston Marathon: 119 Years of Tradition and Adaptation

There are two kinds of people that will emerge on April 20 this year: those running the marathon and those “running the table” (as those clever tanks proclaim). For those of us content with spectating while sipping, the marathon runners seem a little crazy—running 26.2 miles feels like a feat only a select few would commit to. But if the runners are nuts for signing up to run, what does that make the creators of the Boston Marathon? Why would people decide to create an event dedicated to pushing the human body to its limits?

Apparently, admiration is the root. After witnessing the spectacle of the Olympic Marathon, Boston Athletic Association member and inaugural US Olympic Team Manager John Graham was inspired to bring Boston its own kind of marathon. Graham employed the assistance of local Boston businessman, Herbert H. Holton, to create the now infamous route, and so launched Boston’s great racing years.

The length of the marathon that we are most familiar with actually dates back to the 1908 Olympic Games held in London. King Edward VII and Queen Alexandria wanted the race to begin in front of Windsor Castle so the royal family could enjoy a prime starting-line view. To reach the Olympic Stadium from outside Windsor totaled 26 miles. But, when you’re royalty, you quite literally rule the world, and so 385 yards were added so the finish line could be in front of the king and queen’s spectating box once inside the stadium.

Katherine Switzer, who was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as a numbered entry in 1967. Photo courtesy of Leif Bruce/Flickr.

Katherine Switzer, the first woman to run and finish the Boston Marathon as a numbered entry in 1967. Photo courtesy of Leif Bruce / Flickr.

Here in Boston, we’ve kept that distance, as well as another historically honored tradition: the race date. Dating back to 1897, the Boston Marathon was held on Patriots’ Day, April 19—a holiday unique to only Massachusetts and Maine. The only exceptions made from 1897-1968 were when the 19th fell on a Sunday, in which case the Marathon was shifted to the following Monday. The following year, 1969, it was permanently changed to hold the Boston Marathon on the third Monday in April.

As much as Bostonians enjoy their history, there has always been a first time for everything when it comes to the beloved Marathon. Women were not officially permitted to enter the field until 1971, which was followed nicely by the 1972 B.A.A. victory earned by Nina Kuscsik. Eight woman ran in that second race, and all eight finished. Few people know that the Boston Marathon is also the first major marathon to include a wheelchair division competition—marked by recognizing Bob Hall in 1975, who finished the race in under three hours to receive an official B.A.A Finisher’s Certificate.

Although the Marathon has altered its policies through its long lifespan—most recently with its bandit runners policy in response to the finish line bombings in 2013—one thing can be certain to remain constant: The Boston Marathon has and always will be a unifying celebration of triumph. Whether you choose to run, watch or hydrate during it, know that you are participating in one of American history’s finest traditions.

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