What the Marathon Means to Boston

The Commonwealth’s governor, the city’s mayor, and the Boston Athletic Association’s executive director share their thoughts.

This article first appeared in the Boston Marathon Official Program, now available on newsstands.


Governor Charlie Baker, Mayor Marty Walsh, B.A.A. Executive Director Tom Grilk all have close ties to the Boston Marathon and have fond childhood memories of Patriots’ Day. / Marathon Photo by Marcio Jose Bastos Silva / Shutterstock.com

Tradition holds the Mayor of Boston crowns the Boston Marathon men’s winner, and the Governor of Massachusetts crowns the women’s winner. This year will be Marty Walsh’s second time at the finish, and Charlie Baker’s first. In the middle of an historically bad winter—as marathoners fought through five-foot snow drifts on their training runs—Boston magazine editor-in-chief Carly Carioli asked Walsh and Baker to take a brief break from directing snow removal. Baker, Walsh, and Boston Athletic Association Executive Director Tom Grilk met in the Mayor’s office to discuss their personal connections to the Boston Marathon and what the Marathon means to both the city and the Commonwealth.

Mr. Mayor, let’s start with you. What’s your earliest memory of the Marathon?

Mayor Walsh: The two memories that stick out the most to me are seeing Bill Rodgers and Alberto Salazar winning the marathon. We’d always watch on TV. I went into town a bunch of times for it as I got a little older. I think Salazar had a connection—his father or his uncle might have been a construction worker—but I know they were talking about it on the construction sites when he ran.

The marathon has always had those deep local roots.

Walsh: Yeah, because it was our local guys that won. And there’s also a connection to the Red Sox, because you always wanted to try to get to that game, if you could, on Patriots’ Day. My family—my mother and father weren’t runners. Later in life my uncle became a runner and actually ran the Marathon.

Governor Baker: I certainly remember Bill Rodgers, too. Mostly because I think he was so iconic over such a long period of time. Johnny Kelley is the other guy I remember—as a kid, I would just watch this guy run by me. He looked like he was a hundred years old, and there he went. And I’ve watched this race from a lot of different places. When I was in college, we used to go out and watch it at Wellesley, because it was just a wall of noise when runners would come through that part of the course. And then I lived on Beacon Street, on the race route, for three or four years after I got out of college. And that was the best of all, because we’d get up in the morning, you’d have breakfast, coffee, and then find our way downstairs with a few other things [laughs], and just hang out and watch the race go by.

Mayor Walsh, in the intro to Dave Wedge and Casey Sherman’s book Boston Strong, you refer to the Marathon as a “rite of spring.” What springs to mind when you think about Boston Marathon season?

Walsh: Well, I’d say I have a different appreciation from two years ago to today. Two years ago—before I was the mayor, when I was a state representative—the Marathon was . . . we knew that the weather was starting to change and it was going to be a big day for Boston. But as mayor, last year I didn’t know what type of feel it would be for the Marathon. We obviously had the tragedy the year before. I had a chance, over the year, to meet a lot of the survivors. I know the Richard family. I got to know Tom [Grilk] and the crew at the B.A.A. I got a chance to meet the folks at John Hancock. So leading up to the Marathon, the preparation was incredible. And this year, myself and the governor will work very closely—it’s going to be a very close coordination there because you need both entities, really, to pull it off on the public side.

But leading up to the 2014 Marathon, we had the memorial service, and it was a very sad, somber day. And then five days later we had the Marathon, and that weekend the city of Boston was electric. It was electric because you saw so many people coming in, so many runners from around the country, so many people from Boston—Newbury Street, Boylston Street, the 5K on Saturday. There was just so much energy. There were no races that Sunday, but Tom and myself were walking around and it was great: So many people were in town, and the spirit of the city was so high. And Monday—Marathon Monday—was just spectacular. I was at the finish line literally for six hours just watching people come in and go out, and when it was over it was almost like a letdown—it was just incredible. Even more so now, just the energy around the whole Marathon is incredible, it’s contagious, and it’s the whole city.

Baker: I know a lot of people who ran last year who had never run a marathon before, but just fundamentally said, “I want to run in this race.” And my guess is this will probably be the only marathon that they ever choose to participate in—but that it was personal. And that was a reflection of the events of two years ago. But I also agree with the mayor; I do think that the race has taken on a whole new stature now.

Grilk: I think the governor’s word is well chosen. If there’s one thing that we have observed—the B.A.A. and all of us who have been around this thing for a long time—is that around here everybody owns the Marathon. It is personal, it is theirs. There are some of us who work in the middle to help organize things, but none of us is confused about where the real ownership is or what our role is, as stewards. It’s that set of personal emotions that both the mayor and the governor describe that really make the event what it is.

The origins of the Marathon were intertwined, in some ways, with the birth of the modern Olympics, right?

Grilk: If you go all the way back to 
1896, when the Olympic Games were revived, it was the B.A.A. that sent the majority of U.S. athletes to the Games and brought home the majority of gold medals. And they also brought home this thing that they had seen—people running from Marathon into Athens—and thought, “Well, we’ll try that here.” And so a year later, in 1897, 15 people took a train out to Ashland and started running, and 12 of them made it. The idea really caught hold, and for a long time marathons were 
written up in the press as a big, big deal.

Now, perhaps, that’s coming full circle. As Boston sets up its bid for the 2024 Olympics, does the Marathon serve as a kind of blueprint?

Walsh: Oh, I absolutely think so. You know, when you look at putting the Games together, first of all, you think about the amount of people that come in the city for two days, and what it does for tourism. You can barely walk in the shops on Boylston Street or Newbury Street when the Marathon comes in. That’s a big economic boost. The hotels in that area are full. I think the Marathon certainly is a blueprint to the Olympics in a lot of ways, on safety as well.

Grilk: For the Olympics, I think if it is to succeed, it’s a movement that will capture the spirit of everybody who lives around here, the way the Marathon has. And if people have that sense of ownership for the Games, then it’ll work.

You mentioned the state and city need to partner pretty closely when it comes to the Marathon. What’s that look like?

Walsh: We work very closely on security, on crowd control, on making sure that the event goes off well.

Baker: And it runs all the way out to Hopkinton, so it covers a lot of territory. And the crowds—there’s a huge crowd in Boston, there’s a huge crowd pretty much everywhere along that course. There are very few parts of that race course that are dead. I have a lot of friends who run the race, and they said one of the reasons they like running Boston is because there’s literally no downtime with the crowd. It’s always right on the edge all the way through—three, four, five deep. You get into Boston and it gets much deeper than that. But there’s no free time out there if you’re running the race. There’s people watching you and cheering you on every inch of the way.

Grilk: And the state does a magnificent job of providing coordination for everybody who works on this. The race organizers, public-safety officials, municipal officials, state officials, fire, police, E.M.S., all get together multiple times out at the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency in Framingham.

When you guys travel to other parts of the country, how big does the Marathon loom in people’s visions and impressions of Boston?

Walsh: I think if you ask anyone in the country, “Name three marathons in the world,” they’ll say Boston as the first one that comes out of their mouth every time.

Baker: I would agree with that. The other thing to keep in mind on this is that the way the city and the people of Massachusetts responded to the tragedy left an indelible mark in the minds of a lot of people around the world. The whole notion of “Boston Strong”—somebody might call that trite, but I think for many people who watched that whole thing play out, it was a statement moment for the city and for the community, and it’s had real, sustainable impact as a lasting impression.

Last April, we all had very strong emotions about the Marathon. What do you think this year will be like?

Grilk: We go back to the core of what makes it what it is. And for a long time the Boston Marathon has been an international athletic competition focused on excellence. People know it’s really hard to qualify. It gives you a sense for the importance of competition and excellence. That’ll always carry forward, and it mirrors the way people look at Boston and communities around here. When you go around the world, what do people know about Boston? Well, they know about Harvard, they know about M.I.T., they know about the Marathon. But it’s that core commitment to excellence, and what everyone sees is the fact that it’s an event owned by the whole community around here. That is the core of it and that will carry forward. The events of 2013 will always be part of the history of the race, but they won’t define the future, they’ll just inform it as all of the other history has.

One last question for you, Governor. At last year’s Marathon you were a private spectator. This time you’ll be crowning the women’s winner. What are you going to be thinking about this year at the finish line when you’re getting ready to bestow the olive wreath?

Baker: I don’t know, and I’ve thought about it. I’ve been going to the Marathon ever since I was a kid. I lived on the route for a bunch of years there when I was younger. I know a ton of people who have run in the race over the years. I’ve never been that close to the finish of the race. I hope that my experience reflects the same kinds of emotions that it has over time. Like everybody, I think, I tear up when I see the Hoyt family go by. I smile and applaud as loud as I possibly can when I see the Johnny Kelleys of the world go by. When I see friends of mine finish that race, it’s an emotional moment. And I would hope the personal part of this is always first and foremost on this, separate and apart from whatever the official duties are.