The Boston Marathon experience that I'll remember

  • Article by: JIM BERNARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 19, 2013 - 9:49 AM

If you’re a marathon runner, the support and camaraderie you’ll get is a feeling you’ll carry beyond any finish line.

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The start the 117th running of the Boston Marathon on Monday.

Photo: Stew Milne , Associated Press

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It started as soon as I got off the plane in Boston — people cheering for me.

The cabbie asked if I was running the marathon, and when I said yes, he said, “I don’t know how you do it — you are amazing.”

I set it aside as just a shrewd cabbie who knew there were 20,000 runners descending on his town. The cab stands were probably full of us, and it never hurts to toss a compliment to a fare.

That turned out to be a cynical misunderstanding of the relationship between Boston and the marathon runners. From what I experienced, the entire city loves every single runner who laces up a pair of shoes for this annual ritual.

The hotel clerk when I checked in told me to have a great race. The bookstore clerk asked if I was nervous. Every waiter or waitress in three days of eating out asked if I was running, then shared some small word of admiration or advice. “Good for you!” “Be careful of the hills.”

I attended a “Legends of Boston” panel at the running expo. Six great athletes who had won the race spoke, including four-time winner “Boston Billy” Rodgers. From the stage, each of these elite athletes told us that we were the winners by qualifying for the race, that we would have a great day. And that we should be careful of the hills.

After the session, I stopped to talk to Boston Billy, and he asked me how my training went and wished me a great race. The line was long because he was engaging each person the same way.

On a cramped subway I gave my seat up for a woman in her 70s. She was elegantly dressed, quite out of place in the crazy mob of commuters, tourists and runners. She asked where I was from and if I was running, and soon she had a twinkle in her eye telling me about her son-in-law who was also running.

She unbuttoned her tweed jacket to show me the “GO WILLIAM” T-shirt she had on underneath. She told me she would be in her “normal” spot for cheering the marathon, looking for William and now for me as well.

All of this happened before I even started the race. It is estimated that more than 500,000 people line the streets on race day, which is a holiday in Massachusetts called Patriots’ Day. The outpouring of affection is hard to imagine without seeing all 26 miles of screaming fans.

Starting in the little town of Hopkinton, the race is intertwined with the community. The high school grounds become an “athlete village,” and the entire town turns out to help everyone get to the start line safely. There are twice as many runners as citizens of Hopkinton.

A cheering crowd is on hand at the start of most races, but at this marathon the crowd gets bigger as you progress. With the exception of a few small breaks in the early miles, spectators line the course continuously for the entire race. In the little towns, the crowds are three to five people deep, with stands where spectators can get up and see the runners. All along the way people are cheering.

In the famous Newton Hills, the crowds get bigger and louder. The biggest challenge is called “heartbreak hill,” and the throng pushes you to the top. They yell your number, they yell your name, and because I was wearing at Twins hat they’d yell in that Bostonian accent, “Go Minnesota!”

In the last few miles, the noise is just incredible. You feel like a rock star being mobbed by adoring fans. Turning the corner toward the finish line the crowds are 10 deep and despite the pain of the race you have run, you can’t help feeling euphoric.

I crossed the finish line a half-hour before the explosions. My wife and I were safely in our nearby hotel when we heard the blasts and saw the smoke. We watched in horror as the crowd streamed into the side streets, running away from the finish line and the chaos of that terrible scene.

One of those killed was a spectator named Krystle Campbell. She was there every year; cheering on the runners had been a tradition for her since she was a little girl. Her grandmother said: “She just felt that she had to. She enjoyed doing it because she liked people. … She was very friendly, Krystle. She’d talk to anybody.”

As a runner, a visitor and an honored guest on their great marathon course, I can only hope that the people of Boston will see reflected in our grief, support and love a fraction of the kindness they have showered on runners all these years. We raise our voices to support you — up heartbreak hill and all the way to the finish line.

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Jim Bernard is senior vice president for digital at the Star Tribune. He is at jim.bernard@startribune.com.

Jim Bernard is senior vice president for digital at the Star Tribune. He is at jim.bernard@startribune.com.

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