Marathon Monday is hands-down my favorite day in Boston. I will never forget my first time spectating: It was the spring of 2008, the second half of my freshman year…
Harvard is the only school in the city that doesn’t close its doors on Patriots’ Day, so, after going back and forth about it, I decide to skip class and get downtown to watch the finishers. I am anxious about playing hooky, but I can’t imagine not being witness to the herculean effort the runners will tackle that day.
The Boston Marathon is running lore for cross country athletes, akin to Opening Day at Fenway for baseball fans. And as a girl who literally found her stride through running, this is my World Series–a truly world-class race, with world-class talent. And though the male competitors have my full support, I’ve skipped school for the real heroes: The ladies.
As I wait in the T station I make eye contact with a familiar face. It’s O.B. (as we called him), the captain of the track team. He’s a shot put and discus thrower and is about twice my size in sheer muscle. Needless to say he has a somewhat intimidating presence and, up to this point, we have had little-to-no words exchanged. But we’ve now acknowledged each other’s presence, so we mutually resign to the polite gesture of standing together on the train.
I tell him I’m headed into town to watch the marathon, a pretty obvious statement given that I’m a distance runner and clad in all track gear. To my surprise though, he’s headed downtown to watch as well. It turns out his girlfriend is running the marathon and he’s cued up the tracker on his phone to watch her progress. O.B. is animated with boundless pride as he recounts her training leading up to today and gets my feedback for how best to support her run.
What started out as a friendly chat on the train turned into a full day of marathoning. We are an unlikely duo, brought together by a mutual appreciation for the tenacity of a female distance runner. Although we didn’t set out to be spectating buddies, there was an unspoken bond from the moment we got street-side. We were going to watch this thing together and bring his girl through the finish with the triumphant cheers she deserved.
The Boston Marathon inspires this sense of community. Throngs of strangers line the streets for miles, a reverie cast over the entire city in shared appreciation of the human spirit. Grit and guts are on full display and it’s awe-inspiring to watch. Patriots’ Day is a celebration of the willpower, fight, and determination it takes to finish a marathon; characteristics that have come to define the city of Boston as a whole.
Most of us can’t relate to the feeling of catching a touchdown pass or scoring a goal with a diving header, but everyone can relate to running. Humans are built to run and no matter how little you do it, you can empathize with the physical effort and the mental fortitude it must take to complete a marathon. As such, there’s an emotional intimacy that comes with bearing witness to a marathon. It’s a human connection forged when your eyes meet the beleaguered gaze of the runner, capped with a quiet nod of gratitude that you showed up for them.
Such was my experience as O.B.’s girlfriend approached our cheering spot in the final mile of the run. I was flooded with pride and admiration as this strong woman strode past us. I had never met her before and yet I felt bonded to her; the raw vulnerability and heart of her race was moving and emboldening. The best way I can think to describe it is a sense of sisterhood, stirred by the courage, beauty, and power of the female form pushing the boundaries of expectation.
It’s hard for me to imagine a time when women didn’t partake in the Boston Marathon. In the years that I’ve been fortunate to watch, women have made up just under half of all the runners completing the course. And yet in the not-too-distant past, women weren’t allowed to run out of fear that they were physiologically unfit to the task.
Today, the image of Kathrine Switzer being nearly pushed off the road by Race Director Jock Semple has become iconic. That was in 1967 and she was the second woman to ever run the Boston Marathon, preceded by Bobbi Gibb the year prior. The full story of Gibb’s historic run is quite a thrilling read, in fact. An avid distance runner, she applied in earnest to run Boston and was sent a rejection letter stating “This is an AAU Men’s Division race only…women aren’t allowed.”
This year’s Boston Marathon marks the 50th anniversary of Semple’s perverse attempt to literally knock a woman out of the running. Since Gibb and Switzer’s brave stand, not only have women proven they are physiologically fit enough to go the distance, they’ve become an equally dominant force.
As the 121st running of the Boston Marathon approaches, WHOOP celebrates the breaking of barriers and the limitless power of the human spirit. We’ll be cheering for Kathrine (she’s back for the 50th anniversary of her first run!) and all the other trailblazing women shaping the future of the sport.