They will be running into history again this morning as the Boston Marathon runners take off for the 125th time. It’s the first in-person run since the onset of COVID 19 forced a cancellation and subsequent virtual event. And even though the runners are back following the familiar route, it’s not the same race as it was in the Before Times.
Twenty-thousand competitors, the smallest number since 2002, are hitting the streets. The Boston Athletic Association, which organizes the race, limited the number of runners — part of comprehensive safety measures against the spread of the virus. Participants also have to wear masks when not running and show proof of vaccination. And some traditions are being put aside — at least for the time being — as Marathon organizers urge participants to bypass the keep-going kisses from Wellesley College women and drinks offered by race watchers lining the route.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the meaning of another change to Boston Marathon 2021. This is the first time in eight years that the race itself has not been linked to the horror and tragedy of the bombing. On April 15, 2013, the bombing took the lives of four and wounded hundreds more. Ever since the Tsarnaev brothers detonated the twin bombs near the finish line, the remembrance and the race have been fused into one event. And I’ve found it hard to talk about the tradition of the 26-mile race without the context of the bombing victims and survivors.
This past April was also the first time that there was no large public event acknowledging the grim anniversary; instead, bombing victims and survivors gathered for an intimate moment of silence at the finish line. And, both Gov. Charlie Baker and Acting Mayor Kim Janey marked the day by visiting the Boylston Street memorial unveiled last year. Artist Pablo Eduardo worked with the families to reshape the original memorial design, which includes four bronze towers symbolizing the four who were killed, and curb cuts representing the spots where the bombs blew up. I’m convinced that unlinking the race from the memorializing of the bombing victims is actually a better way to make sure we never forget what happened that day.
Moving the date to October, however, initially sparked controversy because today is also Indigenous Peoples Day, which honors the lives and culture of Indigenous people around the world.
Mayor Janey signed an executive order last week declaring the second Monday in October to be Indigenous Peoples Day in Boston. Janey said, “With Boston’s long history comes an opportunity and obligation to acknowledge the difficult parts of our past and dedicate ourselves to fostering a more equitable City.”
Boston joins 22 other Massachusetts cities that honor the day, including Cambridge and Newton. 2021 is the first official Indigenous Peoples Day celebration in Newton, which is also home to the longest part of the race route. A petition to urge Marathon organizers to change the race date failed, but the BAA offered “sincere apologies to all Indigenous people who have felt unheard or feared the importance of Indigenous People’s Day would be erased.”
And the organization followed up with a plan to pay tribute to Ellison "Tarzan” Brown, a Native American Boston Marathon champion in the thirties. Brown, whose tribal name was Deerfoot, was so fleet of foot that he beat the expected winner Johnny Kelly in 1936, sprinting forward to victory at the point now known as “Heartbreak Hill." The same year, he represented the United States in Berlin during the Olympics that Nazi leader Adolf Hitler promised would prove white superiority. African American Jesse Owens set world history that year, and Brown went on to set a world record in his second Marathon victory.
When the Marathon runners make their way along the familiar route this morning, they will also be honoring Ellison Brown and the spirit of Indigenous Peoples Day. A hundred and twenty five years of Boston Marathon tradition can be about another story, and another way to look forward.