The Boston Marathon may be the world’s oldest annual marathon but it’s not the United States’ oldest annual footrace. That crown belongs to the YMCA Buffalo Niagara's Turkey Trot.
"We are older than the Boston Marathon," said YMCA Buffalo Niagara’s Cathy Romanowski. "We don’t take the crown on much of our other sporting events, unfortunately, here in Buffalo, but this is something that we hold with great pride."
The annual Turkey Trot – an 8K held on Thanksgiving Day – predates the Boston Marathon by five months.
"We started back in 1896. We had a field of just 6 runners back then and it was done on dirt roads and it actually didn’t start running on pavement until the 1950s," said Romanowski.
Now an 8K is no 26.2 miles, but, then again, the Boston Marathon hasn’t always been that length either. Until 1924, the start line was in Ashland, and the course was 25 and a half miles. Inspired by the fabled 5th century BC run of Greek soldier Pheidippides from the battle of Marathon to Athens, early modern marathons varied in length, usually around 25 miles. So how did we land on 26.2 miles?
The 1908 Olympic Games in London. The distance of that course, from Windsor Castle to White City Stadium, was 26 miles. The extra 385 yards? Tacked on so that the race would end in front of Kind Edward VII’s royal box.
And speaking of England, in Boston, Lincolnshire, the port city on the east coast of England that gave our town its name, a surgeon named Harish Karup is finding inspiration in our esteemed footrace.
"The Boston here is very small. It’s in the middle of almost nowhere and it’s lacking a lot of things," he said.
Including, says Karup, the kind of regional pride and sense of history embodied here by the Boston marathon. That’s why - this year - he’s launched the inaugural Boston Marathon UK, which takes place the day before ours.
"I know that people there feel proud," said Karup. "So we want to borrow that spirit and image a little bit."
Karup hopes to eventually forge an official partnership between the two Boston Marathons, and has discussed the idea with folks form Mayor’s Walsh’s office and the BAA.
Of course, the route for the Boston Marathon UK has a long way to go to match our venerable course, with the famed Wellesley Scream Tunnel and fabled “Heartbreak Hill.”
And just where did that name come from? Legend says it was coined by Boston Globe sportswriter Jerry Nason to describe the place where marathon legend and Medford native Johnny Kelly’s heart was broken during the 1936 race. But a close read of Nason’s marathon story that year shows, not only did he not use the term heartbreak hill, he said the exact opposite of Kelly’s disappointing 5th place finish.
“Kelly covers the last mile on his nerve alone. He collapses….Badly beaten, this Johnny Kelly, but his great heart is not broken.”
It was the next year, that it appears Nason first used the term in print, describing the moment when that same Johnny Kelley took the lead for a time before an eventual second place finish.
“...the color running back in his cheeks, he pulled Young back… and finally passed him on Heartbreak Hill, that frame-wrenching twister that runs up and up from Center St almost to Boston College itself.“
Those epic races in ’36 and ’37 are just two of countless memorable marathons, from Bobbi Gibb’s stealth first finish for a female 50 years ago to Rosie Ruiz’s audacious 1980 hoax. But if you’re looking for a real standout, let me make the case for 1918.
With the United States embroiled in a World War the BAA decided the race would go on, but with a twist. Instead of individual competitors, the course would be run as a relay with 10-15 man teams from military posts around the Bay State. The Boston Globe described the scene:
Today’s race promises to make history. It will be unique in the annals of athletics because it will be the longest relay race ever run and in addition it will be the first time that contestants have ever undertaken a competitive race garbed in the uniform of Uncle Sam.
The team from the Boston Navy Yard was the odds on favorite, but in the end, it was an Army group from Camp Devens that won the day. Adding to the good vibes in the city that Friday, the Red Sox beat the Yankees in both games of a double-header at Fenway.
And yes, I did say that Friday. The race was always held on Patriot’s Day, April 19, regardless of the day of the week until 1969. Women were officially allowed to compete starting in 1972. The wheelchair division launched in 1975, and prize money was first awarded in 1986.
This year, some 30,000 runners from dozens of countries will compete. Not all will finish, but a conservative estimate suggests that in aggregate, the field will cover enough distance to circle the Earth more than 28 times, and, in the process, expend enough energy to burn-off more than a quarter-million Boston Kreme Donuts.