Almost exactly two and a half years later, the Boston Marathon is back. But this beloved Boston tradition has proven to be anything but traditional this year.

A field of 30,000 runners? Cut down by a third. The bleachers at the finish line? Missing. Early signs of spring? The leaves are yellow.

Aside from the anticipated logistical changes due to COVID-19, perhaps the most noticeable difference early this morning was the energy — or lack thereof. A cautious mood was in the air on the Boston Common, as masked runners were shepherded onto school buses taking them to the starting line in Hopkinton. For a race known for its infinite spirit and enthusiasm, downtown Boston felt oddly quiet.

Sam Polo of Roxbury has been volunteering for the Boston Marathon for over 10 years, and she could tell that something was off. "I don't see as much energy," said Polo, "but again, it's early." The adjusted starts times had runners on the course nearly an hour earlier than previous years to avoid the sunset on shorter October days.

A few blocks down the street at the finish line on Boylston, spectators gathered to watch the wheelchair and hand cycle divisions roll in. But instead of being packed against the guardrails like previous years, spectators had plenty of space to move around. Longtime Marathon volunteer Lisa Sheehan of Nashua, New Hampshire, was shocked by how sparse the crowd was.

"When the race starts, there are normally two or three [rows] back on the other side of the street. It's kind of quiet over there. Probably because it's starting earlier, but I think it'll pick up during the day," Sheehan said.

For a city that’s no stranger to celebrating sporting events, the 910-day gap between this year’s Boston Marathon and the 2019 race showed at first. It was as if the crowds were struggling to remember how to cheer.

“The key to this year’s race is patience and flexibility,” said Sheehan, and as she predicted, it was only a matter of time before the muscle memory kicked in.

Within a few hours, the humidity from the morning dissolved into a crisp October Day and thousands of spectators lined up along the final stretch of the race to watch the elite men’s and women’s runners cross the finish line.
It was a moment that runners and the city have been waiting on for a long, long time.

Today was Paul McNeil of Worcester’s fifth Boston Marathon. And, after last year’s cancellation, he was fired up to be back on the starting line again.

"I'm level 10 excited today to be here. My cousin's a police officer over there at the start line. It's just, it's cool, my family will be at the finish line. I'm very excited,” said McNeil.

But the excitement was just as great for first time Boston runners like Steve Sigmund of San Luis Obispo, California.

“Thousands of miles, hundreds of shoes, hours of training. It’s a dream come true. Sometimes along the race I couldn’t tell if I was dreaming or it was really happening,” Sigmund said after the race.

Despite getting off to a quiet start, most runners could only remember the cheers that carried them along the race course.

“The [crowds] were the best. As good as ever,” said Sarah Berdette of Concord, New Hampshire, a three-time Boston Marathon finisher.

From the bumped up starting times to the vaccine verification process, almost every aspect of the Boston Marathon has been touched by COVID-19, except the course from Hopkinton to Boston. Those 26.2 miles of COVID-less bliss provided runners a moment of normalcy this city and region haven't seen in over 18 months.

However, in a normal Marathon year when crossing the finish line feels like a dream, this year there was a very quick snap back to reality, as runners were handed a surgical mask along with their finisher medals.