The 26.2-mile Cheer Tunnel: What It’s Like to Run the Boston Marathon

by Ally Gallop

“Welcome to Hopkinton: it all starts here.” Or so the famous marathon billboard reads…

On a windy and chilly morning in Boston, a continuous stream of yellow school buses shipped athletes from the Boston Common to Hopkinton, the marathon’s traditional start. Dropped off at a middle school, runners filtered onto its grassy fields. The temporary banquet tents, with flailing walls allowing the gusts of wind through, were for the 26,610 shivering runners to take refuge in. Abandoned blankets, clothes, and food wrappers littered the tents’ grassy floors. All were remnants of its previous tenants, waiting for their call to the starting line. Long after the wheelchair, elite, and hard-earned qualifying runners heard the gunshot to begin the race, my own 11:15 am journey loomed.

Meteorologists warned of a rainy day, and like clockwork their 11 am prediction arrived. Walking through a neighborhood for over a mile in the rain with no end in sight, entrants shed their remaining outer layers that once kept them warm. The crowds lining the roads became larger and BBQ parties more frequent as we approached the holding corrals. Waiting and shivering from the lousy weather conditions and nerves, this was the moment my weeklong qualms subsided. The marathon announcer and the town’s residents remained positive, cheering on the stories of local runners imbedded throughout the crowd. Though the jury’s recent guilty verdict was known, the pride that this marathon embraced persevered.

BOOM! The gun went off, and the roar of the crowd intensified. Even two-and-a-half hours beyond the morning’s official start, Hopkinton’s residents went wild. So did the 6,000+ runners contained in the surrounding corrals. Tiptoeing past the starting line, we were officially running the marathon.

Hopkinton’s narrow highway, made snug with its road-hugging forests, contained the masses that crept through the first few miles. Forced to keep close, watch for flying elbows, and maintain a slower pace, we acknowledged how this leisurely beginning would save us the much-needed energy required in the miles to come. Small hills came and went, but the crowds hid them. Only our legs felt the climb.

“Gatorade! Gatorade! …Waaaaaaterrrr!”

We heard mile one before it was even seen. The masses split to either side of the highway to grab at the green cups. Forfeiting the stations for my handy water bottle, I took off to find my pace down the road’s centerline. But not for long. Running the majority of the race locked to the sidelines, this was where the fans were. I knew that these were the people that would help me through. All ages of supporters stood in their rain jackets and boots, hands out, orange slices ready, and high-fives available to any runner that required support. And they didn’t disappoint.

And then I heard music. Turning a corner somewhere in Ashland delivered the comforting sounds of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” Up until that point, my thoughts focused on maintaining pace, steady breathing, and swapping between Gatorade and sticky PowerBar gels. Now, I found myself screaming out, “So good! So good! So good!” From here on out, a massive smile plastered itself across my face that didn’t disappear until sometime Monday night.

As to contain fans, town centers roped off the course along the sidewalks. Everywhere else the lack of formal boundaries trusted fans to keep to the sidelines. Yet every so often, their own excitement for the marathon won over. Trickling onto the course, young kids wanted to deliver high-fives and encouragement as close to the action as possible. Youth celebrating the day with alcohol stumbled onto the road, only to be contained by watchful police officers and the military.

Traveling though a constant stream of runners and fans, no familiar faces were apparent. Acknowledging that the Tufts Marathon Team’s cheer crowd was stationed at mile nine in Natick, my energy surged as I anticipated seeing friends. As I scanned the sidelines, my coach Don Megerle appeared! Stopping to enjoy the familiarity, he then hurried me along to my awaiting fans. Standing in the rain for hours, the warm smiles and hugs of my loved ones and fellow Friedmanites shot a rush of adrenaline through me. This was a preview of what to expect in 17 more miles. My smile widened as I returned to the course.

Though Wellesley’s town center was only the halfway point, the condensed fans formed a cheer tunnel as if it were the finish. Fans relentlessly offered licorice, pretzels, and high-fives. The energy and cheers were deafening, which was a great distraction to how my body was reminding me that half-marathons were historically my finish line. The halfway marker came and went. With the feet blisters forming and the steady streaks of pain darting through my legs, there was a whole other race to run. One that included the impending Newton Hills.

Running down flat Washington Avenue, Newton’s infamous hills appear out of nowhere. A 90-degree turn at the fire station onto Commonwealth Avenue forces runners into a thick crowd of screaming fans. Practice on these hills all you want, but their 17.5-mile placement and sequence of a hill-plateau four times over can get the best of any runner. The first hill quickly shoots pain into the legs and reminds its climbers that the worst is yet to come. Jogs slowed to trots and finally to walks. Runners stopped peering down at their watches. There’s no making your pace on these hills. It’s all about fighting through. There is no end in sight, as the road relentlessly climbs and twists upwards like a staircase.

But good old Boston College: their fans encouragingly called us out, one-by-one. They knew these hills hurt, and they were ready to take on the task of urging runners along. Though my legs had become dead weights and my pace slowed to a crawl, the overwhelming and personalized encouragements kept me going. “You go girl!” “Keep smiling!” “Looking good, Tufts!” Sideline snacks now turned to cups of beer.

After 4-miles of slow-motion running, my eyes met those of a saint shouting, “See that flashing light at the top? That’s the end of Heartbreak Hill!”

Adrenaline took over. An end was now in sight, as my eyes locked onto that forever-flashing light. The relief first came from my legs, as they were the first to feel the hills behind me. From here on out, the course was essentially downhill.

From previous runs I knew to be on the lookout for three distinct distant markers: the Prudential Center, the John Hancock Tower, and the Citco sign. As both towers in the skyline appeared, the wet conditions forced my focus to the ground. Cleveland Circle’s trolley tracks are known tripping hazards. The mile markers counted down in an excruciating manner, yet Boston University’s crowd of students delivered an unexpected bout of motivation. Sure they cheered, yet as the runners surrounding me resembled parents the younger cohort of fans seemed to affiliate with my Tufts uniform. The ibuprofen I had consumed two hours prior was now no match for the pain screaming through my lower body. But I couldn’t stop. As the students cheered me on, I wouldn’t allow their efforts to go to waste.

As the red triangle of the Citgo sign emerged, the baseball fan in me came out. The small climb over the Mass Ave Turnpike was no match for running past Fenway Park. Peaking inside, the center field screen was streaming the finish line. That would soon be me! The game had just ended with the Sox defeating the Orioles 7-1. Rowdy fans transferred their adrenaline onto us, as they poured into the streets switching their baseball shouts into those of support.

Kenmore Square’s glass bubble T station, the Buckminster Hotel, and McDonald’s all became familiar sights. I knew where I was and how close I was to Copley. The professional, navy blue, John Hancock mile markers were consistent since Hopkinton, except for one. Though identical in format, mile 25 was replaced with marathon great Dick Beardsley‘s mantra: one more mile. That’s all it was. With a marathon distance behind me all I concentrated on was one more mile. The infamous “right on Hereford, left on Boylston” was near.

Turning right, barricades meant to restrict fans were overflowing with more dangling from apartment windows above. Their cheers bounced off the surrounding tall buildings, a roar I will never forget. Taking that last left, my smile grew. There was no fear running down Boylston. No thought of shifting to the side of the road closer to the library. This last half mile solidified that runners don’t run for themselves. We were running for our country, our team, and most importantly for Boston.

As the finish line neared, the crowd’s cheers were like that of an approaching ambulance. They became louder and louder and louder… until running over the finish line, where for the first time the fans were no longer welcome. Their cheers quickly faded. Medical teams surrounded finishers with wheelchairs, insulated covers, and bottles of water. I could now feel the rain coming down and the pre-race shivers return, as my joints began to stiffen.

Never throughout the 26.2-mile course did it feel as if the crowd grew weary of the constant stream of runners. Town after town, they cheered as if we were the first of the day. As I walked towards my friends, my feeling of pride won over. Though not a born and raised Bostonian, for the past 3 hours and 42 minutes I sure felt like one.

Relive the Boston Marathon by watching a 15-minute video of a runner who captured the entire race while wearing a camera or with the Boston Athletic Association’s official trip from Hopkinton to Copley.

Ally Gallop, BSc, RD, CDE is studying towards an MS/MPH focusing in nutrition communication and behavior change. Her next running adventures include Philadelphia’s “Broad Street Run” in May, Ragnar’s “Reach the Beach” relay in September, and hopefully the Boston Athletic Association’s half-marathon come October.

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