Tom Licciardello: A veteran Boston Marathon runner’s view of this historical race

Tom Licciardello

There are 26,700 athletes around the globe who have a red circle around April 19 on their calendars.

For those who live in Massachusetts, it is Patriots Day, but for those who identify themselves as marathoners it’s the day to run the signature event of the sport — The Boston Marathon.

When Boston began its long running history 114 years ago on April 19, 1897, there were but 18 men who stood behind a line scratched out on a dirt road by Tom Burke in front of Metcalf’s Mill in Ashland, about a mile from the current starting line in Hopkinton.

Though spectators marveled at the amazing feat of courage displayed by these pioneers, many thought they were just crazy. Much has changed in the past 114 years, though there are still those who would categorize the attempt to run 26.2 miles as an act of foolishness.

In 2009, there were 468,000 runners who completed marathons in the United States. And no longer is the marathon the domain of only men, as it was in Boston until Katharine Switzer broke the gender barrier in 1967. Last year, 40 percent of marathoners who finished were females, and the gap closes more each year.

What’s the big deal about Boston?

It is the oldest continuous marathon in the country, and it holds the distinction of requiring a qualifying time to enter or a charity pledge. The only other marathons that require qualifying times are the Olympic Trials and the Olympics.

Boston is also a “happening” that, once experienced, leaves an indelible mark.

In the early morning hours on race day, Hopkinton is a well-controlled madhouse of athletes, press and spectators. But the town of 14,000 residents is always able to handle the event every year, because it has help from the masterful organizational skills of race director Dave McGillivray and committee.

Runners are directed to the Athlete’s Village, where tents provide shelter in case of rain and 600 Port-A-Johns are available to service the well-hydrated herd.

The migration from the Athlete’s Village to the start corrals is the first indication runners have of the enormity of the field on these rural roads. The procession to the start line packs the country road with anxious runners, some wearing garbage bags to stay warm.

This race starts on a two-lane road contrary to the four-lane highway starts in other mega-marathons like New York and Chicago. Again, it was the ingenuity of McGillivray and his staff to solve the problem of the marathon shuffle — getting stuck in a slow procession of runners for the first mile.

In the last few years, the race has featured a wave start — wheelchair divisions at 9:17 a.m.; Elite Women at 9:32 a.m.; Elite men and Wave 1 at 10 a.m.; and Wave 2 at 10:30 a.m.

Additionally, the running corrals are arranged by qualification times and are placed several feet in from the curbs, pinching the staging area. When runners reach the start line, the road widens to begin running.

After the singing of the National Anthem, and a flyby of National Guard fighter jets, the gun finally sounds and the journey begins.

In the first mile heading into Ashland, a middle of the pack runner may easily be discouraged viewing the thousands of runners in front of him. The temptation is to make up time by picking up the pace, a costly mistake. Better to be patient after coming down the first hill.

The first half of the race, practically all downhill, can lead to a reckless pace that could make the last few miles a dreadful experience. Boston is best viewed in thirds.

In the first 10 miles, the goal is to keep the pace down to the target level, the next 10 maintain a pace to reach your mark, while the last 10 depends on how well disciplined the first two were.

At mile three, runners will come to the first of two islands that split the course. Here’s the inside scoop — run to the right of the first one, and to the left of the second. It positions you better for the upcoming curves in the road, and it probably saves a couple of yards.

The next five miles may be critical. The adrenaline rush at the start, and the downhill nature of the first five miles could fool runners into believing that they are having a miracle day, and they should abandon all plans for a pace that makes sense.

Around the 10-kilometer mark (6.2-miles), runners will pass the Mugs Away Pub, a biker bar with lots of enthusiastic fans sipping frosty mugs of beer. Very tempting, but another 20 miles must be traveled before enjoying something more robust than Gatorade.

Now in Framingham, the crowds are getting bigger and more enthusiastic. Bands are playing, and mirror-like store windows provide an opportunity for runners to check their form. At this stage, runners continue to wear smiles of joy and remain optimistic that a personal record is possible.

At mile 10, runners pass Fiske Pond, where legendary Tarzan Brown stepped off the course on an 80-degree day in 1938 to take a dip, finishing 51st overall. Tarzan was a two-time Boston winner, who captured much attention, when he first participated in the race in 1935 running barefoot.

The next 10 miles the smiles begin to fade, and the real work begins, as it literally becomes an uphill experience.

At 11 miles, runners enter Natick Center. A rumble in the distance then grows louder with each stride until they reach the fabled Wellesley College girls at 12.6 miles. Like the Siren Song from Greek mythology, those sweet yells can make an athlete do crazy things. Attractive coeds line the street screaming and holding “kiss me” signs that transform weary runners into vibrant running machines.

At mile 16, runners enter Newton Lower Falls — aptly named for its tremendous downhill. The danger is the pounding the quads take, which may have a terrible effect, when it comes time to conquer the infamous “Heartbreak Hill.”

At mile 17, the Route 128 overpass looms. It’s one of my least favorite parts. It’s uphill, spectators are sparse, it’s a barren highway and it’s the precursor to the right-hand turn at the Newton Fire Station which is the 18-mile mark, better known as Heartbreak Hill.

For the next three miles, runners will be challenged with a series of three (some call it four) hills that collectively take a terrible toll. Though not extraordinarily steep, they come at a heartbreaking point of the race. The good news is that there is a huge crowd encouraging tiring runners with the chant: “Keep it up, you look great.”

I’ve run this race 33 times, and I still get confused about which hill is the last one. The best advice is to keep plugging until you hit 21 miles, and see the Prudential Center on the horizon, just five miles away.

Once Heartbreak Hill is crested, the reward is an all too short downhill leading to Cleveland Circle. With a mere 5.2 miles left, the real work begins.

For the next several miles, it’s all about the Citgo sign high above Kenmore Square. That big, beautiful landmark signals the end is near. It leads runners to mile 25, its home, and the final assault on Citgo Hill at Kenmore Square. After cresting that bump, runners start that mental celebration of accomplishment. There is little that could stop a runner in that last mile. Though battling with a brain that is screaming: “Stop,” the last mile of the Boston Marathon is extraordinarily exciting.

Taking the right turn onto fabled Hereford Street can bring tears to the eyes of first-timers and veterans alike. Here, the screams of spectators are greater than in Wellesley, and every runner thinks the fans are there just for them.

Finally, the left onto Boylston Street gives the first view of the Promised Land — the finish line. There is simply nothing like crossing that line to the cheers of thousands, and having the medal placed around your neck. Visions of past Boston Marathon legends come to mind, including John McDermott (first champion), Clarence Demar, Tarzan Brown, Johnny Kelley, Nina Kuscsik (first official women’s champion), Billy Rodgers, Jack Fultz and Joan Benoit Samuelson. And another question to ponder: Is there another sport where an average athlete could compete on the same playing field with the world’s best?

If you are one of the fortunate who will be there Monday, good luck and enjoy every moment of your journey. For those who support a runner, thank you for making it possible for them to strive to reach their goals. And for those who dream of running Boston, know that all things are possible for those who really want it.

Tom Licciardello is a founding member of the Merrimack Valley Striders. Licciardello has participated in 86 marathons, including the last 33 Boston Marathons. He has also completed the Hawaii Ironman triathlon. Professionally, he is a Certified Financial Planner and resides in North Andover, Mass., with his wife, Lyn. He may be reached at