For 364 days a year, Hopkinton resembles the quiet New England farming town it was in the 18th century. But on the third Monday in April, this Massachusetts community hosts some 16,500 runners—more than doubling its population—and teems with a half million onlookers who come to the start of the country’s oldest, biggest, and most famous marathon.
April 21 marks the 107th running of the Boston Marathon. Since 1924, when the Olympic committee established the length of a marathon as 26.2 miles, the race has started in Hopkinton.
“This is the day we witness the results of year-long planning,” Dorothy Ferriter says. Her 18-member Marathon Committee, which works closely with the Boston Athletic Association, begins preparations for the annual event the day after the race each year, when it meets for a critique. “Many people are just not aware of the time commitment involved in such a worldwide event as the Boston Marathon,” Ferriter says.
Runners must be housed, fed, and transported. Four hundred portable toilets are set up, bleachers, signs, and fences are erected, and tents are pitched on the high school field, called Athletes’ Village. Runners enjoy the camaraderie there, but for those seeking more traditional accommodations, Laborer’s Training Center houses 60 runners, and families open their homes to others.
One host, Rose Leveille, says, “Sometimes there are so many sleeping here I can’t walk through my house without stepping on a body.”
Ann and Charlie Zettick, who live along the marathon route, invite runners and friends for breakfast on race morning. “Runners say the Boston Marathon can be tough, because it doesn’t start until noon,” Ann says. “That means if they’re up at 7 a.m., they need a place to hang around for a while.” She serves English muffins and donuts.
Press, radio, and television crews set up communication centers on the town common, and local teens act as spotters along the route, identifying runners from every state and more than 50 countries.
Since marathoners return year after year, residents get to know them. The Kenyans, in recent years among the top finishers, have been popular. Hopkinton made 10 Kenyan runners honorary citizens last year. Spectators play a part, too, urging runners on.
“We scream. We holler and go a little mad cheering,” says Gordon J. Barkyoumb, a retired dairy farmer and member of a bluegrass band that plays on race day. “You never know how many will show. We can have eight or 15. It amazes me how we do it, but it works, and it’s wonderful,” he says.
“Once when we were playing (before the race), one of the foreign runners stopped by. He had a harmonica in his back pocket and joined our band. Oh boy, could he play,” says Barkyoumb, who also plays the harmonica. “Funny thing, I don’t know his name or where he was from because I didn’t understand his language. But I sure wish I could play like him.”
“Organized chaos” is how Chief of Police Gary Daugherty describes the day. But thanks to experience and planning, he says, “it’s now pretty routine.” The chief, a former New Jersey resident, welcomes the support of neighboring police and fire departments, medical professionals, and the National Guard. Most of all, he appreciates his lieutenant, a Hopkinton native who provides insight into the town and the race. Lt. Kenneth Clark’s family home was featured in the 1978 television drama See How She Runs, with Joanne Woodward as a marathon runner.
Once the runners depart, Hopkinton returns to normal. “By 1:30 you wouldn’t even know anyone was here,” Leveille says. But, along with memories, the marathon leaves a legacy of good deeds. Last year, some 1,000 runners raised more than $4 million for 15 local charities.
Charity also begins at home of course, as Leveille discovered one morning on race day, “when a guy just walked in off the street, through my house, into my kitchen, and made his own breakfast.”