More Than a Race

Matthew Bellico writer
John Rich photographer

Hopkinton has the start. Newton has the hills. And Boston’s Copley Square has the long-awaited finish line. But for approximately 4.2 miles, the Boston Marathon belongs to Wellesley.

The marathon, now in its 112th year, is as much a part of the communities that host the race as those who compete in it. The stories of runner and town often meld together, creating a unique mix of time and place, old memories and fresh challenges. And Wellesley—for so many runners—stands unique among the eight municipalities that stake a claim to the marathon route.

“Whether you’re a local runner or from out of town, you look forward to passing through Wellesley,” says Marc Chalufour, communications manager of the Boston Athletic Association, which organizes the race. “As a runner, you can get tired by that part of the marathon and you look for benchmarks, like spots where your family and friends will cheer you on. Wellesley, because of the crowds that converge there, is more than one of those benchmarks, it’s a truly unforgettable experience.”

This serene township, which is anything but on Marathon Monday, has played its role since the race’s inception—letting marathoners gallop, and sometimes stumble, through its springtime streets since the very first contest was held on Patriots’ Day, April 19, 1897.

That first Boston Marathon was run only one year after the first modern Olympics were held in Greece. William McKinley succeeded Grover Cleveland as president a mere month prior to Boston’s inaugural race, and Britain’s Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee later that year.

For the first running, Olympic sprinter Thomas Burke simply dug his heel across a dirt road to create the starting line and then plainly, if eloquently, shouted “Go!” Only 15 competitors showed for that maiden voyage, which then began in Ashland. Wellesley was on that first route, measured by bicycle to be approximately 24.5 miles, and Wellesley is still there today, when entry is limited to 25,000 of the Boston Athletic Association’s closest friends.

The “Scream Tunnel”
Even first-time participants undoubtedly know what Wellesley has in store for them, namely those several hundred yards of real estate outside the Wellesley College entrance affectionately named the “scream tunnel,” a length choked with enough shrieking undergrads to put Mardi Gras to shame.

“It may be Patriots’ Day on the calendar, but it’s Marathon Monday on campus,” says Mary Ann Hill, Wellesley College’s assistant vice president for public affairs. “The race is a true community event that brings everyone out. Our students yell for the top competitors and they’re still out there at the end of the day yelling for the slowest runners.”

Wellesley women first garnered minor attention for rooting for Harvard runner Dick Grant during the inaugural race. For Grant’s 1899 run, the Boston Daily Globe, under the subhead “Fair Maids of Wellesley College Cheer Harvard,” waxed poetic: “The rivals were heartily cheered all along the route, but nowhere were the fagged out contestants applauded more liberally than at the home of Wellesley college. Of course when the colors and familiar face of ‘Dick’ Grant were discovered the bevy of pretty girls…arose as one, and standing on the very edge of the stonewall on the right side of the street, clapped hands and shouted to the Harvard man that he had the best wishes of the entire town.”

However, Wellesley students’ support of the race fully blossomed in the 1970s, according to Hill, when running became popular nationwide and women were finally allowed to officially enter the Boston field.

Since that time, running the “scream tunnel” has evoked some mixed emotions, as noted in Hal Higdon’s astute history of the race, Boston: A Century of Running. In 1988, St. Louis, Missouri runner Michael Goldstein simply couldn’t get enough of the cheering and related that, “Two miles down the road, I decided to turn back and run the gauntlet again.” However, that boisterousness can have the opposite effect and in 1976, upon seeing a topless student among the crowd, runner Jack Wallace admitted, “I lost all my desire to continue.”

Hill confirms that bare-breasted students are sometimes seen amid the marathon mayhem, but it’s not the norm. Still, impromptu kissing booths pop up with regularity, with runners lining up to receive their free smooch, which is said to bring good luck.

Some runners have responded by wearing “I love Wellesley women” t-shirts. Others have created more lasting bonds with the institution, including 93-year-old John “Black Bart” Archer, who ran the Boston Marathon from 1967 until the mid-1980s.

“When he stopped racing, he was so grateful for our students’ support over the years that he decided to send money annually to the students of Munger Hall,” says Hill, referring to the dormitory that sits exactly at the halfway point of the marathon route. The Milwaukee, Wisconsin resident mails enough for the students to purchase oranges and paper cups for the water they hand to competitors, according to Hill.

Archer has become something of a college celebrity, and in 2002 the students raised enough money to fly him back for the race. They perched him high atop a lifeguard chair outside the dorm, where he gleefully waved to competitors.

Making Every Mile Count
But runners don’t have to be from far afield to enjoy the local flavor, nor look to Wellesley College for their adrenaline shot. Weston marathoner Nanci Gelb, who will run Boston for the fourth time this spring, draws continuing inspiration from her work with Dana-Farber Cancer Institute—one of the inaugural organizations to partner with the Boston Marathon Charity Program, and one of 24 groups that have official charity status this year.

Gelb began to train for the 2005 race after her husband, Ron, passed away from a rare form of melanoma at age 42. “I started to run as therapy, trying to do something good for myself both physically and mentally,” she explains. “And I quickly became addicted.”

She earned an official bib number that first time by raising more than $22,000 for cancer research, and joined Dana-Farber’s training team. Gelb will continue to run for her beloved charity this year to “pay back all the assistance they gave my husband and our entire family.” She looks forward to completing the final six miles with two of her children, Arielle and Andrew, who—inspired by their mother’s undertaking—have become cross-country runners in high school.

But it’s still Gelb’s first marathon that remains ingrained in her mind.
“When Ron was alive, our family used to volunteer at the Tenacre [Country Day School] water stop in Wellesley,” she says. “Like most people, I used to imagine what it would be like to run and didn’t think I’d ever be out there.”

When it became clear her role would be reversed, her physical training didn’t prepare her for the emotions of the day. “I couldn’t believe what I saw that first time I ran,” she remembers. “So many parents and children from the school, as well as my family, were all there at that water stop to cheer me on. They had me crying and I had them doing the same.”

“Ron was ever present that whole race,” says Gelb, who, during her marathons, wears a picture of her late husband on her back.

The BAA’s Chalufour says part of what makes the Boston Marathon special is that so many entrants have similar stories. The Boston Athletic Association expanded its charity field by three organizations this year, and annually rotates in three new charities for three-year terms. Eighty local organizations applied for this year’s six vacant charity spots, according to Chalufour.

One fairly recent addition is Tedy’s Team, established by New England Patriots’ linebacker Tedy Bruschi to benefit the American Stroke Association. Wellesley runner Carol Chaoui ran for Tedy’s Team last year, and will do so again in 2008.

Chaoui lost her father to a stroke in 2006, and earlier had an aunt, her father’s twin, die of the same cause. An accomplished runner, Chaoui, age 44, qualified for Boston last year by placing first in her division in the Coast to Coast Marathon in Narragansett, Rhode Island.

She says running for charity creates meaningful camaraderie, and gives the race a greater purpose—something she keenly felt at a pre-race dinner her team shared with Bruschi and other stroke survivors, and again during her stay at the home of one such survivor in the hours preceding the marathon.

“After I completed the race, Tedy asked me how I felt and what I was thinking about when I got to mile 21,” says Chaoui, who, in 2006, collapsed at that point and had to be carried off the course. “I told him I thought of my father and all those who supported me. It was a true team effort.”

The More Things Change…
Besides the growing size of the Boston Marathon, until recently, few major alterations have been made over the years. One of the many things upon which runners can always depend is that the crowds are going to be loud, according to Wellesley resident Emilio Rotondi, age 70, who says he’s run every Boston Marathon since 1969.

An Italian immigrant, Rotondi began to run in September 1968 while recovering from a broken back he received in an auto accident. “I still have the pain from the incident. Running didn’t fix my back, but it did fix my brain,” he jokes. “Some of my favorite memories are running through Wellesley and seeing the crowds and, of course, the joy of finally making Kenmore Square.”

Last year, Rotondi and his fellow runners reached that landmark much sooner than they were used to, and it wasn’t because of a new training regime. The 2007 running marked the first time since the race’s inception that the main start wasn’t held at 12 noon—instead the time was pushed up to 10 a.m.

Apart from standardizing the race distance to 26.2 miles and opening the field to female and wheelchair competitors, Chalufour says that the time change is probably the largest alteration to the race since 1897. The original race began at precisely 12:19 p.m. and little variation ensued. However, abnormally warm temperatures in several races held over the last five or six years forced the association’s hand.

“The increased heat was a major factor for the time change. We want our runners to be safe, especially when most train in colder weather over the winter months,” says Chalufour, noting that the 2007 Chicago Marathon had to be cancelled after the race was well underway because of excessive heat.

Change also came a year earlier when, in 2006, marathon officials first employed a staggered, two-wave start which, among other benefits, gives the elite women their proper place in the limelight, rather than having them finish amid the middle-tier men.

But this year the Boston Athletic Association is “holding steady on the refinements,” according to Chalufour.
“We don’t want to make changes for their own sake, and the runners have embraced what we’ve done because they know it only helps them,” he says. “Tradition is big in Boston. It’s still the same great race.”

Bibliographic references include the aforementioned Boston: A Century of Running (Rodale Press, Inc., 1995) by Hal Higdon and Boston Marathon: The History of the World’s Premier Running Event (Human Kinetics Publishers, 1994) by Tom Derderian.

Summer 2023