When Frank Shorter won the Olympic marathon in Munich in 1972, he ushered in the running boom. Until then, distance running was an oddity practiced by knobby-kneed guys wearing long underwear who spat freely on the side of the road. But it was the decision to move the New York City marathon out of Central Park and onto the streets of the five boroughs in 1976 that brought running to the masses. At first Fred Lebow, the president of the New York Road Runners Club, was opposed to the idea of leaving the confines of the park, where runners completed four loops under relatively controlled circumstances (in those days the greatest danger was being mugged). Eventually, however, he was convinced that a one-time event to celebrate the country’s bicentennial was worth the logistical headaches. The rest, as they say, is history.
Now, after the tragic events at the Boston Marathon, there is already talk about limiting access and restricting the routes a road race can run. But that would be a mistake.
Distance running is the only sport where the masses and the elite compete at the same time on the same playing field. It is not unusual to be standing on the same bathroom line as the winner, or to be sharing a bagel or water after the race. Spectators can literally reach out and touch competitors, and many of them provide food, water and encouragement to friends, family members and others during a race. The pleasure of participation in a communal event is almost as great as the joy of running itself. A road race is a celebration of the human spirit, an embrace of body and mind, and a giant street party.
It would be impossible to barricade a course for 26 miles and protect against all eventualities. It would be equally impossible to guard the athletes from other runners while they are competing. Unless we want to enclose runners in a controlled environment like a stadium, and force participants to go through a metal detector, a race can never be entirely safe. As in our political system, we give up security for freedom, but it’s a trade worth making.
The Boston Marathon, like the New York Marathon and nearly every distance race, connects people and neighborhoods through an activity that is uniquely human. The open road symbolizes freedom and feels like devotion. To close it would be to kill it, and with it the dreams of the long distance runner. We run because we can, and in our embrace of the irrational we express our true selves. Damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead.