Bit part in race of the century

Stephen Brenkley slowly passes an historic milestone at the Boston Marathon
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The Independent Online
Six days ago one of the London Marathon's forebears - the daddy of them all - marked its 100th running. The Boston Marathon started in 1897 when 15 or 18 runners, depending on which historical account you believe, completed the race. It has not missed a single year since (though once it took the form of a relay), its course has remained substantially unaltered and the Americans are proud that it is the oldest annual foot race on the planet.

They have plenty which rankas the biggest, longest, widest and probably fattest but almost nothing of genuine longevity with some context in the rest of the sporting world. The Boston is adequate compensation and, boy, did they compensate.

The centennial event felt as though it lasted a century and not only to some of those among us who were running. In all forms of media - papers, TV, radio, telephone and Internet - coverage before, during and after was wall to wall, appropriate considering what so many of the athletes seemed to be hitting.

Until this year the Boston Marathon, adopting the aristocratic air that comes with age and tradition, had been snootier than the young whipper- snappers who followed it on the back of the jogging boom in the Seventies such as London and New York. They set out to be races of the people for the people; Boston clung to the notion of standards as laid down in qualifying times. To run it you actually had to be able to run.

For this year only, the barriers came down and we slowcoaches hobbled through. After qualifiers had been accounted for, lotteries were held in the US to determine who ran. There were 38,500 official entrants (36,615 of whom finished, including yours truly in 32,619th) and at least 2,000 unofficial ones.

All past champions were invited. Johnny Kelly for once declined. At the age of 88, after running 61 times and winning it twice, he settled for being chief marshal. After about 13 miles of the race you began to sympathise with the Boston Athletic Association's wish to retain the exclusivity of the event. The course, starting in the delightful village of Hopkinton and running through a tapestry of small-town America before reaching the city, was designed in an age before the phrase user-friendly had been coined.

There are four significant inclines and going down the other side is as hard as going up, though the resplendent Kenyans, who filled seven of the first eight places, cast such considerations aside. The last upward slope if not the steepest is known as Heartbreak Hill, and its negotiation required constant reminders of how wonderful it was to be part of history.

London - no matter what the 200 souls who will today attempt the Boston- London double may feel - has nothing like it. And if it wants to live to be a hundred nor should it think of acquiring anything remotely similar.

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