Boston Without Barriers: The Marathon Then And Now

Part of the appeal of marathons is their inclusive nature, the way they're accessible to both runners and spectators. It's a sport of the people, the steaming rabble, those straining sinew flinging their sweat onto those shouldering closer to holler or hold out a crushed and sloshing cup of water. Salty skin touches salty skin. Pressing ever closer, in that frisson a connection is made—the spectator is left trembling and flushed and raw of throat, and the runner flies on with fresh energy.

Any schmo can be a runner, the star of the show. Even Boston's qualifying requirement has not deterred 27,000 amateurs from hitting the streets. And there are even fewer restrictions for spectators: no exclusive ticket, no gate, no assigned seat, curbside spots that never sell out. Anyone can amble on down to the roadside and become part of the marathon spectacle.

The Boston Marathon, situated deep in Red Sox territory, enjoys a particularly strong tradition of fan involvement—Way to work da pins Billy boy and Lookin awesome Sarahr; call me later OK?—so last year's violence was an especially cruel betrayal of one of sport's most democratic, of-the-people-by-the-people events.

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The Boston Athletic Association, which manages the marathon, has posted spectator guidelines this year, telling fans they should expect numerous uniformed and plainclothes security officers, security checkpoints, and searches of personal belongings. Here's a list of things that should not be brought to the course:

  • Weapons or items of any kind that may be used as weapons, including firearms, knives, mace, etc.
  • Backpacks or any similar item carried over the shoulder.
  • Suitcases and rolling bags/rollers.
  • Coolers.
  • Glass containers or cans.
  • Flammable liquids, fuels, fireworks or explosives.
  • Any container capable of carrying more than 1 liter of liquid.
  • Handbags or packages or bulky items larger than 12 inches x 12 inches x 6 inches.
  • Large blankets/comforters, duvets, sleeping bags.
  • Costumes covering the face or any non-form fitting, bulky outfits extending beyond the perimeter of the body.
  • Props (including sporting equipment and military and fire gear).

Well, innocence is a mixed bag anyway. The almost total lack of crowd control in the 1960s, '70s and '80s allowed unprecedented access to the athletes, for better or worse. Here are some notable incidents that probably will never happen again.

In 1966, co-ed Bobbi Gibb was denied an official entry into the Boston Marathon because women were thought incapable of covering the 26.2 miles, but she had trained for it so she took the bus three nights and four days from San Diego to her parents home near Boston, arriving the day before the marathon. Her mother dropped her off at the start in Hopkinton, where she hid in the bushes until the gun was fired and part of the field had taken off. She jumped in with the men, finishing in 3 hours 21 minutes, ahead of two-thirds of the field. Apparently race officials were not concerned by her presence because she was not officially entered and didn't have a race number. Friends, including women, often jumped in to accompany runners part way.

The following year, Gibb again ran Boston without a number and finished, unharassed and unheralded, nearly an hour ahead of Kathrine Switzer, who had officially entered the race as K.V. Switzer. Race official Jock Semple famously jumped off the flatbed press truck and tried to tear off Switzer's bib number, but was sent flying by her footballer boyfriend. This incident was only witnessed by a truck full of photojournalists.

There were no video checkpoints, no microchips and no barriers along the final mile of the course in 1980. That allowed #W50, Rosie Ruiz, the opportunity to officially start the race, drop out, hop onto the subway, re-enter about a mile from the finish and run it in for a sweat-free win. Canadian Jacqueline Gareau was eventually awarded her rightful victory. Second-place Patti Lyons set an American record with her 2:35 run, but it was largely ignored in the hoax kerfuffle.

As the number of people running the Boston Marathon increased, so did the crowds of spectators. Patti Dillon (nee Lyons) remembered this incident as she led the 1981 Boston Marathon to the 22-mile mark:

Approaching Cleveland Circle the crowds left very little room to run—only a narrow runner's body width path. Coming onto Beacon, I could see people hanging off the traffic light and the runner in front of me; there was no room to pass, no room to see. The crowd was cheering, touching me, wishing me luck, telling me to go go go. I was almost ready to take the left hand turn when—BOOM! It took me a few moments to realize what had happened; I had run straight into the flank of a horse. A mounted Boston police officer was trying to contain the crowd. The breath was knocked out of me but I didn't fall. Somehow, the runner behind me picked me up and and passed me to the next runner and so on... I never fell.

And while I was collecting myself, getting back on track, Alison Roe passed me. My mind exploded with a huge NO. I may have said it out loud. My first thought was, "Hey, I hit a horse! I have an excuse!" But my the next thought was, "So you hit a horse, now RUN!"

Having bounced off the rear end of a horse, she nonetheless finished with a nearly three-minute personal best time of 2:27.

What's remarkable about this video of the final miles of the 1982 battle in Beantown is that one can hardly make out the two subjects of the film, Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley. The chaos enveloping them includes a massive coach bus, a squadron of bikers, numerous veering police motorcycles, photographers on foot, photographers on a truck, mounted police, the lead vehicle and spectators wearing backpacks (before backpacks were suspect) standing directly in the runners' path to get a nice shot with their Polaroid. All of this happens within the confines of an ever-narrowing alley of fans, without barriers until the final half-mile. At about 7:20 in the clip, Beardsley's final sprint is detoured by a police motorcycle that seems to be providing more impediment than security.

Even in more recent and technologically sophisticated times, 26.2 miles of public space has proven nearly impossible to secure. Leading with only 7K left in the 2004 Olympic Marathon in Athens, Brazilian Vanderlei de Lima was tackled by a deranged spectator. De Lima ended up third. In this year's April 13th London Marathon, elite runner Diane Nukuri-Johnson was on pace for a personal best time when she fell over a spectator who darted onto the course to retrieve his glasses. She was only able to jog the final three miles, finishing in 12th place.

It's easy to be nostalgic about lost innocence, but the Boston Marathon has moved on. It's a slicker, more professional production with start corrals, security checkpoints, chip-reading mats and emergency protocol. For all of that, the Boston experience—the Wellesley Scream Tunnel, the unified will of the crowd pulling flagging runners through the Newton Hills, people 20 deep and hanging from street lights at Cleveland Circle, turning onto the heart-pounding roaring gauntlet that is Boylston Street—remains, still offering one of the sports world's most accessible, unrestricted thrills.

Sarah Barker writes and runs in St. Paul, Minn.

Photo via Getty