I’ve tried 25 different ways to start this column and none of them are working, so I’m just going to have to go with Plan Z, come right out and say it. To rip the Band-Aid off, bare my soul and let the chips fall where they may. So here goes:
The Boston Marathon sucks.
I understand that to most of Massachusetts, them’s fighting words. Many of us think it, but few want to hear it. I find it ironic that on a day meant to honor those who fought for their right to tell their king to go piss up a rope, making fun of this goofy road race is treated like treason. And saying publicly that the Marathon the most overrated, overreported event on the calendar is a little more free exercise of your rights than most people in this town are willing to allow. Make fun of this glorified cross country meet and you might as well sink Old Ironsides or tear Old Glory into strips and leave it in rolls on the wall of your bathroom. The Marathon is a polarizing issue that divides us like … well, like 26.2 miles of closed road through the heart of Greater Boston.
Before I go any further, let me take a baby step backward and say I don’t hate the Marathon. I’m not one of these MetroWest cranks who’s going to sit here and whine about how it disrupts my life and all those spectators ruin my lawn and it takes me three hours to drive to the chiropractor or whatever. They’ve been running this thing now for 114 years, so unless you passed papers on your house in 1895, you knew what you were getting into and you’ve got no beef. I’m from the South Shore, I don’t work anywhere near the Marathon and it’s no inconvenience to me or my lawn whatsoever.
So saying I hate it is way too harsh. To me, the Boston Marathon is the equivalent of Justin Bieber. It’s cute. It’s non-offensive. It’s popular. It wouldn’t bother me much if my kids enjoyed it. But it also can’t hold the attention of any thinking adult for more than 2-1/2 minutes. And like Justin Bieber, it’s a cultural phenomenon, not a sporting event.
Which sums up my major problem with the Marathon. It’s not so much the event, it’s the fact that it’s treated like a real sporting event, which it isn’t. Does it take stamina, strength and endurance to do it? Of course. But so do aerobics, construction work, Irish step dance, babysitting, spin class and pole dancing. And no one’s dedicating special sections of the Globe sports page to any of those activities.
Simply put, it’s not a sporting event because no one cares who wins. Seriously, can you name one past winner? Or let’s say from the last 25 years, since the Marathon went pro, offered prize money and started attracting the best of the international field? I’m willing to bet that like me, you can only name one: Uta Pippig. And even she’s only memorable because she lost control over every fluid in her body down the stretch. And as long as we’re being perfectly honest here, you remember her more as “Uta Poopig.” Beyond her you’d have to go back to the girl who took the Green Line to the finish line or Bill Rodgers back during the Late Cretaceous to recall another past winner.
But I don’t care, and neither do you. And isn’t that the essence of sports? To follow the competition, know who’s competing and care who wins? But no one does that with the Marathon. You show up, you get a spot on the sidewalk where you can get a view, then you watch a massive collection of strangers pass by for a couple of hours while you drink beer. It’s nothing more really than a slightly faster St. Patrick’s parade. Except in Southie they care who finishes first because that guy gets to go inside and have a pint before the others.
Still, that’s not going to stop every media outlet in town from following this thing like it’s The NBA Finals times the World Series to the Super Bowlth power. All the local TV stations will cover every step of this overblown company picnic 5K. They’ll have features on the runners. They’ll give us split times and maps of the route. They’ll track how the front-runners are doing vs. the course and world records. There’ll be the requisite commentary from distance-running experts. They’ll flatten dozens of runners and scores of spectators to give us the live footage from the pace car. And when the first competitors turn the corner and start coming down the stretch, the news anchors will scream like Chic Anderson calling Secretariat’s win at the Belmont.
And within two minutes, every single Bostonian, watching at home or from along the route, will forget the whole thing, I guarantee it. Because none of us care.
Now, before I get accused of xenophobia, let me be clear. I’m not now, nor have I ever been, afraid of xenos. Nor do I resent the fact that Kenyans and Ethiopians dominate the race. On the contrary; I’m glad for them. Certain countries are the best at certain things and they should dominate. I don’t resent the Kenyan/Ethiopian stranglehold on distance running any more than I resent Canadians being the best hockey players or the French being the best cooks or the Swiss making the best watches. The fact that my own country is now only the best in the world at making individually wrapped cheese slices doesn’t make me begrudge anyone else’s success.
If anything, I’m jealous of the Kenyans and Ethiopians. One, because they do something I couldn’t possibly do. Watch on Monday when the winner gets interviewed 30 seconds after he’s been running at a sprint for over two hours, and he won’t even be breathing heavy. The last time I drove from Hopkinton to Boston I was exhausted. If I hadn’t made three stops at the Burger Kings along the Pike I never would’ve made it.
And secondly, what I resent about these guys is that they speak better English than our athletes do. I remember hearing last year’s winner … ol’ whatshisname … answer questions, and he was more fluent than C-3PO. Perfect sentence structure, verb tenses, grammar, diction. In what’s probably his third or fourth language. Meanwhile I’ve been listening to Roger Clemens talk for 26 years and have yet to understand a word that’s come out of his mouth.
So it’s not so much the athletes that bug me about this thing, it’s everything that goes on around it. It’s the over-the-top media exposure. The tedious, self-righteous running enthusiasts, who normally are content to just get in your way while you’re driving to work in the morning but come marathon time want to talk about distance running as if it’s remotely interesting. (Seriously, what kind of conversation does marathoning lend itself to? “Yeah, the No. 2 guy needed to move his feet faster. Then he would’ve won”?) And it’s the constant, relentless insistence from all sides that you have to care about this thing, otherwise you might as well draw a mustache on the Paul Revere statue and burn the Old North Church to the ground.
If we’d just treat this like, say, the Head of the Charles Regatta … a nice little springtime diversion when you get a day off, hit the bars in the morning, watch the morning Sox game, see a few hundred strangers jog by, have a few more beers and call it a day … I’d be all for it. Because I might not be the biggest distance-running fan in the world, but I believe a three-day weekend with day drinking involved is the kind of marathon every true Bostonian can get behind.