SUBSCRIBE NOW

Runners’ Corner column: On your mark, get set ... no go

Tom Licciardello
More Content Now
Savannah Morning News

History was made of sorts, but not in a good way, when the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) announced last week that the 2020 running of the Boston Marathon will not take place, because of the coronavirus scare.

The Patriots’ Day tradition was originally postponed until Sept. 14, but the governing body was forced to cancel it altogether for the first time in the 124-year history of the venerable event in light of the ongoing pandemic.

The news did not really surprise the running community. But then again, how could this happen, and where do we go from here?

While it was still incredibly disappointing to everyone involved, the prospect of more than 31,000 runners from every corner of the world descending upon the small town of Hopkinton, Massachusetts, in the midst of a pandemic - that is likely to spike again in the fall - made the decision to cancel the only correct decision.

The implications of this decision are profound. The running of the marathon on Patriots’ Day has always been an opportunity for the City of Boston to showcase its many cultural and historical gems, while also injecting more than $200 million into the local economy.

Many run for charities, with more than $38 million raised last year for worthy causes alone. And then, there is the legendary history from the previous 123 years.

It all started in 1897, and was inspired by the first Olympic Marathon held in Athens, Greece. Throughout the next 122 years, it became the oldest continuous marathon. The format, ironically, was changed in 1918, when the Spanish Flu affected the world, not to mention it was also the beginning of WWI. The traditional race was replaced with a military relay in honor of our troops.

Last week’s unprecedented decision by the BAA also included that the race will be held virtually. Each participant is invited to run the marathon distance on or after Sept. 14. Registration fees will be refunded, and the prized marathon medals will be mailed to the finishers. Additionally, the BAA will be announcing a full-week of events celebrating the marathon’s uniqueness.

Because 2021 was scheduled to be a significant milestone in the race’s 125-year history, the decision to find some way to hold the 124th was critical. But for those that were expecting to run the 124th in the traditional format, the disappointment is still profound.

There is a small, but exclusive group of runners who are members of the QCC, the Quarter Century Club. To become a member, you must officially complete 25 consecutive Boston Marathons. I am now a retired member with 35 consecutive finishes, so I can attest that these folks are struggling with the implications of now having to run the race solo to keep the streak alive.

Not everybody, of course. In fact, each year more than 50% of the runners are first-timers.

I have many close friends, who would be experiencing the thrill of running Boston for the first time this year. Take, for example, Amanda. When she learned that she would be given the opportunity to run the 124th, she literally fell to her knees in tears of joy. “This has been a dream, and now it will be a reality,” she said.

However, she won’t be experiencing those anxious hours driving to Hopkinton on the bus with her running counterparts, the excitement of being called to line up in Hopkinton’s start corral and her heart racing at the sound of the starter’s gun. She will also not experience the unbridled joy of running through the “scream tunnel” of the Wellesley College coeds, and then proudly conquering the Newton Hills, so well known as “Heartbreak Hill.” And, of course, she will not feel the overwhelming emotions when runners turn the corner onto Hereford Street and see the finish line just a quarter-mile away.

This pandemic has changed many aspects of our lives, and likely many will be permanent changes. What will the future hold for the Boston Marathon? What will the future hold for the many other huge running events throughout the world? Will there be a time when 30, 40, 50,000 or more runners can gather at a starting line again?

In the meantime, runners will adapt as the running industry adapts.

Not only has the Boston Marathon been forced to deal with these new crowd restrictions, but every race - from local to international - that is scheduled to be run in 2020 is either cancelling, postponing or going virtual.

In fact, a plethora of new virtual running events has emerged, with goals ranging from simply running a 5K to virtually running the distance of the New York subway system, and runners love it. Social media posts show off the earned swag, most notably the medals. Give a runner a goal and the promise of a medal to commemorate the effort, and you have an event.

Guessing where we will be a year from now or beyond is an exercise in futility, but in my humble opinion the running world will be different. I hope traditional running events will be back, but will there be a drop in the enthusiasm?

I suspect we will have the Boston Marathon back in its traditional format. It is, of course, the most prestigious race for a runner. But I think many races will be hybrids. Runners will be given a choice of running virtually or onsite. But one thing is certain, race directors may have to reinvent their industry. It’s a good thing that we have guys like Dave McGillivray, the Boston Marathon race director, who are figuring it out right now.

In the meantime, let’s get out there for a run together alone.

Tom Licciardello is a founding member of the Merrimack Valley Striders. Licciardello has participated in 35 Boston’s and 88 marathons altogether, and is a BAA Boston Marathon volunteer. He can be reached at tomlicc@gmail.com.