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The Boston Marathon Industrial Complex

In Boston, running the marathon is the easy part. It's getting to the starting line that's a process.

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God, it’s easy to hate road running. All the pounding. All the stoplights. All the asphalt. All the dogs nipping, fumes chugging, potholes lurking. Compared to singletrack at dusk, forests instead of houses, birdsongs over billboards—roads will never compete. 

But after running the 126th Boston Marathon two weeks ago, I have a confession:
Roads can be great, too, if you let them.

Though I ended up enjoying the road marathon, my memory of the actual run itself is eclipsed by the long-tailed approach in getting there. Why is that? To find out, I burrowed through five concentric layers of the road to Boston, from its mythic outer ring to its innermost sanctum, Race Day. It’s a superstructure I’m calling, with respect:

The Boston Marathon Industrial Complex

First Layer: Myth

Most first hear of the Boston Marathon long before ever thinking to toe the line. The myth is strong: a heft of accomplishment, conquering weakness, prevailing over obstacles, a century’s worth of lore, history, loss, and triumph. The looming specter of Heartbreak Hill.

In my imagination, first contact with the Complex exists out on some far edge of American culture, and out there spins blue-and-yellow around a simple number—26.2 miles—too insignificant on its own as a distance but cloaked in enough cultural significance to feel as though it’s always been with us, divine measurement now labeled “heroic.” Myth blends heroism with athletic prowess in a great mixing bowl, then adds cup after aid station cup of national pride and international competition and . . . here we are. 

I never once intended to pursue the marathon. Until my early 20s, I thought running was dumb, running long was dumber, and running long on pavement was the absolute dumbest. I drifted into trail running late, not from traditional avenues of cross country or track but through an ivy-covered back door, an adrenaline-inflected backpacker interested in finding ways to travel deeper and quicker into wilderness, proactively away from places like Boston, proactively away from events like marathons.

But then something shifted.

In 2019, after moving from New Mexico to New England, western Massachusetts’ country roads were wonderfully inviting for road running. (Fewer ticks, too.) From there a sound began to emerge, a muted beat heard from anywhere in the state. This, I will come to learn, was the throbbing heart of the Boston Marathon Industrial Complex.

RELATED: Trail Towns – Boston, Massachusetts

Second Layer: Qualifier

There is much to celebrate after a qualifying race, for it is clear that you’ve run with a certain intention. Regardless of the different benchmarks based on gender and age, becoming eligible for Boston is no cakewalk. To step into this second layer of the Complex, this mythic land of the BQ—I scraped in by the skin of my teeth—requires work. 

But the moment you find yourself with a qualifying time is the same moment the vortex really begins to swirl. Should you register? Why wouldn’t you? It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, everyone says. Nothing quite like it. How could you pass this up?

I was reminded of a time years ago, traveling two days after the Boston Marathon, where I shared a flight with dozens of runners wearing their shiny blue-and-yellow finisher jackets. I was annoyed, fueled by my own ignorance and envy, for they’d committed to and completed something hard. They deserved to celebrate. Maybe someday, I would, and could, too.

Fast forward. As I sat with my Boston registration in the shopping cart, something whispered: You are sacrificing a bucket list experience if you don’t apply. In a flash, I was registered and, Glory Be, soon later I was accepted. The $205 entry fee slips from my bank account, along with nearly 30,000 others around the world, and let’s imagine $7 million dollars deposits directly into the gullet of The Boston Marathon Industrial Complex. The flywheel is cranking now.

boston marathon trail running
(Photo: Johnny Zhang)

Third Layer: Preparation

After registration comes the gear. The accommodations. The clothes. The flights. The car rentals. The shoes. The shoes! Better invest in the best footwear, no matter the cost. Carbon plates? Check. Hyperlight singlet? Check. Spare no expense. Everything says just do it. So I do it. 

Now living in Montana, I blame the -25F winter days for a condensed training build but manage to punch out tempos, fartleks, and strength work. What lacks in fitness will have to draft off the race’s prestige. The Internet burbles a million must-do’s and must don’ts for how best to show up for Boston. Podcasts. Panels. Virtual course flyovers. Any footrace older than the advent of the vacuum cleaner means there are a lot of finishers with a lot to say about these 26.2 miles. 

After running the 126th Boston Marathon, I have a confession: Roads can be great, too, if you let them.

Emails from the Boston Athletic Association (B.A.A.) arrive at a regular clip now, reminders of how many weeks away the race is and to make sure you are preparing. 28,604 runners from 120 countries and all 50 states start booking travel and accommodations. Boston hotels fill, marked up double, triple, quadruple. We’re drifting closer to the beating heart of the Complex. 

It’s getting louder. Can you hear it? Can you feel it?

As I prepare, money siphons out of my bank account and I wonder if this is all worth it. What a privilege it is to even have such a choice! As someone who’s run longer (and more economical) trail and ultra races in venues far more to my liking, and as someone sensitive to my carbon contribution but who just spent several hundred dollars on car rentals and flights as if I were ordering a pizza, I am, needless to say, conflicted

Was this all in service to some lifetime achievement, or had I been swept up in the momentum of the myth, no matter the cost? I’d find out soon, but, in the meantime, better not skimp.

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Fourth Layer: Arrival

Flying to Boston, I layover in Minneapolis and those royal blue jackets begin popping up like springtime crocuses. The Boston windbreaker is a badge of honor and I salute those who wear them with pride, though I think I’d feel awkward wearing mine too often, the same way I feel about belt buckles awarded at ultras. They’re milestones, sure, but I hesitate to wear them as trophies. I’m mainly interested in doing the thing

Would I even buy the jacket? What if I don’t finish? Do they have a return policy? I’m halfway to Boston and already the marathon has me focused on everything else but the very reason I am going. To do the thing.

Arriving two days before the race, B.A.A. emails ping like Whac-A-Mole. An app has been created and push notifications come multiple times a day now. Sponsored ads pop and crackle like fireworks, no longer generic but strikingly targeted. Shoes in my size, on sale downtown. Organic compression tights, men’s medium, 20% off. Samuel Adams Boston Lager on tap at the finish. 

Traveling into the city center, I begin to see all the Marathon colors and the famous unicorn emblem, that mythical creature meant never to be seen but forever pursued. I arrive on the legendary Boylston Street after taking the T train, a metal snake decaled in shoe ads. At check-in, lines of wiry runners and their families wrap the halls, all legs and sweatsuits. 

The heart of the Complex beats loud and heavy, the same one I’d heard years ago, but now I’m here and can see its veins flow blue-and-yellow—strangely on brand with Ukraine’s national flag. Somewhere in this third chamber the actual thing lives and breathes, the actual run.

I’ve nearly spotted the unicorn. 

After retrieving my bib, I push through a crush of people tumbling over Boston jackets and sweatpants and pint glasses and bucket hats and YOU GOT THIS! t-shirts. The Complex scolds you from even considering not buying the $120 jacket that likely cost $13 to manufacture, for would you have even run Boston if you didn’t have the apparel to show for it? What would you wear on the flight home? 

All men’s mediums are sold out so I try on a women’s large, asking a lady tucked in the corner playing Wordle on her phone if she thinks it “fits my frame.” 

 “Sort of?” she says, startled by a mask-wearing stranger asking for fashion advice.

With my $120 sort of jacket and bib bag, after standing in a line like TSA, I am flagged by an earnest teenager using an Adidas-branded paddle to signal he’s ready to receive my purchase. I swipe my card into the maw of the Complex; the entire transaction takes thirteen seconds. With the swipe I can almost hear the walls of the Expo sag in relief, its cogs and belts and plugs having received another glug of oil to keep it all charging forward. 

In a way, I feel proud to feed it. Proud to participate. Proud to pay far too much for an awkwardly-sized jacket I’ll rarely wear. The swipe feels patriotic, a 21-gun salute to the hull built around this temple, this 26.2. 

After the swipe, I’m spun into an even larger hall of products and booths, and at this point I fully lean into the circus, blacking out only to awaken double-fisting dixie cups, one of supercharged chocolate milk and the other, salted beet juice. I try on sunglasses made of recycled wood and meditate on a man’s jiggling legs as they’re massaged by machines. Taylor Swift serenades us from speakers with her hit, “Style,” and part of me wants to scream and run home while another part wishes to gulp it all without chewing, every chemical-treated pair of shoes, every purple compression sock, every flat-brim, 5-panel, quick-to-wick cap, every sweat-proof mustache oil and vegan nipple guard tech and GPS anklet and flashy hydrovest. All this is part of the race, part of the experience, part of the package. All the joy and chaos of it, the hullabaloo, the add-ons, the pre-purchasing of race day photos before they’ve even been taken, the half million spectators that will show up tomorrow.

The energy of this gauntlet is intoxicating.

I walk out into the day and downtown is punch-drunk-giddy. Firemen polish their cherry engines to a Springsteen mixtape. Children wail. Lunch with sautéed garlic is served somewhere, carried on winds swished by freeway tunneling, and here I am, joining history! Maybe all the hype, the marketing, the inflammation around this simple 26.2 is worth the money after all. Maybe.

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Fifth Layer: Run

At 4:45 a.m. the next morning I’m dropped off downtown by an overpriced Lyft for Gear Check. School buses line the streets as far as the eye can see to store runners’ bags before shuttling us west to the start at Hopkinton. Every volunteer I meet along the way—and there will be 10,000 on this day—is so kind, so helpful, so giving. Every single one. They are the true heroes. 

The city has risen and it is caffeinated. Military personnel set up barricades. A lone helicopter hovers above. Roads are blocked. Traffic congeals. The Boston Marathon Industrial Complex deploys its livestock language, as getting to the starting line requires a series of “holding tanks” and “corrals.” Thousands single-file into the loading area, then into packed shuttles to whisk off to the Athlete’s Village, where there’s even more huddling, more waiting for your corral.

Every volunteer I meet along the way—and there will be 10,000 on this day—is so kind, so helpful, so giving. Every single one. They are the true heroes. 

Finally, someone sings the national anthem, triggering a pair of Lockheed U.S. military aircraft to pass overhead. Everyone oohs and ahhs. Some salute. Others don’t. It feels like I’ve been groomed for this moment my whole life, groomed by the tradition, the hype, the must-do, can-do, you-got-this rubbing of shoulders yelling: you will crush and conquer and kill this race. 

The Dropkick Murphys anthemic “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” pipes through speakers as my color-coded corral herds to the starting line. I lock eyes with what appears to be a military sharpshooter in camouflage standing on the rooftop of a coffee shop, surveilling runners in our corrals. I swear he winks at me.

The Complex let me through. I’m far too deep to turn back. 

Its heartbeat is my own. 

I am part of the myth now.

Now please, please . . .

Just let me run.

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