Why Does Boston Hold a Marathon on Patriot's Day?

The Boston Marathon isn't just an athletic event—it's a celebration of America’s democratic republic.

Militiaman peddling alongside winning runner in the 1897 marathon (Wikimedia)

On the third Monday in April each year, the people of Massachusetts celebrate Patriots' Day with the running of the Boston Marathon. It may seem incongruous to mark the anniversary of the American Revolution with an enormous road race. But the Boston Marathon is actually a near-perfect embodiment of the meaning of Patriots' Day.

Marathon. Long before the word meant a road race, it conjured a great battle of antiquity, an outnumbered Athenian army turning back the might of Persia's empire. To America's founding generations, it was no mere military triumph but a pivotal victory. They saw in Athens the birth of liberty, and in its triumph the defense of republican government. American orators frequently invoked the memory of Marathon, linking the citizen-soldiers of Athens with the militiamen who mustered at Lexington and Concord, facing down an empire in defense of republican liberty.

Patriots' Day is a holiday of far more recent vintage than the events it commemorates. Until 1894, the residents of Massachusetts observed Fast Day, a pious occasion of reflection and prayer. By the late nineteenth century, though, Fast Day was "more honored in the breach than in the observance." The early spring holiday came, instead, to mark the opening of the season for field sports and ball games. Eager to end the farce, but careful not to eliminate a cherished day off, Governor Frederic Greenhalge proposed moving the festivities to April 19th and renaming the occasion Patriots' Day. The new holiday would mark the battles of Lexington and Concord, as well as the first bloodshed of the Civil War, as "the anniversary of the birth of liberty and union."

When the Olympic Games were revived at Athens in 1896, they featured a foot race, recreating Pheidippides' fabled run from Marathon to Athens bearing the news of victory. So when the Boston Athletic Association announced in 1897 its intention to hold its own race "patterned after the games at Athens," it seemed a perfect fit for the new Patriots' Day holiday. The run was to trace the route of the battle, from Concord back through Lexington and then on to Boston, with the runners following the path of the patriots roused to action in the countryside. The trouble was, Concord lies scarcely twenty miles from Boston. Practicality prevailed. The organizers instead followed the tracks of the Boston & Albany forty kilometers to the northwest of the race's terminus, and set the starting line in Ashland.

The runners in that 1897 race, fifteen young amateurs, bore little outward resemblance to the minutemen whose journey they symbolically retraced. But alongside each runner rode a uniformed militiaman, providing lemons, water, and wet handkerchiefs, as he followed the paths used more than a century before by militia converging on Boston.

Before the break of day on April 19, 1775, Paul Revere rode thirteen miles to Lexington in a little less than two hours, rousing the countryside to arms. William Dawes, riding by a different route, covered seventeen miles in about three hours. But on April 19, 1897, J.J. McDermott ran longer, and faster, than either man's horse. Faster, in fact, than any marathoner had before. He finished the race course in just 2 hours, 55 minutes, and 10 seconds, and was borne off the course on the shoulders of the cheering throngs.

In the years that followed, the race itself swelled until it seemed to overshadow the events it honored. "This morning, before the Marathon runners start over the road," the Boston Globe editorialized in 1912, "...it behooves every mother's son of us to reflect for a few moments at least upon the events which produced the holiday we celebrate."

But the Boston Marathon doesn't distract from the events it commemorates. It has, instead, come to embody our long march toward greater freedom. The Athenian victory that first inspired it preserved liberty, but only for a privileged elite. The battles at Lexington and Concord that it honors gave birth to a new republic, but one marred by slavery. The Civil War it commemorates turned slaves into citizens, but for women, equality remained elusive. Like the runners navigating the hills of the race's course, we have made uneven progress, and our pace has sometimes faltered. We should not be so consumed by the task at hand, though, that we fail to look back to the starting line and recognize how far we have come.

Monday morning, 23,336 runners lined up in Hopkinton. They came from 92 countries and from every state in the union. Some ran to raise funds for 35 official charities, or for innumerable other causes. Others, to measure themselves, or to push their own limits. They raced by wheelchairs, and by handcycles, and on their own two feet. They represented not the seed of liberty defended at Marathon, or Lexington, or Baltimore, but the fruit it had ultimately born. Men and women, of all races and creeds, drawn from the four corners of the earth, and formed into one great democratic mob of individuals.

And even if they look nothing like the militia who marched on Boston, even if they never give them a moment's thought, they still preserve their determined and defiant spirit. Bill Iffrig, who ran yesterday, may never have heard of Samuel Whittemore, the oldest man to grab his musket and march to the sound of the guns in 1775. He may not know that the 78-year-old Whittemore was shot in the face, bayonetted a half-dozen times, and left for dead, much less that he recovered, living to "see his country enjoy all the benefits of independence and peace." But Iffrig, also 78, was himself knocked down by the blast of a bomb yesterday. "After you've run 26 miles," he said, "you're not going to stop there." So he picked himself back up and walked across the finish line.

Today, people all across the City of Boston are picking themselves up and moving forward with their lives. The great truth celebrated on Patriot's Day is that free societies are inherently stronger and more resilient than those who attack them. That despite their flaws, they draw their strength from their commitment to moving forward, one painful step at a time, in the direction of a more perfect future. There's no more fitting symbol of that ancient lesson than a marathon.