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.