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It all starts… here?

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To whom does the Boston Marathon starting line belong, anyway?

This coming April 17th marks not only Patriot’s Day and, so, the 127th running of the Boston Marathon, but also 100 years since the epic race’s start in… Ashland.

Say, what?

Make that the anniversary of the last time the Marathon began in Hopkinton’s neighbor to the east. Between the race’s inauguration in 1897 and 1923, it and other marathons were, in a manner of speaking, all over the map. That first Boston Marathon – also known then as the ‘American Marathon’– measured 24.5 miles, running from Metcalf’s Mill in Ashland to the Irvington Oval in Boston.

The length was based on the first modern Olympic Games’ (1896) marathon distance of 24.8 miles – the distance Pheidippides, in 490 B.C., reputedly ran from the plains of Marathon to Athens with news of the Athenians’ victory over the Persians. While he helped to save democracy, Pheidippides, alas, was less fortunate himself. He’s said to have collapsed and expired upon delivering the news – a story most marathoners conveniently ignore but, anyway, one that’s also apocryphal, as historians now note.

The distance of a marathon was then tweaked for the 1908 Olympic Games in London. King Edward VII and Queen Alexandria wanted the race to begin at Windsor Castle so the royal family could watch the start. As the Boston Athletic Association (B.A.A.) reports, “The distance between the castle and the Olympic Stadium in London proved to be 26 miles. Organizers added extra yards to the finish around a track, 385 to be exact, so the runners would finish in front of the king and queen’s royal box.”

The Start (from Hopkinton) of the Boston Marathon in 1939

Fixed at 26.2

By 1924, however, the distance was standardized for all future Olympic – and other – marathons, at 42 kilometers, or 26 miles, 385 yards (26.2 miles), and the starting line for Boston moved west along Route 135 to Hopkinton Common.

Hopkinton today defines itself in no small part by the annual race: “It All Starts Here,” is its unofficial motto. If Ashland chafes at that, they do so quietly. Despite having hosted an average of only 70 runners a year during their tenure (compared to 30,000 a year these days in Hopkinton), they’re well aware of where it all actually began.

Everyone knows that healthy competition keeps you focused and on your game. Boston has New York. Kennedy had Khrushchev. Rocky and Bullwinkle had Boris and Natasha. Ashland boasts its own Boston Marathon Park with signs and plaques recognizing its role in the race – not dissimilar to Hopkinton’s Marathon statues and its plans for an International Marathon Center. The Thanksgiving football game between the two is one of the biggest sports events on the towns’ calendars.

In any event, Ashland can boast of its own charms well beyond the race itself: the birthplace of the electric clock, John Stone’s Tavern (complete with ghosts), Murphy’s ice cream parlor…the list goes on.

We like to say that there’s much more to a marathon than running 26.2 miles. Competition, connection and community are all critical components, and often seen in high relief among the two neighboring towns.

In the end, though, it’s worth remembering that everyone is just passing through. As Boston Globe contributor and Hopkinton resident Jennifer Graham sagely put it a decade ago, “Arrivals always trump departures… the glory of [the] Boston Marathon belongs not to a town, but to the runners.”

Bruce MacDonald serves on the Board of Directors of the 26.2 Foundation. Based in Hopkinton, The 26.2 Foundation is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization with a mission to promote and support the sport of marathoning, as well as health, wellness and economic-development initiatives through investments in innovative programs on local, regional, national and global levels.

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