One of the more prominent athletic events in the United States (along with its unfortunate modern history) is the Boston Marathon, attracting participants from around the globe to compete in the race. One of the reasons is its prestige which has earned it a reputation as a standout among marathons due to the fact that it actually invokes standards in order to enter the competition at all, along with a prize purse for the victors.
But how did the Boston Marathon become such a prestigious event? When was it that it set itself apart from other races of its kind and draw the sort of crowd and competition that it does year after year?
It begins shortly after the first modern marathon held at the Olympic Games in Athens, Greece in 1896, in commemoration of the Greek soldier Pheidippides who ran the length to Athens by which the marathon was originally measured (fun fact: history states he only ran 24.8 miles as opposed to the 26.2 under the modern-day marathon regulations). John Graham was the manager for the U.S. marathon team during those 1896 games, and he found a deep passion for the sport – so deep that he was moved to establish a similar event in Massachusetts. With the assistance of local businessman Herbert Holton, Graham established several routes by which such a marathon could be run. The final decision was a 24.5-mile course that ran from Metcalf’s Mill in Ashland to Irvington Oval in the city of Boston. Fielding only 15 runners on April 19th in its inaugural year of 1897, the B.A.A. (Boston Athletic Association) Marathon saw its first champion in New Yorker John J. McDermott, with a time of 2:55:10.
The Boston Marathon would be run consistently every on April 19th (except when that day fell on a Sunday, in which case the marathon was held the day after) from 1897 all the way to 1968, when the official observance of Patriot’s Day was changed from a dedicated April 19th to the third Monday of April, whichever day that happened to fall upon. During this period, the Boston Marathon had undergone some small changes, most notably its route. While the route maintained most of its similarities, the marathon itself was extended by about 1.7 miles in 1924 (for an exact total of 26 miles, 385 yards), to accommodate new Olympic standards set by then-King Edward VII and Queen Alexandria in 1908 due to the convenience of the route from Windsor Castle to the Olympic Stadium. Thus, the modern length of the marathon was born, and with it came a new starting point to the Boston Maraton. Since 1924, instead of Ashland, the marathon has now begun in Hopkinton.
Since 1970, the Boston Marathon has made several other changes to its event. Qualifying standards were set to determine if a participant would even be allowed to race at all, and this standard has become measured by performance in other races. The competition regarding even receiving a chance to participate has become so great that some sources indicate that hopeful racers need not only to meet the standard for their appropriate age and gender, but also to better it by at least 2 minutes. By this condition alone, nearly 3,000 time qualifiers were still unable to enter the event due solely to the competition and the premium of participant slots in the marathon.
The Boston Marathon has also expanded to include female participants as of 1971, with the race’s first female victor coming just the year after as Nina Kuscsik finished the race in 3:10:26. Three years later, in 1975, the Boston Marathon also included a wheelchair division, and in 1986 the race began awarding prize money (as if the incentive of running in the marathon in the modern day was not enough in itself). To this day, the most accomplished Boston Marathon runner remains John A. Kelley, who started 61 different Boston Marathons, completed 58 of them, and won two (1935 and 1945). Kelley also raced up until he was 84 years old, participating in the Boston Marathon as recently as 1992.