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The History of the Boston Marathon

Of all the great global athletic competitions, the Boston Marathon is the granddaddy of marathon running events. This 26.2-mile run is the world's oldest annually contested marathon and has hosted a race 123 times.

That’s a lot of races, which means the Boston Marathon also has a rich and captivating history, one that even many of its most passionate participants don’t fully know.

The First Boston Marathon

The first Boston Marathon was held on April 19, 1897, but a lot happened beforehand that led up to this fateful day.

What Started the Boston Marathon?

Originally called the American Marathon, the Boston Marathon as we now know it was the final event of the Boston Athletic Association (B.A.A.) Games. U.S. Olympic team manager John Graham, inspired by the marathon at the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896, brought the race closer to his hometown.

Graham and event coordinators scheduled the race to occur on Massachusetts’s recently established holiday of Patriots’ Day, a holiday commemorating the start of the Revolutionary War.

By linking the race both to the Athenian Olympic games and the American struggle for liberty, the race has endured through many local and global challenges, including both World Wars and the Great Depression. 

How Many Runners Finished the First Boston Marathon?

The original race was only 24.5 miles. While 15 runners started the race, only 10 made it to the finish line. John J. McDermott, representing the Pastime Athletic Club of New York City, was crowned the marathon’s first winner, recording a time of 2:55:10.

Boston Marathon Milestones

As a prestigious event that has endured for over 120 years, the Boston Marathon has seen many major firsts - and lasts. 

Here are five of the most famous Boston Marathon milestones:

  • 1898: The first foreign champion (22-year-old Boston College student Ronald J. MacDonald of Antigonish, Nova Scotia) is crowned.
    • 24 different countries can claim a winner of the Boston Marathon.
    • Currently, the United States leads the list with 53 total champions.
  • 1924: The course is lengthened to 26 miles, 385 yards to conform to the Olympic standard. Additionally, the starting line is moved west.
  • 1928: John A. “The Elder” Kelley makes his Boston Marathon debut. Kelley, who won the race in 1935 and again in 1945, holds the record for most Boston Marathons started (61) and finished (58). His final race came in 1992 at the age of 84. 
  • 1969: The Boston Marathon had always been held on the holiday commemorating Patriots’ Day. Beginning in 1969, the holiday is officially recognized as the third Monday in April.
  • 1988: Kenya’s Ibrahim Hussein finishes one second ahead of Tanzania’s Juma Ikangaa, becoming the first African to win the Boston Marathon, or any other major marathon.

Females Race to the Finish

While the Boston Marathon has hosted thousands of racers throughout its history, a separate women’s race was not established until 1972. Thanks to the groundwork and sacrifices by a few women, the track is now paved for countless female participants.

Bobbi Gibb

In 1966, race director Will Cloney published a letter claiming that women were physiologically incapable of running 26 miles. Even though the official Boston Marathon rule book made no mention of gender and the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) included no provisions to exclude women from races that included men, women were simply not allowed to enter the race.

Defiantly disregarding Cloney’s beliefs, Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb participated in the 1966 race with no official race number. Hiding in the bushes near the start until the race began, she sprinted to history, becoming the first woman to run the entire Boston Marathon and paving the route for all future women.

Gibb finished in 3 hours, 21 minutes and 40 seconds, faster than two-thirds of all runners.

Men try to stop Kathrine Switzer from running the Boston Marathon

Kathrine Switzer

In 1967, a year after Gibb finished, Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to register for the race and finish - but not without some controversy.

Even though she properly registered, paid, and signed up for the race, she did not clearly identify herself as a female on the race application. B.A.A. officials issued her a bib number, but once they recognized a woman on the track, they tried unsuccessfully to physically remove her from the race.

Switzer's completion of the race as the first officially registered woman runner prompted the AAU to change its rules, banning women from competing in races against men.

Nina Kuscsik

However, four years after Switzer’s finish in 1971, the AAU finally permitted all of its sanctioned marathons (including Boston) to allow women to enter races.

In 1972, Nina Kuscsik became the first official Women’s Boston Marathon champion. She was joined by seven other women. All eight women started that race - and all eight finished.

As recently as 2015, about 47% of all Boston Marathon entrants were female - debunking Cloney’s beliefs of the physiological inferiority of females.

Controversial Boston Marathon Finishes

For all the many amazing milestones that have occurred over the past 120+ years, the Boston Marathon has also witnessed some very precarious situations, too. Both cheaters and controversial calls have challenged the sanctity of this world-famous race.

Rosie Ruiz, the Impostor

Only a few years after women were permitted in 1980, Rosie Ruiz, a Cuban-American woman, would make headlines for women again. She crossed the finish line first and was declared the winner in the female category for the 84th Marathon

But not for long.

Why? 

Officials and eyewitnesses investigated and confirmed that Ruiz skipped most of the race and jumped back onto the course about a half-mile before the finish line.

Her victory was short-lived, as officials stripped her of the title eight days after the race. Canadian Jacqueline Gareau was proclaimed the winner.

Women’s Race Disqualification

In the 2014 Boston Marathon, Rita Jeptoo was disqualified after officials discovered and confirmed that she was doping.

Ethiopia’s Bizunesh Deba was named the women's winner of the 2014 Boston Marathon. With her finish time of 2:19:59, Deba became the course record holder.

Geoffrey Mutai and the IAAF

Running a marathon is challenging enough. But imagine finishing the race and breaking the world record for the fastest finish - only to be told you’ve broken no such records.

In 2011, Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai found himself in this very scenario, finishing the race in just 2:03:02:00. At the time, this was the fastest marathon finish ever recorded. 

There was just one problem

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) would not acknowledge his finish as a world record because the course did not satisfy rules that regarded elevation drop and start/finish separation (intended to prevent advantages gained from a strong tailwind).

Despite the support of fellow racers and even Boston Marathon officials, the IAAF stuck to its guns and denied Mutai his record. The Associated Press has called the move “a rejection of an unprecedented performance on the world’s most prestigious marathon course.”

Participant in the wheelchair division of the Boston Marathon

The Boston Marathon Welcomes Wheelchair Division

In 1975, the Boston Marathon became the first major marathon to include a wheelchair division competition.

Bob Hall

In 1975, with his time of 2 hours, 58 minutes, Bob Hall became the first champion of the wheelchair division.  Will Cloney, the same director who doubted the physiological stamina of females, promised Hall that if he finished in less than three hours, he would receive an official B.A.A. Finisher’s Certificate. 

Jean Driscoll

In 1990, Jean Driscoll of Champaign, Illinois, won her first of seven consecutive wheelchair division races with a world best time of 1:43:17.

In 1997, her streak ended when one of her racing chair wheels got lodged in a trolley track, which caused her to crash and her tire to go flat.

Three years later, Driscoll went on to win her eighth and final race, giving her more wins at Boston than any other person.

The 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing

The 2013 Boston Marathon was not only a pivotal moment for the Boston community but also the beginning of a national movement for all Americans to join together to be #BostonStrong.

Nearly 3 hours after the winner crossed the finish line at 2:49 pm ET, 2 homemade bombs, spaced about 200 yards apart, went off close to the last 225 yards of the race. Runners, volunteers, spectators, and first responders scattered, bringing the race to a halt.

While several racers had already finished, many more were unable to continue. Entrants who completed at least half the course and did not finish due to the bombing were given automatic entry in 2014.

In the end, close to 280 people were injured, and sadly, 3 people lost their lives. The now infamous perpetrators of the bombing - Dzhokar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev - were identified with surveillance cameras and were discovered hiding under a tarp in a nearby residential community. While Tamerlan was killed by police, Dzhokar was found guilty of 30 federal offenses in connection with the attack and was sentenced to death.

From the tragedy, sprang the national #BostonStrong movement, an expression of Boston’s unity after the bombings. 

Bobbi Gibb as Grand Marshall

Bobbi Gibb, the female pioneer I previously mentioned, served as grand marshal of the 2016 Boston Marathon upon the 50th anniversary of her 1966 unofficial finish.

The 2016 race also saw another major milestone as American Jami Marseilles became the first female double amputee to finish the Boston Marathon.

After presenting the trophy to Atsede Baysa, the Women’s Open division winner, Baysa returned the favor and presented Gibb with the very same trophy, commemorating her finish 50 years earlier. In a true act of sportsmanship, Gibb promised to travel to Baysa’s home in Ethiopia to return it to her in 2017.

How Much Money Does the Winner of the Boston Marathon Get?

Originally only a local event, the Boston Marathon did not offer any monetary rewards. In fact, for almost the first 100 years, the only prize awarded for winning the race was a wreath woven from olive branches.

However, in 1986, after almost 90 years of attracting runners from around the world, the first prize money ever was paid out at the Boston Marathon. The first-place runner earned $60,000 in cash and a new Mercedes-Benz. Today’s winners have a chance to earn up to $200,000 in prize money.

Since 1986, prize money has been provided by the principal sponsor of the Boston Marathon, John Hancock, who continues to financially support the race. To date, that has amounted to more than $20 million in prize money and course-record bonuses to top finishers. 

Celebrities Who Have Run the Boston Marathon

Though winners of the Boston Marathon are generally household names among the running community, the majority of participants are normal people with normal jobs.

That said, many celebrities have run the Boston Marathon over the years, many of whom have actually posted fairly impressive times. Here are some of the more famous names you may recognize:

  • 2002: Mario Lopez (5:41:42) - actor (Saved by the Bell star and Extra host)
  • 2003: Will Ferrell (3:56:12) - comedian
  • 2008: Lance Armstrong (2:50:58) - cyclist
  • 2010: Valerie Bertinelli (5:14:37) - actress (finished five days before her 50th birthday)
  • 2013 & 2014: Joey McIntyre (3:57:06) - singer (New Kids on the Block)
  • 2015: Uzo Aduba (5:01) - actress (Orange is the New Black
  • 2016: Christy Turlington (4:09:27) - supermodel

2020 Cancellation

For the first time in its history, the 2020 Boston Marathon was cancelled in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus global pandemic.

Originally postponed from April to September, officials ultimately cancelled the race. This was the race’s first cancellation in its 124-year history. To modify the race, the B.A.A. planned a virtual race so that the tradition could continue in a safe manner - marking only the second time the race format has been changed (In 1918, the race was changed from a marathon to a military relay race because of World War I).

2021: Further COVID-19 Impact 

Despite efforts to return to a normal routine, 2020 and the foreseeable future are anything but normal. On October 28, 2020, the B.A.A. cancelled the 2021 Boston Marathon scheduled for April. Organizers are hopeful they can host the event in late 2021, some time in fall. 

The Finish Line

For the millions of people who have run the race - including close to 27,000 participants last year - the Boston Marathon is worth participating in no matter what obstacles are involved, whether that means World Wars or even unfair rules.

That’s because the Boston Marathon isn’t just a race.

It’s a movement. 

It’s a journey.

It’s a community coming together to exemplify the essence of #BostonStrong.

So, while the history of the Boston Marathon is full of incredible moments, there is no reason to doubt that the future of this amazing race will be, too.

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