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Boston erupts in celebration of 125th Boston Marathon after pandemic postponement

2021 Boston Marathon runners
A pack of runners in the 2021 Boston Marathon men’s elite race running on Beacon Street Monday. The historic race returned to Boston in-person for its 125th anniversary after a 910 day hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. CONOR KELLEY/ DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

The Boston Marathon commenced in-person Monday for the first time in 910 days, in time for its milestone 125th anniversary. Participants in this year’s race — which was postponed in April 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic — ran the iconic 26.2-mile course from Hopkinton, Massachusetts to Boylston Street in Boston. 

In addition to the nearly 20,000 in-person race competitors, about 30,000 entrants aged 18 and over ran the race at home in a virtual component all over the world — making the 2021 marathon the largest in history. 

Spectators gathered all along the course and near the finish line to cheer on the runners as the race commenced at around 8 a.m — an hour earlier than previous years’ races.

“After having to cancel this longtime Boston tradition due to COVID-19 in April 2020 and then postponed in April 2021, we are proud to host a safe return of the oldest footrace competition in the country,” Acting Mayor Kim Janey said in an Oct. 7 press conference.

Thomas Grilk, the CEO and president of the Boston Athletic Association — the non-profit that organizes the race — said at the press conference the BAA implemented numerous changes to the marathon structure to keep all participants, volunteers and spectators safe.

New safety precautions included a rolling start and a reduced in-person runner pool to limit big gatherings within the race. To run in the race, athletes had to show proof of WHO-approved COVID-19 vaccination or a negative COVID test within 72 hours. Over 95% of all volunteers are vaccinated as well.

“While the 26.2-mile course and the finish at Boylston Street that we all know, those remain the same, pretty much everything else is different,” Grilk said. “We’re hoping in every way to make this safe for everyone.”

A new addition to the race was the first ever Para Athletics Division, which awarded prizes and prize money to athletes with visual, lower-limb and upper-limb impairments that competed in the 30-person division. 

“If the Boston Marathon is anything it’s something that brings people together,” Grilk said. 

Kelly Johnson, a Portland, Oregon resident, ran her first Boston Marathon this year. Johnson said she was excited to finally cross this “once-in-a-lifetime chance” off her bucket list. 

“I think I’m well prepared and very mentally and physically focused to do this,” Johnson said, “And plus, it’s very historic too, with it being the 125th.”

She added she was most looking forward to both the starting line atmosphere and the finish line atmosphere, but also to celebrate afterward with her friends and family that came out to Boston for support.

“Having the build-up with the atmosphere, the camaraderie by other runners and participants, I think that plays a really big role,” she said. “It motivates me too on and off the course.”

Milwaukee, Wisconsin resident Rachael Spalding also ran her first Boston Marathon this year. Spalding wrote in an email that running offered an “escape” for her through an emotionally and mentally draining year as a healthcare provider in mental health through the pandemic.

“I feel so grateful to have had the physical ability to run during this time,” she wrote. “If I’ve learned anything during the pandemic, it’s to be grateful for the present and to take advantage of opportunities in the moment, because you may not get a second chance.”

Kurt Turner, from Sacramento, California, ran his first Boston Marathon in 2018 and ran the 2020 race virtually. This is his third time competing.

Turner said last year, even though the marathon was virtual, there was a sense of “camaraderie” as runners shared their race experiences across social media — although it was “definitely not the same” as being in Boston. 

“For anybody that runs marathons, this is the perennial, it’s the mountaintop,” Turner added. “To be able to come and qualify here in person again, it’s just really special for me.”

Both Turner and Johnson said they were especially drawn to the marathon this year because of its first-ever autumn date.

“I think the October date is great so I could run during the summer [to train], versus in the very freezing cold,” Johnson said. 

Turner said working up the motivation to train for the marathon through the pandemic was a “real struggle,” but said he is rediscovering his passion to run after being virtual for such a long time.  

“It’s already so inspiring to see and hear other people’s stories that you run with in Boston, how they got here, what kind of sacrifices they made, how much their family [supported them], all of that,” he said, “But this year it’s extra special, just because we’ve all been locked down.”

When seeing other competitors arriving in the city and preparing to run, Turner said he felt a “reawakening” in the community.

“It just feels like there’s hope,” Turner said. “Just being out today and walking around and seeing all these people running, and seeing the expo, and being around all the people with all their gear on, it just warms your heart.”

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