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The Boston Marathon is the headline act of the best day of the year in Boston. But it’s not just the runners at the finish line who celebrate; nearly 1 million spectators turn the compact city into a riotous party.
Massachusetts officially calls the day Patriots’ Day, which is a holiday on the third Monday in April. Local people prefer to call it “Marathon Monday.” To most, it’s not really about the revolution-sparking Battles of Lexington and Concord that the holiday is meant to commemorate. However, it isn’t just about a storied foot race, either. The day is a citywide awakening – a mass celebration in the streets signaling the start of spring after a grueling winter.
Up to 1 million people come to watch the marathon itself, with free front-row seats in a “stadium” that is a winding, 26.2-mile (42.1-kilometer) roadway spanning more than half a dozen towns. In a city that obsesses over its professional sports teams – which collectively won an astounding 12 championships in the past 18 years – this one athletic event brings Bostonians together with feverish city pride. It draws more spectators than the Super Bowl, features more athletes than could fit in the Boston Garden and has a longer history than even the Red Sox at Fenway Park.
But more than the athletic event itself, it’s the camaraderie and exuberance along the sidelines that make the day so exceptional. While some people stick to one side of the race route year after year (and god help you if you need to get across anytime soon), there’s no mental division between the crowd. Everyone is cheering for the same team – clapping, hollering and hurling encouragements to thousands of runners they don’t know. If someone bolts past wearing a T-shirt that says “Running for Rachel,” sideline spectators will whoop, “RUN IT FOR RACHEL! THREE MORE MILES, YOU CAN DO IT!” The unrelenting, collective positivity is infectious and inspiring.
The event became even more significant to Boston’s identity in 2013 when a pair of terrorist explosions shattered the joy that day. The bombs killed three people, injured hundreds more and scarred an entire city. However, Boston and its people persevered, coming back more resilient than ever. By the next year, Boylston Street’s bars, restaurants, sidewalks and high-rises were once more jammed with spectators determined to restore the triumph of the day. Today, the sidelines are still overwhelmed with supporters along the whole route from start to finish.
Early risers can catch the start of the marathon in Hopkinton, a suburb west of Boston that, for a day, swells with more runners than residents. The wheelchair division initiates the race just after 9am. The elite women and men begin shortly after, followed by a rolling avalanche of everyday runners barreling toward Boston. The path follows Route 135 through Ashland and Framingham, where thirsty spectators can pick between Stone’s Public House or Jack’s Abby, respectively.
Thirteen miles (20.9 kilometers) in, Wellesley College students form a “scream tunnel,” welcoming racers to the halfway mark with a raucous serenade of shrieks and hundreds of inspirational signs. The distant din is sometimes audible even from Wellesley’s town center a mile away, where the vibe is more mellow, and there are plenty of options for lunch or drinks to celebrate the day. Visitors can also picnic with a view of the race in nearby Hunnewell Park.
The race then snakes through the town of Newton along the serene and serpentine curves of Commonwealth Avenue, affording plenty of peaceful places to set up a lawn chair and cooler. Around mile 20 (kilometer 32), the Boston skyline emerges as runners crest the notoriously difficult incline of Heartbreak Hill, where the festive atmosphere intensifies as crowds shout encouragement to spur the weary runners onward.
Around Boston College, dozens of house parties, coveted porches and sidewalk barbecues line the route from Cleveland Circle down Beacon Street. Here, you can expect throngs of students toasting runners with red plastic cups. Nearby Boston University also shuts down for the day, and the students celebrate into the western neighborhoods of Allston, Brighton and beyond.
With the subway’s Green C Line hugging the route, Brookline’s Beacon Street is one of the easiest viewing areas to get to, and maybe the most fun, too. While elite runners finish the race in just over two hours, most mortals are happy to get here in four hours, and some understandably take much longer. With runners pouring past well into the afternoon, the party continues all day long – and gets a second wind around 2pm when thousands of Red Sox fans spill out of nearby Fenway Park and join the curbside crowd.
These Red Sox fans may be late to the marathon party, but that’s only because they attended the annual Patriots’ Day early home game, where the first pitch is thrown at 11:05am. (There’s something glorious about going to the ballpark in the morning – it’s like a baseball Christmas.) That makes the area around Kenmore Square an exciting, if not chaotic, place to cheer on the runners as they round the final corner into the Back Bay.
The only place more electric is the home stretch along Boylston Street, where the finish line awaits runners and bar-hoppers alike. Here, the bars and restaurants are boisterous, the crowds nearly impenetrable and the joyous tears free-flowing. There may be different winners and changing weather every year, but the rousing celebration is always a guarantee.