Hopkinton: the perfect place to start the world’s greatest marathon

The following is an excerpt from the final chapters of the moving new book from Mark Sutcliffe, Long Road to Boston: the Pursuit of the World's Most Coveted Marathonavailable in hard cover and all eBook formats

PLUS: Meet authors Mark Sutcliffe and Rachel Cullen in Boston on April 14, 3-5 pm at Flour Bakery, 12 Farnsworth Street. Come relax with an afternoon coffee at this free event, and enjoy the stories and insights of these two inspiring and entertaining authors. Mark and Rachel will share their running journeys that brought them to Boston. RSVP at Eventbrite or on Facebook.


For 364 days of the year, Hopkinton has a population of about 15,000. It’s like many other New England towns: quaint and quiet, with a few thousand homes, a red-brick town hall, and an annual town meeting at which residents vote directly on the budget and other important issues.

But for one morning each April, the 300-year-old village is invaded by the strangest-looking army in the world, tens of thousands of numbered individuals wearing shorts and t-shirts underneath garbage bags, blankets, pyjama pants and sweatshirts. One bus after another arrives and unloads its human cargo. Although they are friendly and well-intentioned, these 30,000 visitors are the worst possible guests. They eat, drink, and go to the bathroom multiple times, wherever they can find a convenient spot indoors or outdoors. And it’s clear they can’t wait to leave; they check their watches regularly and talk excitedly about how they will spend the rest of the day somewhere else. Within a few hours, they are all gone, having run out of the town as quickly as possible. After a day of cleanup, everything in Hopkinton returns to normal.

The organizers of the 1908 Olympic marathon in London had no idea what they were doing to and for the people of Hopkinton, Massachusetts when they changed the length of the marathon course to twenty-six miles, three hundred and eighty-five yards. Hopkinton just happens to be twenty-six miles west of Boston, so when the Boston Athletic Association decided in 1924 to have its annual marathon conform to what had become the standard distance, the starting line was moved to Hopkinton.

“Hopkinton is the epitome of small-town America,” four-time winner Bill Rodgers says in a Boston Marathon video. “It’s the perfect place, I think, to start the world’s greatest marathon.” The town website proclaims, appropriately, “It all starts here.”

You are dropped at the athletes’ village, on the grounds behind the local middle school and high school. On a normal day, this is home to a few hundred students from the surrounding twenty miles. But on this holiday Monday, some 30,000 people from more than eighty countries have gathered here.

There are volunteers everywhere, wishing you luck. Some of them applaud as you walk through the village. If you’re fortunate, you squeeze into an empty spot under one of the three large white tents that are set up on the school grounds. If you remember to bring something to sit on, like a garbage bag or a towel, you spread it out. You try to find a comfortable position to sit in, given that it’s the cold ground of April and you are about to run for hours.

On this particular Marathon Monday, you are bundled up, but you are ready for anything. There are volunteers handing out orange-and-pink fleece hats from Dunkin Donuts. You look around and see people huddled in pajamas and onesies, hats and scarves, all waiting for the appointed hour. You remind yourself that in other years the runners have been through worse.

It’s too early for a lot of chatter, but you do meet other runners and exchange a few stories. It’s a collegial atmosphere combined with lots of nervous energy. In the background, regular announcements are repeated regularly over a loudspeaker. More buses are emptying out.

And then, finally, your wave is called. You leave the school grounds, passing under a banner that wishes you luck, and you march north on Grove Street. The streets are fenced off, separating runners from spectators and residents. It’s not clear how the residents of Hopkinton get to where they are going on Marathon Monday, unless they just wait until all of us are gone.

You walk about half a mile up the road. To your left, the parking lot behind the pharmacy is ringed by more than a hundred portable toilets. It’s the last-chance rest stop before the start line.

You make a right onto Main Street. This is the last turn you will make until after the halfway point in the race. You are now on Route 135, the road that will take you through Ashland, Framingham, and Natick. You find the corral that corresponds to your qualifying time.

Your visit to Hopkinton is almost over. You’re now approaching the northeastern corner of town. There are announcements and a countdown. After the long, slow hours of waiting in the athletes’ village, the minutes are suddenly flying by.

It continues to be cold and rainy, but you don’t care. The extra clothes are helping, and in marathons, too cold is always better than too hot. Once you are moving, the rain won’t matter.

The gun goes off and the thousands of runners in front of you begin to move up toward the start line. You shuffle past the salon, the antique store and the town hall. You pass in front of Bill’s Pizza and Restaurant, the bank, the Masonic lodge, the Korean Presbyterian church. You file past a small cemetery. On your right is a cute little three-acre downtown park. A short road breaks off Main Street to the east. It’s called Marathon Way, even though it’s not actually part of the course and is only two hundred feet long, less than the shortest sprint distance in the Olympics.

And then, just before the corner of Ash Street, with a stately white building on your right where the Boston Marathon offices are located, you cross over a work of art, the painted blue-and-yellow line created each year for more than three decades by Jacques LeDuc. You are stepping into more than a hundred years of history, into a race that may be run for hundreds of years to come. You’re joining more than 575,000 runners who have travelled this path before.

With some ten thousand miles behind you, you have just over twenty-six to go. You are now running the Boston Marathon.


Meet authors Mark Sutcliffe and Rachel Cullen in Boston on April 14, 3-5 pm at Flour Bakery, 12 Farnsworth Street. Come relax with an afternoon coffee at this free event, and enjoy the stories and insights of these two inspiring and entertaining authors. Mark and Rachel will share their running journeys that brought them to Boston. RSVP at Eventbrite or on Facebook.

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