From her living room window in Hopkinton, Mass., Judy Keefe can make out the spot where tens of thousands of runners line up every April to run 26.2 miles into downtown Boston, a trek she never quite understood but celebrated anyway.
Journalists, athletes and local luminaries — and generations of friends and relatives — relied on her unquestioning hospitality in the hours before, and during, the Boston Marathon. Every year on race day, they turned her modest wood-frame home on East Main Street home into a combination shelter, operations base and party spot.
Keefe, who grew up watching the race before it became a major international event, asked nothing in return. She saw it as a sort of civic duty, a way to help her community look good, and bring strangers together.
“People did a lot of jogging, but it was always a social event for me,” Keefe, 69, said.
The Boston Marathon exerts a strong centripetal force on the region, unifying the city and its neighbors in a daylong rally that is as much about the race as it is a show of provincial pride. Nowhere is this dynamic more apparent than in the homes, businesses and schools that line the route between Hopkinton, in the city's Western suburbs, and Copley Square, in downtown Boston. And at no time is the sentiment more palpable than now, a year after twin bombings rocked the finish line.
Motivated and defiant
The race course is quintessential New England: undulating back roads passing through leafy town commons, tidy old suburbs, wooded preserves, immigrant enclaves, low-slung commercial strips and belts of light industry before confronting the well-appointed townhouses of Brookline and the bustle of Boylston Street.
Most of the outlying communities don’t typically think of themselves as part of Boston. But that changes on the third Monday in April, when hundreds of thousands of people spend the Patriots Day holiday — which marks the opening battles of the Revolutionary War — crammed along the route. They cheer and high-five people they know, and many more they don’t. They cheer the home they share, and its place in history.
“It’s another one of those patriotic, very American, apple pie, baseball kind of things,” said Jane Nelson, who grew up in Framingham, a working-class town with its share of empty storefronts. She works at Silton Glass, where every year she roots on runners in a gaudy red, white and blue outfit. “Even though it’s 26 miles long, you feel like it’s your community. It’s bigger than the little town you live in.”
This year brings added motivation.
Just after the 4-hour mark of the 2013 marathon, two bombs, allegedly set by a pair of brothers, exploded near the finish line. The attack, which killed three people and wounded more than 260, set off a furious four-day manhunt in which a police officer was shot to death, one of the brothers died in a gunfight, and the other brother was found wounded in a Watertown backyard. The Boston Marathon, one of the most prestigious road races in the world, was now infamous as well.
The 2014 marathon, on April 21, is expected to draw 36,000 runners and more than 1 million spectators. Security will be tight, with backpacks prohibited on the route and party hosts urged to be wary of strangers. But people on the route are united in defiant insistence that no one — not even a pair of murderous brothers — will disrupt their special day.
In a way, the marathon represents the end of a year-long grieving process, and the return to a routine.
“I think, and a lot of people I talk to, it’s, ‘They ticked us off and we got our back up, and there’s no way you’re going to ruin this for us,’” Nelson, 64, said.
Life and marathon, entwined
A few miles down the road, in postcard-quaint Natick, Brian Donovan recalled his earliest childhood memory: he is about 4 years old, on the sidelines, watching for his father to run by.
Donovan missed him, but before he could get upset, his dad turned around and picked him up.
“It sounds all cheesy and stuff, but that’s an indelible moment,” Donovan, 39, said.
In later years, Donovan accompanied his father, a state trooper, on a security detail for Johnny Kelley, a Boston Marathon icon who ran the race 61 times and won it twice. They were together at the finish line for the 1982 “Duel in the Sun” between the long-distance legend Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley.
Donovan’s father used to tell him that anyone who ran a marathon was a hero. So when Donovan grew up, he began running marathons himself; he has completed seven, including four Boston Marathons.
When he wasn’t running, Donovan always took Patriots Day off to watch the marathon. In 2009, he and his wife bought a house on the route. Now they host race-day parties on their front lawn.
“Everyone has the same thing they’re embracing, whether you’re in Hopkinton or Ashland or you're a student at Wellesley screeching like crazy, or at the firehouse turn,” Donovan said. “In any of these places, you just drop everything.”
Among his friends and neighbors, Donovan had noticed an urgent refusal to succumb to fear of another attack. The 2014 marathon will represent a “big middle finger to terrorism,” he said.
“I think a lot of people are going to be motivated more by, ‘You’re telling me I can’t do something that’s actually good, cheer people on? You’re telling me I can’t do that? Forget that.’”
"This is our race"
Eric Barry is a photographer whose studio faces the route in Wellesley, a well-to-do college town next door. He isn’t much of a racing fan, but he feels a sense of ownership with the Boston Marathon, a rite of spring that attracts an international field of elite competitors.
“This isn’t the Tour de France where you might watch for a couple of minutes and be like, ‘Yeah, this is beautiful’ and whatever,” Barry, 40, said. “You watch it here because this is our race.”
He added: “I don’t think I could just go anywhere and watch a marathon. I’d rather watch paint dry. But this transcends the sport. It’s the fun, the community, and the people really go crazy when they actually see someone who is beating the odds somehow.”
This year, of course, there will be plenty more underdogs to cheer: people injured at the finish line last year, and thousands whose races were cut short.
Molly Tyler, a senior at all-women Wellesley College, is leading the school's effort to make signs for anyone who asks. Each will be posted along the "Scream Tunnel," a pack of hundreds of hollering students that for decades has urged racers to press on as they hit the approximate halfway point of their journey. Requests are way up this year, she said.
"People say things like, 'I didn't get to finish last year, so make this the best sign ever, because I'm finishing,'" Tyler, 21, said.
"Nothing but resolve"
In the hours following last year’s bombing, the Newton Fire Department scrambled to find a way to uplift the surrounding neighborhood, which borders Boston.
The department’s red-brick Station 2 firehouse at the corner of Washington Street and Commonwealth Avenue was a marathon landmark, a popular gathering spot and a crucial turning point in the race at the base of Heartbreak Hill.
“We gotta do something,” Lt. Tom Lopez, a union leader, recalled telling his chief.
By the end of the week, a “Boston Strong” banner hung from the firehouse’s facade. It will remain there through this year’s race. “That sign is a source of pride,” Lopez said.
Throughout the harsh winter, runners training for the marathon have stopped at the firehouse for warmth, or water, or to chat.
Residents, meanwhile, have said they are looking forward to the marathon more than in years past.
“I have not had anybody say to me that they’re not going to go to the race,” Lopez said. “People say, ‘I can’t wait to be there.’ I hear nothing but resolve.”
Driven by memories
Back in Hopkinton, a semi-rural town that feels a world away from Boston, Rick Macmillan pulled out a 60-year-old autograph book in which he's been collecting signatures of marathon runners since he was a young boy. Johnny Kelley's in there. So's four-time champion Bill Rodgers. And three-time winner Sara Mae Berman.
Macmillan, 67, a former Hopkinton fire chief who lives a block or so from the starting line, worries, as he always does, about security. But that won't keep him and his wife from throwing their regular marathon party, popular among runners and race officials and neighbors.
"I'm proud to be a part of it, to maybe contribute as little as we can to keep it going," Macmillan said.
Along with his own marathon memories, Brian Donovan has been thinking about Martin Richard, the 8-year-old boy who was standing at the finish line with his family when one of the bombs exploded, killing him. “I was that kid,” Donovan said. “Standing there, cheering with an ice cream cone.”
Anyone who has been to the Boston Marathon could relate with that, he said.
“How many kids had that same American or Boston kind of experience? We’re going to keep doing it. It’s not going to go away.”