From incredible triumphs, personal bests, scandals and heartbreaking tragedies, the painted pavement of the Boston Marathon’s finish line is a hallowed place for many runners. While the endpoint of America’s oldest marathon has become the stuff of legend over the race’s 118 years, the location of Boston’s finish line, as well as the organization and scene surrounding it, has changed over time.
Since the Boston Athletic Association’s first marathon in 1897—then known as the "American Marathon"—the site of the finish line has changed four times.
The reasons are quite simple.
“Because the start was moved, because the sponsors changed, [and] because of construction,” said Tom Derderian, author of The Boston Marathon: A Celebration of America’s Great Race.
The first “American Marathon” was a 24.5-mile race that started in Ashland and ended close to the site of the present finish line, at Irvington Oval, a 220-yard outdoor track located in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. To finish the inaugural year, runners completed a lap around the track. The handful of runners also had to contend with crowds from a B.A.A. track event held at Irvington Oval the same day—the last of a series of athletic events organized by the B.A.A. to celebrate Patriots’ Day.
“The track meet had just finished as John J. McDermott, the winner of the first marathon was coming down Exeter Street,” said John Hanc, author of The B.A.A. at 125: The Official History of the Boston Athletic Association. “You had track runners there, you had spectators for the track meet, you had spectators for the marathon, you had cops. McDermott had to make one lap around the track and apparently he was mobbed on the track by people.
“It was absolute pandemonium according to all the newspaper accounts.”
Identifying the exact location of Irvington Oval, which was also the site of the finish for the second edition of the race as well, is tricky.
“It sort of vanished,” Hanc said, “and there’s no footprint of it.”
Hanc and others were not able to pinpoint the track’s site on modern and 19th century maps. Two theories about Irvington Oval’s location have emerged, according to Hanc. One is the track was located at the present site of the Copley Square Plaza, a large swath of open grass a few blocks down Boylston Street from the modern finish line. The other is it was located south of the B.A.A.’s clubhouse site at the corner of Boylston and Exeter streets and later was covered up by construction.
Hanc thinks the latter theory is the most likely. For now, this chunk of early Boston Marathon history remains shrouded by time.
After the BAA’s clubhouse was completed in 1898, the finish line was moved to Exeter Street between Boylston and St. James Streets. Running past the Exeter Street entrance of the ornate brownstone, finishers ended their races here from 1899 to 1964.
The six decades of finishes on Exeter built the race’s allure. It’s where Fred Lorz won the race in 1905, a comeback after he was exposed for cheating in the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis. It’s the goal John “The Elder” Kelley rallied toward through tremendous physical pain to capture the laurel wreath in 1935.
“Yeah, you get a medal once you cross the finish line, but the actual action of crossing the line symbolizes achievement, courage, determination, just all those things that you needed to reach that point,” said Dave McGillivray, the race director of the Boston Marathon since 2001.
“For me the finish line symbolizes two things: It sort of symbolizes the journey to the starting line, and then it symbolizes the journey from the starting line to the finish line,” McGillivray said. “You have to earn the right to get to the starting line—and I really think that that’s the tough part—I really think that between the start and the finish is more like the victory lap, it’s the reward.”
By the time McGillivray attempted to finish Boston for the first time in 1971, the starting line had moved several times and the end of the race was relocated to Ring Road, a service road parallel to Boylston Street in front of the Prudential Center.
Now a large concrete patio, the painted line on Ring Road’s pavement saw several important firsts. In 1972, the first official female participants finished there. Bob Hall wheeled to victory across it in 1975 to become the event’s first men’s wheelchair champion. It’s also where one of the race’s biggest scandals occurred, when a young Cuban-American runner named Rosie Ruiz allegedly jumped into the race at Kenmore Square and was falsely crowned the women’s champion.
When John Hancock Financial Services assumed sponsorship of the event in 1985, the finish line moved yet again to its present location on Boylston between Exeter and Dartmouth streets.
Over the decades and location changes, issues like crowd control and congestion at the finish line were constant headaches for runners and organizers. Police barriers, thousands of cameras and an ever-increasing number of spectators and runners in the field has transformed Boston’s finish line into a Valhalla of international sporting events. For all of its lore—from the glorious wins and displays of endurance to the macabre chapter added to its history with the 2013 bombing—many runners view the finish line as a goal to work hard toward, and, ultimately, just the stopping point of a storied race.
Derderian, who has run Boston 14 times, says on the significance of the race’s end: “The finish line means you can stop running,”