The race medals. The mylar blankets. The cups littering the roads, the lines of portajohns, and the clear gear-check bags.
It was all there.
Convenience stores sold out of Gatorade. Cowbells clanged. Concerned spectators double-checked tracking apps on their phones. Families scanned the crowds of runners limping past finish lines in Chicago and Boston, then spotted their sweaty athletes and hugged them tightly. Observers gawked and clapped, celebrating in the achievements of strangers.
One runner walked through a Boston hotel lobby carrying a chocolate milk and a six-pack of Sam Adams OctoberFest—the ultimate recovery duo.
Big marathons, finally, are back in the United States.
Two years had elapsed since the last Chicago Marathon, held on October 13, 2019, when Brigid Kosgei set the world record. Back up six months before that to get to the most recent Boston—910 days ago. That’s a long time for the running community to go without Marathon Monday, its day of days, the granddaddy race of them all.
But over this long weekend in October 2021, Chicago made its return, and Boston did one day later, postponed from its forever April date by the pandemic.
And for that, everyone was grateful. Even when the racing hurt, gratitude was the stronger feeling.
At least it was for Des Linden, who struggled in this Boston Marathon. She said that her buildup hadn’t gone as planned, and at halfway, she was alone, 48 seconds behind the leaders.
“The group’s gone, and I’m just having a tough day,” she told Runner’s World. “I wanted to step off every single mile. But there is this realization that we haven’t gotten to do this in forever.”
She had two choices: drop out, or embrace the beauty of being back in Boston. She chose the latter, finishing in 2:35:25. “That was definitely what got me through the last half of the race,” she said.
It wasn’t exactly the same as an April Boston. First, there was the tent for verifying vaccination status or negative COVID-19 test results, then the wristbands that allowed runners to pick up their bibs and board buses to the start. For the masses, the start was rolling, to maintain separation. The crowds were a little thinner everywhere, from the hotels to the course.
“I feel like it was really good to see community,” Linden said. “It was very hopeful. We’re on our way back. It was a stepping stone.”
Chicago had about 26,000 finishers, down from its usual 45,000. Boston had only 15,385, less than half of its typical tally.
Bennett Beach, 72, of Bethesda, Maryland, was one of them. He finished his 54th consecutive Boston, in 5:47:27. He arrived in town on Saturday night for the Monday race. “As I was walking down Arlington Street, it suddenly hit me I was back in Boston after awhile,” he said. “It was a very exciting feeling.”
He always gets a little sentimental about Boston, after all these years, but especially this one. “It’s such a part of my life,” he said. “When I get back up here and know why I’m here, it’s emotional.”
Same, too, for Patty Hung, the longest active women’s streaker, who today finished her 35th Boston in a row. At 75, she still works as a night shift nurse at Children’s Hospital in Oakland, California.
She ran the virtual race in 2020. Not the same. In Boston, “I’ve gotten teary-eyed a couple of times since I’ve been here,” she said.
She finished in 5:34:25, acutely aware of how lucky she is to have emerged unscathed from the pandemic. “As a nurse, we’ve experienced that,” she said. “That never leaves me, the fact of all the people who have been hit by COVID, and their families experiencing the despair.”
Tom Grilk, CEO of the Boston Athletic Association, put the race in perspective. “Against the massive tragedy of this disease,” he said, “a little joy is a good thing.”
In Chicago, Sister Stephanie Baliga of the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels, the famous running nun, finished in 3:41:34—a slow day for her. She didn’t care.
“It’s a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful day for Chicago,” she said after the race. “I almost started crying at some points. It was very overwhelming, the opportunity to be able to do what we want to do and what we love doing.
“I didn’t do well, but it didn’t matter,” she continued. “I’m so happy again. It was such a gift to be back out there.”