“BOSTON”— The Oldest Contested Marathon in the World


The Oldest Contested Marathon in the World

Amos Lassen

Director Jon Dunham’s “Boston” is the story of the oldest annually contested marathon in the world. The Boston Marathon evolved from a workingman’s challenge to welcoming foreign athletes and eventually women and has paved the way for the modern marathon and mass participatory sports. Narrated by Academy Award winner and Boston native Matt Damon, Boston features many of running’s greatest champions including Shalane Flanagan, Meb Keflezighi, Bill Rodgers, Frank Shorter and Joan Benoit Samuelson.

This is a behind-the-scenes look at the preparations for 2014’s first post-bombing race but that’s not what makes it special. Working with the Boston Athletic Association, director Dunham offers a deeply informative and always engaging look at the race’s more than 120-year history, providing fascinating glimpses of celebrated participants like two-time winner Johnny Kelley, who finished 58 marathons, the last when he was age 84. That’s endurance.

Dunham combines archival footage and photos, interviews with past Boston Marathon winners, participants, organizers and spectators; and a not-quite chronological recounting of the contest, from its 1897 start to the fatal, terror-related bombing in 2013 and the race’s powerful, rise-from-the-ashes return the following year.

The narrative covers the marathon’s changes and growth over time, including its international impact, inclusion of female runners and disabled racers, and the pivotal introduction of prize money. We see the pride and strength of Boston’s leaders and citizens, as well as the marathon’s devoted contenders and planners that ultimately fuel this affecting portrait. Dunham includes the human interest angle into Boston and his presentation and delivery hold the viewer’s attention even if they are a novice to the world of running and Marathons. The phrase “Boston Strong” has come to symbolize a feeling of hope and community surrounding the horrible tragedy and horrific act of terrorism on American soil. The 2013 event shone a spotlight on the City of Boston and the Boston Athletic Association and has sparked two major motion pictures. The documentary highlights not only the race but also the city itself and gives the audience an insight and a unique perspective on the event. “Boston” begins by discussing the history of the Boston Marathon tracing all the way back to its beginnings and ties to the games in Ancient Greece and the first modern Olympic games. Held on the third Monday in April (known as Patriots Day), the first event was held 120 years ago in 1897 with fifteen runners. It remains the World’s oldest annual marathon and is one of the best-known road races. There are over 37,000 runners per year and is one of the most sought after entrance invitations in the world. From the 1930’s the movie fast forwards to the 1960’s and 70’s with interviews from such winners as Jon Anderson and Bill Rogers. The film touches upon one-time winner Australian winner Robert de Castella who brought his notoriety back to his homeland and started a running program for the indigenous people.

We see some of the more controversial years in the marathon’s history. It delves into the first year prize money was awarded in response to other marathons offering cash awards. The Boston Marathon held out for as long as it could after awards were instituted but the movie documents how the most elite runners boycotted Boston until they too gave in and gave cash prizes to the winners.

One of the highlights is seeing the first female participants in the race both sanctioned and unsanctioned. It highlights Bobbi Gibbs who entered the race in 1966 even though women weren’t allowed and how she paved the way for those women who came after her once the Marathon officially began allowing women runners in 1972. We learn of the Rosie Ruiz scandal of 1980 as well, when Ruiz won the marathon by cheating and entering the race at the last 2 miles.

Of course, the movie spends a significant amount of time on the 2013 bombing and its aftermath. We see the events leading up to the bombing and the twelve months following the event ending with the 2014 race. Here is a city that together with her suburbs rallied behind their beloved event and they show the courage of the runners and the spectators. Boston Strong came back stronger and more determined as ever to let the terrorists know they hadn’t beaten them. Through it all, Damon’s voice is distinct and soothing, with a deep and clear message.

For those of us that aren’t runners and know extremely little about marathons or for those who aren’t from the Boston area, this film how much more important the Boston race is on the world stage; even more perhaps than the New York City Marathon.

“Boston” celebrates the resilience of the city both historically and in the wake of the 2013 terrorist bombing at its finish line but what we really see is the fundamental relationship shared between the race and its city.

The need to safeguard participants and spectators predictably proves to be of primary importance, although Dunham’s film isn’t really interested in the nitty-gritty of how those ends might be achieved. Instead, we see snapshots of those preparations before segueing into a recap of the race’s origins, as well as its most groundbreaking turning points. In those passages, what emerges is a sense of the marathon’s defining spirit of endurance and communal camaraderie that is epitomized by the “Boston Strong” movement.

“Boston” touches on myriad groundbreaking marathon moments from an upbeat, uncomplicated perspective. As such, there’s very little dramatic tension to the proceedings, either when it gazes into the past or when it confronts the 2014 race, which even casual sports fans will know ahead of time went off without a hitch. Informative and moving without ever feeling particularly incisive, Dunham’s documentary is not to be missed.

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