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Boston's spirit means more than just speed

St. Petersburg Times reporter Dan DeWitt recently competed in the Boston Marathon. Here is his account:

By DAN DEWITT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 28, 2002

BOSTON -- It became clear early in the Boston Marathon that I wasn't going to have a great race.

But it was clear this didn't have to ruin my day.

Spectators lined every foot of the course and stood 10-deep in the towns west of Boston such as Ashland and Framingham.

Children offered orange slices or their palms for high-fives. Radios broadcast the Yankees-Red Sox game and the race among the elite runners unfolding several miles down the road.

The 106th running of the Boston Marathon last week taught me what it has taught many others: A road race can be many things, nearly all of them good.

What I had hoped it would be was a chance to run a time I could be proud of on a course well described (I hate to admit) by the Adidas banners strung up every few hundred yards:

"If there is such a thing as hallowed ground for runners, you're standing on it."

Running Boston is not only like playing Augusta as an average golfer, but on Masters day in front of the same crowd.

When my mile splits began to look like double bogies, I discovered what else the race was about: mostly generosity.

The spectators weren't, strictly speaking, fans. Otherwise they would have left long before those of us in the middle of the pack arrived.

Instead, the neighborhoods on the course seem to briefly adopt each runner. We joined their communities for a minute or so, became friends to be cheered, fed and entertained.

It is what Boston is famous for. It left me, like everyone else I know who has done the race, with a deep feeling of gratitude.

I kept hearing my name. At first I thought a well-known local named Dan must be running nearby. Then I realized people were punching in runners' bib numbers on laptops to give them personalized cheers.

A teenager made a scoreboard out of a flattened cardboard box, updating the runners on the ball game and drawing whoops of support because the Sox were in the lead.

At the base of the first big hill, near Mile 18, the whole town of West Newton seemed to have turned out to ring cowbells and yell for the runners.

It is tradition that the crowd is loudest at Wellesley College, near the halfway point where the students form a "scream tunnel," and at Kenmore Square, where the baseball fans mob the course once the late-morning game has ended.

In Boston, tradition means something. The cheers were deafening at these points.

When the race was over, I started thinking about my own town and its tradition: Flatlanders' Challenge. It isn't as old or grand as the Boston Marathon, but it suited us.

For more than 20 years, it started next to Weeks' Hardware. You could depend on finding spirited aid stations down by Hernando High, knots of supporters at the crest of the hill on North Avenue and a friendly gathering of runners after the race in the park next to the library.

Running it in 1996, a few weeks after my father died, felt like rediscovering an old family. It is what encouraged me to start running regularly again after a layoff of nearly a decade.

Our tradition isn't dead, but it is in danger. This is partly because high-profile races in Tampa and Orlando have siphoned away participants. But it also is because of a spirit just the opposite of what I saw in Boston.

Some Brooksville residents complained to the city about the inconvenience of runners on the roads. The police department squabbled with race organizers about providing traffic control. And two years ago the race was moved to Spring Lake.

That course is pretty and challenging.

But as long as it is held there, the race won't have what it used to -- tradition and connection with the community.

And Brooksville will miss out on what Boston and Hopkinton and Natick have every year: a chance to show the best of itself.

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