This week was Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts. For athletics followers, Patriots’ Day is synonymous with the Boston Marathon but unfortunately the event did not go ahead on its usual date for the second consecutive year.
The first Boston took place in 1897 and was inspired by the marathon race in the previous year’s Summer Olympics in Greece. Its course goes from Hopkinton in southern Middlesex County to Copley Square in Boston and had run without interruption until the cancellation of the 2020 event.
That inaugural event only attracted 15 starters, but more recent editions have seen around 30,000 registered participants each year. The Centennial Boston Marathon in 1996 established a record as the world’s largest marathon with 38,708 entrants, 36,748 starters, and 35,868 finishers. Apart from the active participants, the event attracts 500,000 spectators each year as well as a worldwide television viewership.
Winner of the first race was Irish-American John J. McDermott who covered the 24.5 mile course in 2:55:10. The event was scheduled for the then recently established holiday of Patriots’ Day, linking the race with the Athenian and American struggles for liberty. The race, which became known as the Boston Marathon, has been held every year since then, even during the World War years & the Great Depression, until 2020.
In 1924, the starting line was moved from Metcalf’s Mill in Ashland to Hopkinton Green and the course was lengthened to 26 miles 385 yards (42.195 km) to conform to the standard set by the 1908 Summer Olympics and codified by the IAAF in 1921.
Probably the most unfortunate Boston Marathon was in 2013 which was still in progress when two homemade bombs were set off about 180 metres yards apart on Boylston Street, in approximately the last 200m of the course. The race was halted, preventing many from finishing, but not before three spectators were killed and an estimated 264 were injured.
The last Ireland-born athlete* to win Boston was Niall Cusack. The Limerick man entered the 1974 race as an unknown entity with New Yorker Tom Fleming the favourite. His university East Tennessee paid his way to the race but Cusack, on an impulse, decided to pin a shamrock to his fishnet vest. Little did he know how important an element that shamrock was to play in his win.
Cusack started conservatively, he did not hit the front until 10km and was never headed thereafter. At the halfway mark he was one minute ahead of Fleming. And cruised home 46 seconds ahead of the tearful American in a time of 2:13.39, the second fastest winning effort up to that point. Finishing well down the field was an up and coming Bill Rogers, who subsequently became synonymous with Boston and New York.
He started the race not quite an unknown, despite having won the NCAA cross country two years earlier but crossed the finish line as an international star. “I didn’t realise how big this event was until I crossed the line,” said the former St. Munchin’s College student. “It was bedlam. The Irish in Boston went mad – they were stuffing ten and twenty dollar bills into my bag. I was the toast of Boston.”
Cusack had represented Ireland at the 1972 Olympics in the 10,000m and went on to a second Games in Montreal 1976, finishing 55th in the marathon. He later won the 1981 Dublin City Marathon but never managed to scale the heights of his triumph in Boston 47 years ago this week.
- *Contrary to popular belief Niall Cusack is not the only Irishman to win Boston. Jimmy Duffy (born Sligo 1 May 1890 – 23 April 1915) was the winner of the 1914 Boston. Two years earlier, representing Canada he was fifth in the Olympic Marathon won by Co. Antrim’s Ken McArthur representing South Africa – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jimmy_Duffy