Boston, MA. – The clock. Yes, the clock. We watch it incessantly as it ticks relentlessly. But just like how three-point shots in basketball are worth noting – like last night when Golden State Warriors guard Steph Curry passed Ray Allen for the most three-pointers made in playoff history – they aren’t the most important numbers. That designation falls into the category of wins and losses, like how the Warriors beat the L.A. Clippers 121 – 104 in game one of their opening round NBA playoff series.
In that sense, time is only of secondary importance in the outcome of a marathon like Boston, a classic race over a difficult course, unpredictable weather, and an absence of pacesetters.
As was proven again in 2018 with wild, wind-driven rain, Boston is primarily a race against other runners with the clock no more than an impassive attendant to the human drama. So while much of the marathon world focuses on the clock, at times slavishly so, Boston concentrates on racers.
Yes, the race from here to there will be timed, closely, but first and foremost this will be a competition between and amongst other men and women.
The designation as a competitive footrace is what differentiates the marathon as a distinct sporting event rather than simply a Tai Chi or Yoga-like exercise. One must first maintain allegiance to the race even as we offer tribute and support to the exercise and overall event.
Over the course of 122 years, Boston has separated itself, first as the oldest continuously run marathon in the world, but also the most technically challenging.
The historic route from Hopkinton to the west to Boston’s Back Bay has proven much more than simply a challenge in distance. With its constant undulations and wildly unpredictable weather, Boston has identified championship racers, not just fast runners.
It will again tomorrow as two weather fronts converge on the old marathon route with the timing of their arrival difficult to assess even a day away.
The latest local forecast has temperatures being in the 60s Fahrenheit (17 or so Celsius) with high humidity and south, southwesterly winds at 10 to 25 mph. Any rain that may come is forecast before the race and later in the afternoon.
But scanning the weather history of the Boston Marathon, it is very unusual to have southerly winds and high humidity. Over the last seven years, with all but one of those year’s champions returning, we’ve had high humidity but low temperatures, like last year where the driving headwinds and rain were the big story. In 2015 there was 93% humidity but the temperature was 41°F while the east winds were relatively light.
Other than that, the humidity has been mostly in the 40% range as the temperatures have swung from low 40s to high 70s Fahrenheit.
Going back a ways, one year I take note of is 1987. It was the second year that John Hancock Financial Services was the sponsor and there was a tremendous elite field gathered. But it was also a humid windy day which led to a conservative early pace with a pack of as many as 19 marking time through the Newton Hills.
Finally, Japan’s Toshiko Seko, the 1981 champion, made the break after Heartbreak Hill to secure the victory in 2:11:50 with Welshman Steve Jones and England ‘s Geoff Smith in second and third 30 and 40 seconds back. Rosa Mota of Portugal dominated the women’s race in 2:25, winning by four minutes.
A southerly breeze will hit the runners on their right shoulder as they run from Hopkinton in the west to Boston in the east. The slight westerly influence will add a nudge at their tail. Because of that, we shouldn’t expect a negative split, the first of which came in that 1987 race.
But high humidity presents problems of dehydration and cramping, as the body knows only one way of cooling off, and that’s to sweat. But with high humidity there’s no evaporation, so the body just keeps sweating until there’s nothing left inside to sweat out. Once that tank runs dry, things can seize up quickly.
What this portends is a nerve-racking day out on the oldest continuously run marathon course in the world. And even though there are five previous men’s champions and four women who have donned the olive wreath of victory, they won’t have been presented with a day like they’ll see tomorrow.
Well, maybe defending men’s champion Yuki Kawauchi will have experienced something similar. After all, he’s run 92 career marathons, 87 of which have been sub 2:20. The second most experienced man in the field is 2013 & 2015 Boston champion Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia with 14 career starts.
Next up would be Kenyan Lawrence Cherono who has run 13 marathons. But two of those have been course records in Honolulu (2:08:39 in 2016 & 2:08:27 in 2017) where the Diamond Head hill and high humidity are the defining factors. Those three men might not be bad choices for the podium, come to think of it.
So, yes, the clock. Again we will watch it incessantly as it keeps ticking relentlessly. But time, whether fast or slow, won’t define the outcome of tomorrow’s 123rd Boston Marathon. That will be determined by the most able racers on the day, as it should be.
Let’s compare notes after they all have come in.
And if you are in New England, be sure to watch full and complete coverage on WBZ-TV4 beginning at 7 a.m. local time where I will he joined by Marblehead, Mass. native Shalane Flanagan and WBZ anchor Lisa Hughes. Everyone else can watch online and nationally on NBCSN. Enjoy.