Where are we headed?

Out of every challenge comes opportunity.

Word is that Boston officials are coming up with plans to move the 124th Boston Marathon to the fall this year as the Coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak its havoc on the entire world. Like dominoes falling, cancellations are being announced hourly for schools, businesses, and sporting events alike as social separation is the order of the day in trying to mitigate the spread of the virus.

The idea of not simply canceling the marathon, like so many others, but postponing it to the fall is to salvage as much of the massive economic impact the Marathon represents to the Boston area as possible.  Estimates put that impact figure at $211 million.

According to a story in today’s Boston Globe, a Labor Day start was considered too challenging because every U-Haul truck in America would be unloading students at area colleges, several of which lie along the racecourse, i.e. Wellesley College and B.C. to name two high profile examples.

Columbus Day, October 12th, was another possible date. But it, too, had issues as Abbott World Marathon Majors partner the BofA Chicago Marathon is scheduled for Sunday, October 11.

According to two sources, the Globe is reporting that officials are currently exploring the idea of creating a special Monday holiday in Massachusetts in September as the new date for the marathon. The plans could be refined by later today (12 March) and presented to the public by Friday morning March 13th.

So here we are in a crisis situation with ideas being floated on how to save this glorious marathon institution. For better or worst, we have a once in 124-year opportunity to finally showcase the Boston Marathon before the entire nation by staging it on a Sunday when the whole nation could be watching, and they’re going to stick it back on a Monday, which is only a local holiday?

Remember, it wasn’t until 1969 that the Patriot’s Day holiday was officially moved to the third Monday in April. Before that April 19th, the actual Patriots’ Day, was the day they ran the race on whatever day of the week that fell. There’s nothing sacrosanct about Marathon Monday other than from an alliterative sensibility. Evidently, based on coronavirus there is nothing sacrosanct about Patriots’ Day for the marathon after 123 years, either.

If they are going to move it, move it to a time where the greatest number of people in the country could see it, opportunity out of a challenge.

Another matter to consider is weather conditions. September in New England can be brutally hot. October is a much better timeframe. The Chicago Marathon is scheduled for October 11th, the New York City Marathon is November 1st. There are two weeks in between with the Sundays falling on the 18th and 25th.

Can you imagine the Chicago, Boston, and New York City Marathons all being run within a one-month time? Not to mention Berlin on September 27th. Except for the wheelchairs, the elite fields will all be different anyway. Berlin and Chicago have paced races on a flat track, while Boston and New York City are tactical affairs on hilly courses. The very scale of it would showcase the sport in a way that might actually benefit everybody.

The London Marathon is only a week apart from Boston every year anyway in the spring. Chicago is often separated from NYC by a single week.  So what difference would it make if there was a Chicago then Boston then New York City all in a row? It might even be a glorious celebration of the sport in three of its most iconic cities. Yes, opportunity out of challenge; if it’s going to be moved anyway, put Boston on a Sunday in October, please.


P.S.  Immediately, several responses on social media have brought up the issue of church service dislocations along the route if the race were to move to Sunday.  The following blog was posted 8 April 2012 in answer to that concern.



Community of Spirit

The trilling of birds fills the Sunday morning air, a gentle reminder that we once lived in a society scaled more for pause and reflection, rather than one constantly driven by the passing billow and grind of work-a-day commerce.

On any such Sunday morning across the country, we seekers and sufferers alike gather by the tens of thousands, congregants all, and embark on a journey of spiritual awakening, discovery, and self-fulfillment. We represent every race and religious denomination, every creed and every faith, and by our simple garb make it impossible to distinguish between the wealthy and the poor among us.  We, then, are America’s runners, observers who enter no church as such, rather attend what amount to services at speed at marathons and road races nationwide.

Ours is a movement now firmly within the American mainstream, though we only began in earnest in the 1970s. Then, a combination of age and cynicism began to erode once dewy ideals that were bent toward altering a society of convention waging an immoral war in a foreign land.  Back then, a few iconoclasts sought refuge from the collective entanglement and began to run on a path of self-discovery and personal well-being.

Today, our discipline transcends all boundaries and conventions and has swollen into the millions across the globe. But even as our new collective has clogged city streets  – and in doing so filled charity coffers – we have met resistance.  Resistance not for what we believe, i.e. the restorative and redemptive power of a distance run, for that is a universal set tied to men like Thoreau and Emerson.  Instead, the resistance has come due to that which we require to fulfill our quests.  For in our need for open roads on which to celebrate fitness and health, we have called upon the graces of other, more traditional congregants whose path to their own places of worship have been blocked in the process.

The scheduling of marathons on Sunday mornings has thus become a thorny issue throughout the country. It cropped up a few years ago in Los Angeles, California after the city’s 21st annual marathon in 2006.  The old L.A. course, like so many major marathons, wound through the city’s neighborhoods blocking streets, and at times disrupting church services, in L.A.’s case as many as 500 churches.   But in thinking about the churches/marathon dilemma it struck me how narrowly us-versus-them that argument had become. 

Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon president Jack Staph

One man who has had to deal with this issue over the years is Jack Staph, executive director of the Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon.  Staph has overseen three or four major course changes in his 35 years at the helm of Cleveland’s preeminent running event. Over that time he has found it necessary to interact with Cleveland’s church leaders on numerous occasions.

“It’s about diplomacy, letting them know you care,” said Staph, himself a former Jesuit seminarian. “The race has to take the initiative to make peace because you have to presume you’re invading their right to worship.  So you have to be humble and understanding.  You listen to their problems, then craft a solution that fits both needs.”

Rather than taking a combative stance and waving city permits, Staph would begin months out taking ministers and priests to dinner, meeting with church groups, printing flyers that alert congregations to the race date and road closings, even offering assistance to older parishioners.  In the best cases, the churches were assimilated into the event itself.

“When we changed the course eight years ago, we got a call from a minister at the First Methodist Church of Cleveland,” says Staph.  “I met with him, and he became enthusiastic about the opportunity the marathon offered.  He changed the time of the church services for that day so he could have his congregation meet at the race and man a water stop.  He even had a special choir that came and sang.  We sent out coffee and donuts, and everybody won.”

The rector of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral at the old start-finish line on Euclid Avenue downtown used to conduct a prayer breakfast before the race. Then her youth group helped work the finish line chute system.  And for two years the church hosted the pasta dinner.

“You can’t ignore them, or dismiss them,” says Staph of the churches.  “These are good people out there to do good. You just have to reach out to them.”

Beyond mere accommodation, Cleveland’s First Methodist and Trinity Cathedral captured what church services and marathon running had in common.  For what is the purpose of a church itself, the edifice, that is?

     With its stained-glass windows, candlelight, chiming bells, and arching choir voices, a church is a place that casts those who enter into a totally different environment than that of everyday life.  It is a place that provides a nurturing environment for worship, religious exploration, and spirituality where communion with God can take place. That’s what the stained glass, candles, bells, and smells all produce a transcendent atmosphere.

The marathon differs only in degree and intent, not the outcome. With the removal of cars from city streets, the arc of banners that demark start and finish, the changing into a simple uniform, and the rhythmic sound of those thousands of footfalls over 26 miles, the marathon, too, casts its entrants into an environment beyond the prosaic, and brings them together into communion with something greater than themselves, what Bobbi Gibb, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1966, referred to as “a mutual expression of our belief in what it means to be human”.

In Tony Hendra’s 2004 memoir Father Joe he wrote of visiting his Benedictine friend and learning that the Benedictine order was the first to claim that work, in itself, was a sacred act.

“Work, in the Benedictine tradition,” Hendra wrote, “enjoyable or not, exalted or humble, is in no conflict with the spiritual.  Indeed, it too is prayer, a principle best expressed in the classic Benedictine dictum “laborare est orare”, to work is to pray.  There is no separation between work in the sense of the secular, non-spiritual toil and the spiritual in the sense of uplifting relief from its tedium.”

And thus can we make the case that currere est orare – to run is to pray – as we jog, run, or race through our cathedrals of trees, down our transepts of concrete.  But so, too, does the concept of congruere – to run together – lend a congregational connotation to the event and its proceedings.

Having church congregations man aid stations along the marathon routes of the nation allows them to commune with the runners in a shared experience of effort and sacrifice.  It creates a great synergy of expression where two groups, each embracing a spiritual quest, simply acknowledges that for one the altar is not fixed to a particular space, but, instead, resides within.  For as anyone who runs distance knows, the marathon is most certainly a spiritual journey.  When considered in this light, how could we not join together in the gentle air of Sunday mornings?





  1. Two thumbs up for 2 great blog posts, Toni. October would also present the possibility of highlighting spectacular New England foliage, as well. Imagine seeing Boston foliage at its iconic best for a change, rather than its denuded worst in early spring.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.