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Junque Miles:

By Mark Roberts

Boston - The Year of the Bus

One of the wonders of the Boston Marathon is the logistical feat of getting everyone where they need to be when they need to be there. Because it's a point-to-point course, rather than a loop, the Boston Marathon needs to make special efforts to make sure that all its runners (about 15,000, that is), as well as the hundreds of media representatives covering the event, can get to the starting line on race day. That means busses. Lots of busses.

Even going to the marathon expo involved busses this year. Because it was so far removed from the central hotels, rather that its usual site at the Haynes Convention Center, everyone had to ride shuttle busses to and from the expo, through the nightmare of the infamous Boston "Big Dig" construction project. This was probably the reason that the expo seemed slightly disappointing this time around. Less crowded, to be sure, but also less social. People just made one pass through and didn't come back, so we met hardly anyone we knew there.

Still, race day is what it's all about. At 6:00 a.m. on April 16, Lisa and I found ourselves amongst the crowds of people making their way toward Boston Common and the line of school busses waiting there. Lisa was running the marathon, but I was there to cover the event for this web page, so when she boarded the bus I turned around and went to find coffee and breakfast before catching the press bus from race headquarters at 8:30. I knew from the times I'd run the marathon myself that the Boston Athletic Association has this gig down to a science and that Lisa would have nothing to concern her until the starting gun went off at noon...So, I was wrong. I couldn't have predicted the adventure that awaited her on the ride to Hopkinton.

Her first surprise came early: They got off the expressway at Newton! This might make an attractive proposition for devious types looking to set a new marathon P.R. ("All right! I finally broke one hour!"), but much to the driver's dismay there were no Rosie Ruiz wannabes on board. Doubtless chagrinned by his passengers' sense of integrity, he was forced to find his way (with difficulty) back onto the Interstate and the official starting area in Hopkinton.

There are two expressway exits for Hopkinton, Massachusetts. They probably have numbers or letters or some other kind of official designation to distinguish them, but for purposes of getting to the marathon starting area, we can simply refer to them as "the right one" and "the wrong one". Guess which one the bus driver picked? He arrived at this decision only after passing the exit, stopping and reversing the bus down the Interstate for a hundred yards or so, proving that marathoners don't always reach their maximum heart rate for the day on Heartbreak Hill. A few car drivers got more excitement than they bargained for that morning as well.

You might have expected that, since he obviously didn't know the way, the driver would have simply adopted the expedient strategy of following another school bus. They're big. They're yellow. They're easy to see. There's hundreds of them! And since Patriot's Day is a state holiday, any school bus on the road is more than likely to be carrying marathon runners to Hopkinton High School. Of course by this time that was no longer an option. They were completely on their own.

Since they had taken the wrong exit, they next found themselves travelling up Main Street in Hopkinton, rather than the back road that leads to the Athlete's Village at the High School. Gradually, the bus driver made that subtle yet profound transition form "going the wrong way" to "being totally lost". Everyone got an interesting tour of the residential neighborhoods of Hopkinton and learned that a school bus can't make a 3-point turn on a narrow two-lane road (10 "points" is more like it). Finally, someone reached their limit and made the driver stop so she could jump out and ask directions of a nearby police officer. After getting the skinny from the local fuzz, she hopped back on the bus and told the driver to turn around the gas station just ahead. So the driver fired up the bus and proceeded to cruise right past the aforementioned gas station.

Usually marathoners are worried about making it to the finish line. These runners were starting to think they might not get to the start. The bus went berserk.

At this juncture the passengers made a crucial discovery: Their bus driver didn't speak English. (That explained why he just nodded and mumbled when given directions.) And even with Boston being the international, multicultural event that it is, none of the passengers spoke anything other than English.

Language barriers are slightly easier to overcome when you're aware of their existence, so after much use of hand signals and another 10-point u-turn they finally reached Hopkinton High School. They were on the right road, but travelling the wrong way and approaching from the opposite direction of all the other busses. At least they had arrived. Then they went right past the driveway of the school.

OK, so just back up a little, turn into the driveway and...stop right in the middle, blocking all traffic. By this time there were plenty of Boston Marathon officials offering shouted advice and hand signals, so all the passengers eventually did get off the bus and into the Athlete's Village area in plenty of time for the race, not to mention meeting friends and sharing a memorable marathon story before having even run a step.

My bus ride to Hopkinton was much more pleasant. To start with it was on a nicer bus: a proper touring coach with comfy seats and a toilet in the back. Experienced male runners bring two wide-mouth Gatorade bottles when riding the school busses to Hopkinton, one full and one empty. During the bus ride out you empty the full one and fill the empty one. Just don't get them mixed up part way through. (Tip: Grape or fruit punch flavor Gatorade will help keep things color-coded.)

When we arrived in Hopkinton the B.A.A. representative stressed that the bus would be heading back to Boston at 12:15 and anyone who missed it would be on their own. Then I spent a couple of pleasant hours taking photos and meeting friends in Hopkinton (and getting the story of Lisa's eventful trip). As noon approached I pushed my way onto the 4-foot-by-12-foot platform that served as the press start area and took a series of photographs that alternated between the elite runners on the starting line and the back of the head of the guy in front of me. If Toupee Fancier magazine needs any photos I've got a few beauts for them.

The race began at noon and I got some pretty good shots of the start. Then I had to get back to the bus, which immediately presented a problem because the press starting line area was on the South side of Main St. and the bus was parked on the North side, with a sea of runners in between. I knew that it could easily take more than fifteen minutes for all 15,000 of them to get past the start so I set about working my way backwards on the course, hoping to get around the back of the tail enders. I made it to the parking lot just after 12:15 and the bus was still there, much to my relief. My plan was coming together like a charm: Photograph the start, hop the bus back to Boston, walk out to my usual photo locale in Kenmore Square, have a couple of beers in a corner bar while watching the race on TV and then step out when the lead runners are approaching. A perfect afternoon!

Except by 12:30 the bus hadn't moved an inch and the driver was nowhere to be found. It was looking as if this might cut into my drinking time. By 12:40 several reporters on the bus were getting distinctly anxious. One video team was supposed to shoot the finish, including the wheelchair racers. The wheelchairs had started 15 minutes before the runners, at 11:45, and the fastest of them would finish in under 90 minutes. Even television journalists can do enough math to realize that they were getting right to the limit if they hoped to make it to the finish line before 1:15. We eventually departed around 12:45 and traveled all of 50 yards before getting stuck in the "lets get out of Hopkinton" traffic jam. Since the bus had been neatly routed around traffic on the way in, we assumed that similar arrangements would have been made for the return trip, right? I mean, they do know how important this event is to those covering it and that deadlines, especially those that revolve around videotaping racers crossing the finish line, won't wait, don't they? And they have been putting on this race for, let's see...105 years now, so none of this could have been a surprise.

Oh well, nothing to do but relax. At least our driver spoke English.

We eventually made it through the post-race (for Hopkinton) traffic jam and got onto the expressway... Going the wrong way. Providence, Rhode Island, here we come! After much commotion we took the first exit and resumed our trip going in the correct direction. Then we ran into a traffic jam at the ramp onto Interstate 90. We almost "ran into" it literally. Our driver was hustling to try to make up lost time and was just a little late getting on the brakes. A bus quite similar to the one in which we were riding, and certainly every bit as massive, loomed larger and larger ahead as the brakes moaned and squealed and several tons of bus shuddered and fishtailed slightly. Sitting in the very front seat, I was protected by several feet of...air between me and the rapidly approaching wall of metal and glass.

We stopped with several generous inches to spare and made into Boston safely, albeit too late for the wheelchair winners, but the camera crew had realized they were being paid by the hour even if they didn't catch the wheelchair finish. More significantly, we had almost certainly used up all my beer time and I was concerned about getting to Kenmore Square before the first runners. It's only about a mile from race headquarters where the bus dropped us off, but covering the distance quickly while carrying a load of camera gear and fighting through marathon day crowds more than made up for my not going running that day.

The story has a happy ending: I got to Kenmore Square in time for photography, though not for a recreational pint of Guinness. Lisa finished her third Boston Marathon and a grand time was had by all. Lisa and I even found time to have a nice evening with a good friend of hers who lives 20 or so miles outside Boston. Since we didn't have a car we had to rely on public transportation, of course. But we really didn't have any qualms about that. We decided to take a train, though.

You can find Mark's Boston Marathon 2001 photos here.

Copyright © 2001 Mark Roberts

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