A peculiar ritual takes place each spring in Boston. On the third Monday of April every year, about 10,000 hollow-cheeked people descend on the venerable city from all over the world. These people have worked hard for the privilege of riding in buses to the town of Hopkinton west of Boston, then running -- running, mind you -- 26.2 miles back into downtown Boston.
This ritual is the Boston Marathon, the oldest annual marathon in the world and the most respected footrace in the United States. It is the only marathon, other than the Olympics, that imposes a qualifying standard on entrants. It draws the elite among runners from the entire world. In 1995, entrants were from 50 countries and all 50 states.
"The Boston" will be run for the 100th time April, and the sponsoring organization, the Boston Athletic Association (BAA), is planning a whale of a birthday party.
For starters, the number of runners will swell to almost three times the usual number. Normally, to enter the Boston, a runner must complete a marathon sanctioned by USA Track & Field or foreign equivalent during the previous year within a time limit determined by the runner's age. In 1995, about 9,500 runners qualified to enter.
For the race's centennial, about 15,000 qualifiers are expected. But, in a break with Boston tradition, an additional 10,000 nonqualifying runners will be chosen by lottery to join them. That's 25,000 sweaty bodies making the trip from Hopkinton to Boston.
Even if you aren't a runner, the Boston is a magical experience. The electricity surrounding the event is contagious.
Copley Square, where the finish line is located, is normally a dignified, park-like block occupied by the charming, 1877-vintage Trinity Church, with the elegant Copley Plaza Hotel on one side and the venerable Boston Public Library on another. Between Friday afternoon and Sunday evening before the marathon, it undergoes a transformation.
First, a mobile-home command center appears, followed by the camera bridge over Boylston Street and gaily striped tents for medical and other services. Barricades that will hold back the spectators are stacked neatly along Boylston, and hundreds of portable toilets are placed in strategic areas.
While the volunteers and the work crews are busy outside, the two-day Sports and Fitness Expo is taking place in the nearby Hynes Convention Center.
The Expo is merely crowded Saturday; Sunday you can't stir 'em with a stick.
They're gathering around running-shoe-company booths in anticipation of appearances of champion runners such as Bill Rodgers and Joan Benoit Samuelson.
They're picking up bargains in energy bars and wick-away-the-moisture socks.
They're munching their way through free samples of pasta, pirogi and frozen yogurt. And they're buying BAA jackets, bags, mugs, hats, buttons and T-shirts.
The third Monday of April also is a state holiday in Massachusetts -- Patriot's Day, commemorating Paul Revere's 1775 ride to warn Colonists of the British army's approach. A re-enactment of Revere's ride is staged, complete with lanterns hung in the tower of the Old North Church.
But the runners don't notice. To them, Patriot's Day is Race Day.
Crowds and lines
About 9:30 Monday morning, the runners board the buses that take them to the starting line.
By 10:30 a.m., Hopkinton is elbow-to-elbow with milling runners and their families and friends. The usually mild-mannered town of about 9,000 people is bursting at the seams. The air is perfumed by the smell of Ben-Gay. School buses become shuttle buses for the day, moving people from parking areas into town and back. There are lines for everything: water fountains, buses, portable toilets.
At 11:30 a.m., helicopters from the three local TV stations are circling overhead.
Fifteen minutes later, with march music blaring from loudspeakers, the starting gun for the wheelchair athletes echoes across the Hopkinton town square.
Another starting gun -- this one for the runners -- sounds at exactly noon. And they begin what for the leaders will be a journey taking a bit more than two hours.
For other participants, the ordeal ranges up to five or more hours of running and/or walking into Boston.
Each runner who completes the marathon in five hours or less is rewarded with a pewter medal on a blue-and-gold ribbon and the knowledge that he or she finished the most prestigious annual marathon in the country.
A few of the events being planned in honor of the centennial are:
* A gala honoring past champions.
* An exhibit of historic marathon memorabilia.
* An expanded Expo -- from two to three or four days.
* A noncompetitive fun run for all foreign entrants the morning before the race.
Boston at a walk
Boston in mid-April is usually coming alive from its winter hibernation. But it is sometimes still icy on Marathon Monday, so it's best to take layers of clothing.
Boston is a walking town. However, if you're a competitor or you're in town with a runner, you may not want to spend a lot of energy sightseeing on foot. You'll be glad to know that many of the most famous and interesting sights are in the compact city core near the race's finish line.
Here are a few of the sights:
* To get a bird's-eye view of the city, try the 60th-floor observatory in the John Hancock Tower at Copley Square or the 50th-floor Prudential Skywalk at 800 Boylston. Both charge a small admission.
* Three sightseeing trolley services -- the Orange and Green Line Old Town Trolley Tours), the Blue Line (the Blue Trolley) and the Red Line (Beantown Trolleys) -- give you a narrated tour of city highlights for one ticket price, about $15 to $20.
All three lines pick up passengers at many downtown hotels. You can get on or off at any of 15 or more stops, spend as much time as you like and catch the next trolley to continue the tour. They run about 15 to 20 minutes apart.
Routes include the old, such as Fanueil Hall, Old North Church, Old Ironsides and the Tea Party Ship, plus the not-so-old: Filene's, the Bull & Finch (the bar of "Cheers" fame) and the Hard Rock Cafe.
* From April to November, you also can see the sights on a Duck Tour in a 25-passenger, World War II-vintage amphibious vehicle. After touring the standard sights, the "duck" splashes into the Charles River for a cruise of Boston and Cambridge.
* Speaking of ducks, the Public Garden just west of Boston Common is the setting for Robert McCloskey's children's classic "Make Way for Ducklings." A children's tour follows the route of the story's ducklings, ending at the garden for a visit with the resident mallards.
* If it's warm enough, the swan boats are making leisurely, pedal-powered cruises of the Swan Pond at the Public Garden. A Boston tradition dating from 1877, the swan boats generally operate from mid-April to September.
* A few blocks away, Faneuil Hall, the adjacent Quincy Market and two other historic buildings form a delightful example of history turned shopping mall. There are about 150 shops, foods of every ethnic persuasion, historic exhibits, pushcarts and street performers, all in an easily walkable area full of 18th-century charm.
* The Freedom Trail is a 2 1/2 -mile-long walking trail that covers 350 years of American history. Beginning at Boston Common, you follow a red line on sidewalks and roadways to 16 historic sites. Guided tours are available.
* There are too many cultural attractions -- museums, symphony, theater, dance -- to mention here. The Convention and Visitors Bureau calendar of events is the best source of information.
* If you're a baseball fan, remember April is the beginning of Red Sox season at legendary Fenway Park.
* If your sport is shopping, wander through Copley Place, a complex of 100 elegant shops and restaurants with a couple of hotels thrown in, within shouting distance of Copley Square. And mosey down boutiques-lined Newbury Street, just one block north of Boylston.
* Two favorite places for runners to keep the kinks worked out
are Boston Common and along the Charles River.
Eating on the run
Terrific restaurants of all kinds abound in Boston, but if you're there for the marathon, you'll probably be eating a lot of pasta. Boston has oodles of Italian restaurants, especially in the North End neighborhood.
But nearer Copley Square, one favorite with runners is Bertucci's, a reliable, moderately priced restaurant specializing in pizza, but also offering flavorful pasta dishes and salads. The wheat rolls are worth the visit.
In addition to the restaurants up and down the streets near Copley Square, the food court in the Prudential Center offers some delicious, fresh choices that make it a good spot for lunch. "The Pru" is connected to both the Hynes Convention Center and Copley Place by covered walkways.
A great place to get a continental breakfast, a snack, or a lunch or dinner sandwich is Finagle a Bagle. There's one across from Trinity Church on Boylston. The place has fresh, large bagels in every flavor you can imagine, plus excellent coffee.
If you go
Tourist information: Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau; P.O. Box 990468, Boston, Mass. 02199-0468; (800) 888-5515 or (617) 536-4100.
John Hancock Tower Observatory: (617) 247-1977.
Prudential Skywalk: (617) 236-3318.
Freedom Trail: (617) 242-5695. Guided tours daily, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Trolley sightseeing services: Pick up brochures at your hotel.
Duck Tours: (617) 723-3825.
Make Way for Ducklings Tour (ages 5 and up): (617) 426-1885. Usually offered April to October.
Red Sox schedule, ticket information: (617) 267-1700.
Airport access: Logan Airport is just two miles from downtown, but the only access by road is through a narrow, crowded tunnel. Allow at least an hour.
Or, take the seven-minute Airport Water Shuttle between Rowes Wharf on Atlantic Avenue and the Logan dock for about $10 and a free shuttle bus from the dock to all terminals.
For schedules and information about all airport ground transportation, call (800) 23-LOGAN.
Getting around: Driving in Boston will make you crazy, and parking will clean out your wallet. Public transit, both buses and the subway (called the "T"), is easy to use. Subway maps are available everywhere, or call (617) 722-3200.
Marathon packages: Marathon Tours (108 Main St., Boston 02129) is the main travel agency booking airline seats and lodging for the 1996 Boston Marathon. Call (617) 242-7845 or (800) 444-4097. It arranges travel to marathons all over the world.
Marathon information, applications: Contact Boston Athletic Association, P.O. Box 1996, Hopkinton, Mass. 01748; (508) 435-6905.