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Things were hopping in Hopkinton

By Paul Harber, Globe Staff, 4/18/00

HOPKINTON - This sleepy New England hamlet transforms into the road running capital of the world for a few chaotic hours each year.

It begins before the sun rises when volunteers arrive wearing silver jackets. It ends shortly after noon when the last of the "bandit'' runners cross the starting line on the 26.2-mile run to Boston.

In between, Hopkinton is a melting pot.It is where tradition and history collide with eccentricity. World-class runners meet the lunatic fringe.

It is a day when grown men can prance down Main Street wearing bright red polka dot dresses or ballerina tutus and get no more than a bored glance.

The town's roads close at 8:30 a.m., and the only vehicles allowed to enter are school buses carrying thousands of runners to the Athletes' Village.

The Athletes' Village occupies every bit of Hopkinton High School's athletic fields. It is the center of activity in the early morning. There are two huge tents in which runners huddle, wrapped in anything that will keep them warm. Beverages, bagels, and Powerbars are free for the taking.

There is a similarity among these villagers: All are thin and athletic. But they wear a variety of home colors - be it for Valley Forge, Pa., or Boston College - and there is a variety of tongues, too. Citizens of 55 nations participate.

Married couples often run the race. Brian and Maureen Oates, for instance, ran yesterday, which also was Maureen's 30th birthday. They had to put together decent runs because they had dinner reservations at 6 p.m.

Other than the centennial race (1996) in which 38,708 runners were officially entered, yesterday's field of 17,813 was the second-largest in Boston history.

"Welcome to the Athletes' Village,'' shouts a greeter over a megaphone as the runners melt together into a river of humanity. "If you need a massage, turn to the left. There is food and water to the right.''

Port-o-Lets stretch over 100 yards along the soccer field, and, as the morning progresses, long lines form at each one. Nurses at the medical tent are busy tending to minor health problems; students from the New England Conservatory of Music entertain the runners.

The runners are issued blue plastic bags for their belongings with their numbers on them. The bags, which are sent ahead to the Boston finish, tear easily. One runner asks volunteer Kim Hyland of Foxborough for help with a torn bag. Hyland retrieves a roll of duct tape and mends the bag. Then another runner with the same problem asks for help. Soon, there is a line of runners with torn bags.

The 40 masseurs and masseuses are busy giving rubdowns - on average, 70 each.

Each runner is given a throwaway camera, and pictures are being snapped everywhere as mementos of the 104th Boston Marathon. At Hopkinton Green, everyone - runners and spectators alike - wants a picture taken next to the huge, blue-and-gold starting line. The village green is one big party. Youngsters congregate to watch television personalities give on-air updates. The smell of fried dough fills the air.

The race for the mobility-impaired begins at 10 a.m. A huge cheer sends off the handful of runners down Main Street. Next are the wheelchair races.

As the clock ticks toward noon, the spectators edge closer to the starting line. The runners are in their corrals. State Trooper Dan Clark sings "The Star-Spangled Banner.'' The crowd stands at attention while the runners seem oblivious.

Minutes before the start, two F-15 fighter jets zoom over Hopkinton. Four minutes later, they pass over the finish line.

Walter Brown of Hopkinton fires the starting pistol, and the first runners dash off.

In three minutes, the dash turns into a slow jog. Two minutes later, the jog becomes a walk. It takes 12 minutes for all the official entrants to cross the starting line. As they cross, many let out a loud shout. Soon, thousands of bobbing heads fill Main Street; sweatshirts and plastic wraps are thrown into the crowd.

Thousands of unofficial runners trail the official pack across the starting line. Now it is more of a party than an athletic competition. A man dressed as Groucho Marx pushes a child in a stroller across the starting line. Two men wearing Afro wigs and dressed in Harlem Globetrotter uniforms jump in, chasing the men in the red polka dot dresses and ballerina tutus.

About 15 minutes after the gun, the road is clear. Wi

th the runners gone, the volunteers pack up and board buses for Boston. There is more work ahead. Every journey begins with the first step, and more than 17,000 first steps were taken here in Hopkinton yesterday.

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