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Ashland is where it all started

By Marvin Pave, Globe Staff, 04/16/99

ASHLAND -- The gentle waters of the Sudbury River flow through a small break in the dam on Pleasant Street at the site of Metcalf's Mill across from the Fish and Game Club.

It was to this site, on April 19, 1897, that 15 runners, under the auspices of the Boston Athletic Association, began - exactly at 12:19 p.m. - what was then a nearly 25-mile run to Boston from a starting line drawn in the dirt road by Olympic sprint champion Thomas E. Burke.

The starting line was moved to Hopkinton in 1924, making Ashland a Marathon checkpoint and a footnote to history. Ashland can thank bridge repairs in Cambridge back in 1897 for the BAA having set up its starting point here, rather than in Concord, and can blame the British royal family for the modern marathon distance that necessitated the move of the starting line to Hopkinton.

A delegation from the BAA had attended the revival of the Olympic Games in Greece in 1896 and, after watching the 24-mile race commemorating the run by Pheidippides in 490 B.C., had decided to duplicate the race in the United States. Patriots Day was chosen as the date, but Concord was ruled out as the starting point because of its plethora of holiday-related activities, the bridge problem, and the problem runners would have had finding their way through the heart of Cambridge.

And so BAA president John Graham and Boston businessman Herbert Holton set the cyclometers on their bicycles to zero and headed west, basically along the Boston & Albany railroad tracks that still exist, until they reached the 25-mile mark in front of Metcalf's Mill. In fact, walk across Pleasant Street and over to the tracks, and there's a railroad marker with the numerals ''25'' chiseled into the stone.

But the Marathon starting line was not chiseled in stone: During the 1908 Olympics, the race's distance was extended to accommodate the British royal family by allowing the start to be at Windsor Castle, more than a mile away from the Olympic stadium, and the finish to be at the royal box at the stadium - which tacked on the 385 yards.

By 1924, for Boston to be considered an Olympic qualifying race, the course was lengthened to conform with the 1908 standard. The Boston Marathon would no longer wind through the heart of Ashland.

But there is a tangible reminder of its glory days.

After years of seeing the neigboring town's green-and-white ''Welcome to Hopkinton: It All Starts Here'' sign, Richard Fannon, chairman of the Ashland Historical Commission, commissioned a sign for his town. It's a red-white-and-blue sign on which is inscribed ''Welcome to Ashland: It All STARTED Here in 1897.''

Just to set the record straight.

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