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Hopkinton mobilizes answer to marathon call of nature

It's that time of year again, when the eyes of the world will focus on Boston -- on the sweat, the tears, the glory. The Marathon. But there is one aspect of the race that officials don't want the world to see this year: the unpleasant practice of runners relieving themselves on front lawns, backyards, garages, and trees along the route.

"Being a runner, I understand that they're nervous, they've just hydrated, they're looking for a port-a-john, and they can't find one," race director Dave McGillivray said in an interview yesterday. "But we're just trying to do what's right."

Race officials this year are mounting a massive effort, positioning 471 portable toilets near the starting line in Hopkinton, placing dozens of "good will ambassadors" to direct runners to toilets, and creating a hotline that residents can call to report runners and others answering the call of nature where they shouldn't. A sanitation team will be standing by, just in case, to clean up the mess.

"Once the race gun goes off, we'll dispatch the company to those locations to clean up the property," McGillivray explained. "We're doing everything within reason to eliminate this problem."

The problem has spurred many a raised eyebrow in recent years in the parks and byways of Hopkinton, where residents welcome the international attention that comes with hosting the starting line for the race, but where many insist these April showers do not bring May flowers. Some have complained about runners using buckets and flower beds. One described a scene where dozens of runners gathered around the massive trunk of a prized tree, one with low-hanging branches where children often play.

"Our town loves to have the marathon, everything is wonderful, except for this peeing thing," said Carl Barker-Hook, a Grove Street resident. "It's pretty vile."

Race officials from the Boston Athletic Association met last year with the Hopkinton Marathon Committee -- formed more than 20 years ago to address the fouling of property during the event -- after an unprecedented flood of complaints about runners not only urinating, but defecating, applying Vaseline to private parts, and changing tampons within public view. The instances have been more common in Hopkinton than anywhere else along the route, race officials and runners said, because all 20,000-plus runners converge on the town at the same time, and a good portion of them need to prepare themselves and use the restroom before the race starts.

So it is Hopkinton where race officials are concentrating their efforts. They plan to add 20 portable toilets to the 451 used last year in the town, but more importantly, organizers said yesterday, they plan to position the toilets in more convenient locations near corrals where the runners wait for the start of the race. Also this year, McGillivray said, runners will not reach the starting line at the same time, but will be lined up in phases. In the past, the sheer numbers of runners, spectators, and volunteers all trying to navigate the streets of Hopkinton on marathon morning often caused near-gridlock conditions, hindering runners' abilities to get to available bathrooms.

Organizers' plans are drawing rave reviews from some Hopkinton residents.

"I think they shouldn't urinate in the first place, but I'm glad they're doing something," Barker-Hook said. "If people can come hose down my bushes, that's fabulous. I think anything they can do is a good idea."

But there are some runners who say little can be done to eliminate the unsightly incidents, short of installing hundreds, even thousands more toilets in Hopkinton. After hour upon hour of meticulous hydration, which often includes guzzling gallons of water, Gatorade, and other liquids, many runners say, there comes a point when they've just got to go. A lot.

"By the time you get to the start line, if you take that last swig of whatever, almost immediately you've got to get rid of it," explained Tom Licciardello, a founding member of the Merrimack Valley Striders who will be running his 28th marathon. "Your cup runneth over, that's for sure."

Donovan Slack can be reached at

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