115th Boston Marathon | The Start

Smoother ride on the waves

Retooled system gets things going

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By Barbara Matson
Globe Correspondent / April 19, 2011

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HOPKINTON — Spider-Man was one of the last runners to cross the start line of the Boston Marathon yesterday, at 10:53 a.m.

His pace was hardly heroic as he ambled along with the last of the runners in the third wave, the newest innovation added for the 115th edition of the Patriots Day race, intended to streamline the start for 27,000 runners. But on such a fine spring day, with temperatures in the 40s and a tailwind pushing the runners toward Boston, it hardly mattered.

“This is as good as it gets,’’ said Kevin Flowers, a lawyer from Chicago running his ninth marathon, his third Boston, as he stretched his legs and snacked on energy gel alongside Hopkinton Common. “There are about 30 people here from my running club in Chicago and I told them, ‘Don’t expect this weather every time.’ ’’

Three-time champion Uta Pippig greeted the women’s elite runners on the public address system as they waited for their 9:32 start gun, and said simply, “Thank you to the BAA for allowing us to have the party.’’

With the ideal conditions, the top runners galloped away at uncommonly fast speed, with record-breaking results. Kenya’s Geoffrey Mutai won the men’s race in 2 hours 3 minutes 2 seconds, breaking the Boston standard by more than two minutes, and another Kenyan, Caroline Kilel, outgunned American Desiree Davila down the stretch to win the women’s race in 2:22:36.

For the rest of the field, the first year of the three-wave start appears to have been a success. Each wave had 9,000 runners, sorted into nine corrals by qualifying time, with the fastest in front. With the elite men leading the way, the first wave started at 10 a.m., and it took eight minutes for the nine corrals of red-bibbed runners to move across the start line.

The corrals were reloaded by 10:19 with the second wave, and the white-bibbed runners went off at 10:20, the runners enjoying plenty of elbow room. And though moving at a slow pace, they were running. The second wave finished crossing the start line at 10:29.

The third wave, wearing blue bibs, began to fill the corrals more slowly, and some runners with qualifying numbers for the first corral had trouble making their way up the street and through the crowd of spectators and slower runners to get to their gate. Runners were still entering the gate to the first corral when the third wave officially started.

The third wave had a more sluggish start than the first two, with runners shuffling along for the first minute before the pack was able to start jogging. The next 8,000 runners — including Aladdin in a huge gold lame turban with a blue feather, a pair of jugglers, some hamburgers and hot dogs, and a number of Easter bunnies — moved smoothly across the line.

At 10:52, the race gave over to the bandits — the unofficial, unnumbered runners — and by 10:54, the official follow vehicle rolled across the line and Hopkinton began to close up shop.

It was only five years ago that the Marathon began using two waves at the start, for a field then numbering about 20,000. Organizers continue to make adjustments as they search for ways to make the race experience more enjoyable for the runners.

“It’s not that it was broken to begin with,’’ said race director Dave McGillivray as he took a moment to chat “in the calm before the storm’’ about 7:15 a.m, “but we’re always looking to do what we do but do it better.’’

The starting procedure has changed three times in the past 10 years. A separate start for the elite women was added in 2004, and the field was split into two waves in 2006, helping to reduce the strain on Hopkinton, a small town of about 14,000, and to give everyone more running room. The start was moved back from noon to 10 a.m. in 2007 to get the best chance of optimum weather conditions.

Among the earliest arrivals in Hopkinton were the charity runners for Children’s Hospital Miles for Miracles and Team Brigham, each group providing bus transport to Hopkinton for its runners.

Tim McQuade, a 29-year-old from Newton, was running his fifth marathon, his fourth for Children’s. McQuade started in the third wave, a change he welcomes after shuffling along in the crowd for 5-10 minutes in previous years before hitting the actual start line.

“I’m a little closer to the front, and that’s going to be nice,’’ said McQuade. “I should be able to get out faster and not be so cramped.’’

Other experienced Boston runners agreed.

“This is exciting,’’ said Ginny Ford of Billerica as she made her way into the first corral of the second wave, “because you get to go over [the line] a little bit faster.’’

Phil Welch, a 62-year-old from Seattle running his 55th marathon and fifth Boston, found a quiet spot behind the Korean Presbyterian Church, where he sat with his son, Nick, to wait for the start.

“There’s always two marathons,’’ he said. “All the fuss getting there, and then actually running.’’

Welch said his goal was only to improve his previous time, then added, “At 62, to do anything more often or in faster times is an accomplishment.’’

To see and feel what the start is like from inside the corrals, you have to run the race. Or you could check out video posted by Andreas Beiler on Facebook and youtube. Beiler, 47, traveled from Wurzburg, Germany, to run his first Boston Marathon, and he filmed as he ran, finishing in 3:19:20 while running with a small video camera strapped to the top of his cap.

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