What the Boston Marathon means to a Bostonian

For locals, it's more than a race: It's a day-long, all-inclusive celebration

Runners head out at the start of the 116th Boston Marathon on April 16, 2012.
(Image credit: Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

On Monday, two explosions erupted near the finish line for the Boston Marathon, injuring scores of people and killing at least two.

The scene was horrific and frightening and dumbfounding, and as any Bostonian can attest, it couldn't have come on a worse day for the city. Marathons everywhere draw thousands of spectators, the grandeur of the events enticing people from all segments of the general public. This is especially true in Boston, where the marathon is just one piece of a full-fledged local holiday that sees over a half million spectators, participants, and blissfully drunk revelers all celebrating together.

For five years, I called Boston home. And every year I was there, I attended the marathon. So did my friends, my colleagues, and our families. No matter your background, no matter your interests, everyone found something to celebrate on a day that, for locals, serves as the unofficial kickoff to spring.

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Marathon Monday, as it's often called, is Boston's biggest annual event, period. On par with New Years and St. Patrick's Day in terms of sheer revelry, the city shuts down for Patriots' Day, a regional holiday — it's celebrated almost exclusively in Massachusetts and Maine — commemorating the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the Revolutionary War's opening skirmishes that gave us the "shot heard round the world."

Today, the historical significance of the event is largely overshadowed by its modern incarnation as something like a giant, city-wide street festival. The marathon itself draws an average 20,000 racers and 500,000 or so spectators every year, with the most hardcore enthusiasts packing Copley Square — the site of Monday's explosions and the marathon's finish line — hours before the race even gets started miles away, outside the city limits.

Most businesses close, and the city's numerous colleges, if not already done for the year, cancel classes. At the same time, the Red Sox traditionally host an early day game (first pitch well before noon) ensuring that, with the race still in full swing, a second wave of close to 40,000 people, drunk on beer and buzzing with adrenaline, flood the streets barely one mile from the finish line.

Combined, the full effect is stunning.

A long vein, stretching from the suburbs all the way to downtown, transforms into a boisterous, unbroken mass of bodies. It stays that way for hours, on into the afternoon and evening, as stragglers finish up and people pack the bars to either continue or launch into long benders.

It's hard to overstate the sheer magnitude of the holiday, and what it means to most residents. Only once, when the Red Sox won the World Series, have I ever seen the city as thoroughly roiled by unbridled, sloshed exuberance as it is on Patriots' Day.

Despite its provincial nature, the holiday is so enormous that's it's become known elsewhere in the nation. Marathon Monday has its own Urban Dictionary entry, one that, for all its humor, is remarkably accurate in noting that "the marathon provides a race as a backdrop to the biggest day of drinking and legalized hookie-playing found anywhere in the country."

For no group is this more true than for Boston's enormous community of college students, who have either just finished their classes for the year, or are tightly-wound as they prep for finals. In either case, students are ready to rage as hard as at any other time of the year. The fact that the race route swings right past Boston College and skirts the bulk of Boston University, two of the city's biggest campuses, ensures that throngs of cheering students are always on hand.

College participation is so ubiquitous that local and campus police issue pre-race warnings — warnings that go uniformly unheeded come race day when everyone openly flouts public drinking laws. The Huffington Post even named Marathon Monday one of the eight most infamous college events in the nation, specifically citing BU's epic public partying. It's quite possibly the only time all year when the city at large views college shenanigans as endearing, not grating — when even the guy chasing a forty with mystery liquid from a blue Solo cup seems genuinely supportive of the sense of community fostered by the day's cultural significance.

Really, when else can you find elite runners, history buffs, frat bros, and virtually everyone else in a major metropolitan area all celebrating together like that?

Boston has a long history of racial turmoil, and a reputation — somewhat earned, somewhat exaggerated — as an unwelcoming city deeply segregated along various lines: class, age, race. That someone would bomb Boston on Patriots' Day, a time when the city's disparate groups join together in an outpouring of communion and cheer, is a tragedy. It is the absolute antithesis of everything the day represents.

Patriots' Day was already indelibly linked to past violence and bloodshed. As someone who considers myself a Bostonian no matter where I go and no matter where I live, it pains me to watch that link grow stronger with today's unthinkable crime.

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