Say what you want about Boston-area drivers, but we haven’t run over any marathoners yet.
This is not an insignificant feat, given the thousands of runners that clog our roads, not just during the Boston Marathon, but in the months leading up to Patriots Day. Each weekend, runners train on the course, some two- and three-abreast on narrow shoulders crusty with snow. Passing cars are so close that their passengers could hand out bananas. Running this route is an exercise in trust — trust that motorists are paying attention.
Elsewhere, many are not. Two weeks ago, a Virginia mother training for Boston died when she was struck by an SUV on her morning run. Two other runners in the United States were killed by cars the same week. No matter how fit the runner, no matter how careful, a car has a 2-ton advantage, and it sometimes ferries a driver so clueless that he does not notice the person he hit is lodged in the windshield. Really, you ought to have to have a license to drive.
Runners, of course, are but a subset of the larger problem of pedestrian deaths, which have been on the rise in Massachusetts and elsewhere for the past decade, owing in part to drivers distracted by technology and increased earbud use by those on foot. In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio has adopted Sweden’s “Vision Zero” initiative, vowing to end traffic fatalities. It’s a noble idea, but thus far ineffective, with 11 pedestrian and cyclists dead already this year.
Runners here have had larger worries than cars since the carnage at our finish line last year. Hundreds of them train along the often narrow and curving marathon route each weekend, and so far, without serious incident. Courtney Mongell, a member of the Tufts Marathon Team, ran 12 ½ miles on the route one recent Sunday and found the drivers courteous and encouraging. There was honking, she said, but it was all friendly, and even though she violated a key rule of runner safety by wearing earbuds, Mongell told me she felt safe. There was never a point, she said, when she thought people didn’t see her.
That said, the Tufts coach puts up signs along the route alerting drivers to runners on the road, and there are water stations, just as in an actual race. The team’s coach, Don Megerle, told me that, to his knowledge, no one has ever even been bumped. “I tell them, ‘Remember, the cars are not looking out for you; you watch out for the cars.’ It has worked so far, thank goodness.”
Dave McGillivray, the marathon’s director, has followed that advice on the 140,000 miles he’s run. He’s been clipped by a car once — ironically, in a race in which the roads were supposed to be closed. “I’m always running as far away from traffic as I can,” he told me. “I’m running in the gutters; I’m running in the shrubs. All it takes is a sneeze by a driver, and a tug on the wheel, and that’s it.”
Unlike the lingering contrails of a jet, a marathon dissipates quickly. Just days after the Boston race, there’s no evidence that the world’s greatest runners recently trod there, not even permanent markers to indicate the course. With the international prominence of the Marathon, I’ve often thought the Boston Athletic Association should give more glory to its route, maybe work with the cities and towns involved to create a biking and running path that runs from Hopkinton to Boylston Street. With plans afoot to build a marathon museum in Hopkinton, such a path would be a grand and bold extension of the city’s signature race, and give both runners and tourists an opportunity to traverse the route in relative safety. Some pieces are already in place — there is a safer parallel roadway, for example, next to the course through the Newton hills. All that’s needed to connect the rest is money and vision.
The city of Charleston, S.C., did this on a much smaller scale. The third-largest 10K in the United States is run there, over a bridge nearly 3 miles long. When the bridge was rebuilt a decade ago, planners included a lane for pedestrians and cyclists. Its popularity has justified the expense, but at least three serious collisions between cyclists and runners have occurred.
Their broken bones prove that life’s a dangerous business on or off the road, and the strenuous life always involves heightened risk. The wise mitigate it. The lucky live.