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Monday, April 15, is the day of the Boston Marathon. When I was in college, classes were canceled and we would cheer on the runners as they passed by on Commonwealth Avenue in Newton.  At first I wondered why some of the runners looked so ragged, until I realized that by the time they reached Boston College, the runners were on mile 21 of 26.

The marathon begins in Hopkinton and passes through several Boston suburbs before heading downtown and ending near the John Hancock Tower in Copley Square. Below is a link to the route from Google Maps, which can be zoomed in.

(via http://ratherberunning.wordpress.com/2011/03/18/boston-obsession-the-route/)

Runners train for months for this marathon, which is more difficult than most due to the presence of many changes in terrain. In particular, around mile 20, just before reaching Boston College, is Heartbreak Hill. It’s not a particularly steep ascent, but it comes late in the marathon when many runners are starting to get fatigued. If they can make it past this point, though, it’s mostly downhill from there to Boston (but they do have to put up with annoying drunk college students yelling at them from BC and BU).

Note that the Boston Marathon is basically a straight line from Point A to Point B. It does not loop around, like some other marathons do (e.g., the Hartford Marathon). And in this sense, it stays true to the original marathon from ancient Greece, when a Greek soldier ran the 26.2 miles from Marathon to Athens to deliver a message that the Persians had been defeated. After he told the message, he promptly dropped dead.  Luckily, today’s marathon runners put in a little more training than poor Pheidippides.

The route chosen for the marathon in the 1896 and 2004 Olympics in Athens is the one below. The reason the route is not straight is that Mount Pendeli is in the way. Pheidippides would likewise probably have gone around the mountain rather than up it.

Most of us will probably never run a marathon. But that’s the beauty of maps. We can virtually follow the route and cheer on those who run it without having to break a sweat. And for some, seeing it mapped out and tracing the route with their fingers may give them the confidence they need to start training. The road from Hopkinton to Boston, or Marathon to Athens, actually looks manageable when it’s abstracted as a bold line on a map, with no hint of the physical pains which typically set in during and after such a long distance run.

Personally, tracing the route with my finger is enough for me.

Happy mapping!