Even though Hopkinton claims to be the home of the starting line of the Boston Marathon, we in Ashland know the real story. “It all started here” as the sign proclaims next to the site on Pleasant St. in Ashland, not Hopkinton. With all the rivalries between Ashland and Hopkinton, this may be just another one, but it is an important piece of Ashland’s history.

From the beginning of the Boston Marathon, people in Ashland, and probably anywhere else where the race was reported, wondered why we were chosen as the starting point. To answer that question we have to visit the origin of the Marathon.

Looking back in history, way back actually to 490 BC, there was a great battle between the Persians and the Greeks in the town of Marathon in Greece. Having won the conflict, the Greeks sent a messenger named Pheidippides back to Athens to announce the victory. According to legend, he ran the whole distance of 26 miles non-stop, burst into the Greek assembly announcing “We have won,” collapsed, and died. Wow. Good thing we have cell phones now.

Getting back to Ashland, the distance is only 25 miles to Boston where the original distance was 26. The most probable explanation is the revival of the famous run during the first Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. That race, won by a Greek water boy named Spiridon Louis, was 25 miles. The distance, however, varied over the years depending upon the venue for the event. At the Summer Olympics in London in 1908, the distance was changed to 26 miles, 385 yards to allow Queen Alexandra a better view of the race’s finish.

This distance appears to be the standard today, but the race in Ashland began in 1897 when the distance was still 25 miles. And that presented a few problems for the runners in Ashland. Originally starting on Pleasant Street by the Sudbury River, down Main Street, and over the railroad tracks, the runners could possibly be delayed by the train. This prompted the move to the Valentine farm on Union Street which avoided the tracks. For the next several years other adjustments were made until the official distance of 26 miles 385 yards forced the start back to our good neighbors in Hopkinton.

The runners were interesting too. According to Ashland Historian Frank Metcalf, there were only 15 runners in the first race and only 8 that made it to the finish line. The winner was a J. M. McDermott from New York with a time of 2 hours, 55 minutes, 10 seconds. And, according to Metcalf, “Lost 9 pounds from start to finish.” The next year 21 runners started, and only 6 finished. In 1899, 17 started, and 10 finished “into a strong head wind.” By 1907, 106 entered the race with an American Indian, Thomas Longboat, as the winner with a time of 2 hours, 24 minutes, 24 seconds.

There is a picture at the Historical Society of the runners as they rounded the corner of Pleasant Street and Main Street during one of the first races. If you look closely, there are men on bicycles amongst the runners. I was told by one of the senior members of the Society that there was a requirement that each runner have a person on a bicycle to accompany him. Possibly for support, or to ward off the occasional dog that would charge at the runners I would guess.

Well there you have it. I am blaming Queen Alexandra for the move of the Boston Marathon to Hopkinton. There may be a bright side though. With our long history of rivalries like the Magunco Tub and the mysteriously reappearing cannon that we “acquired” from Hopkinton, the annual Thanksgiving football game between Ashland and Hopkinton is next week. Care to wager?

Steve Leacu for Ashland Directions
December 2009