The Starting Line

Unless you are a dyed-in-the-wool running fan or an Ashland resident, most people know the Boston Marathon as a 26.2 mile run from Hopkinton to Boston. For the locals, we know it all began in Ashland on Pleasant St. across from Metcalf’s Mill in 1897. With all the “repurposing” going on lately it comes as no surprise that the line in the dirt drawn by Thomas E. Burke on April 19th 1897 for the first Boston Marathon would become the starting line for the Ashland Half Marathon and 5K today.

How did the starting line end up in Ashland? Sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it’s not. It has to do with the original finish line. For this, we need to travel back to 1896.

The Greek Olympics in 1896 included an event to commemorate the run of Pheidippides from Marathon to Athens in 490 BC. At the 1896 event were officials from the Boston Athletic Association or “BAA” as it is commonly known. Along with US Olympic coach John Graham, the BAA was inspired by the event and decided to organize a race on Patriots Day here in Boston. If the finish ended in Boston, a 24.5 mile course had to be designed with a starting point somewhere to the north, south, or west. Boston businessman and BAA official Henry H. Holton rode his bicycle with a mileage counter from Irvington Oval near Boston’s Back Bay westward. The Boston and Albany railroad was a convenient east-west reference for his trip and he followed it for 24.5 miles ending up on Pleasant Street in Ashland.

This was the established route for the Boston Marathon for the first three years but changes in the finish line location pushed the starting line back to the bridge over the B&A railroad tracks on High Street. This was fine for a small group of runners at first, but as the participation increased it became too crowded, forcing the starting line to change again to Steven’s Corner on Union Street. Later, in 1924 the official race distance changed to 26 miles, 385 yards pushing the starting line to the town common in Hopkinton where it has remained to this day.

Today’s photo shows the runners rounding the corner of Pleasant Street and Main in 1899. Bicyclists seen in the picture accompanied the runners for support. The only building that remains is the yellow brick house on the right that belonged to the Beaudoin’s.

None of this has changed the spirit of the good people of Ashland though. It all began here, and returning to our roots the Ashland Sporting Association sponsors a half marathon/5K run from the original 1897 starting point on Pleasant Street. The site is also the location of the Marathon Park. With $50,000.00 in state grant money procured by Ashland resident Dave Foster, Phase I of the park was built to commemorate the original starting point of the Boston Marathon as well as providing information and history of the race. Phase 2 was to include walking paths and benches many of which are there today.

The next race for the Half Marathon/5K is October 31, 2015. Please visit the website for the Ashland Sporting Association for more details and the course route(s).

I have to wonder if Pheidippides only needed to run Ashland’s half marathon, he might not have dropped dead in front of the magistrates in Athens!

Sources: Hal Higdon, “Runner’s World” magazine.

Ashland Sporting Association:

Steve Leacu for Directions
October 2105