Mutai in the middle

Today was a perfect day for the 2011 Boston Marathon, with clear skies, mild temperatures, and a brisk tailwind to speed the runners toward the finish. Due perhaps to these favorable conditions, it was a record-setting marathon, with Kenya’s Geoffrey Mutai winning the men’s division with a time of 2 hours 3 minutes and 2 seconds: the fastest marathon ever. Unfortunately, that’s a fact that will never enter the record-books since the Boston route is mostly downhill, ending at a lower elevation than it starts, and linear rather than looping, giving runners an unfavorable advantage on days like today when the wind is just right.

Muscle memory

Mostly downhill or not, the Boston Marathon is a daunting challenge, with so-called Heartbreak Hill appearing right when runners are hitting the limits of their physical endurance. The spot where J and I watch the marathon as it races through Newton is a mile or so before Heartbreak, so the spectators who line the race route make a conscious effort to give runners some extra energy through enthusiastic cheering, sign-waving, cowbell-ringing, and lots of drumming.

Teach your children well

This year, the African-inspired drummers of the Drum Connection were joined by a troupe of Japanese taiko drummers, the Genki Spark, who brightened our vantage spot with their funky outfits, clever signs, energetic dancing, and lively chants: “Eat those hills! You can do it! Eat those hills! Yum, yum, yum!

You eat hills for breakfast!

The Genki Spark take their name from a Japanese word meaning “happy, healthy, and alive,” and the mood at our vantage spot was very Genki thanks to their energy and enthusiasm. In fact, I personally think the Genki Spark can be credited with inspiring two athletes from Japan–Masazumi Soejima and Wakako Tsuchida–to win the men’s and women’s wheelchair division: a moment of glory dedicated to their disaster-stricken compatriots back home.

the Genki Spark rocks on

And while we’re on the topic of eating hills for breakfast, let’s not fail to mention Kenya’s Caroline Kilel, who closely beat Desiree Davila of the U.S.A. to win the women’s division with an official time of 2 hours 22 minutes 36 seconds. Way to go, ladies!

Kilel leads the pack

As I’ve mentioned in past marathon posts, only part of the fun of watching the Boston Marathon every year involves the race’s elite front runners. As much as the crowd cranes excitedly for a good view (and good pictures) of the runners at the head of the pack, we cheer just as loudly for the anonymous folks further back: the ones who really need a spark of Genki to carry them over Heartbreak Hill and straight to the finish line.

Anonymous legs

Both this year and last, after J and I cheered ourselves hoarse at our usual marathon-watching spot, we walked a half mile or so down the road, toward Newton City Hall, where throngs of spectators create a festival atmosphere with music, cheering, and signs. Along one quiet stretch of Commonweath Avenue, near a shady corner of Newton Cemetery, the spectators thin and the loudest sound you hear is the steady slap of rubber soles on pavement.

The pack

At such a quiet moment, before you reach the hoopla at City Hall, you can almost imagine you’re running the race yourself, falling into step with the runners alongside you.

Ever onward!

At such a moment, you realize how inward-focused a sport like marathon-running is: apart from the drums and bells and cheering, there’s a quiet spot inside that only your own rhythmic footfalls can reach. Running in step with thousands of other runners, you’re nevertheless alone: alone to fight your own body, pushing it beyond its limits, and alone to listen to your inner voice wavering between “Yes, I can” and “No, I can’t.”

Stretch break

Perhaps this very solitary and downright personal nature of running is why so many fans line the marathon route to remind runners that the best kind of Genki is the emotional tailwind you get from having lots of friends to support your every step.

Run, Duvie, run

Click here to see more photos from today’s Boston Marathon: enjoy!