Hanc: The proud and historic Boston Marathon will run on

Chris Royer, from Coventry, Vt., raises his hands Chris Royer, from Coventry, Vt., raises his hands as he starts the 117th running of the Boston Marathon, in Hopkinton, Mass. (April 15, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

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I laughed out loud while running the Boston Marathon on Monday.

This was of course, hours before the explosions rocked the 117-year-old event, decimated several families and shattered the innocence of a city that is so protective of this race.

This was back, earlier on that sun-splashed morning, when the task at hand for those of us in this year's marathon was simply putting one foot in front of the other for 26.2 miles. While our efforts shrink into insignificance later in the day, it was still an effort.

Now, laughing is not easy to do while running a marathon. Laughter requires oxygen and the recruitment of muscle fibers in the throat. When you're running, all your physiological systems are focused on one task. Getting blood to the legs to keep them moving. No time for laughter.

And yet I couldn't help myself.

It was in Framingham, about the 6-mile mark, when there are still 20 long and hilly miles to go. But right by the railroad station I saw a gaggle of young women holding up signs.

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"You're NOT almost there," read the first one.

Brilliant, I thought: the perfect, flinty New England response to the inane bromide often thrown at passing runners by well-meaning but ignorant race spectators.

The second: "This is the worst parade ever."

That one got me thinking -- again, a slow process when one is near oxygen debt. But as someone who has been steeped the last two years in the history of this event and the organization that stages it, the Boston Athletic Association, I couldn't help but think: That's just not true.

While it may lack 76 trombones, what the Boston Marathon does have is a 117-year tradition: Indeed, it has been a grand parade, an unstoppable march since 1897. Which makes it one of the oldest annual sporting events in America. Older than the World Series, the Super Bowl, the Final Four, the Stanley Cup. The New York City Marathon? By the time it was first held, in 1970, the Boston Marathon was already an old codger.

Boston was inspired by the first Olympic Marathon -- the culminating event in the first Modern Games. Members of the Boston Athletic Association made up most of the unofficial American team in Athens in April 1896, and won most of the track and field events. The young men, mostly Harvard and M.I.T. students, witnessed the pandemonium when a Greek runner entered the stadium in first place and crossed the line as a the winner of the first Olympic Marathon.

Just one year later, the first B.A.A. Marathon was held. It was a hit from the get-go. Special trains from Boston allowed spectators and officials to gather in Ashland, the starting point (the marathon distance was 24 miles until the 1920s).

Dozens of reporters, officials and dignitaries were present. The starter, a hero of the 1896 Games named Tom Burke, dragged a line in the dirt with his shoe. Eighteen men toed the line. At 12:19, Burke yelled "Go!" and off they went.

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It was quite a spectacle. Trains ran back and forth alongside the runners. Crowds, although not as big as the ones today, gathered on the country crossroads to gawk and cheer. The major American participatory sport in 1897 was not running, but bicycling, and a phalanx of "wheelmen" preceded the runners, their cycles kicking up dust that choked the competitors.

Few of the runners had ever ventured this far. An exception was John J. McDermott, an Irish-American New Yorker who had run in the only other marathon held in the United States, in Connecticut the previous fall. He had some sense of how to pace himself. As the race ground on, he took control.

With five miles to go, McDermott's legs cramped up. Attendants dashed out on to the course and helped massage him (sad to say, personalized, on-site midrace massage therapy is no longer a service offered in the Boston Marathon).

He arrived in Kenmore Square and almost collided with a funeral procession crossing the road. He continued up Exeter Street in the still fashionably new Back Bay section of Boston, running past the grandiose B.A.A. headquarters where a group of the B.A.A. Brahmins, many of them old Civil War officers, bankers and stockbrokers, applauded.

Nearby, a crowd of 3,000 saw McDermott take his final steps. His time was 2 hours, 55 minutes. To put it in perspective, Long Island's top finisher on Monday, Sal Nastasi of Massapequa Park, ran the Boston race in 2:35, and finished 149th overall. And that was on a course 2.2 miles longer than McDermott's.

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But he was the leader -- the Grand Marshal so to speak -- of what has turned out to be one helluva parade; one that still marches on more than a century later and that, as the B.A.A. announced on Tuesday, will commence yet again next year, undeterred by the actions of cowardly killers.

I was proud to be a part of it.Newsday contributor John Hanc, of Farmingdale, is the author of "The B.A.A. at 125: The Official History of the Boston Athletic Association 1887-2012."

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