SBJ/April 14-20, 2014/In Depth

Sign of strength

How the Boston Athletic Association moved beyond last year’s tragedy and helped the city get running again

For several days following last year’s bombings at the Boston Marathon, the Boston Athletic Association, sponsor John Hancock and volunteers worked long hours to clean up the aftermath.

All VIPs, volunteers and runners had been located and most had gathered their belongings. BAA Executive Director Thomas Grilk described the mood within the organization as “get the job done.”

But when the final runners collected their bags and BAA medals, a new task came to the top of the list.
“A question was raised, ‘What are we going to do next year?’” Grilk said. “People wanted to know how 2014 would be affected by the events of 2013.”

The response would galvanize the organization and reinforce the race as the premier running property in the U.S.

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Boston Marathon race director Dave McGillivray stood on the starting line in Hopkinton, Mass., on the afternoon of April 15, 2013, marveling at the day’s perfection. While heat and humidity had plagued the 2012 race, the 2013 race day was sunny with temperatures only in the 50s. The usually chaotic finish line was so smooth, in fact, that McGillivray had left to run the entire 26.2-mile course behind the competitors, which is his annual tradition.

A worker hangs a banner on Boylston Street in preparation for this year’s Boston Marathon.
Photo by: AP Images
As McGillivray was about to embark, his race radio crackled to life with shocking news: two explosions near the finish; chaos in Copley Square; evacuations in effect.

“I thought immediately it was a generator, then the person yelled, ‘Bombs! It was bombs!’” McGillivray said. “We jumped in the car and drove back to [the finish] at 100 miles per hour.”

McGillivray arrived to find the finish area in disarray. The medical tent was filled with victims. Ambulances sped other victims to the hospital. His cellphone service was blocked — law enforcement disabled all cell service to prevent further explosions.

As McGillivray walked toward the finish line to search for his family, a police officer told him to stop.

“I told him, ‘I’m the race director, this is my race!’ and he said, ‘Not anymore,’” McGillivray said. “It was then that it hit me. [The BAA] was not in charge.”

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The moment marked an important turning point for the BAA and the role it would play throughout the months to follow. With the FBI, local police and politicians taking charge of security, the investigation and public relations, the BAA focused solely on what it could do for the runners and volunteers.

The bombings had scattered 20,000 runners and 8,500 volunteers, and their belongings and family members, throughout the city. Furthermore, the attack had happened while a sizable number of runners were still on the course. So the BAA’s primary focus became to reunite runners with their families, get the runners to pick up their belongings and finisher’s medals, and then send the runners safely back home.

“We can’t cure anybody who is hurt. We can’t catch the criminals who did it, but we can serve the runners,” Grilk said. “It wasn’t anything glamorous — basic services had been disrupted and needed to be restored.”

Grilk was in the Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel when the explosions went off, and from the hotel he oversaw the BAA’s post-bombing operations via two-way radios.

After several hours of chaos subsided, the BAA went to work. At the finish line, McGillivray rounded up volunteers and BAA employees and began unloading runners’ bags from the buses used to transport the athletes. For six hours they lifted bags from buses onto Copley Square, where they set up a gear repository for the runners.

At the hotel, other staff began the arduous task of tracking down volunteers, VIPs and runners. With the phone lines down, the task proved nearly impossible. The race’s primary sponsor, John Hancock, loaned its volunteers and employees to help.

“We took out our lists and just started dialing, emailing and Facebooking people,” said Rob Friedman, assistant vice president of sponsorship and event marketing for John Hancock. “For two days we were in the hotel accounting for folks.”

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The BAA received universally positive responses for its actions after the bombing, both from the running industry and the world at large. Gov. Deval Patrick praised the cooperation between the BAA and government bodies. So did local newspapers.

The positive feedback increased after the BAA announced it would allow the 9,000 runners who did not finish the race entry into the 2014 event. It also made several hundred spots available for fans who wrote letters explaining how the bombings had profoundly affected them.

The positive response stood in stark contrast to the marathon industry’s previous calamity: the cancellation of the 2012 New York City Marathon due to Superstorm Sandy.

Boston Marathon race director Dave McGillivray leads the One Run for Boston last year, which raised money for those injured in the bombings.
Photo by: Getty Images
“The New York Road Runners took a huge black eye when Sandy came through, and the BAA got the absolute opposite experience,” said Jill Geer, chief public affairs officer for USA Track and Field. “Top to bottom, people were impressed with how [the BAA] handled it.”

The positive feedback added to several months of international media exposure for the race, as newspapers and cable television networks embarked on round-the-clock coverage. The slogan “Boston Strong” became a national rallying cry for the city, the race and the organization. The event became the most tweeted sporting event of 2013.

For decades, the Boston Marathon has maintained an exclusive space within the global running industry. Runners cannot simply sign up for the event; they must instead qualify at other marathons by meeting strict time benchmarks. So while the major marathons in New York and Chicago are the marathons for all runners, Boston is for elites.

The bombing, however, changed that. According to analytics expert and endurance sports journalist Raymond Britt, Google searches for the term “Qualify for Boston Marathon” after the 2013 race were 20 percent greater than in 2012. Other industry experts saw further changes.

“In every running community, it was the core runners that had this attachment to Boston,” said Mary Wittenberg, CEO of the New York Road Runners. “I think now it’s beyond that. I don’t have a run where I don’t see people wearing the BAA jacket these days.”

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Within the sponsorship market, the race has also maintained exclusivity. While other marathons are quick to monetize sponsorship opportunities, the BAA has historically taken a more conservative approach. The Boston Marathon still doesn’t have a title sponsor; instead, pole-position sponsor John Hancock has maintained its
“presenting” role for 29 years. Adidas has held the secondary spot for 25 years.

Grilk said the race’s heightened visibility has generated additional sponsorship inquiries, but that hasn’t changed the BAA’s approach to partnerships. The BAA, he said, wants partners that desire a long-term relationship, not partners looking to piggyback on the group’s heightened exposure. Grilk said that signing new partners was farther down on the BAA’s annual list of priorities than in previous years.

“Could we have put more time into [new partnerships]? Perhaps,” Grilk said. “In years like this, marketing and sponsorship doesn’t receive quite the same attention.”

Instead, Grilk said, the BAA poured its efforts into its 2014 operations. More than double the number of police and security personnel will be present. Unregistered runners will be prohibited from entering the course. Spectators will be discouraged from bringing bags to the event.

But the BAA also put its efforts into making 2014 a year to honor the heroes of 2013. The ideas came from weeks of internal discussions starting in mid-2013. The BAA will hold a tribute to the victims and first responders at Hynes Convention Center on Tuesday. It will host dinners, industry events and even a kids race. The 5K fun run will be expanded from 6,500 participants to 10,000, to give Bostonians a chance to honor the heroes of 2013.

The BAA will post some signage around the race that asks fans to remember 2013, but Grilk said those signs are merely symbolic. To Grilk and the other BAA executives, the organization is paying tribute by continuing to do what they know how to do: stage a world-class event and attend to the needs of runners.

“People are going to pay tribute and respect the way they want to across the week of events,” Grilk said. “Our job is to stay true to what we know how to do.”

Fred Dreier is a writer in Colorado.

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