HOPKINTON, Mass. The rows of portable toilets that line the streets of this bucolic suburb on the morning of the Boston Marathon see heavy duty just before the starter’s gun goes off as runners nervously empty their bladders before the race, but one contestant who emerges from the turquoise and white enclosure stands out from the crowd.
“I know I’m different,” the male runner who identifies himself only as “Sam” says to this reporter, “but my needs are the same.”
Sam is conspicuous by his shortcomings; he’s not nearly as tall as any of the other entrants, and despite a diet that consists entirely of seafood, he’s nowhere near as slim as the world-class competitors who will line up against him this morning.
“Lotta people are counting me out,” says the three-and-a-half foot emperor penguin. “I’ve never let other people’s opinions hold me back.”
The Boston Marathon is the nation’s oldest, and it has gradually expanded from an event for able-bodied men only to one that features ten different divisions, including male and female runners, male and female handcyclists, male and female wheelchair competitors, and unisex categories for cosmetologists, osteopaths, calligraphers, Aleutian Islanders and excommunicated members of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. “The race now reflects the colorful tapestry that makes Boston such a vibrant city,” says Chamber of Commerce Spokeswoman Edie Miniscus. “I just hope the penguins don’t litter the streets with krill.”
Switzer: “Get out of my way–the penguins are gaining on me!”
There was no official bar to penguins entering the historic race, which is patterned after the 26.1 mile course run by Pheidippides from Marathon to Athens to bring news of a military victory, but a culture of anti-penguin sentiment worked to discourage the aquatic birds from entering. “In high school I showed up for track and field and the coach told me I’d be better off on the yearbook staff,” says a determined Sphenisciform wearing bib number 16,001 named “Lyle.” “I went to one meeting and couldn’t get away from those goody-goody types fast enough.”
And so it took guerilla action similar to that employed by Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the race with an official number that she obtained by the subterfuge of signing her registration papers as “K.V. Switzer.” Sam and Lyle mingled with other runners at the starting line last year and jumped into the field as it took off, only to be accosted by Boston Athletic Association officials when they slowed down to climb “Heartbreak Hill” in Newton, Mass.
“Guys–remember to stretch!”
“I don’t mind them birds racing,” said Jock Semple IV, great-grandson of the race official who tried to remove Switzer from the race course. “As long as they remain flightless, which I figure ain’t gonna change for a couple million years of evolution.”
The penguins make good time through Ashland, Framingham and Natick, but begin to slow as they reach the half-way point, alongside the campus of the all-female Wellesley College. There, young women lavish attention and affection on them in addition to the customary cup of water as the birds re-hydrate in style, then linger longer than their race-day game plan calls for.
“How you feeling?” Sam says to Lyle as the latter climbs onto the lap of Meredith Gersh, a senior English major from Nyack, New York.
“I’ve got a cramp,” Lyle replies. “I think I’d better drop out.”