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One picture. Two guys, on the side of the road, sharing a beer. Nothing out of the ordinary, except it happened in the middle of the Boston Marathon, and one of the guys was a runner. And this is how a tradition was started, and a friendship was formed, between a Canadian and a New Englander, on Facebook and on the side of the road in the middle of the most fabled road race of all time.
For eight years, the families have been gathering at the Bianchi house on West Central in Natick, Mass., to watch the Boston Marathon. The Bianchi house sits near the 10-mile marker on the course, the most hallowed race course in running history, one marred by the atrocity of the bombing at the finish line in 2013. A year later, the 2014 race still carried those scars, and they reached all the way back to Natick; a lingering evil that threatened the usually joyous mood of what the locals simply call “the marathon.”
"It was so tense to see all the police cars and SWAT teams before the race,” Danny Langan said.
Danny’s one of the regulars at the Bianchi house. Every year, he packs up a wagon with refreshments - alcoholic and otherwise - and brings his wife and kids to the Bianchi house to watch the marathon. They make a day of it - a day with friends, and the community, and the runners. They offer sliced oranges and water, but more importantly, they offer encouragement to the tens of thousands of runners who stream by every Patriots’ Day.
The Bianchi house sits near the 16-kilometre point of the race to a Canadian, a Canadian like Dave Emilio, a Torontonian who, as he was approaching the Bianchi house in 2014, was deciding it was time to drop out of the race. His singlet was a runner’s version of the 1972 Canada team that overcame all odds to knock off the Russians, but there weren’t any miracles in store on this day. Running with what turned out to be a torn tensor fascia latae - a fancy term for a hip injury - Dave had fallen behind his running partners, popped some Tylenol with no relief, and come to the realization this wasn’t his day. Dave started to walk just after the 15k post, early enough to know the finish line is much too far away to get there on his own. Carrying his phone in case of such an eventuality, Dave texted his wife to tell her he was finished.
So Dave started looking for a ride home. That’s when he came across Danny.
“Come on Canada, keep going!” Danny yelled, trying to give the failing runner a little boost. But all Dave wanted was directions to the train station.
"I told Danny 'I’m done. Hurting too bad to continue'," Dave said.
Danny said he’d give Dave a ride himself, but they were on the wrong side of the road. Instead, Danny told Dave to go see his friends John and Toby in the yellow house a mile ahead, on the other side of the road. They’d give him a ride to the train. “Tell them you’re a friend of Danny’s!”
Before he left, Dave spotted Danny’s cooler. So he did what any good Canadian would do on a day when things aren’t going well. Dave asked Danny for a beer.
“Are we really doing this?” Danny said. He was in shock. Dave’s bib number - a red 7531 - showed he had been in the first wave of starters, one of the truly top-level runners in this race. And now, he was stopping at the Bianchi house, for a beer.
“When he asked, it was kind of cool,” Danny said.
“I saw he had a low number; that stood out in my head.”
Danny gave Dave a beer, and the two posed for a photo. Dave posted it to Facebook. Dave headed back onto the course, walking, limping. And then a funny thing happened. He got caught up in the crowd, started jogging lightly, and went right past the yellow house on the other side of the road. So he set his sights on the lovely ladies of Wellesley College, at Mile 13. Figured he’d walk to Wellesley and look for a ride home.
But Dave’s wife told him if he wanted to walk the rest of the way, she’d wait for him. So he did, finishing his fifth Boston Marathon in 4:38 - almost a full 90 minutes slower than his qualifying time.
"I settled into a slow painful run, limp-hobble that resembled Terry Fox’s gait and I just thought that this could be worse and battled through it," Dave said.
"Believe it or not, I actually enjoyed the whole run despite the injury."
The story of the hip, and the mid-race beer, were the talk around Dave’s running club. In Natick, it was a fun story between the Bianchis, and the Langans, and those who were there that day. If nothing else, it helped erase some of the lingering feelings from 2013.
“This was the cure,” Langan said.
“It was a way to bring back into reality what the race means, to feel the runners’ joy and happiness.”
With the 2015 Boston Marathon approaching, Dave was suffering through another injury, one that made it a 50/50 proposition that he’d be able to run full speed in Boston. Dave began thinking back to 2014, and that beer. All he had was a photo taken somewhere along the course, but it was enough to pique his interest. He studied the photo, then searched Google Maps to find a house somewhere along West Central that looked like the one where he stopped. He found the address, and with no idea who lived there, he wrote a letter addressed to “My Boston Beer Buddy, 84 W Central St, Natick MA 01760.”
“I’m coming back and hope you’re out there cheering again…I’m hoping to enjoy another beer with you.”
Danny Langan was at the Boston Red Sox game on Opening Day when he got a text message from his wife.
“Wait til you get home - you should see this letter.”
The letter had arrived at the Bianchi house. Annalyse Bianchi told Danny’s wife Carolyn ”your husband got a letter at my house. Remember the Canadian runner?”
“It was the coolest story ever,” Danny said.
“Nobody’s looking for a'thank you' but it was really genuine. It made an impression on me and whole community.”
So Danny did what everyone does these days: he found Dave on Facebook. Told him they’d received the letter, and of course, stop by again this year! And then he spread the word with his friends, and neighbors. Dave said he’d stop by for a wave if things are going well, and a little longer if they weren’t.
When Dave started the marathon on Monday, things were going much better. His new injury was holding off, and he was having a much better race. In fact, he was on pace to requalify for next year's Boston Marathon.
But he had a date to keep first. So he kept his eyes out on West Central Street, for the house he'd run past many times but had seen only once before, the house that was now etched in his memory. He found the Bianchi house, and he found Danny, and he caught him by surprise - Dave's timing chip misfired on Monday, so nobody knew where he was on the course. A huge crowd of people was waiting to cheer Dave on. Danny's kids had signs, and total strangers knew Dave's name and cheered. Danny had a cooler full of Sam Adams beer, emblematic of the Boston hospitality Dave had enjoyed the year before. They shared a drink, and took another photo. And off Dave went, with what seemed like the whole town of Natick behind him, cheering him on to another Boston qualifying time.
Sometimes, the best-laid plans go awry. Danny had arranged for “Friends of Danny’s” signs all along the course - at the Neville's house a mile down the road, at Danny’s mother’s house in Newton, at Danny’s brother’s father-in-law’s house near the Wellesley Hospital. All of them cheering Dave on, all of them, Danny said, signifying one thing for their adopted Canadian runner:
“If you need anything, here’s a place to stop.”
But the stupid timing chip didn't work, so they couldn't track Dave's progress, and they couldn't tell when he'd be arriving. So the Nevilles didn't know when he ran past, and Dave didn't know he was supposed to be looking for them. But on this day, Dave didn't need to stop. Knowing all of these people were there carried him through Natick, through Newton, through the whole damn race.
"I really enjoyed the whole day knowing the support was there," Dave said after the race.
"Even after I left them behind I was still pumped. I thought of them a lot the rest of the way and also fed off the crowd thinking, if they're so nice, I bet all of these people are nice too. Such a great crowd of cheers the whole way."
His injury held up; he was slowed late in the race by stomach problems, of all things. It wasn't a personal best by any means, but he ran the 2015 Boston Marathon in 3:38.
Not bad for a guy with a bad hip, a guy who stopped halfway through the race to have a beer and to catch up with an old friend.