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11 Fast Facts About the Boston Marathon

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Very few road races around the world carry as much significance as the Boston Marathon. Not everyone can meet the strict qualifying times, and those that do face a grueling 26.2-mile course through the Boston suburbs and (eventually) into the city itself. Whether you're running, spectating, or following from afar, read on for more about the prestigious competition, now in its 121st year.


Established in 1887, the Boston Athletic Association's stated mission was to "encourage all manly sports and promote physical culture." Ten years later, it hosted a 24.5-mile road race for 15 participants (only 10 of them made it to the finish line). The Athletic Association's symbol, the unicorn, still appears on today's Marathon medals.


Whereas most races post pretty straightforward mile markers—"Mile 1," say, or "Mile 15"—Boston, in its early years, included seemingly-random numbers. (Running legend Amby Burfoot recalled thinking that the 19 7/8 mile marker he spotted during his first Boston Marathon was especially ridiculous.) The signs weren't just for quirk's sake though—the checkpoints were chosen because they helped race officials easily locate the transportation they needed to get from checkpoint to checkpoint.


Approximately half a million people show up to watch 30,000 runners every year, giving the local economy a massive boost. This year, the athletes, their families, and fans are expected to spend $192 million around town—or about $311 for every Boston resident.


Even non-runners feel their pulses start to quicken at the mention of Heartbreak Hill, located between miles 20 and 21. Boston Globe reporter Jerry Nason gets credit for coining the term after the 1936 event. During that race, as runner Johnny Kelley passed his rival Tarzan Brown, he gave him a pat on the back—a move that infuriated Brown and fueled him to a first-place finish. Nason wrote that Brown "broke Kelley's heart" at the hill.

The hill itself isn't as high as its fearsome name suggests: it climbs just 91 feet, according to Runner's World. (By contrast, the hill runners face near the start of the Marine Corps Marathon rises 211 feet.) But a number of other factors contribute to its reputation. For one, it's late in the race, and the rate of the change in elevation catches even elite runners by surprise.


Turlington Burns at the London Marathon in 2015

Unlike other races that admit celebrity runners, celebs who run Boston also have to meet the stringent qualifying standards. Or they have to be running for a charity, in which case they need to be able to finish in six hours or less. Some past celebrity participants include Will Ferrell (who ran in 2003 with a time of 3:56:12), Lisa Ling (she ran in 2001, finishing in 4:34:18), NKOTB alum Joey McIntyre (he ran it in 2013 and 2014, finishing in 3:57:06 and 3:48:11, respectively), and Christy Turlington Burns, who posted a time of 4:09:27 in 2016.


At the 25-mile mark of any marathon, most runners are sweaty and a little dazed (at best). So when a fresh-faced Rosie Ruiz appeared out of nowhere a little over a mile from the finish line and went on to win the 1980 women's title, observers were immediately suspicious. After fellow runners complained that they hadn't seen her at all along the course, Ruiz was stripped of her medal. It was also revealed that she took the subway for a portion of the only other race she'd run, the New York City Marathon, and lied in order to gain admittance to that Boston qualifier, claiming she had a fatal brain tumor.

Ruiz wouldn't have stood a chance against Derek Murphy, a blogger and amateur investigator who has made it his mission to catch marathon cheaters. Since he started his blog in mid-2015, Murphy has caught around 250 cheaters, many of whom faked race times in order to qualify for Boston.


Up until 1969, the marathon took place every April 19, the same day Patriots' Day—a civic holiday commemorating the Battles of Lexington and Concord—was observed. That year, however, officials designated the third Monday of April as Patriots' Day, and the Boston Marathon organizers followed suit. Today, many refer to Patriots' Day as "Marathon Monday."


For decades, the Red Sox have held a home game that kicks off at 11:05 a.m. on Patriots' Day. When the game ends, fans and players alike find themselves in Kenmore Square, cheering runners on in the last mile.


Before hitting Boston proper, runners take the scenic route through Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Wellesley Hills, Newton, and Brookline. Participants don't cross into Boston until after 24 miles in.


In 1967, Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon. (Bobbi Gibb had been the first woman to complete the race a year prior, but as an unregistered, or "bandit" runner.) At the time, Boston Athletic Association rules prohibited women from participating, so Switzer registered using her initials, "K.V. Switzer." The morning of April 19, 1967, runner no. 261 took her place among the other registered runners, initially blending in thanks to her gray sweatsuit. But a couple miles in, race organizer Jock Semple spotted her. Enraged, he tried to pull her off the course; her boyfriend at the time body-checked him, and Switzer kept running. The incident—and the shocking photos that resulted—launched Switzer, and women's running, to the forefront of a national conversation about women's place in the world of sports.

Switzer would go on to run several more marathons and would become a tireless advocate for female runners. This year—50 years after she was nearly shoved off the course of her first marathon—the now-70-year-old is returning to Boston to run it all over again. Once she crosses the finish line, the Boston Athletic Association plans to retire number 261, marking just the second time in its history it has retired a bib.


The two bombs that detonated near the finish line in 2013 killed three people and injured more than 260 athletes and spectators. But instead of backing down, the city of Boston rallied around the more than 36,000 runners who showed up to take on the legendary course the following year. Approximately 1 million spectators cheered on the participants, including Meb Keflezighi, who became the first American to win the race in 30 years and, at 38, the oldest winner since 1930. To honor the victims of the bombing, Keflezighi wrote their names in Sharpie on his bib before pinning it on his singlet. "I just said this is Boston Strong," Keflezighi recalled earlier this month. "I want to write their names big so I can get their strength. To have that inner motivation was huge."

All images via Getty unless otherwise noted.

A version of this story originally ran in 2011.

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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski
The Elements
9 Essential Facts About Carbon
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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski

How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.
It can be glittering and hard. It can be soft and flaky. It can look like a soccer ball. Carbon is the backbone of every living thing—and yet it just might cause the end of life on Earth as we know it. How can a lump of coal and a shining diamond be composed of the same material? Here are eight things you probably didn't know about carbon.


It's in every living thing, and in quite a few dead ones. "Water may be the solvent of the universe," writes Natalie Angier in her classic introduction to science, The Canon, "but carbon is the duct tape of life." Not only is carbon duct tape, it's one hell of a duct tape. It binds atoms to one another, forming humans, animals, plants and rocks. If we play around with it, we can coax it into plastics, paints, and all kinds of chemicals.


It sits right at the top of the periodic table, wedged in between boron and nitrogen. Atomic number 6, chemical sign C. Six protons, six neutrons, six electrons. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, and 15th in the Earth's crust. While its older cousins hydrogen and helium are believed to have been formed during the tumult of the Big Bang, carbon is thought to stem from a buildup of alpha particles in supernova explosions, a process called supernova nucleosynthesis.


While humans have known carbon as coal and—after burning—soot for thousands of years, it was Antoine Lavoisier who, in 1772, showed that it was in fact a unique chemical entity. Lavoisier used an instrument that focused the Sun's rays using lenses which had a diameter of about four feet. He used the apparatus, called a solar furnace, to burn a diamond in a glass jar. By analyzing the residue found in the jar, he was able to show that diamond was comprised solely of carbon. Lavoisier first listed it as an element in his textbook Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, published in 1789. The name carbon derives from the French charbon, or coal.


It can form four bonds, which it does with many other elements, creating hundreds of thousands of compounds, some of which we use daily. (Plastics! Drugs! Gasoline!) More importantly, those bonds are both strong and flexible.


May Nyman, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon tells Mental Floss that carbon has an almost unbelievable range. "It makes up all life forms, and in the number of substances it makes, the fats, the sugars, there is a huge diversity," she says. It forms chains and rings, in a process chemists call catenation. Every living thing is built on a backbone of carbon (with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements). So animals, plants, every living cell, and of course humans are a product of catenation. Our bodies are 18.5 percent carbon, by weight.

And yet it can be inorganic as well, Nyman says. It teams up with oxygen and other substances to form large parts of the inanimate world, like rocks and minerals.


Carbon is found in four major forms: graphite, diamonds, fullerenes, and graphene. "Structure controls carbon's properties," says Nyman.  Graphite ("the writing stone") is made up of loosely connected sheets of carbon formed like chicken wire. Penciling something in actually is just scratching layers of graphite onto paper. Diamonds, in contrast, are linked three-dimensionally. These exceptionally strong bonds can only be broken by a huge amount of energy. Because diamonds have many of these bonds, it makes them the hardest substance on Earth.

Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 when a group of scientists blasted graphite with a laser and the resulting carbon gas condensed to previously unknown spherical molecules with 60 and 70 atoms. They were named in honor of Buckminster Fuller, the eccentric inventor who famously created geodesic domes with this soccer ball–like composition. Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering this new form of carbon.

The youngest member of the carbon family is graphene, found by chance in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in an impromptu research jam. The scientists used scotch tape—yes, really—to lift carbon sheets one atom thick from a lump of graphite. The new material is extremely thin and strong. The result: the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.


Diamonds are called "ice" because their ability to transport heat makes them cool to the touch—not because of their look. This makes them ideal for use as heat sinks in microchips. (Synthethic diamonds are mostly used.) Again, diamonds' three-dimensional lattice structure comes into play. Heat is turned into lattice vibrations, which are responsible for diamonds' very high thermal conductivity.


American scientist Willard F. Libby won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 for developing a method for dating relics by analyzing the amount of a radioactive subspecies of carbon contained in them. Radiocarbon or C14 dating measures the decay of a radioactive form of carbon, C14, that accumulates in living things. It can be used for objects that are as much as 50,000 years old. Carbon dating help determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old corpse found frozen in the Alps. It also established that Lancelot's Round Table in Winchester Cathedral was made hundreds of years after the supposed Arthurian Age.


Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important part of a gaseous blanket that is wrapped around our planet, making it warm enough to sustain life. But burning fossil fuels—which are built on a carbon backbone—releases more carbon dioxide, which is directly linked to global warming. A number of ways to remove and store carbon dioxide have been proposed, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which involves planting large stands of trees, harvesting and burning them to create electricity, and capturing the CO2 created in the process and storing it underground. Yet another approach that is being discussed is to artificially make oceans more alkaline in order to let them to bind more CO2. Forests are natural carbon sinks, because trees capture CO2 during photosynthesis, but human activity in these forests counteracts and surpasses whatever CO2 capture gains we might get. In short, we don't have a solution yet to the overabundance of C02 we've created in the atmosphere.

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Nicole Garner
How One Widow's Grief Turned a Small Town Into a Roadside Attraction
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Nicole Garner

Like many small towns, the southwest Missouri town of Nevada (pronounced not as the state, but as Nev-AY-duh) loves to tell tales. Incorporated in 1855, the 8000-person city was once a railroad hub and a former home to the outlaw Frank James, the elder brother of the more infamous Jesse James. But the one story Nevada residents love to tell above all others isn't about anyone famous. It's about an atypical above-ground grave in the town's oldest cemetery, the man who's interred there, and how he can't get any rest.

Scan of the Nevada Daily Mail from March 4, 1897.
Nevada Daily Mail; March 4, 1897.
Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

On March 4, 1897, the body of a young man was found near Nevada, Missouri, apparently struck by lightning. The local newspaper, the Nevada Daily Mail, printed the story of his death that evening right next to the news that William McKinley had been sworn in as president that day; a bold-faced headline declared "Death Came Without Warning," and noted “His Clothing Torn From His Body." A reporter at the scene described how the body, which was found around 11 a.m., was unrecognizable at first. Eventually the young man's father identified him as Frederick Alonzo "Lon" Dorsa, and the coroner determined that an umbrella was the cause of Lon's electrocution.

Lon left behind a widow whose name was never mentioned in newspapers; to this day, other printed versions of the Dorsas' story omit her identity. But she had a name—Neva Dorsa—and her grief led her to commission a singularly peculiar grave for her husband—one that would open her up to years worth of ridicule and also make their small town a roadside attraction.

A funeral announcement in the Daily Mail noted that undertakers had prepared Lon's body in a "neat casket" before a funeral service set for March 7. A follow-up article the next day read that Lon's funeral was widely attended, with a large procession to the cemetery and burial with military honors. His widow—whose name was determined from a marriage license filed at the Vernon County courthouse showing that Lon married a Neva Gibson on February 12, 1895—had gone from a newlywed to a single mother in just two years.

But, Lon's first interment was temporary. Neva had arranged a grand resting place for her husband, which wasn't ready in the short time between his death and the funeral. Modern newspaper retellings of Lon and Neva's tale say she ordered a large, above-ground enclosure from the Brophy Monument Company in Nevada. A large piece of stone—some accounts say marble while others suggest limestone or granite—was shipped in via railroad car. When it arrived, the stone was too heavy to move, so a local stonecutter spent more than a month chiseling away before the piece was light enough to be pulled away by horses. A wire story described the stone tomb as being "12 feet long, 4 feet wide and 5 feet high. Its weight at completion was 11,000 pounds."

Before Lon’s body was placed inside, Neva made a few key additions—specifically a hidden pane of glass that let her view her husband:

"A piece of stone, covered to represent a bible [sic], is the covering of the aperture. It can be lifted easily by the widow's hand and when Mrs. Dorsa's grief becomes unusually poignant, she goes to the cemetery and gazes for hours at a time upon the face of her dead husband."

The Daily Mail covered the second tomb's installation with morbid attention to detail on May 6, 1897, precisely two months after Lon was initially buried:

"When the grave was opened this morning the coffin looked as bright and new as when buried but it had water in it which had at one time nearly submerged the body. The remains looked perfectly natural and there were no evidences of decomposition having sat in—no odor whatover [sic]. A little mould [sic] had gathered about the roots of his hair and on the neck, otherwise the body looked as fresh as when buried."

The newspaper called the tomb a "stone sarcophagus" and noted that Neva was there to examine her husband's corpse and watch the reburial of his remains. There was likely no inkling from those present, or the community who read about it in that evening's paper, that Neva had designed the tomb with unexpected and usual features, like the pivoting stone Bible that would reveal Lon's face below when unlocked and moved.

Instead, the newspaper suggested that the "costly mousoleum [sic] provided for the reception of his remains is the tribute of her affection."

Lon Dorsa's grave.
Lon Dorsa's grave at Deepwood Cemetery in Nevada, Missouri.
Nicole Garner

Following Lon's re-interment, Neva managed her grief by visiting her deceased husband regularly. Her home was near his grave—the 1900 U.S. Census listed her as a 25-year-old widow living on south Washington Street in Nevada, the same street as the cemetery—and three years after her husband's death, she was employed as a dressmaker, working year-round to provide for their young children, Beatrice and Fred.

By 1905, a new wave of public scrutiny hit the Dorsa (sometimes spelled Dorsey) family when the details of Neva's specially designed, above-ground grave began circulating. It's not clear who reported the story first, but the Topeka Daily Capital, published across the Kansas border 150 miles from Nevada, published a piece, which eventually spread to The St. Louis Republic. Early that spring, the same story was printed in the Pittsburgh Press, a Chicago church publication called The Advance, and in the summer of 1906, a description of Lon Dorsa's crypt had made it nearly 1000 miles to the front page of the Staunton Spectator and Vindicator in Staunton, Virginia:

"The strangest tomb in America, if not in the world, is that which rest the remains of Lon Dorsa in Deepwood cemetery, Nevada, Mo. It is so constructed that the widow can look upon her deceased husband at will, by the turning of a key in a lock which holds a stone Bible just above the remains."

Articles at the time noted that Lon's remains were in an airtight tomb and that scientists supposedly told Mrs. Dorsa that her husband's body would be well-preserved in those conditions, but decomposition had already taken place: "It [the body] has turned almost black, but the general outline of the features remains unchanged."

According to a 1997 walking tour pamphlet of Deepwood Cemetery, it wasn't long before community members caught on that Neva visited the cemetery all too often: "Fascinated children hung about to watch the lady arrive in her buggy. If she saw them, she'd go after them with a whip, shrieking like a madwoman …" the guide stated. Eventually, "her family had the pivot removed and the Bible cemented down."

Local lore suggests that the publicity and Lon's deterioration drove Neva to insanity. Some say she ended up in an asylum and died soon after—a fairly believable tale, considering Nevada was home to one of the state's hospitals for mental illness. However, a list of Deepwood Cemetery lot owners, found at the Vernon County Historical Society, doesn't have a burial space for Neva.

A more likely explanation—based on a listing on Find a Grave, a website that indexes cemeteries and headstones, and which matches Neva's personal information—suggests she simply remarried and moved to California. The California Death Index, 1945-1997, shows that a Neva (Gibson) Simpson died Dec. 30, 1945 in Los Angeles. The birth date and place match those of Neva (Gibson) Dorsa.

Newspaper clipping featuring a picture of a skull.
Nevada Daily Mail, Nov. 30, 1987. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.
State Historical Society of Missouri

Wherever Neva ended up, Lon's body didn't exactly rest in peace. In July 1986, vandals broke into the town's most famous tomb and stole his head. It was recovered the following year in a Nevada home, but law enforcement and cemetery caretakers noted that the stone Bible, which had been cemented down for some time, was periodically ripped off the tomb.

Talbot Wight, the Deepwood Cemetery Board’s president at the time, told the Daily Mail in 1987 that Lon's hair, skin, and clothing were well preserved until vandals broke the encasing glass. "Evidently, he was still in pretty good shape until July," Wight said.

But when Lon's skull was photographed for the newspaper's front page, it featured no hair or skin, both of which likely decomposed quickly after being stolen if not before. The skull was buried in an undisclosed location away from the body so as to not tempt new grave robbers, and the tomb was re-sealed with marble in an attempt to prevent further damage.

Still, the story of Neva Dorsa and her husband’s remains hasn't died away. It circulates through southwestern Missouri, drawing visitors to Deepwood Cemetery to gaze at the stone plot—just not in the same way Neva had intended.


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