Qualifying for the Boston Marathon hadn’t been on my radar when I ran my first 26.2 in the Baystate Marathon. My goal had been to see if I could complete a full marathon in an intentional and controlled way. In the end, I had a great experience, ran a 4:01:38, and when I looked up the results, I saw a BQ next to my name! In order to run the Boston Marathon, a person has to qualify on a certified marathon course, meeting challenging time standards for age and gender. Alternatively, some runners get in by raising $5000 for a charity. For any committed non-elite runner, qualifying for Boston is a bit of a Holy Grail. I hadn’t intended to run a second marathon, but the opportunity was too exciting. I registered, got in, and started training for April 2020.
Winter training went pretty well. I’m a practicing artist and writer, and I have a demanding job as Dean of Graduate Studies at MassArt. Running has to be done around the edges of my professional life. Still, by early March, I felt like I was on track for a good race. Then the pandemic happened. I began working from home around the same time that the B.A.A. (Boston Athletic Association) made the call to postpone the race until mid- September. I eased back on training for a few weeks, then began building up the miles again. At the end of May, the September Boston marathon was cancelled and replaced with a virtual event. Any runner who had qualified and registered for the Boston Marathon could complete the distance on any course, anywhere in the world, and submit the results in order to receive the coveted shirt and medal, among other mementos. After much deliberation, this was the B.A.A.’s response to the dangers of COVID-19. The Boston Marathon draws 30,000 runners every spring, not to mention the 500,000 spectators; the pandemic made it impossible to hold the race safely. So…I kept training, but my mojo was slipping. Work was increasingly stressful as we began adapting studio classes to a remote format and managing increasingly complicated visa issues for our international students (a situation where politics and the pandemic collided in a particularly frustrating way in higher education). Also, the summer was heating up, and I tend to get dizzy and nauseated if I run long in the heat. With in-person races being cancelled, I didn’t have the usual speed tune-ups as the marathon got closer. Still, I wasn’t going to back out of the opportunity to run Boston, virtual or not.
I still hadn’t decided where to run my race. I needed some place cool where it would be easy to keep a safe physical distance. In early August, my friend Craig Stockwell reached out to see if I’d be interested in running with a small group of people who would be completing the virtual Boston Marathon on the Clarence DeMar course in Keene, New Hampshire. I figured it would be a way to get a little bit of support and have a safe shared experience. I kept training with a race day of September 12th in my sights. In retrospect, I realize I was pretty run down after so many months of training, and then, in mid-August, I was thrown a massive challenge. I went in for a routine mammogram, which led to another, which led to a biopsy, which led to a diagnosis of early stage 1 breast cancer. I hadn’t experienced any symptoms, and suddenly I was learning that my cells had secretly been mutating. As a runner, I have learned to read my body with a depth that I never imagined possible. My brain, my guts, my heart, my lungs, my legs, my feet, my nerves…I have learned how to listen to all of them in new ways, and yet I hadn’t sensed that something new was happening in my breast.
The focus on training my body was suddenly less important, as was the marathon. Still, I’d put so much into it, and I figured that maintaining even a partial eye on my running goals would help me manage the stresses that come with a cancer diagnosis. At that point, I was in the last few weeks of training, before my taper, and with medical appointments and work, there was no time for my 2 final long runs. I managed one 16-miler on what turned out to be another hot summer day, then started to taper. I adjusted my race-day goals. I’d been hoping to go for a 3:49 time, but that was now out of reach. My running base was strong, so I decided to go for a 3:58 and change, in spite of being undertrained. I figured I’d set out with that goal pace and just hold on as long as I could. The Clarence DeMar course is reported to be beautiful, so I figured if the wheels came off, I’d just slow down and enjoy the long run (I realize this is hilarious to anyone who has run a marathon). My surgeon and medical team had given the okay for me run the event, and they scheduled my surgery for the 17th, so I’d have a few recovery days after the race, before heading to the hospital.
The night before race day, I crashed at Craig’s studio. We’ve been close friends and teaching colleagues for 20 years, having met in graduate school, and it was a treat to wander through his creative space, looking at books and paintings while trying to park my pre-race nerves. I’ve moved a lot in my life–22 times so far–and as my studio spaces have moved with me, lots of work, books, and supplies have been culled. Craig has had his same studio for decades and there’s a richness in that history that seems to hang in the air. I loved spending some time alone there, soaking it in.
I set my alarm for 4:00 a.m., got up and forced down a bagel so I’d have time to digest. I’d been having some GI issues running over the hot summer, and I was worried about having to find a bush in the middle of Keene. Craig picked me up early the next morning, and we headed up to Gilsum for the 7:00 a.m. start. There would be 6 of us running, and as we gathered, I was welcomed by what would turn out to be an exceptionally enthusiastic posse of race supporters!
The event was organized by Alan Stroshine, the race director of the Clarence DeMar Marathon, and Thomas Paquette, photographer, coach, and founder of Next Level Running Co. They did a spectacular job of making sure the 6 of us had a memorable day. Due to the pandemic, each runner had designated support, and for me that was Craig, who rode his bike along the 26.2, always at the ready with water, Gatorade, and encouragement.
As we lined up at the start, I got my phone ready. People who’d already completed the virtual Boston marathon recommended that I use the B.A.A. tracking app along with my Garmin watch, just to be sure I’d have back up data to submit, in case one or the other failed. I had a few family and friends who wanted to track my race, and the app would allow for that as well. I got myself together just in time for GO, and suddenly, after all the ups and downs of the previous 9 months, it was simply time to run.
The first 12 miles of the course are mostly rolling hills with an overall downhill profile. We started off on a winding woodsy road, and It took a ton of effort to ease back on the pace and not go out too fast. That was the challenge for the first 90 minutes. I felt great. The weather was cool. A boisterous group of volunteers were cheering us on every few miles, and I was just trying to rein myself in. Along the route, the support team had planted sign posts announcing each major landmark from the Boston Marathon course. During one flat stretch before we ran up and over the dam, they’d written sidewalk chalk messages for each of us, including, “Lucinda, You Rock!” They blew bubbles for us to run through, and, closer to the finish recreated the Wellesley “screaming tunnel” from Boston. I was having a blast and feeling strong.
Photos: Alan Stroshine
At around 12.5 miles, we made a climb of a mile or so alongside a golf course. I ran over the top feeling good and saw that I’d run the first half on target. The second half of the marathon meanders through the city of Keene. I held my pace through mile 16, but at one point I said, “Craig, I’m starting to feel it,” and I was. My legs were getting sluggish and my left foot had started to ache. By mile 17, I lost my pace. I had 9 more miles to go, and the possibility of just slowing down to “enjoy the long run” was long gone. By mile 19, I learned what the marathon bonk is.
I had no energy at all, and I didn’t care about my finish time. By mile 22, my outer left metatarsal hurt so badly, it was hard to put weight on it. I’d had to replace my racing sneakers the week before, due to another sneaker problem, and I was running in brand new Hokas. I love the shoes, but I’d only had one short run to break them in. I got to 26.2 by putting one foot in front of the other and stopping to rest and take water when I felt woozy. It was just survival to the finish. Finally, I heard Craig say, “it’s just around the corner; we run down main street to the finish line!” I picked it up as the end came into view and ran up onto the sidewalk where I could see two young girls in the distance holding a finish tape (a very sweet gesture for all 6 of us).
I glanced to my right and saw my son, Link, who had made the drive over to support me. There were more cheers and cowbells just ahead, and I picked it up a bit more. A few feet from the finish, my right calf froze up completely, but I was close enough that it didn’t matter.
I crossed the finish line and checked my watch to make sure it said 26.2 and handed off my phone to shut down the B.A.A. app.
All six runners had come in, and people began to walk over to the lot behind the local running store, where they had set up a finish line with a big arch for photo ops.
Alan and Thomas handed out snacks, t-shirts, and goodie bags. I was feeling a little out of it so I sat down in the shade to rest and chat with Link and Craig.
After 30 minutes or so, I realized that my phone had been ringing. A friend had been calling to see if I was okay. The B.A.A. tracker had posted, “quit,” and he thought I might have passed out before completing the race! Turns out I’d shut down the app moments before it reached “finish.” It hadn’t been a great race but no ambulance was needed, and I’d definitely run 26.2 miles!
I ran 25 minutes slower than I’d hoped to, but I finished the race, had an incredible experience with Craig, shared the finish with my son, and met, in Thomas and Alan, two of the most generous-hearted people I’ve had the pleasure of being with. To say it was a special day diminishes how emotionally overwhelming it was, given what I’d be facing later in the week. I was flooded with gratitude and love. My journey through breast cancer is ongoing, and my prognosis is excellent. I’ve had 2 surgeries and am moving on to the next stage of treatment. When emotion wells up in me these days, it seems to encompass all of it: personal pain and accomplishment, the love of family and friends, the support of strangers, and in that, some seeds of hope that stories of empathy and curiosity will begin to overshadow those that capitalize on difference and apathy.