It’s been described as the Super Bowl of the running world.
Whether your goal is to finish as the first US female runner (ahem, Neely Spence Gracey ’12) or simply to keep your feet moving all the way to Copley Square, the Boston Marathon is a coveted experience for marathoners. This year, the 121st marathon will be held on April 17. And first, last, or anywhere in between, those who have done it say the organizers, spectators, security, and City of Boston at large make it an unforgettable event for everyone involved.
During the 2016 Boston Marathon, the Ship community cheered its own to victory as Gracey met or surpassed every professional and personal goal she set during her very first marathon. Daughter of marathoner, Olympian, and SU’s head cross country coach Steve Spence ’85, Gracey has an almost storybook connection to one of the world’s most celebrated running events.
Gracey was born in the midst of Spence’s professional debut at Boston in 1990. Twenty-six years later, on April 18, she followed suit. “It was her first marathon. It made it special that she chose to run that one on the day she was born,” Spence said. “It was emotional.”
“I like to tease that in the fine print somewhere it says if you’re born during the Boston Marathon, you don’t have to qualify,” Gracey said.
Gracey and Spence might be two of Ship’s most notable runners at Boston, but plenty of other alums have conquered the feat. Gracey is quick to acknowledge that no matter when you cross the finish line, runners experience the same highs, lows, physical barriers, mental games, and emotions during the race.
“To be honest, it’s the same thing. We are trying to finish 26.2 miles,” she said. “We can all relate, no matter what your goals are.”
Ready to hit the road? There are countless high-profile marathons to choose from—New York City, Chicago, Paris, Marine Corps, Walt Disney World—but none quite carry the prestige, history, and enthusiasm found at Boston.
The Boston Marathon is the world’s oldest annual marathon, having been managed by the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) since its inception in 1897. According to the BAA website, more than 30,000 participants who time qualify for the event are supported by over half a million spectators on race day.
What has been affectionately coined Marathon Monday in Boston coincides with Patriots’ Day, an official state holiday observed on the third Monday in April to commemorate the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the first battles of the American Revolutionary War. Patriots’ Day has taken on new meaning since the Boston Bombing in 2013 that—from bombing through a four-day manhunt—claimed five lives and injured 280. A movie of the same name was released earlier this year as a tribute to heroes of the bombing. The tragedy only has strengthened and further energized Boston and the appeal of the marathon.
“It’s just a huge event. For that city, it’s a holiday,” Chris Monheim ’92-’00M said. “The history behind it is big.”
This spring, Monheim will run Boston for the fourth time. The Chambersburg Area Senior High School girls track and cross country coach completed his first marathon shortly after graduating Ship, where he ran under Spence. Out of the two dozen or so marathons that he’s completed since then, he said Boston always will have a special appeal.
“You definitely want to accomplish it. It’s such a good experience,” he said.
The history certainly draws the elite runners, Spence said. “All great runners have run there. Being one of the first big marathons, what they put into it is such an event.”
Last year, Spence experienced Boston from the spectator’s vantage point as he cheered on Gracey. The event has grown since he first ran nearly three decades ago, but he said it maintains the same vibe. He said the setup, security, and spectators are truly a sight to behold. “I was more appreciative of what went into it,” he said.
When Gracey competed in 2016, she said the sheer volume of runners who have completed Boston over the years is amazing. “It’s such an incredible feeling to think about how many hundreds of thousands of people have covered that distance,” she said.
“Now I can say, ‘Yes, I’ve run Boston,’ and so can 40,000 people who ran with me.”
Chances are, you know which of your family, friends, coworkers, or acquaintances have run a marathon. Running approximately the distance from Shippensburg University to Gettysburg College is certainly brag worthy. And for marathoners, Boston is the cream of the crop.
Marathon running provides Monheim with an opportunity to stay competitive. He initially found inspiration in his former coach when he and a bunch of teammates rode out to watch Spence win the Olympic trials in Columbus in 1992. “I wanted to do that,” Monheim said.
“For me, I like the challenge. A marathon is something you have to prepare for. Anyone can jump into a 5K, but you can’t fake a marathon.”
Boston kicks the competition up a notch by requiring runners to time qualify, Monheim said. He first ran Boston in 1996 when his brother moved there. He also ran in 2014, the year after the bombing. “It was a heck of a year. It was a neat experience at the starting line.”
It was the bombing that inspired Ken Shur ’75-’82M to invest in his first serious pair of running shoes. “I was never a runner,” he said. “I wanted to run the marathon to honor the people who died, honor the victims, and honor the responders who treated those victims.”
Shur talked about it so much that three months after the bombing, his wife told him to stop gabbing and buy some shoes. He did, laced up, and headed to the local park. “I couldn’t run a mile,” he said.
Over the next eighteen months, at sixty-three years old, Shur said he slowly progressed from couch to marathon. He ran his first half marathon that September in Lancaster, and his first full in December at Rehoboth Beach. He completed both the Pittsburgh and Disney marathons, but faced disappointment when he couldn’t nail the time he needed to qualify.
“I quickly realized I wasn’t gifted anymore,” he said. However, there was another way to achieve his goal. The Boston Marathon recognizes twenty-five charity teams, and Shur was accepted to run for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. For the past two years, he has run in honor of the Boston Bombing victims and also raised money for cancer research, displaying the names of family and friends who have battled the disease on his shirt.
When he runs Boston for the third time this April, it will be his eighth marathon in two-and-a-half years. “It’s been an incredible journey to have the opportunity to do this. ...I was inspired and transformed by the bombing.”
Lou Ann Bakolia ’79 worked her way up to Boston the year she turned fifty. She started running recreationally to stay in shape when she was a stay-at-home mom, then joined a running group that helped prepare her for marathons. She qualified during the Myrtle Beach Marathon and ran Boston in 2008.
“With a lot of people, you get into running to stay in shape. Then, you get into it and love it. It gives you time by yourself and gets you into a better mood. It reduces stress.”
It might seem near impossible to take up long-distance running with a nine- and three- year-old at home, but Bakolia said you have to make it work. Often logging her miles before the kids woke up, she said running made her feel like she could handle anything.
Spence actually had a similar foray into long-distance running. “In college, I thought I was a miler. I thought it was not too smart to run more than four laps.”
After a successful college running career, Spence got a job as an insurance adjuster in Virginia and began running longer distances for stress relief. He soon realized he was fast enough to make money doing it. As he broke into professional running, he worked up to the marathon circuit. Boston was his fifth.
For Spence, Boston was a step toward the 1992 Olympics, as he soaked in the history of the race and tinkered with the best plan for speed and distance. Despite the pressure of knowing his first child was on the way, he said he remained focused. At mile twenty-three, he was in fourth place, but hit the wall, finishing nineteenth overall. “I learned a lot more about speed and hydration,” he said.
Fortunately, he was still a winner, welcoming his first child into the world on Marathon Monday. And, you know how that story goes.
“Being a part of Boston is a lot bigger than just doing a race,” Gracey said.
Gracey didn’t anticipate escalating to a full marathon so quickly. However, she had been doing well with half marathons and an injury prevented her from pursuing the 2016 Olympics earlier in the year. “I had to forgo the Olympic trials, which was a difficult decision, but Boston was an amazing opportunity,” she said. She had a great run and met all of her goals—cruising in at two hours and thirty-five minutes, making top ten (earning ninth), and crossing the finish line as the first American female.
One of her fans pointed out that Gracey turned twenty-six just two days before Boston, sort of making her 26.2 the day of her first 26.2-mile run. In 2018, she plans to run again when the race falls on her actual birthday. As with her father, it will be an important step to what she hopes will be a successful Olympic trial in 2020.
No matter the year or your place in the pack, the camaraderie and connection shared by runners at Boston is one of a kind, Spence said. “They make it special for every runner.”
“Boston is fun,” Monheim said. “There are so many people up there. There isn’t a spot over twenty-six miles without crowds of people. You can’t get bored.”
It’s a party from the start. Neighbors along the route offer drinks, snacks, and music to keep the momentum up. Strangers cheer runners by name and encourage them when they seem down. At the start, as runners wait for their corrals to begin, they often strike up conversation and keep each other company along the way, Monheim said. “It’s amazing how many of them you’ll see throughout the race.”
When Spence began to struggle during his Boston run in 1990, he stopped to stretch out a cramp. That close to the finish, the crowds were about ten deep, he said. “They started saying, ‘Come on, you can do it!’ Then they’d cheer more, because they felt that they had helped.”
Regardless of each person’s goals, every runner faces the same emotions and mind games during the race, Gracey said. “It’s amazing how much more important the crowds and bands are.”
During a rather warm 2016 race, Shur recalled that people ran hoses from their house to cool off runners passing by. The closer you get to Boston, the deeper and louder the crowds become, he said. “They don’t leave until you finish, whether you’re first or last.”
“I’ve run some big races, but the energy surrounding Boston is just different. It’s heart pumping from the start.”
Conquering the Course
Want to run Boston? Take it from Shur, everyone has the capacity to run a marathon. “I learned I could do something I never thought I could do. Now, I know I can achieve anything.”
Whether setting out to make the Olympic team, defeat Heartbreak Hill, or simply finish a 5K, these runners have a few tips. Shur said set a goal and work toward it. He joined a running club that helped him meet his goals and introduced him to lifelong friends. “They don’t care how fast you run, they’re just happy you came out.”
Gracey learned to be flexible. “Not every day is going to be perfect. Not every season is going to happen like you suspect,” she said. “My Boston build up was a disaster, and it wasn’t until the last two weeks that it came together. This is the amazing part of the sport—it’s amazing what your body can do if you let it.”
It also helps to have support. Knowing that her dad, mom, siblings, Ship family, and her husband and coach, Dillon Gracey ’10, have her back is a humbling feeling. “I have a really solid support team.”
Bakolia took her marathon experiences and started the business offtorun.com. Now she provides tips and training for others who have their eyes set on Boston. Part of her “rules of running” include having a game plan. When she runs Boston, she follows the Galloway method of run, walk, run. “I’m not a fast runner, but I have a lot of endurance.”
Good nutrition and a steady pace will get you through, she said. “Stick with your plan.”
And no matter what the end result, Shur said it’s the overall accomplishment that counts. “At some point, your body says, ‘I’m done for the day,’ and your mind says, ‘No, we have to keep going.’ ...I’ve learned that I am mentally stronger than I ever thought I was.”