Thursday, April 13, 2017

What's the Big Deal?

I have a tendency to forget that not everyone in my life is a runner.


It's easy to do when you spend what adds up to weeks, months, and years with other runners, talking endlessly about the ins and outs of our obsession, using our special language or acronyms and silly words (as a runner, I am obligated to now mention the words "fartlek" and "Yasso" as well as the acronyms PR and DOMS).

It's not just runners either. We humans have a tendency to hang out with people who are like us and share our interests and when we interact with people who are outside of that bubble, our lengthy soliloquies about [insert obsession here] are annoying gibberish. We take for granted that everyone knows what we're talking about because well duh... why wouldn't they?

I take for granted that everyone understands why the Boston Marathon is a Big Deal® but the reality is that most of the people in my life have no idea why it means so much. I mean, there are races like every weekend, and anybody can run one, so who cares, right? And I've run a couple marathons before, so woohoo, another one. Big whoop.

So I'm going to tell you why Boston is considered the holy grail of marathons, not just for me, but for thousands of runners from all over the world.

Prestige and History - The Boston Marathon is the oldest marathon in the US, dating all the way back to 1897. This year is the 121st running of the race. Of course things are a heck of a lot different now than they were in 1897, or even in 1967 or 1987. Participation in distance running has skyrocketed over the past twenty years and as that has happened, I think that Boston has become even more iconic to the average runner.

Boston is also one of the six World Marathon Major races. These six are the largest and most renowned marathons in the world. The others are Tokyo, London, Berlin, Chicago, and New York. Running all six is a big goal for some people (don't worry... it's not one of mine). For runners, participating in one of the World Majors is kind of like the NCAA Basketball Tournament or NFL Post-Season.

For these two reasons, Boston attracts some of the world's most elite marathon runners. I, along with around 30,000 other people, will line up with Meb Keflezighi, Galen Rupp, Buzuesh Deba, and Desi Linden to participate in the same event. That's like getting to play on a football team with Tom Brady, or playing doubles with Serena Williams, or fielding for the Red Sox. Obviously I won't be racing side by side with these world class athletes (shoot, I would barely be able to keep up with them if I was on a bike!), but I will be running the same race, following in their footsteps.

Boston is also important to a lot of women this year because it is the 50th anniversary of Kathrine Switzer historic 1967 feat, when she became the first woman to register for and complete the Boston Marathon. Kathrine's accomplishment started to break down the long-held notion that women couldn't participate in distance running and she went on to be a major influence in finally getting the BAA to allow women to officially register for Boston Marathon and later, for the women's marathon to become an Olympic sport. Because of Kathrine, women make up more than half of marathon finishers in the US today.

To mark the occasion, Kathrine will be running the race on Monday. No one has ever run a marathon 50 years after their first, but I have every confidence that Kathrine will be smashing that barrier too.

I was extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to interview and meet her in November 2015. That year I ran with her signature on my bib at the Richmond Marathon and it is so overwhelming to think that I'll be running in Boston with her - the woman who is in no small way responsible for me even being allowed to participate in this race.

From Kathrine to the Wellesley girls to the Citgo Sign to Meb's win in 2014, to Alberto Salazar and David Beardsley's famous "Dual in the Sun" in 1982 to the terrible bombing in 2013 that only made the running community rally stronger... there is so much history and tradition, so many stories and legends surrounding this particular race that it has reached mythic status. As a runner, to feel that I get to participate in and add my own chapter to the Boston Marathon's story is overwhelming.

Not just anyone can run Boston - Let me give you a quick statistic. Annually, only half a percent of Americans completes a marathon. Of that half percent, around 12% qualify for Boston. Of that 12% of half a percent, only 4-5% actually go on to register for and run Boston.

Now, I'm really bad at math so I won't even try to calculate what teeny tiny fraction of a fraction of a percent of the American population that is.

In other words, not many people get to have this experience.

Typically, any old Joe Schmoe can go sign up for a marathon and theoretically, finish one. Most don't require any kind of proof that Joe Schmoe can complete a marathon or has done so successfully. You could go out tomorrow and register for one if you wanted to.

For the bigger and more popular races, there are often race lotteries where you put your name in the pool and hope you are one of the lucky ones who gets chosen (New York, Chicago, and Marine Corps all employ this). You could also guarantee your entry into these races by qualifying. That means you run a marathon in X time and you are automatically in. New York City's qualifying standards, for example, and more difficult than Boston's. Chicago also uses qualifying times (and countless others, I'm sure).

So why is Boston still the be-all-end-all for many amateur runners?

Because Boston has no lottery. If you don't qualify for NYC, you put your name in that hat and you can still get the chance to run it. Not so in Boston. There are only two ways to get the chance to run. You either qualify, or you raise thousands of dollars for a charity as a charity runner. 80% of the field in Boston is for qualifiers only. As a result, it is the fastest marathon in the country and also very difficult to get in to.

Simply put, to run Boston,  for most of us, you have to work hard and you have to really earn it. Earning a Boston Qualifying time alone is a badge of honor. Nowadays, getting in has become so competitive that even just earning that BQ time doesn't mean you're going to get in. My first two BQs were not fast enough and I did not make the cut for the 2016 race. The bar for participation is set higher and higher every year.

People go to crazy lengths to lie, cheat, and steal their way into the race. The problem has gotten so much attention that there is a person who has made it his personal mission to identify and catch cheaters; that my entrant information contains pages of policies and disclaimers about bib transfers or selling and the consequences, along with warnings to not post photos of my bib on social media lest someone use Photoshop to print a fake bib and run with it; that people do try to sell Boston entries for up to $5,000 on message boards and Craigslist.

For honest amateur runners, getting a BQ is a goal that they strive towards for years and years. Anyone can run a marathon... not just anyone can run in Boston. Some are able to achieve it, and some never do. I never thought I would be able to qualify. After the bombing, I even wrote these words:

Ironically, I had never really been much interested in the Boston Marathon before this year. But this year, the bug got me.  Even though I have never run a marathon and am not anywhere fast enough to qualify, the pipe dream of someday, somehow, running Boston entered my head.

I wrote that on April 16, 2013.

Obviously I never imagined that four years later, almost to the day, I would be running the Boston Marathon not as a charity runner but having qualified three times. My mind set changed when my good friend Lauren qualified for Boston at Steamtown in 2014. Lauren and I had trained for our first marathon together and ran much of it side by side. When she achieved that BQ it made me think that maybe someday it could be in my realm of possibility too. My quest for Boston began in earnest in February 2015.

A two year roller coaster of training, injuries, surgery, tears, pain, joy, and of course hundreds of thousands of miles running have brought me here.

For all of us so-called "recreational" runners (a term I kind of hate), Boston is our Super Bowl. It seems like a crazy dream but it is also an achievable dream. We watch friends do it and we think, "Hm, maybe I can too." It's a goal to strive for; something to push for; something to keep us going.

To earn the right to wear that finisher jacket is a big achievement. It's our moment in the sun - our moment of glory. For us average people and average runners, our lives and races are mostly carried out in anonymity.

In Boston, though, we are superstars for a day. We are all elite.

So there you have it. That's why Boston is such a Big Deal®, at least to me. Obviously there are as many reasons to want to run a race as there are runners. A lot of runners will give reasons that are a lot more noble. Some will say it is a bucket list item; that they're raising money for charity; that they're using the race as the summit of getting through some difficult or challenging period in their life; in memory of someone; etc.

Most won't ever admit that one of the reasons they want to run Boston is to join that elite group of qualifiers/finishers. Being competitive is out of style. I don't really care that it is. Yup, I'm competitive. Against myself and against the other runners. Yup, I want to beat you. Yup, I'm proud that I trained hard, ran fast, and am running Boston because I qualified for it. No, I'm not sorry.

I want to run Boston because I want to join that group of runners, add my name to that that long and prestigious list. I want to run it because I earned it. Because I have clawed my way back from injury and worked my butt off to get to this start line. I want to make my husband proud. I want to run it for those who can't. I want to hear the walls of sound coming from 500,000 spectators, see that iconic finish line ahead of me, and cross it. I want to follow in Meb's and Kathrine's footsteps. I want to escape my average life and for a day, I want to feel elite.

4 days.

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