Runners’ Corner column: Veteran Boston Marathoners discover Phase 3 in the virtual running world
Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
“Hey, Tom, I’m running the Virtual Boston Marathon at a gentle pace. Would you be willing to run a few miles with me? I’m just going to do loops around the Common until I hit 26.2 miles,” said Bernie Zelitch, my North Andover neighbor, experienced marathoner and longtime running bud.
“Sure, if you’re planning a slow pace, I could do five or so with you,” I said.
Getting the chance to run a few miles with another runner is a rare treat during this time of social distancing and five miles was certainly doable.
Well, one thing led to another. Maybe I could stretch my run to 10 miles. After all, I was running five to six miles almost daily, so I did a 10-mile training run. Then, I thought I’ll bet I could stretch it to a half-marathon, so I ran a 13.1-mile training run.
At that point, we decided to abandon running loops around the Common to join our (Merrimack Valley Striders) running club friends on the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail Course, an 11.6-mile heavily-trafficked point-to-point trail located in Lowell, Massachusetts and its neighboring suburbs. We wanted to run it out and back. I worried that perhaps I hadn’t put in enough training miles to keep up with Bernie in the longer effort, and decided I should try a longer run. So, I did an 18-mile training run. That was stunning.
Then, the BAA (Boston Athletic Association) offered its’ organizing committee members the option to officially enter. Should I? Maybe, I would.
Could I be so bold as to think I could run another marathon? To test this crazy thought, I ran a 20-mile training run. At that point, I was mentally committed, but not sure I’d even come close to running enough training miles, so I did one more 10-mile run, which was even crazier. That should do it, right? All those marathon training runs were done in 10 days. That makes sense, right?
No, it really doesn’t, especially given my history. Sure, I had run 35 consecutive Boston Marathons and 88 marathons overall, but my last marathon was in 2011.
A bad right knee sidelined me while training in 2012. That forced me to make the difficult decision to end my Boston Marathon journey. Three years later, sextuple bypass surgery pretty much sealed the deal. But in May 2019, I had a total replacement of the pesky right knee. Heart fixed - check; knee fixed - check, so, why not run a marathon again?
I’ve often said that running a marathon has two basic requirements: no physical impairments, plus the desire to do it. A repaired heart and reworked knee didn’t convince me that a marathon would ever be on my agenda again. That is until Bernie asked, “Would you be willing to run a few miles with me?”
On Sept. 12, nearly 9 ½ years after my previous marathon, I pinned on my Boston number and met Bernie at the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail for our 6:30 a.m. start. You would probably guess with our marathon experiences that there would be no surprises. We had certainly experienced all the highs and lows of 26.2-miles so many times before. We anticipated that excitement of the first 10 miles when enthusiasm and optimism run high. We also recognized the fact that the task would grow more serious and grimmer throughout the next 10 to 20 miles. We then fretted about the last 10K, when the agony of too many miles on less-than-prepared legs would begin to make us wonder why we were subjecting ourselves to this torture again.
There was no firing of a gun to start our race, nor masses of cheering spectators. So off we quietly went. Our slow and leisurely pace did, indeed, make us complete the first 10 miles as we expected. We were enthused and optimistic. But this time the smiles never disappeared. Bernie was normally a quiet guy, while I was never a quiet guy, but here we were chatting mile after mile. We regaled each other with tales of past races, family memories, a bit of politics (those were the fastest miles) and deep philosophical discussions that solved most of the world’s problems. Our pace seemed irrelevant, and the miles ticked by with surprising ease. There were no serious or grim miles, no miles of agony. We smiled, laughed and enjoyed each other’s company for 42 kilometers.
Though we both ran a personal worst time, we agreed that, in many ways, it was a personal best race. Smiles from start to finish attested to the fun that we had. I didn’t even complain or hesitate after we had broken the tape at the finish line - so kindly arranged by our running club family - when Bernie said, “We have to keep going. We’ve only run 26.1-miles.”
Many years ago, I read an article in Runner’s World by Joe Henderson, who was at that time pretty old by my standards back then. He was maybe 50. In the article he said that if we are fortunate enough to run long enough we will go through three phases of running. The first is when we start. We probably all started for health reasons, maybe to lose some weight or maybe it was a coach trying to get us in shape for “the real sports.” Then, we would pin on a number and we become “racers.” Sure, we may still be interested in those health benefits, but now it’s all about getting personal bests, placing in our age groups or beating that running training buddy. But if you run long enough, Henderson said, and if you’re really fortunate you’ll attain the third level, when you become a “runner.” Health is still a reason to run, and being competitive is a natural instinct, but now it’s all about the joy of the run.
On Sept. 12, I’m pretty sure that Bernie and I hit Phase 3.
Tom Licciardello is a founding member of the Merrimack Valley Striders. Licciardello has participated in 35 Boston’s and 88 marathons altogether, and is a BAA Boston Marathon volunteer. He can be reached at email@example.com.