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Hopkinton-Bound: Running All the Way Home

How 39 years, 26.2 miles, and $3,000 add up to the Boston Marathon

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The author running under the BU Bridge last weekend. Below: Running at sunrise on a Vermont dirt road. Bottom: Mary McQueeny (SED’83) (standing, from left), the author, and Sharon Lisnow with Ricky and Brianna. Photos by Trent Campbell and provided by the author

This is the first in a series of stories about training for the Boston Marathon. Click here to read more installments.

I took up running six years ago, mostly to drop the 25 pounds I’d packed on after I quit smoking and to fight the urge to reach for another pack. At the time, I was living in Vermont, shambling the back roads early in the morning, just me and the coyotes and sunrises so stunning they left bruises. It was solitary work, moving at the speed of nature, urged on by a chorus of cicadas. So the thought of pinning on a number, crowding into a starting corral, and trying to overtake other runners along an endless stretch of city asphalt seemed flat-out profane. But this April, I’ll be doing just that, one of 25,000 runners in the 113th Boston Marathon. Why? some ask. Good question.

When I moved to Boston 18 months ago, I traded my empty dirt lanes for narrow river paths and bone-jarring pavement, sharing turf with shuffling middle-agers, shirtless masters of the universe, one-armed men, pony-tailed gazelles, pear-shaped ladies, weathered septuagenarians, even barefooted hard-cores. But running with a crowd had at least one unexpected plus. It made me feel like part of a community, and I’ve come to enjoy using my fellow runners as inspiration — trying to maintain the distance between me and the orange-shirted guy who breezes past, drafting behind the lean older lady with the fuel belt. And I now live closer to more starting lines, including that venerable white stripe in Hopkinton, so maybe this race thing is part of a natural progression.

Or, perhaps I still have something to prove to myself. Ten years ago, I was a drunk, a serious alcoholic who often woke up on strange couches with questions like: where am I? Did I really? Where the hell did I park? Will a marathon demonstrate that sobriety has fully taken hold, that I’m not the fiend I used to be? Pushing myself physically — and mentally — makes me feel more capable of reconciling a past I’m not proud of, if only by conquering myself one hour at a time.

Of course, this marathon madness could also have something to do with my getting older; it could be a masochist’s version of the red convertible. I’m in the last gasp of my 30s. I still don’t quite feel like an adult. While I may be a half-shy, half-punk-ass 14-year-old inside, my ears have sprouted hair, a second chin is dropping, and my eyesight and memory are getting hazier.

Whatever the reason, in the biography of my running career, I’ve arrived at the chapter with the 26.2-mile mountain. Last October, 10 minutes after staggering across the finish line of my first race, a half-marathon, and still buzzing with endorphins, I announced to my wife, “I’m going to run Boston.” But with my 9:20-minute miles and shin splints that sometimes leave me hobbling for days, I knew that qualifying — at a 7:25-minute mile pace — was out of the question. So I went in search of a charity team, looking for an organization that might benefit addiction or cirrhosis of the liver, something that would grab me by the gut.

The right choice

That’s when a good friend at the office stepped in. She has a younger sister who is profoundly developmentally disabled, and she knows all too well how consuming that kind of care is for a family. It’s like a marathon with no finish line.

“More and more care centers are being shut down because of budget cuts,” she told me. “These aren’t horrible places like in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. These are people’s homes. They need comfort and love as much as anybody else.”

After looking at 20 charities affiliated with the Boston Athletic Association, the Michael Carter Lisnow Respite Center (MCLRC) in Hopkinton, a small, grassroots outfit that relieves the caregivers of developmentally disabled adults and children, won my vote. The center was hoping to put together a team of 80 runners, each tasked with raising at least $3,000.

The MCLRC was cofounded in 1997 by Sharon Lisnow and Mary McQueeny and named after Lisnow’s son Michael. He was born 16 weeks premature, blind, with cerebral palsy, and weighing just over a pound. His father’s wedding ring could slide up and down his arm. Doctors gave Michael a 10 percent chance of surviving, but he lived for 10 years, laughing and mastering the sign for “I love you.”

Turns out McQueeny is a BU alum and a former Terrier track and field standout (curious how things line up when you make the right choice). She told me that a third of the center’s $1.3 million budget comes from the marathon runners. “The money you raise, the checks that come in, mean I can turn around and say, ‘We can accept the triplets now,’” says McQueeny (SED’83). “They’ve been on the waiting list, and all three have disabilities. And their mom has cancer.”

Suddenly, the pain and effort of a 26.2-mile road race seemed frivolous, a drop in the bucket.

Michael eventually succumbed, from complications during his seventh stomach surgery. It was April 20, 1996, the 100th anniversary of the Boston Marathon. The next year, Lisnow ran the marathon in her son’s memory. McQueeny trained her, and the two of them have tackled the race six times since. “Don’t worry,” McQueeny assured me, “some of the kids will be at Heartbreak with balloons, hooting and hollering, just cheering you guys. They make a huge difference if you think you can’t go on.”

Stay in the moment

Last weekend, I signed up for a runner’s clinic at BU’s Athletic Enhancement Center. It was me and about 25 other runners, half of them ROTC students striving to run their required two-miler in under 12 minutes. In the six-hour session, I was prodded and stretched, and my flat-footed stride was examined on a treadmill. For my hip and pelvic pain, I was shown a variety of stretches, strength exercises, and self-massages. When I told the physical therapist that I had run an 18-miler the week before, she asked whether I was on an accelerated program.

“No, I’m just kind of making it up as I go along,” I said. She frowned and urged me to check out halhigdon.com, an online training program. “You’re a bit too far out this early,” she said.

I was told to eat more fats and carbs, and try Starburst or Skittles for a quick burst of energy during the run if I found the pasty energy goos too nasty going down.

During one segment of the clinic, BU sports psychology coach Adam Naylor asked us why we ran and what our goals were. Mine was to break four hours (my secret goal: beat my dad’s first marathon time of 3:51.39 — no father-son issues there). In fact, most answers had to do with time results. Naylor said a successful run means performing in the present and not living four hours ahead of yourself. “If you’re thinking about the finish, you’re probably not enjoying your run,” he said. Stay in the moment, he advised. One step at a time, one run at a time.

I realize my pursuit of this marathon has more to do with simple forward motion than anything else. Like the act of running itself. The run has become synonymous with “further.” And though at my age I may no longer be the future, with a pair of Brooks’ Beasts strapped to my feet, I can always be the present. That’s what running has taught me. To be present, to go further, to keep evolving. As usual, Bob Dylan has a lyric to fit this moment: “I don’t know where I go anymore, I just go.”

I guess that’s why I’m running the marathon. It’s why I run every morning.

Readers can click here to sponsor Caleb’s run and benefit the Michael Carter Lisnow Respite Center. Follow Caleb’s training progress (and setbacks) at his marathon blog,where he charts his runs and muses about life in running shoes. Followhis routes, sample his playlists, and see what he’s eating. Tips,advice, derision all welcome.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

4 Comments

4 Comments on Hopkinton-Bound: Running All the Way Home

  • Amelia on 02.11.2009 at 1:29 pm

    Thank you for this article – it was consummately inspiring. I am from Hopkinton and cheered my dad on for every year of the 20 or so years that he ran the marathon. You’ll do great, Caleb!!

  • Anonymous on 02.12.2009 at 11:36 am

    With drinkers and runners–and some recovering from both activities–in our family, I found your article most moving. And your simple, clean style is compelling. I will follow your progress and will be rooting for you on Marathon Day. Go, Caleb!

  • Rick on 02.14.2009 at 8:59 am

    Thank you for this heart-warming article, Caleb. I enjoy your writing style (like your comment about “sunrises so stunning they left bruises” for example!)
    Thank you for the inspiration that I receive form you!
    Keep up the good struggle,
    rick

  • Alex bujnov on 06.20.2009 at 6:50 am

    the subject

    Thank you for this heart-warming article, Caleb.

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