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Picking Marathon Brains

Counting down, doubts and nerves come creeping in


Team Hoyt

This is the fifth in a series of stories about training for the 113th Boston Marathon. Click here to read previous installments.

Even in 1917, with only 60 runners, the Boston Marathon was seen as a race apart, according to that year’s winner, “Bricklayer” Bill Kennedy. “The lure of the Boston race is far greater than any in the country and, to me, the world,” he wrote to a friend.

Four decades later, in 1957, when John Kelley the Younger (SED’56) won it, 180 people joined him at the starting line in Hopkinton. “I was 18 when I first ran,” recalls Kelley, now with 32 Bostons under his belt. “I was actually standing beside the great Johnny A. Kelley (Hon.’97), who was chatting with his old Olympic teammate Buster Crabbe, who had come to mix and mingle.”

This year, on April 20, some 26,000 more pairs of running shoes will crowd into 26 starting corrals, bib numbers pinned to their shirts or shorts, hearts pounding, mouths dry, bladders straining. Including mine.

I’ve trained for months now, but I’m still plagued by doubts and jitters. Have I logged enough miles — or too many? Will I burn out by Wellesley? How much should I drink the day before? How come that ache won’t go away? I’m running for the Michael Carter Lisnow Respite Center and a lot of people know it. Some 45 people so far have donated money to sponsor my run. That’s a good-sized crowd to let down, and there will be no place to hide if I fail.

This stuff keeps me awake at night.

So to help tackle the physical and mental aspects, I decided to pick a few brains. I got in touch with Boston winners Young John Kelley and Amby Burfoot, Terrier cross-country coach Bruce Lehane, Mary McQueeny (SED’83), codirector of the respite center, and Rick Hoyt (SED’93) of Team Hoyt. And just in case I pull off the upset of the millennium, I sought out the descendant of a past winner to ask about living with the legacy. Here’s what they told me.

John Kelley (SED’56) (right), also known as John Kelley the Younger, won Boston in 1957 in 2:20.05, the first American to break the tape since John Kelley the Elder (no relation) 12 years earlier. All told, the BU Hall of Famer and two-time Olympian tackled Boston 32 times, 3 times as a BU undergrad. He was the top American finisher eight times. Today, he writes a column for New England Runner.

What’s your number-one race day tip?

Come in on the heels of a good night’s rest, most preferably sleep, from some location not too far from Hopkinton. I must confess that the central problem of my own Boston days was overcoming my damned neurotic tendency to lose sleep.

Any advice for prerace jitters?

I never fully overcame those dratted jitters. I did my best to stay centered, internal, rather than externally concerned. If turning outward, I liked to focus on the nonhuman environment — birds, trees, the state of the weather.

How can I be as mentally prepared as possible?

I kind of like the old Hemingway approach: do your best work in preparation, then hope for luck.

How do you stay motivated in the final stretches, when your body has just about given out?

I never put a word or phrase to the kind of concentration those last miles demanded. Maybe “Zen it” would suffice. Stay in your own bubble. Try to tune out the increasing roar from spectators.

Amby Burfoot trained under John Kelley the Younger and as a college senior won the 1968 Boston Marathon with a time of 2:22:17 (right, breaking the tape). Burfoot is the former executive editor at Runner’s World and is now an editor-at-large for the magazine. He runs the Boston Marathon every five years and is the author of a number of books on running.

Any one thing that stands out about your first Boston?

Driving into Hopkinton, there was half an inch of snow on some rooftops from a little shower, but it was melting fast. The crocuses and forsythias were everywhere. It fulfilled all my romantic images of winter passing and spring arriving and all of it getting mixed up in one glorious Boston Marathon day. The first thing I saw was Old John Kelley warming up on the side of the road and then the Japanese runners in their white Rising Sun uniforms. It felt as if it had happened just for me.

The other main anecdote is Heartbreak Hill. If you had read about it as much as I did, it loomed second to Everest in one’s notion of magnitude. I literally had the experience where I thought I should have been approaching Heartbreak and I was turning to the spectators and asking, “Where’s Heartbreak Hill? How much farther to Heartbreak Hill?” And they answered, “You just went over the top.” The expectation of a mountain made it easy.

What are your top race day tips?

They’re parochial and clichéd, so excuse me in advance. Number one is not to go out too fast. It’s doubly easy in Boston because of the downhills at the beginning. But what people are perhaps not aware of is the intense surge of adrenaline that being in the Boston Marathon, standing on the Boston Marathon starting line, produces. Adrenaline is a very powerful drug, and it makes you run too fast. Then 60, 90 minutes later you really regret that you had that surge in the beginning. So you almost have to literally run slower than you’re comfortable with, really hold back.

What about staying motivated in the final miles?

If you get close enough to sniff Boston and the landmarks, it’s not a problem. It can be difficult in the Newton Hills, up to 21, 22, 23, miles. If you’ve made some miscalculations, you’re not feeling well, you’ve bonked, or your pace has slowed more than you hoped, then you get dispirited and motivation is tough to come by. All I can say is you need to rely on whatever motivational cues you’ve built into your program. But the last couple of miles, you get some pretty big visual stimuli: the crowd, Kenmore Square, the Fenway Park towers, Hereford Street, the Prudential.

How much should I drink before the race?

We’ve gone to an extreme. I don’t think you need to overhydrate in the day, two days before the marathon. If you’re carbo-loading, the carbohydrates hold onto the water you’re drinking anyway. The real key is the race day strategy, which is completely weather-dependent. If it’s 45 degrees, you don’t have to worry too much about hydration. Take a nip here or there, and get some sugar and calories from some gels. If it’s 85 and sunny, you will simply have to adjust your pace expectations dramatically. You’ll have to run a lot slower than you were hoping, and be sure to get sufficient fluids when you feel the need.

Any other advice?

Read some of the wonderful history of the Boston Marathon. That’s what’s so special, 100-plus years of wonderful characters, fast and slow. When you start talking about Clarence DeMar and even Old John Kelley to young modern runners, these people must sound like Greek gods or almost fantasy figures. But they were real and well-documented. So reading and learning about the event enhances the whole experience.

Bruce Lehane has coached BU cross-country for the past 27 years. His bragging points include: two U.S. national champions, two NCAA Division I national champions, 32 All-Americans, and 17 IC4A/ECAC individual champions. Lehane coached Cathy O’Brien of the 1988 U.S. Olympic team for the marathon.

What’s the most common mistake beginning marathoners make?

It’s all too easy to start too fast. The problem with downhill running early is that it just seems so easy and cost-free. Should a runner get caught up in it, he’ll see a great 10-mile split, but the going may soon get to be very hard and more conservative starters at his own ability level will catch him by mile 20 and go on to a stronger finish.

The quicker you run down the hill the more shock or loading has to be absorbed by muscles, bones, and joints. To a certain extent this is unavoidable, but for all but the most adept at downhill running, after 10 miles of that and 10 additional miles of flat and uphill running, the feeling starts to set in that someone has taken a jackhammer to your back or legs.

Blisters have been known to arise as the friction between skin and shoe increases on extended downhill running, especially if you haven’t run that much in your race shoes.

Mary McQueeny (SED’83) (right), codirector of the Michael Carter Lisnow Respite Center in Hopkinton, Mass., ran track as a BU undergrad. She and fellow director Sharon Lisnow have run the marathon together six times, starting in 1997, the year after Lisnow’s son (and the center’s namesake) died from complications during surgery.

What’s your number-one race day tip?

Don’t do anything different. Also, don’t get your running shoes wet. If it’s a hot day, people will try to spray you, and wet shoes cause blisters. No fun.

What was the biggest surprise in your first Boston?

Everyone said the first eight miles were all downhill. Not true. Everyone says Heartbreak Hill, but no one mentions the three hills that lead into Heartbreak. It’s a series of four hills starting at mile 17 and ending at BC at approximately mile 22.

Rick Hoyt (SED’93) (right) is half of the venerable Team Hoyt. He was born with cerebral palsy and races in a customized wheelchair pushed by his father, Dick Hoyt. They have raced in 229 triathlons and 26 Boston Marathons.

Do you have favorite parts of the course?

Many. First, the starting line, because a lot of my friends are officials, and they pump me up. At mile 10, my uncles Al and Herbie. Just beyond mile 17, my brother Russell and his boys, Troy and Ryan. The ladies of Wellesley, Boston College. Once we reach BU, then I know we are almost home. The last two-tenths feel like heaven.

How important is the crowd?

It really lifts each runner up. When Dad and I pass the crowd, other runners can feel the energy that the crowd gives us.

Patrick “Hollow Leg” Kennedy (COM’04), editor of the College of Communication’s COMTalk, is the great-great-nephew of “Bricklayer” Bill Kennedy, who won Boston in 1917. Kennedy says Bill was a tough bird who ran the Boston Marathon 22 times and the night before his big win slept on a pool table in the South End.

Tell me about your great-great-uncle.

Bill Kennedy was my grandfather’s uncle and a bricklayer, as were many Kennedys for generations. But what Bill loved was running. He ran all sorts of races for most of his life. He first ran Boston in 1915, then again in 1916, when he came in sixth. Bill was 35 years old when he ran in 1917. He was the oldest winner to date. And he beat Clarence DeMar, who had won in 1911 and would win another six times in his career.

This must be a point of pride in the Kennedy family.

Yeah. I believe my dad and his brother broke track records at their high school, so running definitely, well, runs in the family. People expect that if your last name is Kennedy and you’re related to a well-known Kennedy, it’s going to be JFK. But no, it’s a random Kennedy who’s only well known to running nuts. But I still get a little burst of pride.

How do you relate to this legacy? Is it an honor? A burden?

I certainly enjoy running, but even at my peak a few years ago, I was probably only running 20 miles a week. When I lived in Mission Hill and I used to run through Brookline to Beacon Street, then up Beacon through Kenmore and along Comm Ave, I was doing part of the route, and if I started flagging I would think of ol’ Bricklayer Bill and how this would be nothing for him. Bill didn’t run it until he was 33. I’ll be 33 next year — maybe I should start training now.

My secret goal is to win this thing. If that happens, am I condemning my progeny to a lifetime of not measuring up?

Funnily enough, I won’t be competing in this marathon, but I will be competing in a chicken-wing-eating contest. I’m carrying on the family tradition, evinced by Bricklayer Bill, of competing under a cool nickname, Pat “Hollow Leg” Kennedy. So it’s possible your descendants could channel their competitive urges into a chicken-wing-eating contest. You have nothing to worry about.

What kind of advice do you think Bricklayer Bill (below, right) would give me?

Well, Old Johnny Kelley said Bill was a “rough character,” so he might say some things unfit for a family university online news daily. But he’d probably tell you to find a good pool table to rest up on the night before, and on the day of the race put an extra-big plug of chewing tobacco in your gob, and just burn past all those damn kids. And 39’s not so old. “Thirty-nine?” he might say. “How about coming in 24th at age 59? That’s what I did back in ’41. Of course, we weren’t running against any Kenyans then.”

But seriously, he might wait until after the race, but I think Bill would say, “The important thing, Caleb, is the friends you’ve made along the way.”

If any runners out there have more race day advice or prep strategies, post them in the comments section so others, Boston-bound or not, can benefit.

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

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


4 Comments on Picking Marathon Brains

  • Anonymous on 04.08.2009 at 9:33 am

    It is just a marathon

    Sure if you are going hard and trying to make a time then it can be demanding. Anybody can do a marathon if you don’t run out too hard. Why do you make it sound as if this is the most difficult thing in the world? Just go out and have fun. The more pressure you put on yourself the less fun you will have.

    Best advice I can give: talk to the people you are running with. Meet new people that you are sharing this experience with.

  • Rob on 04.08.2009 at 12:57 pm

    Some advice

    I’m a sophomore here at BU, ran cross country and track throughout high school and ran my first marathon about 6 months ago (the Bay State). I never trained with gels or anything like that (just a bottle of water that I’d refill every chance I had), so I figured that I’d approach the marathon the same way, that I’d just rely on the water or Gatorade provided every couple of miles to keep me going. I had to cut my training a bit short to hold my shin splints in check, so the longest runs I did going into it were only about 15 miles and at race day found out that I needed something a bit more substantial to keep going – there was one water table that also had gels about 16 miles or so in. Despite the bad reputation energy bars/gels have, that gel was the best thing I’d tasted in years because of the situation. Even if you don’t think you’ll need them, I strongly recommend bringing along a few gels. Make sure to use the bathroom before the race – no matter how long you have to wait in line, if you start the race with an empty bladder, you should have a pretty good shot at finishing without having to waste any time during the race stopping to relieve yourself. Be careful not to overdress – if it’s about 55 or above, you will be fine with just the singlet and shorts. Even if temperatures are in the 30s, I wouldn’t add much more than a long-sleeved shirt and maybe a light pair of gloves unless you’re willing to toss the extra clothing at some point along the course or be uncomfortably hot. Finally, I recommend taking at least a few sips of water at each water stop whether you think you need it or not; there’s no need to drink the whole cup or grab multiple cups early on, but once you start to really feel thirsty, it’s much more difficult to effectively counter the dehydration during the race.

  • cdanilof on 04.10.2009 at 2:18 pm

    root of the dispute

    Here’s the back story for PK vs. Panda tomorrow: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uoqjnPC0HZM&feature=channel_page < http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uoqjnPC0HZM&feature=channel_page>

  • cdanilof on 04.10.2009 at 2:21 pm


    Caleb – Thanks for the great perspective on the Boston Marathon. Although I’ve run the New York City Marathon twice and run dozens of half marathons, there is something about the lore of Boston that is pretty daunting. I took a look at your training blog – you are so good to go. Run well.

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