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Campus Life + Sports

Running with Kids

The pangs (and there are more than one) of age arrive, but so do faster miles as the marathon approaches


The author running with Sarah Doyle (SMG’11) (right) and other members of the BU Running Club. Photos by Vernon Doucette, David Proctor, Dan Grossman, and courtesy of the author

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

I’ll soon be leaving my 30s, forever — and climbing onto a stage that seemed utterly foreign to me when I was younger. And, in ways, still does.

The 40s is an age I associate with my parents, perhaps because I feel I’m faking my way through the adult world half the time. I don’t have life insurance, no 401K, no living will. It’s not that I’m in denial. It’s just that it feels like an ill-fitting suit with a too-tight tie.

So I sometimes ask myself: is running the Boston Marathon a bridge to my future or my past?

Bits and pieces of my youth have been flaking off for years now — the earring, the biker boots, the concert Ts — replaced with nose-hair scissors, comfortable shoes, the use of the word “retire” when headed to bed. Down by the river, when the tall and lean Masters of the Universe streak by me in their body suits and pitiless sunglasses, I feel invisible, plodding in my thick-soled motion-control running shoes, an out-of-breath nurse jogging for a code blue. To make myself feel better, I barrel past an old man with a thick gray beard and crepe-paper skin. He never knew what hit him.

I’m running my first 26.2 miler for the Michael Carter Lisnow Respite Center in Hopkinton, a community home that offers relief to the families of developmentally disabled kids and adults. I’m grateful and honored to run for them. I’d never have made the Boston Marathon on my own. At my current pace, I’d be hard-pressed to make the qualifying time for a 65-year-old.

My main goal is to finish without walking. My secret aim is to break four hours — I figure that’ll earn me a shiny sash that reads Still Virile. My super-secret goal is to beat my dad’s first marathon time of 3:51:39. One age wrinkle, though: Pa was 41 years old when he ran the Marine Corps Marathon, averaging 8:50 a mile. So at 39, I’d have to beat him by at least a minute or two. On a good day, I’m running 8:40s on my shorter runs, but on my 20-plus-milers, I’ve been averaging 9:20. I’ve been avoiding speedwork like the Norwalk virus. I hate feeling out of breath. Plus, I wasn’t sure I had the juice to jack up my tempo. Getting up at 4:30 a.m. five times a week is hard enough. I needed a boost.

So I got in touch with Sarah Doyle (SMG’11), copresident of the BU Running Club, which stages several runs a week. Doyle was plenty friendly. “We definitely welcome all who want to come,” she said. “We’d love to meet you.” Sounded good to me.

I met the group one afternoon at Marsh Chapel. Being a runner of habit, I was nervous. I always run alone, in silence, in the early morning, fueled by fruit and toast. Here I was with two meals in my belly, among a group almost 20 years my junior. In broad daylight, and in front of witnesses. This could be humiliating. But I reminded myself that there is a difference between aging and growing. Jump into unfamiliar terrain, hack your way out, and you may just learn something.

We headed up St. Mary’s toward the Riverway and Jamaica Pond. I was chuffed when one dude dropped out with a knee complaint. Another girl turned around after three miles. Suddenly I was running a little taller. I could do this thing. Hurtling beneath a canopy of trees and footbridges, I chatted with Sarah and others about training, racing, and the meaning of running. I kept up the conversation, even cracked a joke or two. We were averaging 8:50-minute miles, though I wondered if they were moving slower to accommodate me. But no matter. I felt great. I could have logged another seven miles, even sung a few fight songs.

Puffed with confidence, I decided I was ready to take it to the next level.

I’d seen them around town, moving like a herd of antelopes, stopping and turning in unison. The BU cross-country team. While 10K, or 6.1 miles, is the longest they run in competition, they log as many as 80 miles a week, often running twice a day. My wife fretted about this plan. “This is when people get hurt — pushing themselves too hard,” she said. “These guys run five-and-a-half-minute miles for chrissakes.”

I brushed off her concerns, but secretly I was worried. It would just suck if I died before the marathon.

We met at the Track and Tennis Center on a recent crisp, wet morning. They wore butterfly shorts and T-shirts and looked like they’d stepped off the cover of Runner’s World. Even their veins had muscles. I showed up in wind pants, four top layers, a hat, and gloves. Might as well have been wearing a shawl on my lap and holding a hollowed-out bull’s horn to hear what they were saying.

Seven of us lit out, dodging trash bins, broken curbs, and cars, crossing Cambridge Street and over I-90. The first 10 minutes, I was able to chat. Then I had to choose my words carefully; the effort to push out sentences created a breathy, urgent drama, as if I were uttering my dying words: “Um, gasp, what do you, gasp, plan to, um, gasp, do after BU?”

Meanwhile, as we raised dirt along the Charles, the guys chattered and joked like they were having breakfast at Denny’s. I was pretty sure they were tamping down their pace for me. But there was a secret thrill being part of the pack, eating up the path, being admired by the recreational runners. I fantasized that people might even think I was the coach.

“How fast we running?” I managed to squeeze out to captain David Proctor (SAR’08) (right).

“Probably seven-and-a-half-minute miles. Why don’t I run ahead and snap some photos,” he said, and launched himself like a cannonball. He must have the heart and lungs of a gorilla. But mine felt OK. I might just survive.

At the BU Bridge, the space between front and back grew, and as we turned onto Comm Ave, it was just me and kindly Proctor bringing up the rear, dodging students trudging to the day’s first class. I’d never noticed the insanely steep incline along FitRec before. When we wheeled onto Harry Agganis Way toward Nickerson Field, I panicked at the thought that we might do a lap or two around the track. I could no longer speak, barely nodding in response to Proctor’s easy small talk. And was I hallucinating, or was he really breathing through his nose? I was flooded with relief when we passed by the field and bounced onto Babcock Street. I dug deep and sprinted the final stretch.

As I shook out my arms and caught my breath in front of the track building, Proctor told me we’d averaged 7:35-minute miles, the fastest by far I’ve ever run. I felt pretty good, legs not shaking too much. But even if I ran 22 more miles at that pace, it still wouldn’t be quick enough to qualify for Boston in my age group. What’s a guy gotta do to get a number around here? As a kid I was facile with a hockey stick and even trained in a Soviet gymnastics program, tumbling and swinging four hours a day. Didn’t that count for something? Or was it just a wisp of smoke in the rearview?

Last weekend, I logged 21 miles on the Boston course and planned on some speed work. Newton was crawling with runners, even at 8 a.m. It was my first miniature glimpse of the field. One older man was doing sprints. Every time I caught up with him, he sped off again. A few miles later, I overtook a couple of younger women approaching Heartbreak Hill. Pass and be passed. That’s life.

Tents, vendors, drink stations, and a Porta-potty were set up. It’s hard to imagine any other race with a makeshift expo on the training grounds weeks before the starting pistol. Marathon banners have started to go up around town, and a million spectators are expected to turn out. It all reinforces the magnitude of Boston in the world of marathoning, a story that began in 1897, with an ever-burgeoning cast and mythology. John Kelley the Elder (Hon.’97), John Kelley the Younger (SED’56), the Wellesley girls, Heartbreak Hill, the Haunted Mile, Bill Rodgers, Amby Burfoot, even Rosie Ruiz, the names and places go on and on. Every runner brings a personal story to Hopkinton, playing it out over 26.2 miles and stamping it with a sweaty, breathless period at Copley Square.

Given its history, tradition, and qualifying standards, some might see the Boston Marathon as stuffy and remote, not as hip as New York or as rock ’n’ roll as San Diego. But each year, old players return, new ones arrive, and a fresh chapter is written. Ancient, swift, and never the same, like a river. Boston’s character runs deep and wide. Age is its virtue.

And a pretty good role model, too.

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.


2 Comments on Running with Kids

  • Anonymous on 04.01.2009 at 9:41 am

    Wellesley Girls?

    Caleb, you’re definitely showing your age when you refer to the Wellesley student population as girls. :-) They’re Wellesley WOMEN!!!

  • amlaskow on 04.01.2009 at 11:35 am

    Is that really you on the magazine cover?

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