When I was a kid, my sports were baseball, basketball and football. But when you’re a teenager who is not much over 5 feet and 100 pounds, the coach doesn’t call your name too often. So by senior year of high school, I was starting to experiment with a sport for which my body was a better fît: distance running.
One April afternoon in 1967, as graduation approached, I was scanning the AM dial and came across an account of the Boston Marathon. I was intrigued to learn that 741 people had turned out to run all the way from Hopkinton to Boston in sleet. I thought to myself, “That’s crazy-and I’d love to do it.” Since I was going to be going to college in Boston, at least the logistics would be simple.
Today you cannot get an official entry for this race unless you’ve run a fast enough time the year before in Boston or in another marathon. Back then, you “qualifed” by calling up the ornery race director, Jock Sernple, and persuading him to send you an application. “What makes you think you can run 26 miles and 385 yards?” he growled at me in his Scottish burr. He suspected that most young callers were college students treating his beloved race as a fraternity prank. A week later, the entry form arrived.
I knew nothing about how to train. As a coxswain, I ran a couple of miles most days with the oarsmen, and I figured if I put in a solid six weeks of training before the race, I would be set. The plan was to increase my mileage every day or two until I got to 26 miles. On March 25, about three weeks before the marathon, I ran 10 miles for the first time in my life. But I did not get to 15 miles until April 13, and four days later I hit 20 miles. There were 48 hours to go until Patriot’s Day. So I decided to rest.
Carbo loading? In those days no one seemed to have heard of it. Protein was the trick, so the morning of the race I went to a Hayes Bickford cafeteria and ordered a big steak. Then I caught the official bus to Hopkinton. I remember looking around at the other passengers and thinking how good they must be. What the hell had I gotten rnyself into?
Not only was I ill-prepared, but I had to deal with temperatures peaking in the low 70s. I don’t recall much about that first run into Boston except for the unbelievable thrill of hearing my name announced as I approached the finish line. My unexpected time of 3:23 was icing on the cake. Finally, I had found my sport. I ran the marathon the next three years of college.
After graduation, I left Boston, but each Patriot’s Day I have felt drawn back to Hopkinton for the granddaddy of American marathons, which has been run 108 times. I have completed 37 in a row now, second to the 38 consecutive races recorded by Neil Weygandt of Drexel Hills, Pa. Neil, three years my senior, is still at it, too, and many of my friends have offered to perform Tonya Harding surgery on him. (Harding, you may recall, was the ice skater implicated in the 1994 attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan.) I’ve met Neil only once, but we have exchanged Chrístmas cards.
The runner most associated with the Boston Marathon is Johnny Kelley. He started 61, finished 58, and won two. His longest streak was 22. I feel that I have been running this event forever, and yet I’m not even two-thirds of the way to Kelley’s number of completions. A writer who did some research on us found that Kelley and I are tied (at 17) for the most Boston Marathons run under 2:40, and hearing that was a great thrill. My idol died last year at 97.
I came closest to blowing the streak the fourth year. I had been battling a knee injury and had decided that if it acted up during the marathon I would board the bus that used to trail along toward the back, rather than do serious damage. At the five-mile point, I was hurting. But the bus was not in sight, so I kept at it and soon the pain just went away. In more recent years, hamstring juries have developed during training, but every time I have recovered enough by Patriot’s Day to complete the race, albeit at a slower pace. My times have ranged from 2:27 to last year’s 3:28.
No one maintains such a streak without a lot of luck. I met my wife at a road race and she has been understanding of this obsession from day one. My work as an editor and writer for The Wilderness Society does not create scheduling problems. I have not had the flu, a medical emergency, a funeral or other problems.
Why not do something different instead of the same thing year after year? That would mean giving up the night-before pasta party with old Boston friends, slapping the outstretched hands of kids lining the route, the deafening roar of Wellesley College students (all of them beautiful), the relief of reaching the peak of Heartbreak Hill, the enthusiasm of the fans spilling out of Fenway Park, and the thrill of those final few blocks along Boylston Street. In recent years I’ve had the bonus of seeing my son, Carter, at Mile 21 (Boston College). Twice he ran alongside to help keep this old man going.
I always wear a sign above my number to try to enlist crowd support. I have used “No Guns” a number of times, but the one that drew the most enthusiastic response was “Impeach,” my 1976 sign. As people shouted it out, they often seemed to be yelling “Beach.”
I have a local rite of spring, too: the popular Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run. I’m the one person who has run all 32. Once I find things—or people—I love, I don’t seem to be able to give them up.
Bethesda resident Ben Beach edits Wilderness magazine for The Wilderness Society. On April 18 he will ran in his 38th Consecutive Boston Marathon.