On Monday, April 15, 2013, I stood at the starting line of the Boston Marathon.
And 3 hours and 51 minutes later, I stood at the finish line.
About 20 minutes after that, I turned from the line of school buses, where a volunteer was handing me my drop bag, and wondered what that huge noise was. It sounded like a train hitting a building, like some absurd accident.
That wasn’t it.
It was the first of two bombs that went off at the finish line, and the next sound I heard was the steady wail of sirens as all of Boston became a stage, as the runners became players and as I went from athlete to journalist to shell-shocked mom driving back to Williamstown, Mass., watching the news of the day unfold over social media.
I flew home, wrote a column for the Argus Leader on a layover, and then had a stomachache for about a week and a lingering fear of crowds.
The Boston Marathon is many things. It’s historic, and storied, and competitive and a frequent entry on someone’s bucket list. When you’re out there, it’s everything you thought it would be – the crowds and the streets and the energy and the moment you realize you’re one of the country’s elite, as close as any of us mere mortals will ever be to being amazing. As the standards have grown tougher for the race, one of the few outside the Olympic trials you have to qualify for, so has the desire to run it.
But first, you have to qualify.
If you’re new to being Boston bound, you should know that you have to run a certain time, based on your age and your gender, and then, to make it worse, registration is on a rolling basis, so sometimes a qualifying time isn’t enough. You have to be even further below it. That’s how competitive it’s become.
With that in mind, it’s easy to get excited for the runners headed to Hopkinton, where the race starts. It’s a point-to-point course that ends in Boston, with a set of logistics and early shuttles and security now that can be mind-boggling. But none of that matters.
Because it’s Boston, baby.
Because it’s the holy grail of marathons.
Because if you run them, and you run them hard, this is your goal. Because you’ll try and try, look for courses known as Boston qualifiers, obsess over weather and mile splits and celebrate ever 5-year milestone birthday, hoping that the extra few minutes to qualify will negate the fact that you’re five years older and closer to being past your prime.
God, it’s good.
For me, I tried for years to qualify. I did in Fargo, then cracked my pelvis and had to defer. Then they changed the standards, I had a baby, and I had to qualify again. I made it in Twin Cities, with my beloved friend Owen Hotvet pushing me step by step by step. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But it was worth it. Because running Boston was one of the greatest moments of my life as a runner. And covering the bombing at the finish was one of the most amazing moments of my life as a journalist.
Every year I scan the entry list from South Dakota and Ohio, where I’m from, looking for names I recognize. I watch the race every year on television – I have a new job this year, so hopefully nobody will notice when suddenly there’s long distance running on and not CNN. And then I watch the results come in, refresh all my social media obsessively because I know how hard these regular runners worked. I know what it means to them.
I know what it meant to me.
Over the next few weeks, you can read about a few of the folks from South Dakota who are headed to Boston. The full list of entrants is at the end. This week, it’s Rhonda Punt and Darin Swanston.
Name: Rhonda Punt
Family: Husband, two sons, daughter-in-law, son’s fiancée. “We all run in some manner. They are all great supporters and cheerleaders.”
History: Rhonda began running when she was 35 (she’s in her 50s now). “With the exception of heavy mileage weeks during marathon training, I never tire of running. It’s my favorite hobby, and a big part of my social life.”
Marathons: Boston will be her 8th marathon. Her first was Leading Ladies in Spearfish. She qualified in Des Moines, Iowa, and then in Sioux Falls, but the rolling entry meant she didn’t make the cut. Her time in the Apple Dumpling Marathon in Elroy, Wis., was good enough to get her in. She and some friends entered as an afterthought after choosing to go watch some friends do an Ironman in Madison. “We went a day early and ran the marathon,” Rhonda says. “The next day we were on our feet for 17 hours as we followed the triathletes around Madison. What a weekend.”
On her social time: “I have a bestie that I have run races of all distances with for many years. We plan on running it together and embracing all the sites and energy,” Rhonda says. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me. And bring on the post-race lobster rolls and Samuel Adams!”
On training: Winter marathon training in South Dakota “wasn’t as bad as I envisioned in my head.”
Mantra: “This is an honor to be training for Boston in the middle of winter!”
Name: Darin Swanston
Works: Department of Justice
History: Darin has run 12 marathons, and his first was Swan Lake, in Viborg, S.D.
Trying to qualify: Darin tried for three years to qualify, and finally made it in June at the Revel Rockies Marathon in Colorado (who qualifies at elevation??). Then he qualified again in November at the New York City Marathon. This will be his first Boston Marathon.
On what it means: Darin was in Boston in 2014, the year Meb won – a sort of symbolic taking back of the race after the bombings in 2013. “I made a pledge to return someday and run the marathon.”
On what it’s taken: Darin hadn’t run farther than a half-marathon at that point. “I really had no idea what I was committing to,” he says. With no formal training, “I had to learn everything from scratch and do my own research.”
He read books and took notes on everything from training to nutrition to sleep patterns and what to wear. “I have probably tried nearly every brand of clothing, most nutrition supplements and most of the training plans,” Darin says. He’s narrowed down what works for him.
On almost giving up: “After Chicago in 2015, I was about to give up on the Boston hope. My times had leveled off after peaking in the Marine Corp Marathon in 2014 at 3:22, the following year took me back to the 3:27 range, where I stayed all year. I ran Los Angeles in 2016 and stayed at 3:28.”
What saved him: The Hanson training plan. “The longest run with this plan is 16 miles, and the plan trains you for the back half of the marathon.” He set a PR by nearly 16 minutes in Colorado.
On winter training: “It is probably the most peaceful time of year to run outside for me, but it can be the hardest. I refuse treadmill running unless it’s an absolute must.”
On goals: “I’m ready to get through the last two weeks and head to Boston!”
Next week, meet more runners.
Full list here.
Jacqueline Palfy is a longtime runner, reader and writer, marathoner, mom and board member of the nonprofit Sioux Falls Area Running Club. Her contributions to the 605 Running Co. blog will appear each Tuesday. You can follow her on Twitter @runnerJPK or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Story ideas are encouraged.