This Is How Boston Marathon Runners Are Pivoting Their Training

For the first time in history, the running of the Boston Marathon is postponed.

Photo by Simone Migliori

When the 30,000 runners planning to race in the Boston Marathon next month found out the race would be postponed until September 14, most were right in the midst of their hardest workouts. They were, theoretically, on week 15 of a 20-week training cycle and were barreling towards the finish line of preparation.

“I was gearing up to run a 20-mile long run for the weekend when it was obvious the Boston Marathon was going to be postponed,” marathoner Joanna Grigas, who lives in Cambridge, says. “I was crushed, but understanding.”

Due to the rising concerns of the spread of COVID-19, races everywhere started falling from the schedule in early March. Local races happening around the same time as the marathon were being cancelled left and right, and it seemed marathoners were holding their breath for the inevitable.

That slow flood of cancelations did mean that runners had started emotionally preparing for the inevitable. Jennifer Shih, who trains with the Tracksmith Trackhouse club in Boston, says that when the news finally broke on March 13 that the race would be postponed for the first time in its 124-year-history, that “rug-being-pulled-from-under-you-feeling had already been processed.”

But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t still disappointing. “I was having one of the best training cycles ever coming in to March,” Shih says. “I was really looking forward to tearing into a couple more weeks of hard running.”

Lou Serafini, club coach and community manager of Trackhouse, says many of the runners he was working with had the same general outlook and they were all pretty accepting by the time the final verdict was reached. “Overall, I’ve been really impressed with the resiliency of the community,” he says. “I think people have recognized the bigger problem at hand.”

This is usually a really special time for the city. The hopeful buzz of Boston preparing for the race can be felt from Hopkinton to Boylston Street, and it brings out some of the most cheerful qualities in Bostonians. But for the past few weeks, there’s been a different kind of buzz in the air, one filled with dread, anxiety, and mounting uncertainty.

If anything, though, New Englanders are used to weathering terrible storms. They’re strong, stubborn, and persistent. Dan Fitzgerald, head coach of the Heartbreak Hill Running Company, says during the 2018 Boston Marathon (you remember the one: It featured torrential downpours and huge wind gusts), the Heartbreakers recorded more personal best times than in 2017 when it was 68 degrees and sunny.

If you’ve lived in Boston for a while, you’ve learned to bear down and focus on the task at hand. As Fitzgerald says, we’re Type A people who are smart, and motivated. “When it comes to a marathon, and Heartbreak’s namesake,” he says, “it’s through great challenges that you emerge as a stronger self.”

Just as it’s important to bear down and keep trudging forward, though, it’s equally important to remember when to bend with the wind and accept what has landed at our doorstep.

This challenge gives everyone a pause, Fitzgerald says. The Heartbreakers had nearly 800 runners on their marathon roster. “Whether or not your training was going well or poorly, everyone is now on the same playing field,” he says. “We’re all in this together.”

Angela Scott, a 27-year-old Northeastern employee who ran the Boston marathon in 2017 and was pulled off the course at mile 20 the year of the marathon bombings, says she reminds herself it’s a true privilege to run this race. “We are about to run in the most unprecedented postponed Boston Marathon of 2020,” she says. “We will always be able to say we were among a group of 30,000 other runners who participated in this momentous day in September, in Boston.”

Serafini says this is a great time to remember why you started running in the first place and to maintain the fitness that you’ve built up to this point. “All the hard work is not lost,” he says.

“I’m looking at my own running as a huge outlet in my life right now,” he adds. “It’s the one thing I have that allows me to get out of my apartment and not think about what’s going on.”

Some runners, like Shih and Dan Distefano, a Barry’s fitness instructor preparing to run his first Boston Marathon, are currently finishing out their training cycles. Distefano still plans to run the full marathon course on Marathon Monday as a ghost race. He has shifted his fundraising goals to support the Greater Boston Food Bank by selling t-shirts he has designed and created.

For other runners, like Grigas and Scott, they’re taking this time to slow down—literally and figuratively. Grigas still gets out to run, but has greatly decreased her mileage and has shifted her focus to running more hills. Scott, who was nursing an injury since week six of training, says right now her body is telling her to rest. “The biggest thing training has taught me is that you have to listen to your body,” she says. “And you have to listen to what it needs in the moment, or mile, you’re in.”

In September, it’s still going to be the same distance and the same course, Fitzgerald says. “It’s just going to be hotter.” Serafini recommends that runners shut everything down in May, take a real break, and then start up the first week of June for a proper training cycle.

Running through the dog days of summer does present different challenges that winter training does not, though.

For one, it’s obviously hotter, and runners will need to pay extra attention to their hydration, Serafini says. He also adds that in the winter it’s easier to hunker down and concentrate because there’s not as much going on. “In the summer, it personally feels like there are a lot more distractions and people are going to need to make sure they stay on top of their workouts.”

A big positive that comes with a September race is that there’s a greater chance for a tailwind, Serafini says. “Since Boston is a point-to-point race, having the wind at your back can make a huge difference—sometimes even as much as 10 seconds per mile.”

So, in light of all the changes, Boston runners are maintaining their fitness. They’re recharging and resting. They’re reconnecting with the joy of running at the most basic level. And in some sense, that’s what we’re all trying to do with our own lives—whether we’re running in September or not.