What does it take to run the Boston Marathon?
Acclaimed writer and marathoner Haruki Murakami once said, “I’ve run marathons all over the world, but whenever someone asks me which is my favorite, I never hesitate to answer: the Boston Marathon, which I have run six times.”
He went on to add, “Every time I run the race, the feelings of the people who created it over the years are on display for all to appreciate, and I’m enveloped in a warm glow, a sense of being back in a place I missed. It’s magical.”
Despite the warmth and magic, it is still a marathon — a journey of 26.2 miles that includes hilly terrain in the unpredictable New England weather.
So what does it take to run the Boston Marathon? What is it like to run from Hopkinton to Boylston through the Scream Tunnel and over Heartbreak Hill? What does it feel like to have crossed the finish line? Finally, what goes through the minds of these amazing athletes when they are running for hours on end?
The Tech spoke to Ben Eysenbach ’17 (2:42:29), Chengzhen Dai ’16 (3:12:37), Jenny Shen G (4:01:56), and Nobel Laureate professor Wolfgang Ketterle (2:55:25) following their successful completions of this year’s Boston Marathon to get their perspectives.
Even before the start of the race, there is a certain aura about being in a sea of about 26,000 other racers.
As Shen explains, “It is pretty amazing how much prestige this marathon carries. As a student I have been living in the Boston area for a few years and it feels really special to see people from all over the world come here. Some people get to run following multiple attempts at qualifying.”
“The lady on the bus [on the way to Hopkinton] next to me she was in her fifties from England and she was so excited to run her first Boston Marathon. I feel lucky to have been able to do it twice now,” she said.
Even before one can hope to compete, one needs to qualify — and the Boston Marathon has some of the most stringent cutoff times. Then one needs to brave the cold to ramp up mileage leading up to Patriots’ day. But for some of these runners, long runs can often often come as a reprieve.
“For me, it is an excuse to get out of campus. I like to think alone at times and going on long runs provides that opportunity. Sometimes I think of math problems, yet at other times about some book I am reading,” said Eysenbach.
Dai had a somewhat different perspective: “One of my most favorite parts of running is that you come across different people. I have had wonderful conversations over the years, including with a pair of brothers during the race who also hailed from my home state of Michigan.”
Eventually, all the hard work will come to fruition on the day of the marathon. In particular, it comes in handy when navigating the notorious Heartbreak Hill.
“I had done a lot of hill workouts ahead of time on much steeper hills,” explained Eysenbach.
He went on to elaborate, “the challenge with Heartbreak Hill is that it comes roughly 20 miles in and that is when your body has used up all the glycogen stored in muscle cells. So when people say they have hit the proverbial wall that is what they are referring to.”
“If you have not been eating along the way, your body will start using muscle cells. So to have that accompanied with an incline makes it even harder [than just the hilly terrain],” he said.
But even though there are parts of the course that are more challenging than others, there are also a lot of people cheering for the runners throughout the course.
As Shen put it, “[There are] fans at every part of the course cheering you on. A lot of families come out. These people have grown up with the marathon experience.”
Perhaps no group cheers harder than the Wellesley students in what has come to be known as the ‘Scream Tunnel.’
Ketterle cherished the experience: “The high pitched voices of the girls and young women send chills down your spine. They have ‘Kiss Me’ signs and are looking to high five you. It is a very welcome distraction in the middle of the course and it is wonderful to immerse in that [atmosphere].”
Finally, there are few sights more reassuring than seeing the finish line when one turns the final corner onto Boylston Street.
Dai, who had to battle cramps and tightness in the quads over the last eight miles said, “I fed off the energy of my friends who were cheering hard for me along the last mile. It was amazing to finish in an area I am very familiar with amongst people I am very familiar with.”
Undoubtedly, running 26.2 miles is a feat to be proud of. But what does it mean to finish a marathon to someone as accomplished as a Nobel Laureate?
Ketterle weighed in: “The short answer is, it means a lot. Even if you have received something like a Nobel prize. I got that for something I did 15 or 20 years ago. I am not retiring on my laurels.”
“I am a person who has goals, likes to achieve goals and gets some satisfaction from it. For example if my lab makes an interesting discovery I find it extremely satisfying.”
“For me life has an intensity,” he said. “You set yourself challenges. If I did not care how I perform I would not be living my life. I care how I perform. I care what I accomplish. Yes, I have got the recognition as a scientist, but I feel as a person, I am more than just a scientist. For example it means a lot to me that I got the teaching prize from the School of Science this year.”
Compared to his teaching and research, Ketterle said, the “marathon is a whole different ball game.”
“It is physical activity. It is about getting up in the morning and running and keeping your body in good condition. I am proud of the fact that I can come in the top five in my category or that in my fifties I was able to run faster than in my twenties. Similarly I have raised children and if they accomplish something I feel pride.”
He said, “For me it is not necessary to win prizes or awards but to excel in several areas — those which are intellectually challenging as well as those that are physically challenging.”