Lessons in Perseverance: Fran Drozdz

By Rob Carter
BU News Service

Stan Drozdz was starting to get nervous. He was volunteering at the finish line of the 2016 Boston Marathon and his wife, Fran Drozdz, hadn’t run past him yet.

Fran was running her 76th marathon that day, so her husband thought he had a good idea of how long it took her to finish one. It was about an hour after he expected her to come in, and he was afraid she may have gotten hurt.

“She has a tremendous willpower, so I knew she was going to finish unless she was met with a medical emergency,” Stan said.

Stan’s concern about his wife’s health wasn’t baseless. Fran, then 72 years old, had been diagnosed with severe arthritis in her both of her legs a few months before the race.

She spent three years trying to qualify to run the Boston Marathon for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and, now that she had, she was going to have to run on two bad legs.

“I thought, ‘What am I going to do?’” she said. “I’m raising this money for Dana Farber. I can’t transfer it to the following year.”

So she made her choice. “OK, I’m going to do it.”

On race day, the veteran runner said her legs “felt like lead.” Despite training all year, she knew she wasn’t going to get the time she wanted. After getting over the initial disappointment, Fran said not having to worry about her time for once was actually liberating.

“I was able to high-five people,” she said. It was something she normally wouldn’t have taken the time to do when running competitively.

As Fran kept going, the chance of finishing with a time comparable to any of her other 75 marathons slipped away.

She decided to embrace the moment. She chatted with people along the route, made rest stops and even did a little window shopping.

“I stopped at garage sales. I’m thinking, ‘Wait a minute, I can’t buy anything here,’” she joked.

Her formula for making it the entire 26.2-mile route was simple: jog for as long as she could bear, then walk or stop whenever she felt she needed to.

Fran said one of the things that kept her moving forward was a Bible verse from the Book of Hebrews reading, “Run with endurance the race that is set before you.”

And, at 8:45 p.m., her method paid off.

“By this time it was dark, and they’re cleaning up Boylston Street, and they’re moving the barricades around, and the trash sweepers were moving all over the place — and I say, ‘I see her,’ ” Stan said.

There she was, flanked by news cameras and walking on the sidewalk for the final few blocks.

“All the drunks were coming out of the bars and hanging onto my clothes, saying, ‘Oh a marathoner!’” Fran said. “I said, ‘Let go — I’ve got to get to the finish line.’”

She met her husband half a block from the end, where he escorted her back onto the street to cross the finish line. Stan was the one to put her medal around her neck.

In a crowded field of 27,487 runners at the 2016 Boston Marathon, Fran came in dead last, crossing the finish line nine-and-a-half hours after her wave of runners took off in Hopkinton.

But finishing last didn’t dampen Fran’s excitement about making it to the finish line.

She had run in Hawaii, in the snow in Wyoming and in Athens, Greece. She had carried the Olympic torch twice. And now she had run the Boston Marathon.

It was an important checkmark for a lifelong runner who started when it was so rare to see a woman jogging that people warned her it was going to “make her uterus fall out.”

Today, Fran is still running, and she hopes to do the Boston Marathon again in 2018. Beyond that, she has plans to attempt a marathon on all seven continents before she hangs up her sneakers.

And for Boston runners this year, her advice is simple.

“Go slow the first half of the Marathon, and then when you see the Citgo sign, don’t just sit there,” Fran said. “Take off, because you’re almost there!”