By Hannah Green
Boston University News Service
For seven years, Shanna Dahlin Howe rarely missed a sunrise. She traded movie nights with her two sons and drinks with friends for 15-mile runs at 6 a.m.
The South Dakotan put her life on pause to qualify for the Boston Marathon, a goal she described as the “pinnacle of amateur running.”
“I’ve had that vision in my head for so long of that race,” she said. “I want to be there. I want to run through the Wellesley Scream Tunnel. I want to hit Heartbreak Hill. I want Boylston [Street]. I want it so much.”
In 2019, Dahlin Howe finally got her Boston qualifier (BQ), a designated time that corresponds with an age and gender group in a certified marathon. She submitted her time to the Boston Athletic Association (B.A.A.) and was accepted to the 2020 race. She was soon ready to pack her bags for Boston; a trip only runners would consider a vacation, since it would include a 26.2-mile run.
When the pandemic turned the 2020 race into a virtual event, she completed the marathon at home and started looking forward to the next year.
The 2021 Boston Marathon will take place on Monday, October 11, after the field size was reduced by a third due to the COVID-19 pandemic, making the qualifying process even more competitive. Dahlin Howe’s time was not fast enough to meet this year’s new standard. Boston had broken her heart for the second time.
But to Dahlin Howe, this reduced field size wasn’t nearly the worst part of the 2021 race.
In March 2021, the B.A.A. announced a virtual marathon with 70,000 non-qualifying spots, to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Boston Marathon. The virtual race will take place during the same week as the in-person marathon and runners will earn a Boston medal.
The announcement was met with excitement from runners unable to qualify for the famous race, and outrage from some long-time qualifiers and BQ chasers who felt the B.A.A. was selling their dream.
“I don’t care about the qualification process, making it harder and all that, because that’s part of it. I’m fine with the smaller field size,” Dahlin Howe said. “It was that anybody could sign up to do this virtual race along with all the people who qualified and worked to get in. That’s what really felt like a gut punch.”
The B.A.A. is marketing the virtual race as an official Boston Marathon. Qualifiers not accepted to the in-person race can participate virtually. For runners trying to complete the race each year, this virtual race will count toward that streak. Medals will be awarded to virtual runners regardless of their finishing time. (After criticism mounted online, the B.A.A. clarified that medals for the in-person and virtual races would be slightly different.)
But some runners want to see a distinct line drawn between the Boston Marathon and this virtual race, especially for runners who qualified but were cut due to the reduced field size.
“The exclusivity of it is what makes it great. The heart and the determination of getting a BQ is what makes it great,” Dahlin Howe said. “And they just kind of took that out.”
In the race announcement, Tom Grilk, president and CEO of the B.A.A., said, “For the first time in our history, most everyone will have the opportunity to earn a Unicorn finisher’s medal for every B.A.A. race in 2021.”
But some argue that the competitive history of the Boston Marathon should be preserved, even at the expense of the 125th celebration.
When marathoners head out to cover 26.2 miles, they expect some physical discomfort. Blisters, dehydration and muscle soreness come with the territory. But according to runner and researcher Tom Derderian, at the first Boston Marathon, the participants weren’t sure if they’d finish alive.
Derderian is a self-made Boston Marathon historian. He grew up one town over from the starting line in Hopkinton and watched the race every Patriot’s Day. As soon as he turned 18, he signed up for his first Boston. Derderian has now run 15 Boston Marathons and competed at two marathon Olympic trials. He also wrote a book about the history of the famous Boston footrace and produced a documentary about the Marathon in 2014.
Derderian said the first marathons were inspired in 490 B.C. by the messenger Pheidippides. Legend says this Greek warrior ran 25 miles from Marathon to Athens to announce the army’s victory in battle before dropping dead. In the first marathon, held at the 1896 Olympics, one year before the first Boston Marathon, young men expected to greet death at the end of their run.
“That was the essential myth in 1897, that young men would sacrifice for their country and risk death in the marathon,” Derderian said. “It was a display of young men’s toughness.”
For those who have never watched a marathon, a quick spoiler alert: runners don’t tend to keel over dead after 26 miles. In fact, in a nine-year study of 3.7 million runners, only 28 died during or up to 24 hours after finishing a marathon. You have a better chance of getting killed by a snake or in a car crash.
The Boston Marathon evolved several times over its history, but Derderian said competition was always at its core. Soon it wasn’t enough to simply survive a 26-mile run. Being a true competitor now meant finishing faster than everyone else.
“It was a competitive race from the outset. It mattered more than anything who won, because that’s where the money was, on the bets on the winners,” Derderian said.
Some runners argued that the elitist nature of the race prevented progress. In 1967, Kathryn Switzer defiantly entered and ran the Boston Marathon before women were allowed—a right they would not gain until 1972.
“The marathon reflects the times,” Derderian said. “You can see in what happened in the marathon what the economic, cultural and social importance of the time was.”
Of Switzer, Derderian added, “The race officials saw her as usurping the race to make a political point and not as a competitor. The marathon officials were not against women. They were against changing the purpose of the race.”
As the race became more popular, the B.A.A. created qualifying times to reduce the field size. Fifteen runners competed in the 1897 Boston Marathon. By 1979, nearly 8,000 did.
These days, the race usually invites 30,000 people (reduced to 20,000 for 2021) from around the world to compete each year. The qualifying standards made the race competitive for amateur runners.
Qualifying times have changed throughout the race’s history. In 1970, runners needed to submit proof from an athletic association or coach that they could finish in under four hours. The application read: “This is not a jogging race.”
Today, the qualifying times start at a three-hour marathon for men and 3:30 for women. The standards increase by five to 10 minutes for each older age group. The B.A.A. reserves the right to change these standards, and they’ve done so several times over the last few years, making it even more difficult to earn that elusive BQ.
The one constant, according to Derderian, is a race of grit and guts that keeps spectators and runners coming back each year.
They call themselves bandits—runners who disregard the rules and jump into the Boston Marathon without qualifying or signing up. Michele Keane said bandits have become less popular in recent years due to increased security; but for most of the marathon’s history, bandits were a reminder that the famous foot race belonged to the running community, not just the elites or race organizers. Keane knows her fair share of bandit history, because she used to be one.
Keane was a freshman at Wellesley College when some male friends from MIT dared her and a friend to run Boston. She’d never run a marathon, but if these guys were jumping into the race, why couldn’t she?
“So, we ran. And because those guys said we wouldn’t finish, we did,” she smirked, pausing to savor the moment. “And they didn’t.”
She ran as a bandit for the next three years before moving to New York and then Atlanta for work. She started joining run clubs and racing competitively with the goal of qualifying for Boston. Keane, who admits she has some natural athletic ability, soon qualified for her first official Boston in 1985.
She remembered that ’85 race as one of the hottest April days she’d ever experienced. There were no official water stops in those days, so spectators handed out orange slices and sprayed runners with hoses.
As she came down Beacon Street into Kenmore Square, a man ran into the street to give her a cup of grape juice. Keane said this day epitomized how Boston belongs to anyone who wants to experience it, on or off the course.
Eighteen Boston Marathons later, Keane is still running. She continues to believe the race belongs to the community, and is happy this year’s virtual race will be open to anyone who wants to experience it.
“All I can think of is, there’s so many people who can never take this opportunity [to run Boston],” she said. “What better way to celebrate something than to open this up to 70,000 people? And you get to say you ran the Boston Marathon, because you did.”
Keane noted that the B.A.A. likely lost a significant amount of money when the 2020 race was canceled. Each year the organization could count on a $200 entry fee per participant, swag purchases and millions of dollars from sponsors.
All of these funds pay for race staff, B.A.A. events and other programs run by the nonprofit. She hopes to see the organization recoup its money to continue its local running programs.
Not all runners share Keane’s feelings on inclusivity. Tom Derderian, the historian, is one of Keane’s former coaches. He said opening the race to 70,000 non-qualifiers breaks from this competitive marathon’s original purpose.
“It goes to this ridiculous idea that everyone’s a winner,” he said. “We’re trying to make everyone into a hero. It just dilutes the whole thing to nonsense. If everyone is a hero, no one is a hero.”
The idea of charging runners $75 for a virtual race, Derderian added, sounded “freaking bizarre.” Derderian said the Boston Marathon was becoming too commercialized, and the B.A.A. was bringing in huge sums of money that “go beyond the necessities” of running a footrace. For three decades, the Boston Marathon was run out of a cardboard box in the race organizer’s massage parlor.
“Pay us 75 bucks, go run a marathon someplace else, tell us about it and we’ll send you a trinket that cost us much less than $75,” he said. “It strikes me as a racket.”
Instead of holding a virtual race, Derderian wished the B.A.A. had encouraged people to run in solidarity during the October marathon. But, for the love of God, he said, don’t charge people for it.
When Melissa Belovich ran her first Boston Marathon in 2019, she wasn’t thinking about the medal or bragging rights awaiting her at the finish line. The race was a celebration of perseverance, spurred by one of the saddest days in Boston’s history.
In 2013, two bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Three people were killed and hundreds were injured, including one of Belovich’s close friends.
Belovich had always identified as an anti-running athlete. But she agreed to run a 1-mile tribute race on behalf of her injured friend. As she inched toward the finish line, she felt a fire within her to go on despite the pain.
After finishing, Belovich dared to dream of running the Boston Marathon. But she knew she’d likely never be fast enough to qualify.
And yet, in 2019, Belovich got her chance. Survivors who were injured in 2013’s race receive a marathon bib each year that they can use or pass along to a friend. Belovich’s friend asked if she wanted to run.
Belovich’s first Boston Marathon taught her to find joy in moments of collective and personal pain. It didn’t involve breaking a course record, or even getting a BQ. She did a dance on Heartbreak Hill. She high-fived spectators from Hopkinton to Boston. She took a right on Hereford and a left on Boylston. And then she crossed the finish line.
“I told myself to smile the whole way down [Boylston] and just remember what others went through in 2013 and take that back,” she said. “My friend who was a survivor, she was running on the sidewalk, following me to the finish line. It was truly special.”
And yes, Belovich signed up to run the virtual marathon in October. To her, it doesn’t matter where she competes or how long it takes. Completing the Boston Marathon taught her to celebrate life and resiliency. To her, that’s the true meaning of this race, and she thinks everyone deserves the chance to reach that finish line.
“I still look at it as a community, and I still think that we should be encouraging each other and pushing each other to always be a better version of ourselves,” she said. “And running a marathon changes you beyond running. It teaches you that you can do more than you ever thought you could.”
“No other lesson in life has taught me that [except] when I ran that marathon.”