Run 2014 Marathon? Boston Strong — But Many Bodies, Not So Much

Runners start the 117th running of the Boston Marathon, in Hopkinton, Mass., Monday, April 15, 2013. (Stew Milne/AP)

Runners start the 117th running of the Boston Marathon, in Hopkinton, Mass., Monday, April 15, 2013. (Stew Milne/AP)

Please don’t call me a lily-livered traitor to my town. Truly, Boston is strong. It’s just that many of our knees or hearts or assorted other body parts may be weak.

I understand the galvanizing defiance that says, “Let’s show them! I’ll run the Boston Marathon next year as part of the hugest field of runners ever, all of us demonstrating that terror will not triumph!” I’m deeply impressed by the widespread sentiment I’m hearing on the street — my street of non-elite athletes, that is — of determination to run the marathon for the first time next year.

But I feel compelled to say: For many people, that’s a great option. But for many people, it’s not. And for some, from a health point of view, running the marathon may hurt you more than it helps the city. (A friend in the “I must run next year” camp has been begged and begged again by her husband to please, protect her body and refrain.)

Before I get into the physical pros and cons of marathons, I’d also like to add these words of caution and restraint from Marc Davis, communications manager for the Boston Athletic Association: The marathon organizers are aware of the incredibly high demand to run next year, he said, but there is, for lack of a better term, a “language barrier” between “how you get into this event and how people think you get into this event.”

‘Please, people, don’t just show up.’

“In the end, there’s a certain structure we have to this event that will not go away no matter what,” he said. And “the very essence of the Boston Marathon is the qualifying nature of it. It’s going to disappoint a large group of people, but this isn’t just a marathon to sign up for, this is a marathon you have to qualify for, and we’re not going to change that basic premise no matter what.”

Here’s your reality check: In order to qualify if you’re a male between 18 and 34, you need to make a time of three hours and five minutes; then the scale slides and at the other end of the range, it’s five hours and 25 minutes for women 80 and older. (Note to self: Hey, maybe if I train for decades…)

Also, sure, it would be great to thumb our noses at terror by running 100,000-strong instead of the current field of 27,000, but that could be a logistical nightmare. “We’re not starting on a two-way, three-lane gi-normous bridge like the New York City marathon starts on,” Davis said. “We’re starting in a small township,” along single-lane roads.

‘Running long distances is going to be very revealing — and what it’s going to be revealing of are your shortcomings.’

Perhaps the race’s board of directors, when they next meet, will decide to restructure the race somehow, he said, but the message for now is “Please, people, don’t just show up,” don’t run unregistered. Practically, it could create problematic crowding, and on principle, “You don’t just walk into a Patriots game without a ticket just because you want to see it.”

Now for the health side. I spoke with Prof. Michael Bergeron, executive director of the National Youth Sports Health & Safety Institute, a professor of pediatrics and researcher at the University of South Dakota. His bottom line: No matter what the advertisement says, “You can’t ‘Just do it,’ especially not a marathon, if you are not ready for it.”

That is to say, without question, running can be very good for your health. Indeed, he said, most adults should focus on “improving and maintaining their cardio-respiratory fitness for the rest of their lives — and that means aerobic exercise, like running and cycling. How important is this? It’s safe to say it’s becoming increasingly clear that it — your cardio-respiratory fitness — is a huge, if not the biggest, determinant of your long-term health, well-being and, frankly, risk of dying. So it’s in no small way something you should try to do,” and federal guidelines suggest at least 150 minutes a week of moderate to vigorous physical activity, most of it aerobic.

That said, if you run more than 15 to 20 miles a week — which training for a marathon eventually requires — “you’re doing it for some other reason besides fitness. You might say, ‘Yes, I’m doing it for Boston.’ Now you get into other issues.”

And here’s the rub: Running distances long enough to train for and actually trying to complete a marathon is going to be “very revealing — and what it’s going to be revealing of are your shortcomings.”

Shortcomings? Yes. Such as:

• Your fitness level: “It will reveal just how unfit you are.”

• Your biomechanics: “If you have any kind of foot or knee mal-alignment or weakness in the hip, for example, even very subtle deficiencies are going to be highlighted as discomfort, pain and ultimately play out as a barrier to you finishing or even going very far without hurting yourself. When you run a short distance you can usually get away with almost anything. As the distance increases, reality presents itself more clearly. You start getting up to distances like a 10K or higher, any sort of mechanical or physiological disadvantage is going to be more greatly revealed.”

Prof. Michael Bergeron

Prof. Michael Bergeron

“The body has a nice way of telling you or even forcing you to stop,” Bergeron continued. “Excessive fatigue, energy depletion or even exhaustion-related collapse is actually a nice safety valve, before you get into more serious trouble. But if you have the mental fortitude — and I don’t mean that in a good way, in this case — to power through the pain…you could get yourself into a situation where you’ve really hurt yourself: a stress fracture, a ligament tear, or dangerously overheating. Any kind of mechanical or physiological disadvantage or limitation that you have as a novice or recreational runner — and believe me, you have them — that’s going to be underscored progressively and more emphatically as the race goes on.”

If you’re not already a serious runner, Bergeron recommends finding a way to run a much shorter distance than a marathon to get fit, be strong and show support.

He’s particularly concerned about people who delay training and try to jump into a marathon late. For non-runners determined to do the marathon, smart and progressive training should begin immediately, he said.

“For a lot of people, the marathon is achievable; but you need to understand that it takes a very long time of progressively working up to it, and not only adding distance, but adding deliberate and regular recovery time appropriately into your training schedule and strategy,” he said.

Bergeron suggests following the training plan guidelines provided by Runner’s World to get started.

“If you’re not really going to commit to a long-term supervised (or at least well-informed) process of getting there, if you’re not going to give it that full year or so, then don’t do it, because you’ll get in trouble and will likely be disappointed,” Bergeron said.

In particular, “If you have underlying medical issues, like, say, a heart issue, you should know that, although the overall risk is low, some people die from sudden cardiac arrest in marathons not necessarily because running the marathon is bad per se, but that distance was eventually too much stress for a person who may have felt okay under all other more typical and shorter physical activities. You could get away with it if the distance or the time were much shorter, but if there’s any underlying pathology — your heart or other things, or perhaps if you’ve not fully recovered from previous injuries — the marathon is very revealing. A lot of things have to be in place to do this successfully, to survive it unscathed.”

Are there, I asked, certain people he’d particularly like to beg, “Please don’t do this!”?

“If you’ve never run before,” he said, “and you think you’re in a lot better shape than you are. The same people who jump into extreme conditioning programs, thinking they can do it after seeing the commercials. That mentality of ‘Hey, I’m 40 but I feel like I’m 20, and I used to do that. And I’ve never run before but how hard can it be?’ That attitude. It’s a little different being determined and aggressive in a business deal versus being overzealous and aggressive in training and running a marathon.”

So is there a particular alternative to the marathon he’d suggest?

“Maybe your personal statement should be that you are going to live healthier and stronger and thus live better and longer,” he said. “Live better in your own personal way, which is a personal statement that you’re part of this community that is stronger because of this. You’re not a contributing factor as much if you’re hurt or you kill yourself on the racecourse trying to make a point.”

I’d like to share my own personal decision. I work out daily, including a weekly run, but my body always lets me know after even three miles that it doesn’t like running. There’s no way I’m going to train for a marathon. But we’ve written before about findings that when bystanders know CPR, they do indeed save lives. So I’ve resolved that before I help line the streets of the 2014 marathon, I’ll take a CPR refresher as well as a full-fledged first-aid course. At least I’ll know how to tie on a tourniquet if it’s ever needed.

Readers? Your plans? And any questions for Prof. Bergeron or the marathon organizers?

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  • Sam

    Readers, do NOT listen to the “don’t just show up” part of this article. Last year I ran the Boston Marathon, which happened to be my first marathon, unregistered (as a bandit as they like to call them). Bandits are as much of a part of the tradition to the Boston Marathon as are qualified runners, and I was greeted and cheered on by thousand of pople the same exact way that the qualified runners were. I was on pace to finish in 4 hours and was only a half mile short of the finish line when the bombs went off. I will CERTAINLY be back in 2014 to finish what I have started. If I could run qualified I absolutely would. However, I’ve applied to many charities but due to the high volume of applicants its nearly impossible to find your way onto a team this year, and finishing 26.2 miles in about 3 hours is too much of a strech for my body. I will be back as a bandit, because it’s tradition allows it, my passion desires it and the people of Boston want it. If you want to do this whether it be in honor of a victim from last year’s attacks, or in memory of anyone else, you can do it. Don’t let someone behind a computer screen tell you you can’t. I cannot wait for 2014′s race.

    • rlct

      Sounds to me like you have an attitude, not to mention an aversion to boundaries. For the thousands who have worked hard for 6 months + and would like to actually compete at Boston, your arrogant suggestion to “just show up and run” makes it difficult, if only because of the sheer volume of numbers on narrow roads in Boston. However, I’m quite sure this means about as much to you as qualifying the right way does…which is, what I imagine, has eluded you and has you so ticked off and obviously “in your face” about your barging in and running it anyway. Obviously your running it is more about bragging rights than honoring someone from last years tragedy – since you’ve obviously made a habit of this…Trust me, the fulfillment coming from qualifying and running Boston far surpasses the fleeting joy in bragging about being a bandit – anyone can cheat their way just about anywhere.

      • Sam

        Thank you for the blind input @rlct but let it be known I have trained well over 6+ months for 2013′s race added to the 12 months of training for 2014. If bragging rights was my intention then yes, that would be a shame on me. However, “bragging” has never been a part of who I am so maybe next time you should think about making accusations about someone you do not know before insulting them. As stated in my response, and many Boston Marathon articles you will read, Bandits have always been tradition in the race and will continue to be. I admit fully I am not athletic enough to run a qualifying time, nor was I accepted to any of the charities I applied to. I did everything I could to qualify officially, and do not hold any grudges against the BAA for not being accepted. I still am able to run as a bandit next year, and my family is going right back down to Boylston St. to cheer me in, which after what they experienced last year, I give them tremendous credit for. I’m sure your “fullfillment” of qualifying was great, but do not judge the ones who did everything they could to qualify and came up short, and call us cheaters. We just want to fullfill our dreams too. Not for a medal, not for bragging rights, but for ourselves, our family and the countless people who go down to cheer on Marathon Monday. Thanks again for the input, see you on April 21st.

    • Jennifer Ayers-Gould

      Sam, I was wondering if you are still planning on running Boston this year now that they have enacted a “strict no-banditing” policy for the 2014 race. I had heard about bandits being allowed in the past and was planning on running this year’s race (my son qualified and I was 3 minute shy), starting in the back of the pack and not taking any water/resources from aid stations to minimize my impact. I have read the stringent rules for this year’s race and how they are not allowing ANY bandits on the course. Also, I was planning on wearing my Camelback for hydration and there is a NO CAMELBACK policy as well! Craziness. What are your thoughts and plans?

  • gpo

    You can run the marathon if you are fit and you train like crazy. I just did it.

    That said, it is an incredible undertaking requiring significant discipline over a period of time. We don’t need people who are emotionally motivated making problems for the BAA.

    There are a number of ancillary activities like the BAA 5K the day before. We could have tens of thousands more participants in that race, raising money and/or running in tribute and solidarity. That’s my suggestion.

    • careyg

      Thanks! I didn’t even know about the 5K! Sounds like a great alternative…

  • Jennifer Prohaska

    Thank you for this article. As a Boston area running coach, many folks are asking me if I think they could run next year and are already contacting the charity groups. Some start training, some don’t. Boston is an amazing experience and I would love to see a One Fund group added to the charity teams. It takes a while to build a solid base as a runner. Please use a coach and train smart if you do decide to train for this or any other marathon.

  • bmp

    I ran Boston this year and requalified (BTW I thought it was the hardest marathon I’ve done – also my 2nd fastest). However, I only requalified by 6 seconds so I moved up my fall marathon to hopefully get a better time before registration opens up.
    I have heard that they were thinking of increasing the size to allow all qualified runners in. I would prefer that over increasing charity spots or allowing deferrals from this year. Boston is something special and it should remain that way.

    • Jimmy Jones

      I hope that they’ll move, one day, to fully opening for all qualifiers.

  • Sally

    We can be 1,000,000 strong, standing 5 deep along the road for 26.2 miles. The runners are extraordinary, but the magic are the numbers of us who clap and yell and cheer and offer water and sustenance along the way. It’s going to be an amazing day and there are so many ways to be a part of the magic.

  • Sara

    Great piece! Thanks, Carey, for the reality check.

  • meeeehehe

    This story is informative and honest. Thank you.

  • Maggie

    I think this was a great piece that brought up a point of view that is interesting to explore. I always love the devils advocate and like someone that thinks critically – even if someone could think its sort of negative. I think when the cold hits in December— a good # of these folks that say they wanted to run, will have left behind this knee jerk reaction. I hope there are more spectators, more people that want to sponsor the existing charities- and that this does bring more hype to the BAA and Boston Marathon. I hope to be there, for the 3rd year with the same charity. Bandit runners I think are only missing out on a special experience of training with a team and calling on others for support through fundraising. It’s a special circle of people who run for a cause. I’d encourage anyone I know to run for charity before running bandit. You’ll be amazed how many people will support you if you just ask. Find a cause that is meaningful to you and become an ambassador for it. It will change your life- and the lives of the people your chosen foundation is meant to support.

  • Valerie Paul

    I think the pledge to take CPR and first aid is a really really great idea. The more of us who are prepared to respond in emergencies (of all kinds), the better. There are also “Medical Reserve Corps” groups in many communities that offer great training in incident management, first aid, CPR, shelter services etc. And you don’t have to be a medical professional to be involved or be useful.

  • Jessica fisher willson

    Good advice, I think, but I would so like to do it to give ‘em what for!

  • Maureen Johan

    Training with a coach is critical. I watched our daughter train and that would have done me in. Run if you qualify or are doing it for a charity and train. The BAA should look into a walk for those of us who are unable to run or think they can run. Charge an entry fee as running these things are expensive to organize. I would walk but after watching the training, I would rather sponsor someone who can run.

  • Reasonable?

    I’m personally opposed to running a marathon mostly because it didn’t work out well for the first guy.

    However if the Night Marathon Bike Ride was moved from clandestine night before event to the mainstream (maybe after the road runners or the afternoon before) I’d definitely do it.

    I think the organizers should add a low barrier to entry solidarity event.
    However they should probably keep the traditional event pure.

    • careyg

      Nigh Marathon Bike Ride? Do tell! And I agree, a low-barrier solidarity event would be great…

  • Cynic

    And don’t forget about the ~$400 in registration fees and requirement to raise at least $4000 for a charity… just to get a nonqualifying bib #.

  • Ana_900

    I like a doctor who tells the truth. Most of the docs nowadays don’t even tell people who are overweight because they may hurt their feelings!

  • hgmma

    This is a terrible article, pretty much tells well wishers to take a hike…. People aren’t that stupid, no one is going to think they can run a marathon without training. But someone can go from couch to 26.2 miles in about 24 weeks of training. It’s all ready starting, those who refer to themselves as “real runners” are trying to protect their turf…. I think anyone who raises $5 thousand for the One Fund should be allowed to run.

    • Susan Danford Geffre

      Be realistic. The BOSTON Marathon is like no other. The article is just making this clear for all of those “runners” out there who don’t know this. There are hundreds of marathons one can “sign up” for and run (with training, of course), but Boston is not one of them, That’s all.

      • hgmma

        Hmmm, that’s funny since I’ve run 7 marathons and Boston was my second (signed up through a charity). There is no doubt that the time qualification is the toughest for a standard entry there is, but as far as the technical aspect of the route it’s really not that hard. I think for a community who would like to be part of something special on a special year, opening up a few thousand additional charity slots really isn’t a big deal. Regarding space? Ever run the NYC marathon? You have to practically walk the first three miles.

    • MEleey

      I’ve run 4 marathons, 1 of which being Boston last April in the 90 degree heat. All marathons are difficult. The article is not meant to dissuade; instead it is meant to inform people they should realistically start training now if you hope to complete one safely.

  • Roger Bencivenga

    Just run! (Making certain, of course, that you can/should run.)
    (From Carey: Sorry, had to remove expletive! But get your sentiment…)

  • Nancy

    I will run. Maybe you can volunteer.