124th Boston Marathon Virtual Experience

September 6, 2020

Coming Full Circle at
"The Race You Love to Hate"

Kenneth Williams

Corinth, Mississippi

Age 78

19th Boston

Just the fact it is held on Labor Day weekend in north Mississippi is enough to earn the Tupelo Marathon its reputation as “the race we love to hate.” But then throw in its ominous motto “Trample the Weak/Hurdle the Dead,” and you get an idea how a running event can bring such annual dread. However, Tupelo has held an especially warm spot (no pun intended) in my heart ever since 1990, when the race became my springboard to Boston…

I did not take up long distance running until 1977, when at age 36 I met a guy who had “run a marathon.” Sounded like a neat thing to do, so I decided to give it a try. From a halting two laps (which I rather enjoyed) around the local cinder track in my Converse tennis shoes, I slowly progressed to greater distance, endurance, and speed.

By the fall of ’78 I was ready to take on the barely one year old Chicago Marathon. The day was magnificent, and at mile 20 as I passed the large fountain near the lakefront, I remember thinking, “No way I’m hitting The Wall.” I finished in 3:48:00, arriving at the finish line with no money for either food or cab fare, but ready to immediately start making preparations for a trip to Boston!

The quest didn’t proceed nearly as fast as I planned. I made a serious BQ attempt in 1980 and was hammering out early seven minute miles at the Andrew Jackson Marathon in Jackson, Tennessee. Spectators were allowed to drive on the course, and as a buddy motored by me at the 9 mile mark, he warned me to slow down, “You’re going out way too fast…” My reply, which he never let me forget, was “I can’t slow down! I’m in the groove!” By the 18 mile mark, I was toast, and any thought of a BQ was postponed for a decade.

“I came really close, running a 3:26:20 on that smoking hot and humid Sunday in Mississippi. This was only 80 seconds over my BQ time…”

Finally, 12 years after my first marathon, I gave Boston another shot. In not my best thought-out moment, I decided to enter the afore mentioned Tupelo Marathon! The temperature at the start was already 73, with humidity at 90% and a high predicted at 99°. As my running log from that day recorded, “I was ahead of schedule at 20 miles, just couldn’t quite hold out– began losing it at 21.”

Still, I came really close, running a 3:26:20 on that smoking hot and humid Sunday in Mississippi. This was only 80 seconds over my BQ time, and therefore a near miss for getting me in. Terribly disappointing, but I was actually pleased with my accomplishment – a sub 3:30 under those conditions.

1991 - My first Boston.
I thought I was "one and done."

Encouraged, a couple of months later I entered the Richmond Marathon. Once again, I was on target early, until faltering on a hill at the 20 mile mark. By the time I reached its summit, my race was over. I finished in 3:34, well off the necessary BQ time.

After that Virginia race, my quiver was empty. My only hope lay in that near miss 3:26:20 I had earned in the heat of Labor Day weekend. In the rear view mirror, my effort that day had started looking better and better. Might the BAA cut me some slack for the weather’s “extenuating circumstances”? I carefully assembled my case, compiling clippings verifying the weather conditions during that scorcher marathon (which had in fact reached a high of 99°, 90% humidity), submitted my plea to BAA, then sat back and hoped for the best.

Thanksgiving and Christmas came and went, with no word back on my long-shot request. I wrote several follow-up letters that also went unanswered. Oh well, it was worth a shot… Finally, in mid-February of 1991, in a last gasp measure, I telephoned the BAA. A friendly guy said, “Let me check for you.” Soon he was back on the line and informed me I should have been notified, indeed I was “on the list.” All of a sudden I was Boston Bound!! I had to kick my training into high gear, but was prepared when the third Monday in April arrived.

My first Boston Marathon was fantastic. My 3:29:15 time made me eligible to run again in 1992, but instead, I chose to continue annual treks with my running buddies to new and different big city marathons, several times adding Europe to our itinerary.

After the 2003 marathon, I became totally captivated by the power and spirit of Boston.

It would be eleven years before my son Ken put the idea of a return to Boston in my head: “You know, Dad, if you tried a little harder, you could qualify for Boston again.” Also encouraged by my running buddy Big Foot, who had made quite a habit of Boston, I set out to go for more!

Over the years, my marathon times had drifted north and away from my required BQ time. But when I set my mind to it, I was still able to train hard and produce good results. And my Boston age requirement started to drop as more birthdays rolled around. In 2002, at age 61, I once again BQ’ed, and was able to run my second Boston in ‘03.

Little did I know that race would ignite a passion for Boston that each new year burns ever brighter! Perhaps because I was now older, after the 2003 marathon, I became totally captivated by the power and spirit of the Boston Marathon. I determined I was going to run as many “Bostons” as I could. So my “streak” began.

As 2020 began, my streak of consecutive Bostons had reached 17, although with one asterisk (in 2013, when the bombing halted my run a mere thousand yards from the finish). As I mapped out my training schedule for the next few months, I had no idea the world was about to change. And as part of that COVID challenge, my beloved Boston race would be first postponed, then converted to a virtual race. My streak was about to add its second asterisk…

My Boston Marathons have been some of the most rewarding experiences of my long life and I cherish the wonderful memories, and the friends gained. I have come to realize the reward doesn’t come from the medal you receive at the end, nor even from the act of crossing the finish line. The true reward comes from the trials, tests, effort, sweat, and pain of the journey required to arrive at the start line.

I realized it would require some creative planning to do justice to a Virtual Boston to be run at the end of a long, hot Mississippi summer. The calendar showed the Tupelo race would fall within the virtual Boston window, and although COVID restrictions remained in a state of flux, race officials said a live Tupelo was still a go…

I was intrigued by the thought of the two-for-one marathon, but it took a call from the Race Director to convince me and my buddy Big Foot to sign up the week of. My son, himself a past-3:25 marathoner, had a couple of interesting observations about the “two-fer.” Number One, he said this would be like serving two concurrent jail sentences. His Second Observation was equally up-lifting: After hearing my plans, he quickly commented, “Well, if you are gonna do stupid, you better be tough!”  In retrospect, his message was appropriate.

5:00 a.m. - Geared up and technologically challenged at the start of the Tupelo Marathon.

The gun sounded at 5:00 a.m., Sunday morning, September 6th, signaling the start of the live Tupelo Marathon, and for me, my Virtual Boston Marathon. I had positioned myself at the rear of the starters and I slowly made my way to the start line, maintaining social distancing, while  fumbling with the Garmin, Apple, Spotify, and Boston Apps. Suddenly I was the only one remaining waiting to step on the start mat. The accommodating Race Director was kind enough to try to help the old guy out. This was a perfect example of carrying WAY TOO MANY “wearables,” as gadgets are now called. But running two races at once, I wanted to make sure they both were well documented.

I was immediately running in the dark and I was a mile in before seeing a second straggler (me being the first) which gave me a bit of confidence I was still on the actual race course. Interestingly, although there had been some changes over the years, Tupelo was back on the original course where I had first BQ’ed, exactly 30 years and 5 days earlier: it was neat I had returned to the route where it all began. At that time, the race was named the Crazy Jimmy Marathon. To quote the song, still crazy after all these years… Today, thankfully, the weather was a bit cooler and dryer: 66°, with a full moon, as I tried to pull in enough oxygen for my “blistering” 12:30 pace, which, interestingly, felt just as taxing as my 7:30 pace 30 years ago.

“The sun came over the rural countryside at about the 7 mile mark…  that nice, friendly orange ball soon turning into a blazing yellow heat lamp.”

The sun came over the rural countryside at about the 7 mile mark. My appreciation for daylight’s increased visibility (yes, that was a dead opossum I had hurdled at the last split second at mile 2!) was soon suppressed as that nice, friendly orange ball turning into a blazing yellow heat lamp. I was correct: the temps passed through the 70s much quicker than I could pass the friendly aid stations.

About 9 miles I looked up to see a young woman, the lead runner, already blistering the road as she returned on the out and back course. As it turned out, she was a good 20 minutes ahead of the man in second place.

There were less than 100 people in the full marathon, and, obviously we were pretty spread out over the last 13.1. By 20 miles it was hot – not “getting hot” – hot. I was pleased I was holding up reasonably well, under the circumstances. I was consumed with watching my wearables and comparing their data to the both certified course and the infamous Boston App. The Apple was a couple tenths of a mile ahead of the course marking, the Garmin about one tenth ahead, but discouragingly, the Boston App was 4 tenths BEHIND the course, meaning I was going to cross the finish line with 3 or 4 tenths remaining, resulting in a difficult task both emotionally and physically.

CITGO sign: Must be one mile to go...
I have my own personal MarathonFoto.
Final stretch: the emotion was just like Boston.

As I struggled with 1.5 miles remaining, I looked down the road to see a familiar runner heading my way. I quickly recognized my good friend Woody Harrell (2:36:27 at Boston 1975 and famously beating Bill Rogers there in 1973). On the spur of the moment, he and his wife Cynthia, who had done her Boston Virtual starting at 3:00 a.m. the day before, had driven down to provide me moral support!  With Woody doing all the talking, we headed down the seemingly never-ending home stretch. When we got within about a mile of the finish, for the first time in a while, I realized, asterisk or no, I was about to finish my 19th Boston.

On the way down, and with the assistance of Corinth Coke 10k race director Mona Lisa Grady, Woody and Cynthia had retrieved the small CITGO sign which often appears on the Coke route, and placed it on the side of the road with, like Boston, one mile to go! What a treat to see the familiar CITGO sign, 2,000 miles from where I would have expected. One mile to go! My adrenaline was flowing…

Still double bibed at the end of a “two-fer.”

The last mile was a struggle. I knew I had no time to spare to get in under six hours, my goal. As I approached the Tupelo official finish line, I began shutting down the different devices as they passed 26.22. First was the Apple watch (5:52), maybe 400 yards from the finish. Next was the Garmin (5:52+) about 300 yards from the finish (actually this makes sense, as certification of actual course requires an extra margin of error). I crossed the marathon finish line with a time of 5:55:33, but with 3-4 tenths remaining on the Boston App. After I received the well wishes of a dozen nice and patient people, the RD jogged back down the course with me, as we watched every tenth slowly click off. Thankfully at 5:58 a friend shouted “My phone says you just finished!!!” Beautiful words, for sure. So, there are the times: 5:52 Apple, 5:52 Garmin, 5:55 certified course, and finally the Boston App at 5:58.

After the official finish, the ever helpful Race Director jogged back down the course with me as I waited for the lagging Boston app to hit 26.22.

It was then touch and go for a few minutes while I settled down. A few waves of nausea passed, as did a bit of dizziness while I was chatting and recovering. Soon, I was sitting in the shade enjoying a Diet Coke and visiting with friends old and new. While there I noticed my iPhone had a whopping 2% power remaining. I had carried a small, credit card size charger with me, but had made the complete race without needing it, barely. So, my phone also made its six hour goal…

In retrospect, I had finished my 71st and 72nd marathons, and my 19th Boston, with a streak of 18 consecutive Bostons. I’m confident my wife Nancy Ann was smiling in heaven. She was with me when this journey for Boston 2020 began earlier in the year. I live – indeed, we all live – in a different world since I recorded my training “plan” for Boston 2020 back in January.

I wish I could report I ran the race at a pace I haven’t seen in decades. Alas, those times are now in my rearview mirror, despite me working just as hard and running just as many miles as in “the good old days.” Nevertheless, I’m very pleased, and feel very blessed I was able to accomplish this goal. I’m already thinking about my 20th Boston!

Kenneth Williams
Corinth, Mississippi

I was overwhelmed by the response after the BAA featured my CITGO photo both in print and on video. Virtually amazing!