“America’s Good Luck Charm”

In July 1978, I finished third in the Grandfather Mountain Marathon (described as “among the most strenuous marathons in the nation”), just barely reaching my goal of under three hours. As I circled toward the finish line on the track at the Southern Highland Games, I was certain I was in fourth place. However, way up ahead of me, a running buddy of mine had made a wrong turn and was off course by a mile and a half before he discovered his error, a mistake, he was not able to overcome. It was the only time I ever came close to a marathon podium placement, so none the less, I happily accepted the third place trophy.

A few months later I read an article in a medical journal stating you lose 10% of your I.Q. every time you run a marathon. At that point my marathon total stood at nine, so I did the math, decided I didn’t have any wiggle room left, and gave up long distance running. Well, that’s what I tell people, anyway. In truth, much earlier I had injured myself while running barefoot on the beach, cutting ligaments, tendons, etc. so badly I can’t bend the toes on my left foot. This initially didn’t seem to be much of a drawback, but as I headed into middle age, my “on the ball of the foot” running style couldn’t handle the resulting ankle instability, and anything over a five mile run became very painful, so much so I had to move on to something with less pounding and abuse, like bicycling. Marathoning had become a thing of the past.

After hiking the Appalachian Trail,
anything seems possible!

Then upon retirement in 2012, my wife Cynthia and I hiked the full length of the Appalachian Trail, 2184.2 miles from Georgia to Maine. Along the way we averaged over thirteen miles a day, and climbed the equivalent of sea level to the summit of Mt. Everest 17 times. At the end of this five and a half months of walking, I discovered a miraculous occurrence. My foot muscles seemed to have strengthened enough to compensate for that long ago injury. I adjusted my stride to a more heel-toe style, and (although much slower) was able to run again, first ten, then twelve, thirteen, fifteen miles at a time.

At age 65, my running career had been given a new lease on life, and I added one more item to my bucket list: four decades after running Boston in 1973 and 1975, I wanted to return and run the famous course one more time. After this long hiatus, I found I had a lot of re-educating to do. Unlike the last time I ran, there were now qualifying standards by both age and gender (good), but one did not simply decide to qualify and enter the race less than a month ahead of time, as I did back in ’75 (bad). Then there was the matter of the entrance fee, which had slightly increased from the $2.00 cash I paid back in the day.

I was fortunate to have local running friend Kenneth Williams (who had begun a string of ten straight Boston finishes at age 61) available to convince me the training schedule I had used at age 26 would not work all these years later. He provided some more realistic figures as a target. And training with his “Lunatic Fringe” group throughout the winter on some of the tallest hills in Mississippi kept my training moving forward.

I would have liked more time to prepare, but I also didn’t want to try to run a fast race in the heat, so I started looking for a flat marathon in early spring. In the end, I settled on Virginia Beach’s Shamrock Marathon, where I had run both their, and my, initial marathon on St. Patrick’s Day 1973, exactly 40 years ago to the day. The possibility of strong wind off the ocean makes the Virginia Beach race a roll of the dice in March, but except for two trips over the Rudee Inlet bridge, the course is flat as a pancake.

My wife and I arrived a few days early to visit relatives and get in a run on the beach at Nags Head NC (needless to say, with shoes on). We were blessed with an ideal weather day on the Outer Banks as I got in one last six mile training run: hard flat beach, no wind, cools temps, and just the hint of fog at ocean’s edge. Things were looking up for the weekend!

Marathon training at Nags Head, NC

However, by race day, the weather had gone to hell in the proverbial hand basket: 25mph northeast winds, cloudy skies, and predicted high temperature in the low forties. It was nothing to write home about. I also quickly discovered the nature of the race had changed in the four decades I had been away, the main change being the race had grown from only 50 runners to 3,000. Unlike in 1973, I was not going to be lonesome out on the course.

At the half way point, Virginia Beach marathon – 1973
At the half way point, Virginia Beach marathon – 2013

At two miles, I found myself running with the four hour pace group, and sure enough I came past the half way point at 1:59:58. Trees protected the course from the worst of the wind up until Mile 20, when the real race began, but at that point we headed back out into the full brunt of the wind off the Atlantic. Mild leg cramps kicked in at Mile 22, but I still had a cushion of time, if I could keep going. I figured I needed 4:05 to insure a Boston entry, and crossed the finish line at 4:04:04. I broke down and cried. And then got very cold. Shivering cold…

Virginia Beach, St. Patrick’s Day 2013

Back in the 70’s nobody referred to this accomplishment as a “BQ,” and it didn’t seem like that big a deal back then. But when you think it’s gone forever, and then out of nowhere you get one more chance, it is very special.

A month later, we were following Kenneth Williams’s progress at the 117th Boston on line while driving home from Nashville. His split at 40K was a little slower than he’d hoped for, then after that we heard nothing. We refreshed our smartphone again and again, but still no further update. What had happened to Kenneth? It wasn’t until a half hour later we started getting news of the bombing. All of a sudden, next year’s race and my return to Boston were going to be a good bit different…

One day while running with Kenneth, he got talking about the Bill Rodgers autobiography Marathon Man, and he mentioned Rodgers’ status as conscientious objector. I interrupted and said “No, you mean Jon Anderson,” who famously was washing dishes as alternative service in a Eugene hospital kitchen before his Boston win in 1973. Kenneth replied firmly, “No, Bill Rodgers.” At which point I realized other than his winning a bunch of big time marathons, I didn’t know much about “Boston Billy.” Borrowing Kenneth’s autographed copy, I dug into his life story, discovering that Boston 1973 was Rodgers’ very first marathon, and on that hot, hot day when I staggered to the Prudential Center in very demoralizing 358th place, Bill Rodgers was having an even tougher day, dropping out at 22 miles. All these years, my biggest athletic achievement ever, and I hadn’t even known about it: I had beaten Bill Rodgers in 1973!

Of course I had to get a t-shirt made to tout this accomplishment, and wearing it while training was a tremendous motivational tool. I was also wearing it when I bumped into Bill before a race in Jackson MS. He was signing books at the expo and happened to glance over my way. I wish you could have seen the expression on his face when he read my shirt! Well, actually you can. It looked just like this:

I have to admit one of my all time life highlights was when Boston Billy asked if he could take MY picture!

The twelve months between Boston ‘13 and ’14 were filled with both highs (a hike of the John Muir Trail, my wife’s first marathon) and lows (some Achilles issues that lingered on and on, having a marathon cancelled at the last minute because of an ice storm), but on Good Friday we flew into Boston. The last time I ran Boston, I stayed in a bare dorm room at Boston University. This time we found the downtown Sheraton to be a big improvement. We headed over to the expo, where after several months of grousing about the color, I found myself buying a “Neon Cheeto Dust” official marathon jacket. And lots of other stuff. [I remember on the day after my ’75 Boston, the futile experience of walking the streets looking for any kind of marathon clothing or souvenirs. Times have definitely changed!]

My favorite expo experience was a session presented by several former Boston Marathon Champions. I had not seen Jacki Hansen since she breezed by me in the closing miles on the way to her 1973 win. It was great to have a chance for a short chat with this women’s running pioneer. Getting a chance to meet 1968 winner Amy Burfoot was like the icing on the cake!

41 years after Jacki Hansen springboarded to fame by passing me at the
end of the 77th Boston Marathon, we finally bury the hatchet.

Cynthia and I crammed a lot of activities into Marathon Weekend; in hindsight probably too many to allow for adequate race preparation. But looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing. We got to visit with Cynthia’s college roommate. Bernie took us out to Hopkinton on Saturday, and then drove back into town following the course. We took advantage of the Hopkinton police stopping traffic to allow picture taking at the start line. We walked down Hayden Rowe Street, looking for landmarks of the old starting line from my previous two Bostons, with only a little bit of success. Bernie also used her great season tickets to take us to Fenway for a Sox game on Sunday evening.

Hopkinton Officer: “And if cars honk while they are stopped,
I make them wait longer!”
A Return to Hayden Rowe Street
Celebrating with the “Forever Young” John Kelley

On Easter Sunday, the day began with Kenneth Williams’ annual shake-out run along the river for the North Mississippi – Alabama contingent, led by Bart Yasso. Along the way I again ran into Bill Rodgers, and although his Grand Marshall duties were keeping him from running this year’s race, I did get to remind him I beat him in ’73 and still had the t-shirt to prove it!

“Oh, not you again!”
With Bill Rodgers on his home turf.

The Blessing of the Athletes at Old South Church was the most moving single moment of the trip. To be a runner wrapped “in love and prayer” with one of 7,000 handmade scarves did indeed “warm your spirit… as you carry the weight of a somber anniversary… and look down 26.2 miles with resolve.” No matter what lay ahead, I knew somehow I was going to finish this race.

A very special Easter at Old South Church

In the media coverage leading up to this year’s race, I heard Tedy Bruschi (4:47:45 this year) say that on Patriots Day, Boston has five major league teams, with one of them running in a stadium 26.2 miles long. Except for being a little short, I found his description to be accurate. In reality the spectator support began on the walk up from Athletes’ Village, with local residents distributing beer, donuts, and cigarettes. Or maybe they were the 26.2 mile stadium’s concession stand?!?

Where else but Hopkinton!

An 8:00 a.m. start would have provided the race ideal running conditions, but by the time I crossed the line in Hopkinton, I felt the temperature was already warming up. The last time I ran Boston, hydration in route was hard to come by, especially on a hot day. In 2014, that was certainly not the case, although I learned when you start behind 24,000 runners, the accumulating piles of discarded cups at the water stops can be a safety hazard. A mashed cup on a yellow line can be more slippery and treacherous than a banana peel.

After 39 years away, Ashland, Framingham, and Natick all looked familiar, if not quite the same. Certainly more people along the route. The sound of the Wellesley College Scream Tunnel may have been negatively impacted by Easter weekend (I actually thought the crowds at Boston College were more boisterous), but the girls more than made up for any diminished numbers with their “creativity.”

Still looking like a “Wicked Runnah”!

At around 15 miles, I was a little slower than I had hoped to be, but was still feeling good about the upcoming hills. Then a runner darted in front of me to avoid a runner darting in front of him. Even with my slow reaction time, I avoided a collision, but just a few steps later, as I tried to get back on form, I was jolted by cramps in my right leg measuring 16.4 on the Richter Scale. My brain tried to send a signal to my legs to start running again, but standing in the road, I literally was unable to move. In church the previous day I had concentrated on the first part of Isaiah 40:31 “May you mount up with wings like eagles. May you run and not grow weary…” Now I was latching onto the end of that well known Bible verse: “May you walk and not grow faint.”

Some days, even an encouraging sign just isn’t enough…

Haltingly, I finally got my legs going again. At uneven intervals, the aftershocks continued in both legs over the next eleven miles, but with each stiff step I was still heading towards Boylston. Today my body was saying “no, you won’t,” but five deep on either side of the road the huge Boston crowd was yelling “yes, you can!” My thoughts were on yesterday’s Prayer of Blessing: “Reward them for their discipline and perseverance.” I had discipline; I had perseverance. I was in “the most important race of the century,” and I was going to finish.

This was not a day for stopping. Not here. Not now…

I jogged when I could, walked when I couldn’t, and never passed up a water station from there on in. And all the way, I soaked up the energy and passion of a city out to reclaim its marathon. Cynthia and Bernie had staked out a spot at Mile 25 to see the race. As I crested Heartbreak Hill, I called them to say I wasn’t quite on schedule, but I was still heading their way. I told them to be on the lookout for a runner whose appearance resembled “warmed over death” and it would probably be me. Then I stopped twice to ask BAA volunteers to take my picture. Who knew when I might be back!

Heartbreak Hill has good cell service
A Heartbreaking photo op

The crowds at Mile 25 were so thick and loud I wondered if I’d be able to spot anyone I knew. But I was able to locate my two fans, and pause for a brief greeting before I headed off to make the last two turns. I wanted to look smooth and limber after I made the “left on Boylston” and I almost got away with looking like a runner, until one last attack of leg cramps hit me in the last 150 yards. But as painful as it probably looked, it was done, and after 39 years I had made it back to the Boston Marathon finish line. When I last ran Boston in ’75, only some ridiculously low number of runners, I want to say 15, were awarded medals; and back then those medals were about the size of a thumbnail. Mine today was much bigger, was given for a placing over 27,000 further back, but was equally, if not more appreciated.

Trying to put up a good front on Boylston.
“Nothing was expected of him, but somehow he managed to do even less.” -George Plimpton
The ignominy of being outrun by a football player:
Tedy Bruschi already giving interviews by the time I finish.

Working my way through the finish area, for the first time I overheard people talking about the day’s results and I thought I heard someone say something about an American winning. The only thing I had heard all day, and that was very early on, was that Ryan Hall had been up in the lead pack. So as unlikely as that sounded, I asked “Did you say Ryan Hall won?” and they replied “No, it’s Meb!” Unbelievable… Meb wasn’t alive when I last ran, but his birthday was then less than a month away! Now he was the oldest Boston winner in over 80 years!

From World War II until I first ran Boston in 1973, Americans had won only two of 27 races (John Kelley the Younger in 1957 and Amby Burfoot in 1968). However, not only was there an American winner in both previous years I ran (Jon Anderson and Bill Rodgers), there seemed to be a residual effect for my participation, with eight of eleven American wins from ’73 to ’83. However, after that magic wore off, the next 30 years produced no American winners. Now, after 39 years away, I was back and once again we had an American winner. Obviously I am the U.S.A.’s good luck charm. Every single time I run Boston, an American wins. Other than this year’s first timers, I doubt anyone else in the 2014 race can make that claim.

American winners at Boston – I am three for three.

Sometime in the future, I’d like to do one more Boston, especially if I can run one with my wife. However, I’m not planning on coming back in 2015. But Dave McGillivray’s got my number, and if he really wants another American victor and if he is willing to waive my entry (or just reduce it back to the 1975 rate), I’d be willing to come back sooner. After all, I am America’s Good Luck Charm. My record shows I always make it happen…

Woody Harrell
Corinth, Mississippi
April 21, 2014
Age – 66
Bib # 24555