“It took 38 marathons: five years and four months for my Boston dream to become reality” – Michelle Walker, “Mom 0’6” (April 15, 2013)

Do you have a bucket list? Do you have goals to check off? For five and a half years, my big dream was to qualify for the Boston Marathon. The Boston Marathon is the mecca for many long distance runners. The race has a rich history. Having to qualify with a time from a previous marathon creates an exclusive environment. This race is the big badge of honor in the marathon world. The exclusive entry is coveted by most long distance runners. When I ran my very first marathon in Phoenix, Arizona, I thought this would be an easy goal to check off. I knew with the proper training, I could accomplish this goal.

As I stepped up to the starting line of the 2007 PF Chang’s RnR Marathon, I was very hopeful I could qualify. I had never run a marathon before, but I have always been a hard worker. I knew I had put in the proper training to earn a spot at the starting line. Thanks to the encouragement from one of my fellow travelers, I was even confident I could achieve my Boston Marathon time goal.

When the starting gun was fired, I took off. I ran fast. I ran hard. I was feeling good. The sun was shining; temps were unusually cool; and the course was flat. My “I’m going to Boston” euphoria kicked in right away and lasted until, well, just mile 16, where I had my first encounter with the infamous “Wall”. I had 10.2 (and the 0.2 is significant) miles to go; yet, my legs would not move. They were done. Finished. Kaput. I was quickly humbled as the pace teams who I had hoped to beat progressively passed me. How was I going to make it to the finish line, let alone finish under a BQ standard?

My first reaction to remedy the situation was to grab an energy gel. I inhaled the Cliff brand gel pack as if it were my ticket to the finish line. My upset stomach immediately revolted. I had to move to the sidelines where I literally started to gag. Hundreds of runners passed me while I tried to regain my running composure. Somehow, I kept the contents of my stomach inside, as I alternated between walking and running for the next nine miles. I made it to the finish line, but I did not experience the euphoria so many runners have when they complete their first marathon. Instead, I felt deflated.

Due to the increasing popularity of marathon running, the Boston Marathon has become more stringent on their time qualifications, making it more difficult to get in. For example, I am in the 40-44 year old age group for females. When I started marathon running, my qualifying time was 3:50. I spent several years training hard, trying to break the 3:50 barrier. About 2011, the Boston Marathon tightened everyone’s time qualification because the race was filling up at record pace. To my dismay, my qualifying time of 3:50 was changed to 3:45. When this change occurred, I must admit. I started to lose hope. A time of 3:45 or less seemed like an impossibility.

After the near disaster first marathon experience, I was on a mission. I would train even harder and eventually qualify for Boston! Ironically, my second marathon proved to be even more of a disaster than my first. I was unable to complete the race, despite my efforts. I learned quickly the marathon distance must be respected. I have never been a natural athlete, but I had no idea how much work was ahead of me in order to check the Boston Marathon from my bucket list.

I spent the next five years of my fitness life working on my running endurance. Granted, I did have a baby during that time. Even during my pregnancy, I trained (under my doctor’s guidelines). I immediately went back to marathoning after the birth of my sixth child, running the WDW Marathon six months postpartum.

Over time, I found the more marathons I ran, the better my endurance. The better my endurance, the faster my marathon times. The infamous “Wall” disappeared as I adjusted to the distance. Since January of 2013, I have run 17 marathons. This high frequency of marathon running is not recommended by the experts. For me, however, it works.

I am fortunate that over my six plus years of marathoning, I have never had an injury. Nothing. Nada. For me, the best form of training has been the marathon itself. I found myself using each marathon as a training run for the next race. I kept plugging away; logging marathon after marathon. Progressively, I was getting faster and faster.

Five years and 29 marathons after my first race disaster in Phoenix, something clicked. I started consistently running each of my marathons below the four hour time mark. This is generally considered to be a quick pace in the marathon world, but my times were still not meeting the new stringent BQ standards.

It wasn’t until I ventured to the mile high city of Denver (where altitude was a factor) in May of 2012 that I finally crossed the finish line about 15 seconds under the time I needed to qualify for Boston. I was elated! It took 38 marathons: five years and four months for my Boston dream to become reality.

Since May 2012, I have posted BQ times in 21 other states. Little by little, I am shaving even more time off my marathons. I am occasionally placing in my age group; sometimes even placing as one of the top three overall females in the marathon. My personal best came in Hartford, Connecticut, at the ING Hartford Marathon in 2012, when I posted a time of 3 hours 30 minutes.

On April 15, 2013, when I finally stepped up to the coveted starting line of the Boston Marathon, I was flooded with a myriad of emotions. What I originally thought to be a short term goal turned into a very long and arduous journey, but my road to Boston is one I will never trade. The runner who stood at the start of the Boston Marathon was not the same person who stepped up to the starting line of a marathon in Phoenix back in 2007. The confidence I gained by realizing how strong, tenacious, and persistent I am has been life changing. Running has also helped me focus on my children and their needs, work on my “to-do” list, and keep my priorities straight.

The finish of my goal race was bittersweet. I finished the 2013 Boston Marathon with a time of 3:36:59. I had a wonderful race experience! I walked away from the finish line area approximately 15 minutes before the bombings occurred. My Copley Square hotel room faced the finish line. The panic, worry, and sense of helplessness I experienced over the next 12 hours definitely overshadowed my sense of accomplishment.

My heart goes out to all of the victims directly affected by the bombings. In April 2014, I will go back to Boston with a very different mission. By running, I hope to some how support and perpetuate the healing that needs to take place.

Michelle Walker
Newburgh, Indiana

For more personal accounts of the 2013 Boston marathon, click here.

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