“The joy is in the journey: Boston is the reward.”

I started running to lose baby weight with a 2001 New Year’s resolution. My goal was to lose the last 10 or 20 pounds from my second pregnancy. I initially used running as a tool to see how ‘small’ I could get. I truly believe running saved me. One day after an eight mile run, I got very confused, and I think it was caused by an extreme low-carb diet. I was that dedicated. In the end, though, I chose running because it provided me much more satisfaction than just a low number on the scale. I was the only one of five children to earn a high school diploma. I found running made me feel special, like I could “be somebody”!

My friend Harvey Pendergrast coached me through my first 10k, our local Corinth Coca-Cola Classic race; and I ran it well enough to discover I had some natural talent. After the Coke 10k, I joined an online forum, Coolrunning.com. I read every post, and one guy encouraged me to run a marathon. My thought was I would do one marathon and be finished. I graduated directly from a 10k to a full marathon, with no half as a warm-up.

I decided I would run the Mercedes Marathon in Birmingham, Alabama. I followed a training schedule from that Cool Running Forum. All my training was done alone, or pushing a baby stroller at the city park. I had no support other than the online forum. I recall getting emotional before the race, thinking “I’m going to run a marathon.” I finished my first marathon in 4:35, with no real understanding of how I should train for it. I was so elated finishing, but then on the way home, I really beat myself up. 4:35? Really? Real runners finish at least under four hours for a marathon. I was no longer pleased.

I knew I needed some support, someone to listen to my concerns and to answer my questions. I emailed a long time local runner named Kenneth Williams (who we all call “Koach”) to inquire if he knew of any female runners with whom I might train. His response: “Distance runners are loners by nature… but let me think about some possibilities, and I will get back with you.” So, it was a very short email and not much help.

Stopping for a photo on the Tennessee River Bridge

However, I didn’t have to wait long until another email arrived. This one invited me to join a strange training run, where we started in one town (Savannah TN), ran to another (Adamsville TN, crossing the Tennessee River along the way), and then ran a race (the Buford Pusser Festival 5K Run). It sounded both unusual and intimidating, but I said I was game. After surviving that workout, I felt I was ready to go beyond the goal of my original running resolution.

I then began training with Koach and John (Big Foot) Aikin on their weekly runs on Highway 350, a route notorious for its heat, humidity, horseflies, and hills! Running with Koach’s small crowd of hard core runners was not for the faint of heart, but when I found I could stay with these new friends on Mississippi’s “Highway to Heaven,” then I began doing my long runs there.

Training on Highway 350

This is where my Boston story likely will be different from most others.

I didn’t set out to qualify for Boston. That year, 2008, I was in nursing school and that, plus a job and family, put a heavy load of stress on me. I looked forward to my runs for relief from that stress. However, to help add structure to those workouts and keep me motivated, I signed up for another marathon. So, each run now had a purpose, I didn’t have the luxury of running for fun anymore.

By fall and after graduation, I found myself running really well. Three weeks before my chosen race, the St. Jude Marathon in Memphis, Koach looked over at me during a long run and asked what was my goal. I had gotten my marathon time down to 3:52 the year before, but I didn’t really have a goal. Koach told me I needed to break 3:40 in order to qualify. (This was back in the good ole days when you knew the second you crossed the finish line your BQ time would get you in the race). Koach told me I could beat my required time, and I believed him.

By the time I stepped on the starting line three weeks later, Koach had told about everyone I knew I was going to qualify, which added pressure, for sure. I tried not to worry about it as I was off and running. After a few miles I ran beside a friend, Jackey Wall, and I confided in him I was scared. I was starting out well, but I said I don’t know about the rest of the race. Jackey said “Joy, run how you feel. You may be able to do it, or you may not, but run like you feel, and not by what the GPS says.”

For the next 20 miles, I never let myself think about Boston. By mile 23, I had passed Big Foot. Or rather I sneaked past him. Big Foot is a running icon and the idea of me passing him was special.

By mile 24 I had begun a slight fade and I knew I had no time to spare. Just then, I heard my worst nightmare: It was Koach’s voice! He was a block behind, and he was screaming at me!! “GO, JOY. THIS IS WHAT YOU HAVE WORKED SO HARD FOR. ALL THE YEARS OF TRAINING COME DOWN TO TWO MILES!” Koach gained on me, as I could hear his screams coming closer. And then there was THE HILL! It actually was not a hill, but rather an up-ramp in a massive cloverleaf. Somehow I made it to the top of the ramp and Koach was calling out the time. “Joy, you have one minute and forty five seconds. You have to sprint!! Don’t stop, and don’t slowdown…”

About this time I caught up with Jackey Wall again. He was walking and tears were falling. I begged him to run with me… “I won’t make it after seeing you walking.” So, he did. He was limping, hurt and could barely walk, but he jumped in for the last quarter mile. As we entered the stadium with a few hundred yards remaining, Koach was still screaming, his voice clearly heard over the screams of the hundreds of spectators sitting in the stands…. “DON’T STOP”! “DON’T SLOW DOWN.” I crossed the finish line at 3:39:44 and Koach was three seconds behind me….still hollering! I had made it!!! And with 15 whole seconds to spare!

I had qualified! People looked at us like we were crazy. BOSTON! But, I don’t think the draw of Boston was even close to what it is today, and most people just didn’t understand.

I remember sitting in a seat at Auto Zone Park, in shock. I had done it! I called my (then) husband, Tony Gray, who had gone to a powerlifting meet, and told him I made it, but there was silence. He had always been supportive of me and my running, but I just don’t think he understood what it meant.

All through the afternoon I had doubts, and I wasn’t going to get too excited until it was official. That next day, seeing I had officially qualified, I sat in amazement. I had done something few girls I knew had done. I finally felt I really was “somebody.” I had survived nursing school due to running and by following my running mantra “You don’t quit; you keep going no matter what. Runners do not quit, runners do not give up. They push through!” So, I had done it! I was a Licensed Practical Nurse AND I had qualified for Boston, all in the same year!

LPN & now BQ!

I had a choice to run Boston in 2009, but I elected to wait until 2010. I needed a savings account and some time to put something in it.

I had so many obstacles in 2009, mainly injuries that lasted and lasted, and all these setbacks caused me to have a poor year of running. So when I started training for Boston I went over the top. I have never trained like I did for Boston.

Finally training was over and Boston was close. I had been very concerned about flying. Boston was going to be my first flight and I was really nervous about that. But Koach and his wife, Nancy Ann, took care of me. Nancy Ann led me through all the first time bag checking, and Koach had arranged for me to be seated next to Tanya Collum, who later has become my dearest friend. We made it great, although I had some anxious moments as the flight progressed. Tanya and I shared a room, as well as all our fears, excitement and worries.

With Koach and Tanya Collum

My boss and really great friend, Dr. Erica Noyes, had gotten me a big cake and organized an office party, and she told me she wanted to purchase my Boston jacket. This really made an impression on me as I had only been employed for a few months.

When the plane landed and I saw “Boston” it was a highly emotional moment for me. I had never been more than five or six hours (by car) from home. The city was beautiful, but so different. I was alone, with no relatives nearby, but my running friends, John, Tom McCabe, and the others, were my family. I purchased a few things at the Expo. We saw the “Team Hoyt” family, and I had my picture taken with Kathrine Switzer. Koach had given me her book after I qualified and now it had come full circle for me. However, on this big stage, I still didn’t feel I “belonged.”

Meeting Katherine Switzer
Finish Line photo op with Tom McCabe

My favorite part of the whole trip may have been Sunday morning. We attended the service at Old South Church, right on the marathon finish line. When you walked in, runners had the opportunity to put a push pin in their home state, and the map was about full. I had never seen a church as beautiful, and the Runners Prayer given by the pastor had me silently crying. It was overwhelmingly beautiful. We even got to witness an infant baptism. After the service we visited the finish line and took lots of photos. After that we had the best blueberry pancakes and fresh orange juice. I was excited, for sure, and didn’t sleep much that night.

Waiting for the bus with the Wildman Tom and Big Foot

Early on race morning we made our way to the loading area, and after a long wait were finally on a bus and heading for Athletes’ Village. After arrival, my first thought was “Why are all those helicopters flying around?” And there were military or police snipers on the roof tops of the school. I was very confused….and apprehensive. Will I make it home? Will my girls know their Mom left the world doing what she loved? I was freaking out. I had made it through my first experience of flying, but this security was really troubling to me.

Temporary residents of the Village

Finally 10 a.m. came, as well as the gun for our corral, and I was off! And, this is what I remember: Lots of screaming, it felt like 26 miles of non-stop screaming. After Heartbreak Hill, which I really didn’t think was so steep, all my emotions seemed to hit me at once. I walked, and I took cookies and tea, and I wanted silence!

Soon I was rounding the corner from Hereford onto Boylston and I could see the finish line way in the distance. Tears were running down both cheeks as I was about to finish. But once I crossed the line and had a chance to focus on my finishing time of 3:55, I thought I had failed. I blamed the 60 degree weather for the “slow” time. I thought Boston in April was cold. It took me an hour and a half to get back to my hotel, which was only a few blocks away. I had no idea where I was. I got so many bad directions I finally sat on a curb and cried.

After a long while, I got back to the hotel and we later met for dinner. I was still very disappointed in myself and in my time. Unfortunately, I let those feelings shape the remainder of the trip.

It was not until a few months later that I gained peace with my time. I was then able to say “Hey, that was a pretty good time!” Then it hit me how much energy I had wasted on feelings of disappointment. I wish I had listened to the advice from our local Boston veterans, such as Woody Harrell saying “Enjoy the experience.” I wish I had taken that advice.

The joy is in the journey. Boston is the reward. Who cares how fast you run Boston? You did your homework, you did the training, now enjoy your reward.

Today I look at my framed Boston Marathon Certificate and medal “Joy Gray – 3:55” and I am very proud. I never realized what it would come to mean to me; how much pride I would feel when I put that jacket on to wear to races or even to work. I don’t wear it often as I rather feel the experience is mine, my secret. I haven’t wanted to share too much with others; I just want to hold the experience in my heart. I almost feel sharing too much makes it less special.

Running Boston was a “for me” event! I didn’t do it to impress anyone, or to flaunt it to others. It was for me to feel I accomplished something BIG: It was about a simple country girl, a non-athlete, one who had really never done anything special. But God gave me this gift. Even though I worked very hard, it was a gift from Him. I get frustrated when people run one marathon and then automatically assume their easy next step will be to “Run Boston.” To me that casual attitude is disrespectful to all those runners who have worked so hard for that Boston Medal. Every one earning that medal has a story of hardship and overcoming obstacles just like mine. They might not have set out to do Boston, but when they do, this one race can be the icing on the cake!

With part of the Alabama – Mississippi delegation
Marathon Weekend in Boston

I may never go back to Boston – only God knows that. But I do know there will never be another “First Boston” or a “First Qualifier.” That’s one thing I try to pass along to other runner friends that I assist: There won’t be but one “First Marathon.” Enjoy it, embrace it, let it sink in. Live in the moment.

There is still a lot I want to accomplish and going back to Boston is #1. But I have several items that are equally important.

I feel an enormous sense of pride being a Boston Marathon finisher and I love the sense of respect members of that club receive, even from strangers. And I really appreciate and love all the people who played such a big part of getting me to the Boston finish line: Kenneth Williams, John Aikin, Jackey Wall, Tom McCabe, Julie Pittman and Ginger Dukes. Thanks so much for believing in me and helping me achieve this life moment. I intend to enjoy it as long as I live.

Joy Gray Stark
Michie, Tennessee
April 19, 2010
Age – 32
Bib # 16459