My Early Marathons – Boston 1985-1988

by Tim Heaton

(Adapted from Missouri River Runners Newsletter, February 2011)

When I moved to Boston for graduate school at age 25 in 1984, I felt terribly out of place. I was a westerner used to mountains and public lands to go hiking in, and I felt trapped in a big city with no easy way to escape. It felt stifling. Julie and I moved into a tall apartment building with our two baby daughters, and across the street was a fenced reservoir called Fresh Pond with a two-mile trail around it. I had gone on the occasional run as a kid, and in a college PE class I worked up to running 1.5 miles at 5:45 per mile. Once my dad had trained for Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Day Marathon until his hips developed problems, but he took me to watch some of his friends run it when I was 13.

With no chance for hiking and a trail across the street, I decided to start running as a new challenge. My efforts involved a comedy of errors, but it was my start to an enjoyable lifelong activity. On the morning of October 6th I put on some shorts and a t-shirt went to give the trail around Fresh Pond a try. I thought the energy of running would keep me warm, but instead I immediately froze, and the faster I ran the colder I got. But I vowed to find proper clothing and run regularly. It started off as an occasional thing, but soon I was going several times a week and always trying to beat my previous time. My usual route was two laps around the pond including a spur, about 4½ miles. When it was too snowy outside I’d run up and down the stairs of our 19-story apartment building.

It wasn’t long before the Boston Marathon appeared on my radar. A news story on TV said it was only two months away. Another graduate student told me he was going to run it “behind the pack” of the qualified runners, and that sounded like a great idea. He dropped out, but I was determined to give it a try. I had no information about the race, but I found a phone number to call and asked “Is it true that you can run the marathon unofficially, behind the other runners?” The man answered in an authoritative voice “We don’t encourage it, but thousands do it every year.” That was good enough for me. He seemed to like my enthusiasm and told me when I needed to be in Hopkinton for the start. In spite of some minor injuries I ran nearly every day, and I built up to a ten-mile run three weeks before the race. With little guidance or experience I thought I was ready.

It was exciting to see news of the upcoming marathon on TV and feel that I was going to be a part of the event. This was 1985, the last year that the Boston Marathon didn’t award any prize money, and that was the big buzz that everyone had an opinion on. An elite female runner described how hard it was to run the race without a financial incentive, but that her sponsor really wanted her to do it. Purists argued that the prestige of Boston would bring in the best runners without cash awards, while others pointed out the increasing number of marathons with handsome prizes and the declining entrants at Boston. Mayor Ray Flynn worried about lost revenue for the city and urged the BAA to change its policy. Soon it was announced that for the following year the marathon would accept corporate sponsorship and award competitive prize money.

Although the Boston Marathon was on Patriots Day, it was not a Harvard University holiday, so I had to skip classes to run. Julie drove me out to Hopkinton where we took a bus with our little girls to the start line. There were nearly 6,000 registered runners and even more unofficial ones. I’d never been in such a huge crowd before, and the common challenge we shared was exhilarating. Many of the runners made jokes about running “behind the pack,” and some even sported slogans about it on their clothing. At noon the canon sounded, and 30 seconds later the crowd around me began to slowly move. It felt great to be among so many runners as we paraded down streets lined with cheering spectators.

The early miles of the race flew by, but at about Mile 7 I started getting hungry. I hadn’t eaten all day for fear of getting cramps, but I decided that was a mistake and began taking orange slices and water from spectators. At about Mile 10 my legs started getting sore, and I looked around me and made a disturbing discovery. Everyone else had running shoes with thick soles, but I was wearing tennis shoes with no padding. By the half-way point the soreness was getting troublesome, and I also felt bloated from eating too much. But I was determined to finish the race. At Mile 18 a clock indicated that I was on pace for a 3:34 marathon, but I had to start walking up the hills. Soon I was walking more than running. Spectators would make great efforts to get me to run again, including a drunk that followed and pestered me for a block. My proximity to the finish line kept me going through the pain, but at Mile 24 I couldn’t even stand anymore and had to lie down. After a rest I made another attempt but became faint with my whole body tingling, and I was rapidly becoming hypothermic. I tried to get on a subway car but it was so packed that the door wouldn’t close. I’d never felt so helpless. Realizing I was in serious trouble I spotted a serviceman and told him I needed help. He called some medics and they helped me into the basement of a store, wrapped me in space blankets, and took my blood pressure. They said my lips were blue. They called Julie and gave her directions to come get me. Finally I was in a warm car with a caring family, and the hypothermia dissipated. The next morning I realized how much damage I’d done. Going up or down stairs was nearly impossible for several days because of the pain. The following Saturday Julie took me to a nearby New Balance factory outlet, where I found a pair of running shoes on sale for $7.50. I was ready to learn from my mistakes and try again!

A friend at church loaned me the book “The Art of Running: From Around the Block to the Perfect Marathon” by Michael Schreiber, so I finally had some guidance on training and diet. It was a very busy and stressful year of graduate school, but I kept running as time allowed and was looking for another marathon to run. I learned that a new race, the Boston Peace Marathon, was starting up in November and would go from Concord to downtown Boston. I ran 5 miles most mornings and worked up to a 15-mile training run in preparation. I was dreaming of a 2:50 time to qualify for Boston the next Spring, but 3:30 was my realistic goal. Julie was in the hospital after giving birth to our third daughter, which was near the marathon course, but luckily her mother was visiting and could tend our other girls. I ran 6½-minute miles for the first third of the course but couldn’t hold it. I had to alternate walking and running in the final stretch, and I finished my first marathon with a time of 3:38:07.


Boston Peace Marathon, November 1985

Boston Peace Marathon, November 1987

I didn’t finish any marathons in 1986. I started the year with a good training program, but then I got sick while building up to the Boston Marathon. I went to class the morning of the race then had Julie rush me out to Hopkinton, but the race had already started when we got there, and we had to fight hordes of people leaving town. But I took off running and soon started catching up with the slower runners. I didn’t feel too well so ran 8-minute miles. At Mile 15 it started to rain, then pour, and I began to get hypothermia again. Not wanting a repeat of the previous year I sought shelter at Boston University, and I found a building that not only had telephones, but leftover food from a party and a big gas stove where I was able to warm up and dry my clothes! Julie came to the rescue again, and finishing a Boston Marathon still eluded me. I had even worse luck at the Boston Peace Marathon in the Fall. I trained well and registered for the race, but I became terribly sick a few days before and was in no condition to run. I went into town to pick up my shirt and was jealous of all the excited runners.

I had a good year of running in 1987. I had a big faith crisis that year, and long runs made for a therapeutic time to think through complex personal issues. I trained for the Boston Marathon again and finally completed it. The crowds were bigger than before, and I got there at the last minute and started at the very back among the slowest runners. It took me five minutes from the canon going off to get to the starting line, and a clock at Mile 2 said 23 minutes! I alternated between feeling invincible and exhausted, but I managed to run over Heartbreak Hill and all the way to the finish line without stopping. The official clock said just under 3:50. My recovery was much quicker than before, and five days later I was able to run 10 miles.

In the Fall I trained once again for the Boston Peace Marathon and worked my way up to nearly 70 miles per week. The Boston Marathon had relaxed its qualifying time from 2:50 to 3:00, and that seemed like a reasonable goal that would allow me to run it officially before graduating and moving away. Unfortunately a two-week research trip and sickness interrupted the final month of my training. To top it off, on the day of the race it was below freezing with a strong wind. Water was freezing in the cups at the aid stations! I dressed in heavy clothing and managed to run 7-minute miles for the first eight miles, but then I had to slow down. At Mile 21 I had a terrible wave of fatigue and had to rest. A cup of cold water gave me hypothermia, and I sought shelter in a food shop. I was desperately craving carbohydrate, and I explained this to a man at a bakery and asked for a piece of bread. He handed me one, but when I thanked him and walked away he demanded payment. In more explicit terms I told him I was running the marathon and had no money on me. Disgusted he said “next time.” The bread was like manna from heaven, and soon I was running again. I even managed to run up Beacon Hill to the finish line, crossing it at 3:32:45. It was a new PR but short of even my most conservative goal. The bakery was near Harvard Square, so the next day I strolled over there from my office and told the lady at the counter I’d come to pay for the bread I’d “stolen” the day before. She just broke out laughing and told me not to worry about it. Apparently my folly had made their day!

I took a break from running during the cold winter as I cranked up work on my dissertation. In February I began running 10-12 miles three times a week in preparation for the 1988 Boston Marathon. In what was now an annual tradition, Julie drove me to Hopkinton for the start, along with a couple girls that wanted to try it. In spite of my meager training it was a beautiful day for running, and I sailed for 20 miles without much fatigue. A light drizzle made my feet a little wet and sore. The final six miles were the usual torture. I sped up and slowed down as my body demanded, passing and being passed by the same people over and over again. I managed a very small increase in speed for the final mile and crossed the finish line at 3:27:15, finally breaking three and a half hours!

Boston Marathon, April 1988, Tim wearing long pants (Click on photos for larger versions)

With my move to the Smithsonian for a post-doc and then to USD as a new professor, running races fell off my radar. I often ran in the mornings for basic exercise and rode my bike for both pleasure and transportation. I ran the Spirit Mound run in Vermillion and the Halloween Fun Run in Sioux Falls a few times and retained my competitive spirit, but I never went looking for races. But when Julie was in Residency in Sioux City she learned that several doctors she worked with had run the new Siouxland Marathon, and she wanted me to run it and beat them! That sounded like a perfectly reasonable goal [grin], so I started serious training and at age 45 I ran the second annual event in 3:36:18. The next year I got a PR of 3:23:16! When Julie told a pharmacy student she was working with about my run she asked for my time and age. Consulting a web page she announced: “Hey, he qualified for Boston!” When my daughters got word of this they said: “Daddy, we want you to do it … and we want you to take us with you!” So we all met up in Boston in 2006 for the marathon and a tour of our old stomping grounds. What a joy it was to be running “in the pack” but on those same familiar roads among the same throngs of spectators. I slapped hands with hundreds of kids as I passed by. I also made a huge improvement with a new PR of 3:10:31! The goal of a sub-three-hour marathon finally seemed in sight.


Family after Boston Marathon, April 2006

Finish line of Boston Marathon, April 2009

After a tree-fall injury and some other setbacks, I set a new PR of 3:06:50 in the 2008 Siouxland Marathon. That gave me a great seed time for Boston, and my 50th birthday was fast approaching. So I decided to return to Boston in 2009 to fight for a sub-three—to keep me feeling young! I fought the 26.2 miles harder than ever before, causing some lasting muscle damage, but only managed a PR of 3:03:58. Three subsequent marathons that year got progressively slower. That PR stood until January 30th of this year when I ran the Houston Marathon. In that race I fell behind my goal pace before the half, but with a surprisingly strong finish I beat my Boston record by three seconds, and with a rapid and easy recovery. So the dream of a sub-three is still alive as I vigorously train for the Lincoln Marathon a couple months away. Someday, either for a new PR or for pure pleasure, I’m sure to return to Boston!

[For a history of the Boston Marathon see How Boston's Qualifying Times Inspire Excellence on the Running Times web site. For the new qualifying policies see Boston Marathon Qualifying Times on the BAA web site.]

Update: I got a hamstring injury before the Lincoln Marathon and almost didn't run it, but I gave it a try and was surprised to finish with a time of 3:04:35. A month later I finished the Marathon to Marathon (Iowa) with a new PR of 3:03:33. My sixth and final marathon of 2011 was Des Moines on October 16th, and I broke the 3:03 barrier with a new PR of 3:01:47! I had already registered to run Boston in 2012, but I was able to use my Des Moines finish for a faster seed time (closer to the start line). My first marathon of 2012 was in Phoenix, but I was plagued with a knee injury and didn't do so well. Training for Boston has been difficult, but the knee is much improved, so we'll see how it goes.