When Hilary Dionne and her co-workers talk about time spent outside the offices of their Cambridge startup, the conversation usually comes around to marathons. Going long in training and racing offers Dionne an escape from 65-plus-hour workweeks. Nothing really unusual there. Many passionate amateur runners say the same and travel the country for their 26.2-mile fix.
But ask Dionne her personal best at the distance and you learn that she ran 2 hours 35 minutes 8 seconds at last year’s Boston Marathon. That was good for 23d place in the women’s race and the eighth-best American in a field stacked with professional runners.
“People know I spend what spare time I have focused on running,” said Dionne, 29. “The Jobcase CEO will bring that up if I’m meeting a client with him.”
Dionne represents a group of runners who don’t compete professionally, but finish in elite-caliber times or pretty close. Call them elite amateurs, up-and-comers, developmental runners, or, in some cases, Olympic Trials qualifiers. Some dream of professional running careers. Some don’t. Most competed at a high level on college cross-country and track teams. But whatever the label, the long-term aspirations, and running experience, they all balance work and the demands of high-mileage marathon training with impressive skill.
There is no official count of elite amateurs scattered around the Boston area or across the country, really no official recognition of them as a distinct group. But you will find them at the top of local race results, winners of smaller marathons that don’t recruit professionals. Sometimes they will be featured in regional running magazines. More likely, you will see them running alone at daybreak, trying to squeeze in a 10-miler before work, or at night after a long day on the job.
“If I was spending my whole day focused on running, I’m not sure how that would impact my performance,” said Dionne, a distance runner at Dartmouth who started marathon running 2½ years ago. “It could go in several directions. I don’t know what my potential is as a runner. I’ve qualified for the Trials. But most people can’t run a 2:20 and I don’t know if that would be a realistic goal. So, how much closer to 2:30 or how far under 2:30 could I go? If I focus on running full time is that extra minute or two worth it?”
That last question is one that many elite amateurs face at some point in their running careers, the fork in the road for women such as Dionne and men who flirt with times under 2:20. Like marathon running itself, the answer depends on the individual.
For now, Medford’s Jason Ayr hopes the addition of a personal coach will help him drop six minutes or more from his best time of 2:27:30 (Boston, 2013). Previously, the accountant devised his own workouts and described the process as “aimlessly training.” Ayr, 27, figured a coach would help him better judge whether he was training effectively and hold him more accountable. The Boston Marathon will be the first big test of his new approach and first big shot at his lower time goals. The former UMass-Amherst runner also has September’s flat, fast Berlin Marathon on his 2015 race calendar.
“When you commit the time to running, you want it to be Priority 1, but in reality it’s not Priority 1,” said Ayr, who hopes to qualify this fall for the Olympic Trials. “You have to look at it for what it is: your second or third priority.
“Maybe I’ll get called into a meeting at lunch time and have to push my run that day and figure out when to get it in. Or, with this tough winter, I’m at the mercy of gym hours or I have to run in a snowstorm of alter workouts because I don’t have the resources a professional [runner] would have. If you have a longer run day and a longer workday, you might get only six or seven hours of sleep, so it’s not ideal as far as recovery.”
No matter the day job and additional commitments, other elite amateurs in Greater Boston and beyond can relate.
Nicole Casey, who lives in Watertown and works in marketing for a private school, hopes to improve upon her personal best of 2:49:56 (Chicago, 2014) on Monday. Like Dionne, she will start from the elite women’s corral, rubbing shoulders with the professionals. Casey, 29, expects she’ll “feel really out of my league,” but she is excited to experience the race from that vantage point.
Competing primarily in the 1,500 meters for the Stanford track team, Madeline Duhon, 26, trained with runners who turned pro after graduation. That wasn’t a realistic option for Duhon. So, with degree in hand, she took a mental break from competitive running and the training cycles that filled her college days. Then, last May, she ran her first marathon in 2:51:57 (Vermont City) and said she “was pleasantly surprised that marathon running would be something I’d like.”
After work as a research analyst for MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab took her to India for two months last fall and disrupted her training, Duhon entered the Houston Marathon in January to test her fitness as she prepared for Boston. She finished in 2:49:34 and set her sights on knocking significant time off her new personal best and really racing the last 6 miles of her next marathon. With Duhon’s rapid improvement over two races, the Olympic Marathon Trials “B” qualifying standard of 2:43:00 appears within reach someday soon.
“I never thought I would be in a position where I could possibly qualify for the Olympic Trials,” said Duhon, a Somerville resident who described her current self-coached marathon training as unscientific and very amateur. “After college, I thought, ‘My racing time is over, but I’m sure I’ll still love running for the rest of my life, just recreationally.’ It’s been nice to discover that I can enjoy running in this whole new way . . . I enjoy having some balance in my life. I like being able to focus on my work. But it definitely means I’m not the best runner I could be.”
Local elite amateurs also mentioned how a focus on more than running took some of the sting away from marathon-related disappointments. Robert Gibson, 25, of Brookline ran 2:25:00 at the Twin Cities Marathon last October. He planned for another fast marathon in Boston. But as of Friday, a lingering foot injury left him uncertain about racing Patriots’ Day.
“The most important thing is to listen to your body,” said Gibson. “If I do enough running Monday, I’m not going to run well because of the amount of training time I’ve lost. If I ran, it would be for the experience, enjoying the day a little bit more than I have the previous two marathons I’ve run. It’s tough, but I guess one of the perks of not being at the highest level is that it’s not the end of the world if I don’t end up racing.”Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ShiraSpringer.