When the 2020 Boston Marathon was initially postponed to Sept. 14 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, runners had to adapt to the idea of a new race date, a different season, different weather, and a new training plan that extended another five months.
One thing that could be considered a constant, however, was the course. The Boston Marathon goes from Hopkinton to Boston, and that’s that.
But when the actual race was cancelled in May, where to run the Boston Marathon suddenly became a thing runners were forced to think about as race organizers pivoted to the “Boston Marathon Virtual Experience” and allowed runners to choose where they run 26.2 miles in a continuous effort to keep the spirit of the race alive in 2020.
So the start in Hopkinton, Heartbreak Hill, and “right on Hereford, left on Boylston” to the finish are out – organizers are discouraging the use of the actual course – while routes such as the 10-loop Charles River Marathon course, the neighborhoods of Boston, or the beaches of Connecticut are in.
“It’s not going to replace the 26.2 miles from Hopkinton to Boylston Street,” acknowledged Angela Floro, Director of Special Events and Annual Giving at the South Shore Health Foundation, one of the organizations that has a marathon charity team. “But we hope that bringing together the runners from our team, in a responsible and socially-distanced way, will remind them of the incredible contributions they have made to the Foundation and allow them to celebrate their efforts together.”
Program staff at the South Shore Health Foundation wanted to do something to thank runners for continuing to fundraise during this unusual year. They have arranged a looped course that will be decorated to cheer on participants and provide aid stations as an option for their 21 runners.
The virtual race is open only to runners originally entered in the 2020 marathon, and nearly 18,000 have registered to run any route covering 26.2 miles in one continuous effort between Sept. 5 and 14.
Alain Ferry will run a certified marathon course for his virtual Boston Marathon. Ferry, the president of the RACE Cancer Foundation, created the Charles River Marathon in 2017 as a late-season Boston qualifier. The now-cancelled 2020 race was coincidentally scheduled to take place on Sunday.
Rather than map out a new 26.2 mile route, the Brighton resident will use the flat, familiar marathon course – 10 loops between the Eliot and Arsenal Bridges – to complete his 16th Boston Marathon.
“You might think running 10 loops for a marathon is insane,” said Ferry, “But when you’re falling apart, knowing you will see friends and family cheering for you each loop can be the greatest motivator.”
Running a looped course is ideal for a virtual race because it allows for regular access to aid stations and supporters, and minimizes or eliminates traffic crossings. Bethany Couto will run her 13th consecutive Boston Marathon by completing five-plus loops of her regular five-mile running route in Mattapoisett. That will allow her to regularly see her husband, and also to stop if her running buddy – her 1-year-old son Leo – needs a break from the running stroller.
“I certainly won’t force him to stay with me for the whole thing, though I hope he’ll last the full 26.2 miles,” said Couto, who does more stroller than solo runs these days.
Doing the virtual marathon will also extend Leo’s Boston Marathon streak. In 2019, Couto ran the marathon while 26 weeks pregnant. When she completes this year’s virtual race, she will have run consecutive Boston Marathons with her son.
First-time Boston Marathoner Stephanie Tang of Westport, Conn., could not have imagined that after nearly a decade trying to qualify for the race she would be running it twice. Tang ran a marathon distance on Patriots Day in April to honor a fellow marathoner who died of COVID-19 and raise money for the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City. She ran the length of her .22 mile cul-de-sac 120 times in what the 29-time marathoner described as “the most mentally challenging course I’ve run”.
When the in-person race was cancelled, Tang never doubted she would run yet another virtual marathon in September, though she’s planning a more scenic run along the beaches of Westport this time.
“This is now the official virtual Boston marathon” she said, “And I want to take part in the race as my first year as a qualifier, even if it’s not what I expected.”
Many charity runners gained entry through significant fundraising for partnering non-profits, a task made even more challenging this year when donors may have less to give and many in-person fundraising events were canceled.
Naveen Pawar, the co-founder of Mighty Squirrel Brewing Company in Waltham, will be running his first marathon as a charity runner for Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, which he holds in high esteem after recovering from a car accident there in 2015. His training and fundraising were hitting their stride in mid-March when his priorities shifted from fitness to finances as restaurants and bars were shut down and his focus became his business.
When the virtual race was announced, however, he knew he would participate.
“Running has been the best relief to get out of the craziness and help me think,” he said. “And the virtual race was motivation; it would have been difficult for me to find an excuse to go running without it.”
Pawar will run the Charles River Marathon course with Ferry, his friend and coach. Pawar said Ferry did not want his friend to run his first marathon without the support of others.
“I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to run with him and be part of this unique year,” Pawar said.
Others have embraced the opportunity to make their 2020 race exactly what they want it to be.
“This year’s race is the Boston we have created for ourselves. I get to be the race director, timing official, and communications director of this race,” seven-time Boston Marathon finisher Meg Reilly said.
Reilly, of Watertown, plans to run a course through the neighborhoods of Boston, and plans to share photos of her run on social media along the way.
“I love every inch of the [actual Boston Marathon] course, but this is the first year we can have it any way we want it. There will be another Boston Marathon. This is a special Boston,” Reilly said.