PROVIDENCE — He took up running just two years ago, and it was months before he could complete a mile without stopping.
But last weekend, the Rev. Olivier Bala, senior pastor at the Mount Hope Community Baptist Church, completed 26.2 miles without stopping as part of the Boston Marathon Virtual Experience.
The pandemic forced the Boston Athletic Association to postpone the traditional April race and to then cancel the rescheduled Sept. 14 race date. But Bala was one of some 15,000 runners who decided to run a virtual Boston in their communities last week.
“Given these strange, sad, and unprecedented times, this was a way for us to reward the athletes who trained for April and September and never gave up their dream of being a Boston Marathon finisher,” said Joann Flaminio, a Providence resident who served as the first female president of the BAA from 2010 to 2017.
The virtual event helped spread the excitement of the marathon to people around the world who never had a chance to see the race in Boston, Flaminio said. “It’s a way of bringing it home,” she said.
The course that Bala followed through the streets of Providence differed in significant ways from the world-famous Hopkinton-to-Boston route, which draws 1 million spectators and some 30,000 runners.
While he never got to turn onto Boylston Street, Bala did turn onto Hope Street, where members of his congregation waited near a church sign that read: “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and love.”
While the Cole Avenue incline pales in comparison to Heartbreak Hill, Bala did run into a heartwarming welcome at the finish line.
Two local runners – Providence Councilwoman Nirva R. LaFortune and running coach Thomas Spann – joined him in the homestretch, along with a Providence police car escort.
At the finish line, Bala took a celebratory hop over a miniature version of the official yellow-and-blue Boston Marathon finish line.
And then Flaminio draped a 124th Boston Marathon medal around his neck.
“We are so proud of him,” said Julia Santos, a church member from Pawtucket. “He’s a great motivational leader.”
She stood right at the finish line, wearing a face mask and holding a sign that read “You did it, Pastor!”
Bala, 58, who has been senior pastor at the Mount Hope church for 24 years, said he had written a Sunday sermon titled “Christianity is a Marathon.”
He said he planned to talk about how people are given so many things, so many gifts, but to take advantage of them, they have to go beyond the desire to do something – they have to demonstrate determination and drive.
“You have to do the work – no one can do that for you,” Bala said. “You have to be determined not to let anything get in the way, and you will accomplish more than you think you can.”
Bala completed the marathon distance in 5 hours 11 minutes and 39 seconds – knocking about 28 minutes off his personal record. He was raising money for the Ronald McDonald House of Providence, which supports hospitalized children and their families. As of Thursday, he had raised $3,600.
Bala said he is hoping to do the Boston Marathon next year, and when he turns 60, he plans to do his first triathlon.
Bob Rothenberg, coach of the Ronald McDonald House of Providence running club, helped guide Bala during his training, and he said he was impressed that the pastor didn’t just preach – he showed real commitment and a willingness to make the sacrifices needed to reach his goal.
"He led the flock in many ways,” Rothenberg said. "You can talk the talk on Sunday, but you have to walk the walk on marathon day.”