One man’s quest to run the Boston Marathon backward
Loren Zitomersky has gotten used to the dirty looks.
Other runners often assume the 33-year-old is showing off when he passes them with ease, hurtling forward at a full clip — but running backward.
“When you’re running backward, you face everybody during the race,” said Zitomersky, a Los Angeles lawyer who runs an average of 45 miles — in reverse — each week. “There’s always that moment of awkwardness. We’re like face to face for a second.”
On April 16, Marathon Monday, Boston fans and runners will get to see his technique for themselves.
Zitomersky has been training to run Boston backward since last summer. His mission is to raise $100,000 for the Epilepsy Foundation — and break the world record for the fastest marathon ever run backward. A friend will be his eyes to help him avoid spills or running into other people. He had raised nearly $55,000 by Tuesday.
It’s all part of a promise he made to his father a long time ago. Since Zitomersky was 12, father and son would raise money and awareness about epilepsy by doing long-distance bike rides together, one time tackling the 2,903 miles from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C.
Eventually, Zitomersky was competing on his own in triathlons as well as in marathons so far, in memory of a brother he never met. Brian, his father’s son from a previous marriage, died in his sleep after suffering nonstop seizures.
“It all clicked after I started running backwards,” Zitomersky said. “Having epilepsy for a lot of people is like going through life backwards. Seizures can come out of nowhere; they can come from anywhere. And so what I’m doing in a lot of ways is kind of symbolic for the struggles these people go through. The only difference is, my struggle is temporary.”
Over the past 20 years, the family has raised more than $300,000 for those with epilepsy.
He hopes to bring those struggling a bit of comfort and inspiration.
“I think it’s the greatest thing,” said Steve Sitomer, Zitomersky’s dad, of his son’s goal. “I couldn’t be more proud. It’s hard enough running forward but running backwards . . . Loren’s a very strong-willed person when he makes up his mind about something.”
The record for fastest marathon run backward was last set in 2004 by Xu Zhenjun at the Beijing Marathon. Zhenjun completed the race in three hours, 43 minutes, 39 seconds, an average pace of eight minutes, 31 seconds per mile.
When asked about Zitomersky’s plans to run the marathon backward, Boston Athletic Association spokesman T.K. Skenderian wrote in an e-mail: “We wish him well!”
When Zitomersky began researching backward running, most coaches he reached out to didn’t really know what to tell him.
Nor did many other runners or running shoe companies he contacted when he noticed his shoes were wearing out more quickly.
At Barry’s Bootcamp in Chestnut Hill, trainers work what they call “backpedaling” into workouts. But they do it for a minute or two on a treadmill, not three hours outside, manager Steph Malley said.
But even short bursts can be tough. “If you backpedal, you gain more muscle and burn more calories as opposed to if you were just doing a light jog,” Malley said.
Running has taken a toll on Zitomersky’s body.
“Backwards running is tough on the quads and the calves,” he said. “In my experience, forward running is always tough on the knees and the hamstrings. So it’s kind of opposite muscles.”
Overall, his quest to run a backward marathon has been challenging. There’s the occasional calf soreness and foot pain, and the need for his head to be on a swivel so he doesn’t run into a tree or a bush. Again.
“My parents just get super worried,” he said. “If I tell my parents I’m going to be going on a long backwards run on a Sunday morning, and I don’t post, like, immediately after I’m done, my parents are, like, calling me. I know they’re wondering whether I fell into a ditch.”
On Marathon Monday, his father will be there proudly waiting to see his son. Zitomersky won’t see that joyous moment until after he crosses the finish line.
He can’t wait.