Bennett Beach’s streak, like his spirit, was not broken
Last year was supposed to be the one for the record. Bennett Beach, who’d run his first Boston Marathon in 1968 when he was a Harvard freshman, was going for 46 in a row, which would have made him the race’s streaker laureate.
“Of course, a lot can happen in the course of 26 miles, 385 yards,” the Bethesda, Md., resident observed a couple of days before he took the line in Hopkinton.
But Beach never dreamed that two deadly bombings on Boylston Street would prevent him and thousands of other runners from completing the course.
“We had heard somebody in the crowd say something about an explosion but we didn’t know how seriously to take that,” said Beach, who was around Heartbreak Hill at the time.
When volunteers lined up across Commonwealth Avenue to block the course at Boston College and police vehicles sped past with sirens wailing, Beach knew otherwise. What he found out as he and his three children walked along the sidewalks through Brighton and Brookline was that the explosions had happened close to the finish line where his family and friends would have been waiting for him had he arrived when he’d planned to.
His wife Carol and part of his cheering party who’d met Beach at the 16-mile mark before taking the trolley downtown were diverted before they reached Copley Square. His brother Randy and his wife Jennifer, who’d been standing nearby shortly before the explosion, had moved 50 yards toward Massachusetts Avenue for a better vantage point. That decision might have saved their lives, Randy wrote in the New Haven Register.
“I’m really glad,” Beach said the following afternoon, “that I was so slow yesterday.”
Beach is 64 now, and in his prime he was a perennially competitive runner; only Johnny “The Elder” Kelley equaled his 17 sub-2:40 finishes. Age and dystonia, a neuromuscular disorder that disrupted his stride, had made him less concerned with the clock than with completion. Last year, Beach reckoned that he would finish around 3:15 p.m, less than half an hour after the bombings. That estimate vanished after 10 miles in Natick when he felt a calf muscle seize up.
“I thought, here I am finally about to have sole possession of the record and now I can’t move,” Beach said. “I could not run. I was relieved that I could do a fast walk.”
To break the record that he shared with Neil Weygandt, who’d stopped running Boston in 2012, Beach needed to finish before the clock was turned off.
“I started doing the arithmetic,” he said. “I thought, if I can do a 15-minute pace, I can get in under six hours. I was on target.”
Time became moot after the finish line was closed and Boylston Street became a crime scene.
“The police now and then would divert us off Beacon,” Beach said. “We’d go by bars where people were watching it.”
Just before Kenmore Square, his quest came to an enforced halt. “A couple of cops said, ‘This is the end, nobody can get any closer,’ ” Beach said.
The Boston Athletic Association later decided that anyone who’d passed the midway point in Wellesley Hills would be considered to have finished the race, so Beach now officially holds the record, one ahead of Nantucket resident Tim Lepore.
And Beach is planning to take the line for No. 47 along with 36,000 other entrants who are determined to run in the world’s most fabled road race in spite of — or because of — what happened last year.
“You can’t make any marathon 100 percent safe,” said Beach, a writer and editor for the State Department. “What can you do? You do the best you can. I never had any doubt that I would come back.”
Up ahead, just a dozen years away, is another record — the 58 completed Bostons held by Kelley, whose consecutive streak ended the year that Beach’s began. So Beach plans to continue as long as he can put one foot in front of the other.
“It’s what I do on Patriots Day,” he said.