Every Saturday morning, History of Science professor Peter L. Galison ’77 wakes before dawn, laces up his shoes, and runs. Some days he heads for the Charles River, other days for downtown Boston, often braving the snow and ice to prepare for his second Boston Marathon.
“For me it’s a great treasure to see the city wake up while running and see people rowing on the Charles,” said Galison, who has been training for nearly two years since he first decided to run the marathon. “There’s something calming about it.”
Galison is one of about 36,000 runners racing this year’s Boston Marathon on Monday. More than two dozen of those runners will come from Harvard, either as qualifying runners or through the Harvard College Marathon Challenge, which this year has opened up spots for 17 Harvard undergraduates to race for a charity. Though Galison is running independently of the Marathon Challenge, with a non-Harvard group called the Marathon Coalition, he said the camaraderie of the runner community is universal.
But this year, Harvard runners say, that camaraderie will extend well beyond the race course. Many of those racing the 118th-annual Boston Marathon were present at last year’s event, either as spectators or runners, and remember vividly the horrific bombings near the finish line.
Some, like Galison, were stopped short of the finish. Others, like fourth-time marathon runner and Human Evolutionary Biology professor Daniel E. Lieberman, had already completed the race and only heard news of the explosions after returning to campus. Even runners who did not partake in last year's marathon feel a strong connection with those who were affected by last year’s events.
To many Harvard racers, this year’s marathon is the ultimate symbol of “Boston Strong,” a message of solidarity that arose in the aftermath of the bombings last April. And on Monday, Harvard runners will celebrate this message, racing to honor the victims of last year’s tragedy and to finish the long course toward recovery.
“We’re running to reaffirm this wonderful tradition,” Lieberman said. “To reaffirm our community.”
Most Harvard runners have been preparing for the marathon since 2013, consciously watching their diets and gradually ratcheting up their mileage all with an eye toward Marathon Monday. Over the course of six months, many runners, like Matthew J. Mollerus ’17, have been running 40 to 50 miles per week, saving the longer 20-mile runs for weekends.
Mollerus, a member of the Harvard College Marathon Challenge, said the group selects marathon participants, who this year have raised funds for either the Phillips Brooks House Association or the American Medical Athletic Association, based on their participation in the group, making the marathon push one with community at its center.
Community members can access the group's listserv, managed by Craig Rodgers, founder of the Harvard College Marathon Challenge, and post the time and place where they intend to run that day. In preparation for the marathon, many racers will find partners to accompany them on their longer distance runs, those most similar to the marathon itself.
Kate D. D'Orazio ’15 and Anne F. Wenk ’15 began running at Harvard during their freshman year. The two met through Harvard club running and have completed each of their long runs together in preparation of this year’s marathon.
“You just have hours to talk,” D'Orazio said. “[Anne] would bring water, and I would bring a banana and we would split it half way because you need to eat something when you are running a long run, like a 20-miler.”
Lieberman agreed, adding that he always needs to eat more food when in training mode.
“You’re just burning a lot of fuel,” he said.
Chinese History professor Michael A. Szonyi, who has been on sabbatical leave this past year to write a book about 14th-century Chinese soldiers, said he has run on several continents in preparation for the marathon.
“Basically I coordinate all of my travel with my running,” he said. “Three weeks ago I ran in London, Ontario, and it was -28 degrees centigrade. I was running in ski goggles and ski gloves. Then I got on the plane and went to Singapore, where I ran. It was 34 degrees centigrade.”
Szonyi also said his book is often a topic of conversation when he runs with other people.
“I’ve explained it to a physiotherapist on a three-hour run, to an accountant on a four-hour run,” Szonyi said, laughing. “I think the book will be a better book. I’ve been with a wider audience.”
Terah E. Lyons ’14 pinched a metatarsal nerve while training and has since been swimming, biking, and lifting weights to keep in shape for the marathon. Although she hasn't run distance recently, she said cross training has kept her busy.
“Training for a marathon is a different animal,” Lyons said. “It definitely takes a lot of time.”
‘A FUNDAMENTALLY HUMAN BEHAVIOR’
For some, running is a stress relief from hectic life in the Harvard bubble. For others, it promises the challenge of overcoming physical pain, or the intimacy of a close-knit running community. For those who will participate in Monday’s marathon, that symbolism will not go unrecognized.
Lieberman, who has studied the evolution of running in humans, said running is a “fundamentally human behavior.”
“We’ve been doing this for millions of years,” he said.
Like the ancient humans he studies, Lieberman sometimes trains barefoot, though he said he will not be running the Boston Marathon barefoot. To him, the best part of running marathons is the feeling of achievement he receives after pushing through a grueling 26.2 miles.
“There’s point in every marathon, where it’s about strength and the ability to overcome, because you’re tired and you're hurt and wonder why you're doing this,” he said. “ That’s what’s so incredible about it.”
Mollerus, also an avid rockclimber, became motivated to run during his junior year of high school, after he fell 35 feet during a national rock climbing competition. He shattered two vertebrae, which impeded him from climbing, but he said that didn’t stop him from finding another athletic outlet.
“I just really like movement,” he said. Mollerus added that he hopes to beat his father’s marathon time on Monday. Mollerus found out recently that he will be the youngest runner in this year’s race.
Galison, who attended Harvard as an undergraduate, also said his father was a marathon runner. He said he remembers visiting New York during college to watch his father compete in the New York City Marathon, which partly inspired him to run marathons as well.
“There’s also a kind of peacefulness to it,” he said. “It’s pretty simple. You run.”
He added that running throughout the city while training for the marathon has brought him closer to Boston.
“I like getting to know the city, I like the rhythm of it,” he said. “There’s something about covering this territory of Boston and Boston suburbs by foot.”
FINISHING WHAT THEY STARTED
“I have a running watch, and it says my longest run ever is 25.9 miles, said Szonyi, referring to the distance he ran last year at the Boston Marathon.“ I want it to say 26.2.” Among the Harvard runners evacuated from the course before completing last year’s marathon, Szonyi is not unique.
Lyons, who ran unregistered as a “bandit” last year, said she was close to the finish line when the bombs exploded, hindering her from finishing the race. This year, she is running with the Harvard College Marathon Challenge as an official racer, and although she is injured, she has her heart set on crossing the finish line.
“For me it's a true exercise in closure,” Lyons said. “I really have felt something’s been missing.”
Galison, who said it was very “disorienting” to be stopped so abruptly before completing the race, said he is excited to finally finish what he started two years ago when training for the 2013 Boston Marathon.
“Like many of the runners, for me [running the marathon] is both personal and also a really reclaiming experience,” said Galison. “It’s such an important symbol of everything in Boston.”
University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76, who ran the marathon last year, echoed this sentiment.
“It really was going to be my last marathon,” he told the Harvard Gazette. “But after the bombing, like so many other people, I thought it was important to send a message by showing up this year.”
Other runners said they anticipate the energy of the crowd will be more prominent than last year.
Wenk, who attended last year’s Patriot’s Day Red Sox game, estimated that there were nearly one million spectators at the 2013 Boston Marathon. This year, she predicts there will be even more.
“Everyone’s out, it’s like the first day of spring, everyone’s really excited,” Wenk said. “That on top of the One Boston, Boston Strong feeling, I think will just be incredible.”
—Staff writer Meg P. Bernhard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Meg_Bernhard.