The Boylston Connection

When someone mentions the Boston Marathon, it brings to mind a certain image. How did the history come to be?

By Josh Chaskes

When someone mentions the Boston Marathon, it brings to mind a certain image. Thousands of dedicated runners flooding the streets in pursuit of glory, surrounded by thousands more cheering fans. But it wasn’t always like that. In April 1897, a measly 15 participants ran, walked, jogged, and through sheer force of will, moved themselves around Massachusetts, following the now-famous course that defines the Marathon, finally reaching the finish line on Boylston Street.

On that same street and only one year later, in 1898, the new Evening Institute for Younger Men began holding classes at the Boston YMCA, educating college-aged men in math, science, foreign languages, and a variety of other subjects. After a fire in the building forced the Evening Institute to move to a new location on Huntington Avenue, it became officially recognized by the state as Northeastern University. Fast forward to the much larger Northeastern of today, one that’s filled with elite runners looking for a challenge, and the proximity to that Boylston finish line comes in handy.

Northeastern runners have for years been using the Marathon as a way to test themselves, celebrate their achievements, and come together with the city they call home during their college years. Both of these Boston entities are now widely recognizable parts of the city, and it just makes sense that they’d still be connected even as they approach their 125th anniversaries.

“I remember seeing a couple of guys doing the Boston Marathon, and they were so excited the week of,” Luke Janik, a 2020 Northeastern graduate and former captain of the club running team, said. “We were all watching right on Comm. Ave, about half a mile to go … just the thrill of that really got me excited for marathons.” 

Janik had never tried a marathon before coming to Northeastern, but in spring 2019 he ran the Providence Marathon. He bested the three hour threshold to qualify for Boston, where he finished in 2:37:38.

The current club running captain, senior Brendan Hehir, agrees that seeing his Northeastern teammates tackle the marathon helped kickstart his own enthusiasm for the distance. He mentioned in particular one club running alumnus, Peter Teixeira.

“He was just an absolute beast,” Hehir said with a laugh. “I remember watching him do the distance workouts and doing the Boston Marathon. I was just like, ‘This guy doesn’t stop.’”

Now, it’s come full circle, with Hehir captaining the team and inspiring many of the younger runners with his impressive 2:33:08 time at this year’s event, a finish that placed him 125th overall.

No stranger to impressive finishes is 2018 Northeastern graduate and cross country and track alumna Jordan O’Dea, whose aspirations of running the Boston Marathon also grew during her time at the school. O’Dea said there was no teammate in particular that inspired her to run it, but just the atmosphere of the city, the fans, and having this massive event unfold around her each year was enough.

“We would go cheer on the Marathon every year when we were there,” she recalled. “I remember watching it before I was even in college, on the TV. Then, going to school in Boston and being able to cheer on people around you and see people run it, it just became something that I wanted to do.”

Like Janik and Hehir, O’Dea had never tried a marathon before coming to Northeastern. Unlike them, she didn’t complete her first one until her time as a Northeastern athlete had already come to an end.

“Northeastern is a five year school, so you have that fifth year where you’ve finished your eligibility. So you’re still there but you’re not on the team anymore,” O’Dea explained. “So my goal was, after I finished my eligibility, I actually wanted to run Boston.”

It turned out she wasn’t too bad at the marathon distance, either. O’Dea’s 2:38:57 personal best finish at the 2019 Baystate Marathon put her past the 2:45 threshold of qualification for the 2020 Olympic trials, which were held in Atlanta just before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic; also at the marathon trials was fellow Husky alumna Kerri Ruffo. O’Dea said her training for that race was mostly similar to how she’d prepare for any other marathon, with a few specific adjustments. 

“We were trying to go a little faster because of how the previous one went; the training had gone really well … and then again, Atlanta’s course, we knew ahead of time, was going to be hilly, so building in some hills.” The training helped her to a 2:48:24 finish in Atlanta, placing her in the top half of finishers. O’Dea had planned after the trials to continue her training and run Boston a month later, but COVID-19 postponed the race indefinitely.

As disappointing as the postponement was for all marathon hopefuls, it also presented a new challenge: maintaining their marathon fitness well over the usual training block length of four to six months, all the while uncertain of when the race would finally be run.

“I took a bunch of time off,” Hehir said, “because there were no races coming up. Then once I knew it was going to be September of this year, I put a half marathon on my calendar for May of 2020 … and then after that half, I switched gears and started training for the full.”

“You can’t just train hard for a year and a half straight, that would kill you,” Janik added, “so each time we thought it was going to happen, same build-up, and each time it didn’t happen, same break, and then go again. It was definitely pretty draining mentally and physically to have to do that three times, but I think it was worth it in the end.”

To someone who’s never run a marathon before, a 26.2-mile race can be wildly intimidating, but Hehir’s advice for running or marathon hopefuls boils down to a three-word mantra: “Stick with it.”

O’Dea agrees, emphasizing that training for a race of that distance – or any distance, for that matter – is a long process, and it’s much safer to embrace the gradual build than try to fight it.

“Slowly build up that mileage because you don’t want to overdo it and get injured, because that’s fun for no one … The fun part is being able to get better and better because you start from the base level of what you’re able to do, and then the more experience you get, the more comfortable you get running longer,” O’Dea said.

And for her, there’s no better city for that grind than Boston. She finished this year’s marathon in 3:10:25, not her best time but still good enough to rank 418th among female runners, no small feat with nearly 7,500 women crossing that finish line this year.

“There’s so many teams that people can join, which I also think is super helpful, just having other people around you doing the same thing,” O’Dea said. “It’s helpful to have that community, and I think that aspect of being in Boston is really cool. It’s a very big running city and it’s nice to be able to take advantage of that.”