Boston Marathon training season is upon us. Every year, headlining sponsor Manulife has a kickoff run and Q&A with some of their Toronto staff, and Canadian elite athletes heading to Boston in the spring ahead. This year, I had the good fortune of sitting in on this Q&A session to hear what these athletes had to say about the marathon, past competitions, and the road to Boston ahead. The panel featured Greg Meyer – 1983 Boston Marathon Champion; Rachel Hannah – 2015 Pan American Games Bronze Medalist; Reid Coolsaet – 2012 London Olympics, 2016 Rio Olympics; Eric Gillis – 2008 Beijing, 2012 London, 2016 Rio Olympics.

For many runners, Boston is THE race, but further to that, the marathon is THE distance – it’s what runners aspire to; it’s the holy grail. But none of the runners on the panel today started off their running careers with great distances in mind. In fact, most of them started off in the same way that I did, by running at practice for other sports. This became track or cross country in high school, but didn’t translate into marathon distance until later in life.

Each runner shared some of their favourite moments, including the feeling of standing on the starting line in Rio, and unexpectedly coming in 10th place, belatedly receiving the bronze at PanAm, and winning Boston. They also shared some words of wisdom on running in general – it’s important to visualize the race ahead of time; be consistent in your pre-race diet (if something works, stick with it); don’t run too hot out of the gates at the starting line.

Meyer was the only panelist who has run Boston before, and in terms of advice specific the golden child of marathons, this is what he had to say for those running in April:

  • The spirit in Boston for the marathon is unlike other races. And while it’s easy in all races to get swept up at the start line, this is particularly true of Boston. It’s important to take a deep breath and remember yourself, and remember your plan. Boston is a tough course, and you don’t want to burn yourself out in the first 10km.
  • Likewise, it’s important to remember that the uphill in Boston doesn’t start until 30km, which is already the point where the marathon starts to break most runners. Don’t forget to save something for those hills.

The other thing that Meyer had to say that had nothing to do with actually running Boston, but everything to do with the spirit of the race is that in Boston, the marathon is not just a run, it’s a holiday. And like any other holiday, the people of Boston have created their own sets of rituals and traditions around race day. They make themselves and their families the same breakfast pre-race, they stand in the same spot to cheer every year, they don their lucky scarf, they take the day off work and plan their day around the marathon. And this spirit spills over into the rest of the year. It’s no coincidence that Boston is consistently ranked one of the most fit cities in America. When you live in a city where the marathon constitutes a civic holiday, it’s hard not to get swept up in the mantra of Everybody Run.

For those of you still considering whether the marathon is for you, consider that like the Boston Marathon in Massachusetts, the impact of the marathon will spill over into the rest of your life in the best way. When asked what effect running has had on his life outside of running, Meyer said this, “One of the things that I’ve seen in marathoning in particular – if you accomplish this, especially for those people who never thought they would run a marathon, you gain a certain amount of self confidence that translates to other parts of your life. It gives you the freedom to think that you can do almost anything in life. There’s not a challenge that you’re going to be afraid of, because you know you can do the work. I can’t tell you how many people have done the marathon and told me two months later about how they accomplished something else in their life. No matter if you’re still running marathons or not, you can remember that experience, and know that you can do the work.”

As someone who’s run my own marathon, and has spoken to countless other marathon runners, I can definitely attest to this being true. Running a race of that distance changes you. The marathon is hard, and horrible, and exhilarating, and empowering. You will experience every emotion during the marathon, and you will want to quit so many times, and you will question your own sanity, because why are you doing this thing that seems so trivial while you are running it. But when you cross that finish line, you will cry, and you will laugh, and you will forever have this new quiet strength inside of yourself telling you, “You can do this; you’ve done hard things before.”