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Boston Marathon returns with fewer runners, more masks

In addition to a medal, some water and maybe a banana, volunteers will be handing out masks to the Boston Marathon finishers as they leave the socially distanced course and disperse into the city’s bustling Back Bay.

With an indoor mask mandate in Boston, race organizers have ordered 200,000 of them for their staff, volunteers and runners who didn’t slide them onto their arms or into their pockets when they got off the bus in Hopkinton and took off for Copley Square.

That’s just one of the changes when the first-ever fall Boston Marathon hits the streets Monday following the cancellation of the 2020 race and a six-month delay in ’21.

“It’s been more than 900 days since we last ran together here,” Boston Athletic Association President Tom Grilk said at a safety briefing on Thursday. “While the streets remain the same, pretty much everything else is different.”

The biggest changes are a field that shrank by more than a third — a total of 18,252 people are expected — and a new, rolling start: Instead of an athlete’s village in Hopkinton, where runners typically stretch and grab some last-minute calories and liquids, and corrals where they wait for the gun, they get off the bus and go.

Pierre d’Hemecourt, one of the race’s medical directors, said the result should be more space at the start and on the course.

“There will be less milling around in Hopkinton. Use the bathroom, get water, immediately start running,” he said. “The race itself will be much more protected because the athlete itself will have much more room to social distance.”

Originally scheduled for April 2020, the 125th edition of the Boston Marathon was first postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, then canceled for the year – the first time since 1897 that no version of the race has been run. The 2021 race was postponed from April for six months to give the pandemic more time to abate.

Now, 30 months after Lawrence Cherono and Worknesh Degefa broke the tape on Boylston Street, the world’s most prestigious road race is back.

At the safety briefing – usually held indoors but moved outside this year to the plaza in front of the historic Trinity Church – d’Hemecourt said a COVID medical advisory panel began meeting in August 2020 when it wasn’t clear if the event would return in its usual April slot, move to the fall or be canceled for a second straight year.

Their plan started with making sure everyone participating in the race is either vaccinated or tests negative for the coronavirus. Runners will be required to stop by a tent to verify their vaccine status; unvaccinated runners can take a rapid test that would allow them to pick up their bib number.

Masks will be worn indoors, including on the buses to the starting line. D’Hemecourt said about 95% of the runners are vaccinated, and everyone working in the medical tent will be.

The finish line medical tent will also be stocked with extra equipment to avoid the need to transfer some cases to already overburdened local hospitals.

“We’re doing special things like extra crutches so somebody with a stress fracture doesn’t need to be sent to the emergency room,” d’Hemecourt said. “They can be evaluated … given crutches and sent on their way.”

The marathon’s first fall race is also expected to luck out on the weather, with forecasts of temperatures in the 50s and 60s and a chance of rain in the morning.

“We’re going to have a beautiful date, so that helps,” said Samantha Phillips, the director of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. “Sometimes in April the weather can be a bit unpredictable.”

The unexpected unpredictability for public safety officials: the possibility of a Red Sox playoff game about a mile away. The ballclub would meet the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 4 of the AL Division Series, unless one of the teams sweeps.

“It’s very much on our radar that we could have these co-occurring wonderful events,” Phillips said.

Although COVID-19 was the main topic at the news conference, authorities also promised they remain vigilant at the site of the 2013 terrorist bombing. Participants and spectators passing through checkpoints will be prohibited from bringing in not just weapons, flammable liquids and backpacks, but also large blankets and bulky costumes.

Drones are also banned.

“As in past years, the public should expect to see a significant law enforcement presence along the route,” Phillips said. “We want to encourage spectators to attend and cheer on the marathon participants. The weather looks like it will be beautiful. But remain aware of your surroundings.”

The nurse who took silver at Boston Marathon

To finish second in the Boston Marathon, train for the race before and after shifts at a full-time job. Never run more than 100 miles a week. And fly into town several days early and drive up to Maine for some biking in Acadia National Park.

Until Monday, this was the blueprint for Boston Marathon success for approximately zero elite runners. But then along came Sarah Sellers, a nurse anesthetist who took advantage of miserable weather conditions to turn the professional marathon world on its head. Perhaps never has a runner taken such an unconventional path to second place in one of the world’s most prestigious sporting events.

Sellers, 26, began her journey to the race innocently enough: Her brother was running in it and thought it would be fun for her to join him. She was not even a professional marathoner — until September she had never run a race of that distance — but was a good endurance runner who ran well in college until an injury sidelined her.

Seizing on a new goal like many a newbie marathoner, Sellers trained before and after 10-hour days at Banner-University Medical Center in Tucson, Arizona, and, to meet the qualification requirement for Boston, entered the Huntsville, Utah, marathon near her hometown in September.

She beat 194 other women that day, securing a spot in the Boston field. Her finishing time landed her in the fastest division. Still, she showed up drenched at the starting line mostly hoping not to embarrass herself.

Then she started passing people, many, many people. She passed every other woman on the course except one, the winner Desiree Linden, herself a surprise victor. Sellers was as surprised as anyone.

Sarah Sellers (centre in purple with black cap), during the early stages of the Boston Marathon. Photo: AP

“Some of the women I was passing, it was just complete disbelief,” Sellers said after the race. “I look up to them extremely and in no way do I consider myself on their level at all.”

She finished in 2 hours 44 minutes and 4 seconds.

Her Utah-based coach, Paul Pilkington, who was watching on television, had to hit refresh on his computer to make sure the results were correct. In a telephone interview, Pilkington said he knew Sellers to be “very gritty and tough in adverse conditions.” And yet, “I never thought she’d get second,” he said.

Maybe the lashing rain and winds sapped the spirit and energy of competitors. Maybe Sellers’ unorthodox training in comparison to elite, full-time runners, worked in her favour. Or maybe it was her relaxed, what-the-heck attitude.

She had arrived in the Northeast with her husband, Blake, last Tuesday and they drove up to Maine for some biking. Elite runners usually do not do such things.

Her original plan was to try to beat 2:37. That would allow her to run in the Olympics if she somehow claimed a spot in the top three at the 2020 US Olympic Trials. As race day approached and the ugly weather forecast did not change, she could hardly focus on what time she could achieve; with horizontal rain and freezing temperatures looming, it became more about finishing.

And yet as she took the bus to the starting line in Hopkinton, Sellers said she felt oddly calm. She was, after all, a runner, even if not a probable winner.

She had a solid career as a collegiate runner, making all-conference teams multiple times at Weber State in Ogden, Utah. Her main events were the 5-kilometre and 10-kilometre, and she ran cross-country, but she never made nationals as an individual athlete.

In 2012, she was named Weber State’s female athlete of the year (Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard was the university’s male athlete of the year that year).

A navicular stress fracture cut her college running career short. Since then, she has been running to stay fit but had not stayed in racing shape.

For the Huntsville race, she started to do a weekly long run to prepare. Only after she qualified for Boston did she get her college coach to send her a proper workout regimen. She mixed speed work with distance and tempo runs, which are workouts that range from 5 to 15 miles and are run at a faster pace than the one planned for the marathon. She trained six days a week, sometimes two workouts a day, with Sundays off.

Still, she never ran more than 100 miles per week, compared with the 130-140 miles each week that elite marathoners often do.

Although the climate in Tucson rarely approaches the wintry conditions that bogged down runners in Boston on Monday, Sellers said the mash-up of her training and work schedule prepared her.

“When you are doing your hard workouts after a long day of work, you’re just never going to feel good or comfortable,” she said. “So in a strange way I was very used to not feeling good while running. I think that helped me.”

After the Huntsville race, when she submitted her registration for Boston and race organisers assigned runners their start positions by their qualifying times, Sellers learned that she had run fast enough — 2:44.27 — to start with the elite women. She still had to pay her own way, and cover her airfare and hotel and expenses, but at least she was going to be able to run with the best.

She didn’t ride to the start with the cream of the crop. The top 20 women, known as the John Hancock Elite Athlete Team, rode in a separate bus. Sellers was on the bus with the next 36 best women.

During the hourlong ride, they chatted about the misery that awaited them and discussed how they could work together as a team, taking turns leading the pack and bearing the brunt of the wind. “There was a real camaraderie,” she said.

All of this was new to Sellers.

In her first marathon she went out too hard, so her plan for Monday was to take it easy at the beginning. Then the lead pack ran the first mile in 6:40, which felt pedestrian to her.

After three miles she began to get hot and ditched her windbreaker. As the early leaders surged ahead, she paid little attention to what was going on in front of her. She knew it was a big pack up front, but did not notice that some of the top runners were dropping out because of the conditions. In the final miles she was picking off a fair number of women, but did not fully grasp what that meant.

After crossing the finish line she asked officials what place she had come in. They told her second. She wondered what division they were talking about, because she could not have possibly come in second overall. They told her that, in fact, she had.

“I was kind of in shock,” she said.

The rest of the day was a whirlwind of interviews and her phone blowing up with messages from across the country. When the Boston Athletic Association invited her to the awards dinner, it came with the unexpected bonus of a free meal for her and her husband.

She did not fall asleep until 2 a.m. and was up by 7 am Tuesday to face a packed schedule of news conferences, photo shoots, a 30-minute “shake out” run and an afternoon flight back to Tucson to make it to work Wednesday morning.

(Would she upgrade first class, to be able to stretch her legs a bit on the long flight? Nah. “I have a moral opposition to first class,” she said. “There are so many things I’d rather spend money on than a flight.”)

Now she has some bigger decisions to make and questions to ask. How much faster might she be able to get if she isn’t working 40 hours a week? Should she try to train with a proper professional running group? Should she spend time at altitude, as elite runners often do? She plans to keep working at the hospital, but also will try to balance her sleep and training better.

“I want to run another marathon,” she said. “On a faster course — and in better weather.”

Transgender women to run Boston Marathon for first time

The Boston Marathon will welcome five transgender women in its race on April 16 for the first time ever. Organizers say they will allow any runner to compete under their self-identified gender.

The decision has sparked controversy within the road-racing community, some of whom believe female trans runners have an inherent advantage over their rivals, including vital increased levels of stamina.

“We take people at their word. We register people as they specify themselves to be,” said Tom Grilk, chief of the Boston Athletic Association, the group behind the race, the Boston Herald reported.

“Members of the LGBT community have had a lot to deal with over the years, and we’d rather not add to that burden.”

Founded in 1897, the Boston Marathon is the oldest annual race in the world, and one of the most prestigious meetings in the marathon calendar; the 42.2km race attracted over 30,000 participants in 2015.

Bob Girandola, associate professor in the Department of Human Biology at the University of Southern California, observed that if transgender runners produce higher levels of testosterone than their female competitors, that’s an issue.

“If they still have male gonads, they will have an advantage over other women – there is no way around that,” he said. “It gives them an unfair advantage. Maybe they have to have a separate category if they’re going to do that. It’s a dilemma.”

However, others argue that women undergoing hormone treatment therapy suffer side-effects such as sluggishness, dehydration and reduced stamina, and therefore gain no athletic advantage.

“That’s a misconception and a myth,” said Dr Alex Keuroghlian, director of education and training programs at the Fenway Institute, a health and advocacy center for Boston’s LGBT community. “There’s no physiologic advantage to being assigned male at birth.”

One male-born runner planning to participate in Boston legally changed gender and began living openly as a woman, but isn’t undergoing hormone treatment. Stevie Romer, from Illinois, registered to run as a woman “because that’s what she is.”

Another female transgender athlete to make headlines recently is weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, whose participation at the 2018 Commonwealth Games was opposed by critics who said she had a natural advantage over other competitors.

Hubbard, who was favorite for gold in the women’s 90kg-plus, suffered an elbow injury while attempting a Commonwealth record 132 kg lift. The weightlifter, whose birth name is Gavin, competed as a man in international weightlifting competitions until 2014 before undergoing gender reassignment.