Why I ran the Boston Marathon

Updated to Life on June 16, 2023.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

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Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

There are at least two reasons we do anything.

The most obvious is what we think we should do, like “Some expert on a podcast said I should eat more blueberries.”

Then there is the second, less obvious reason, like “I want to feel better about my health.”

Last week I ran the Boston Marathon. Don’t bother looking up my results—it’s not all that impressive. In fact, if there was a bell curve with the fastest men in my age group on the left and the slowest on the right, I was barely hanging on somewhere in the middle.

But, I did it. And it started one year ago with an idea.

It was my 64th birthday and I was wondering how to celebrate free bus passes and senior’s Thursday at the bulk food store. Coming home from a short run one day in March I had the thought “How cool it would be to run Boston on my 65th birthday?!”

If you’ve run a marathon you know it hurts. After my last marathon, 16 years ago, I remember having to avoid stairs for a week. And then there is the victory – crossing the finish line knowing I set the goal, did the work, overcame the resistance, and made it happen.

So, I started my research.

They just let you in

To qualify for Boston you need to complete a marathon race the year prior within your qualifying time. There is a cap on entries and every year, runners get turned away who weren’t fast enough, despite making their qualifying time.

The good news is that as you get older your qualifying time gets longer. I recently met a woman in her late ‘70s who has completed Boston 18 times, and confided that “after a certain age they just let you in.”

I found a race that promised a high success rate for Boston qualifiers, entered, got religious about my training, and qualified. I wrote about my training experience here

And then came the race.

Cattle drive

Picture John Duttons’ biggest cattle drive covering acres and acres and all the cows being corralled into a narrow chute stretching out 42 kilometers. That’s the Boston Marathon. In fact, at the start line, we are actually organized into ‘corrals’.



The morning starts with over 400 buses shuttling runners from the finish line at Boston Commons to the start line in the town of Hopkinton. From there the start is organized into four waves, each of 8,000 adrenalin-pumping runners all squeezing into a two-lane road, trying not to bump into each other.

Marathons I’ve run in the past were small, local events with 500 to 2,000 runners. It would be a mass start, fastest at the front and those of us in the middle jockeying for space. Within a kilometer or two you are on your own – spaced out – easily setting your own pace. At Boston, you run in a mob. 

Like a massive, rolling mosh pit, 32,000 runners pound their way down the well-carved 127-year-old route to the sea. And then there is the other mob – on the sidelines.

Boston Strong

Most runners are so fixated on the ground in front of them (and what they still need to cover) they ignore the cheering crowds who braved whatever the weather was that day to stand for hours alongside the course cheering on people they mostly don’t know. But, if you take a second to smile and give a wave back to them you are instantly rewarded with excited arm waving and cheers.

It’s a feel-good moment you can create whenever you most need it. In Beantown, they take it to another level.

Bostonians are a proud bunch and no more so than the City-wide “Boston Strong” call to arms adopted after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Boston Strong is on T-shirts, billboards, restaurant windows, and in billboard-size letters on the walls of historic Fenway Stadium. 

At the Boston Marathon, it’s a rallying call.

Smiling at race course bystanders rewards you with a smile in return. A wave gets a wave. But, shout “Boston Strong!” and the crowd lights up with a tsunami of screaming, arm waving, and wild shouting that never failed to put a smile on my face and a bit of spring back in my stride.

And for a moment I stopped thinking about my race time.

Positive split

In running races, a ‘negative split’ means you run the last half faster than the first. Anyone who has the control and fitness to pull off this trick has my respect. 

I, on the other hand, am a proud positive split runner.

All the adrenalin and screaming crowds in the world can’t compete with 42 kilometers of relentless leg pounding. It doesn’t matter how much I train, the chart plotting my running pace is a determinedly downward-sloping line.

It’s kind of like life.

Your ambitions and dreams eventually wake up to the realization you are slower at almost everything and getting slower still. Some things don’t happen at all.

That brings me to the second reason I ran the Boston Marathon.

I needed some Ikigai.

Some Ikigai

The people of Okinawa, practice Ikigai (your reason for being), a simple lifestyle that blends a traditional diet with manual labor, rest, and active social life.

But, you don’t need to move to Okinawa to enjoy Ikigai. You can start with a goal – a reason to get up in the morning.

That’s why I wanted Boston on my calendar. I wanted the feeling of purpose and challenge – the chance I might fail. Every day I had a reason for heading out the door for a run or taking a day off to rest. What I ate made a difference as did getting enough sleep and staying mentally motivated. 

Even if you are slower, more forgetful, less ambitious and your eyebrows grow faster than you remember, you still need some Ikigai.

What’s your Boston?

Maybe you need a little ‘Boston’ on your calendar—something to get excited about. It doesn’t have to be typical goals like, fitness, money, or relationships. It could be learning a new skill, reading a good book, or picking up the guitar again. 

I don’t think the activity matters as much as what the activity does for you. 

And if you want to run Boston, give me a call..

Here are three more posts on this topic:

Photo of runners by Miguel A Amutio on Unsplash