Marathon

 

Joslyn Hart was angry. Furious. Mad enough to cry, although she wouldn’t give the stuffy judge that satisfaction. She’d just been told she could not run the Boston Marathon. She hadn’t qualified. When her race application had been returned, she had called. The answer had been the same. She had dragged her trainer, Patti Paulson, to the Boston Athletic Association offices, enlisting her support to argue her case. It didn’t matter. Nothing changed. She hadn’t completed a sanctioned race, one with a certified standard marathon course, one approved by the International Association of Athletics Federations.

“You can’t keep me from running,” she said.

“No one is keeping you from running, dear,” Arthur Forshay, the sanctioning judge, soothed.

“But you just said I can’t run in the marathon.”

“What I said was you do not qualify to run. There is a difference, you know.”

Joslyn ran her hand through her close-cropped auburn hair and glared at the pudgy judge in his gray flannel suit. Her lithe body was tensed as if, like a wild cat, she would soon pounce on her prey.

Paulson put a hand on Joslyn’s arm, both to get her attention and to restrain her if necessary.

“We’ll find you a qualifying race, Jos,” she said. “Then you can run the marathon next year.”

“No.” Joslyn was adamant. “I’m going to run this year. And no one is going to stop me.”

“I suppose,” Forshay mused, stroking his bushy, gray mustache, “in a crowd of twenty thousand runners no one would notice you. Of course, you wouldn’t have a registration number, so whatever you do it wouldn’t count.”

“Unless I come in first,” Joslyn challenged.

“You won’t, young lady, unless you can perform some miracle,” Forshay said. “If you show up, I shall see you are placed at the very back of the pack. The front runners will be more than three miles ahead before you reach the starting line.”

✸✸✸

Patriot’s Day 1975 dawned gray and blustery, not unusual for mid-April in Boston. By noon, when the race began, the weather had improved. Slightly. It was still gray, but the wind had abated, so wind chill didn’t make it feel colder than it actually was.

Joslyn had been advised by Paulson to run from the back of the pack. She didn’t want her athlete to incur the wrath of the B. A. A. and make it difficult for her to compete once she had qualified. Joslyn obediently stepped into the crowd of runners in the back but, once out of sight of her trainer, began making her way forward until she was but a few minutes from the starting line. As she moved forward, keeping to the center of the crowd, people shifted to let her by but not without staring at her. At least, no one noticed she didn’t have the white tag with its black registration number pinned to her tank top.

Even though temperatures had climbed into the high 40s, Joslyn rubbed her arms and hugged herself to keep from shivering. Waiting for the gun that would start a race first run in 1897, she trembled as much from fear of being called out as from the temperature. As she hugged herself, she remembered other days, days that had kindled her passion for running.

✸✸✸

“Joslyn,” her mother hollered, “slow down, girl. You’re going to fall and skin your knees. You’ll look a mess for Aunt Beth’s wedding.”

Joslyn could not remember a time when she didn’t run. She could barely remember learning to walk, but it seemed to her she’d always run. She ran after the dog when she was two, trying to catch and pull its tail. The dog always managed to elude her. She ran after the balls her brother threw, fetching them like the dog, who was too smart to expend that much energy without the reward of a treat. For Joslyn, the reward was the thrill of flying across the ground, her feet barely touching the green lawn. And every night, she ran as hard and fast as she could into her daddy’s waiting hug when he got home from work. He never criticized her, not like her mother did.

Mrs. Hart had been born into an average family. She had married an average man. But she’d always aspired to a higher station in life, of seeing her name listed among those of Boston’s High Society. It wasn’t going to happen, of course. It would never happen, but it didn’t stop her from harboring the thoughts and constantly coaxing and criticizing her daughter about her behavior. If Mrs. Hart could not attain the rank she coveted, she was determined to raise her daughter and help her marry into it.

Ladies didn’t run, and Joslyn would be raised a lady. Like now. Like being the flower girl in her Aunt Beth’s wedding. She listened to her mother harp about what a mess she’d be if her knees were all skinned up. How it would just ruin the look of the lace dress she had paid so much for if just below the hem were red, raw scabs.

Her mother screeched at her, sounding to Joslyn like the brakes on the old trolley cars they rode around town. She threatened. She screamed at her daughter to stop running at once. Joslyn heard her mother. Even at her young age, she understood what her mother wanted. How could she not? Her mother continually talked to her about it. But she couldn’t stop running even if she had wanted to. Running was too thrilling. Too exciting. Too exhilarating.

Being a society lady may have been Mrs. Hart’s dream, but it wasn’t Joslyn’s. Her dream was to fly, to run so fast her feet would propel her off the ground and she would attain the freedom of flight. She’d be the first person ever to fly. Really fly. Without an airplane or anything. It was a childish thought, but then Joslyn was only five.

✸✸✸

The pop of the gun got Joslyn’s attention. The race had begun, winding twenty-six miles and 385 yards, from Hopkinton through towns southwest of the city to Copley Square next to the Boston Public Library.

The marathon is based on a legend, telling the story of Pheidippides, a Greek messenger who was sent from Marathon to Athens to announce the Persians had been defeated. Pheidippides ran the distance without stopping. He burst into the Senate, exclaimed “Nenikékamen” (We have won!), and dropped dead of a heart attack. The accuracy of the account is questionable, but facts have never deterred those who face the daunting challenge.

Joslyn started among some of the fastest runners, who soon outdistanced her. They were so fast, it seemed she was running backwards. Before long, runners who matched her speed caught up with her and she was able to pace herself with them. They ran along Union Street and Waverly Street past reservoirs serving Framingham. They ran between Morses Pond and Lake Waban on up past Wellesley College.

As the race transited onto Highway 16, Joslyn came up behind another woman, who was determined not to let her pass, although they were barely a third of the way along the course. Each time Joslyn pulled alongside the woman, she’d bare down, find a bit more speed, and gain a few feet. Joslyn wore the other runner down and, as she passed her, thought it foolish of the competitor but not unlike the girls she challenged to race all through elementary school.

✸✸✸

“Oh, come on, Amber,” Joslyn said. “You tell everybody how fast you can run. Why won’t you race me?”

A somber Amber looked at twelve-year-old Joslyn. It seemed to the girl her challenger was all legs. In truth, Joslyn had long legs, longer than most girls her age. But it wasn’t the length of femur that helped her run fast. It was heart. Not the heart that pumped oxygenated blood to muscles, but heart – the will and determination to go beyond anything she had accomplished. To go farther and faster than she’d ever had before.

Amber knew Joslyn’s reputation. She was always challenging girls to race – and sometimes boys. After she’d beaten two boys who thought they were pretty good, the other boys avoided her or refused her challenge. The girls couldn’t get away so easily. Every year, Joslyn confronted some girl who had run exceptionally fast in P.E. class, usually the girl who would go on to win the blue ribbon in the school’s track and field competition.

Joslyn never competed in school events. Her mother wouldn’t allow it. Ladies didn’t run and get sweaty. Athletics, except perhaps tennis or golf, were best left to men. After all, no one really cared if they got sweaty.  At a family cookout, when Mrs. Hart argued only men should compete in athletics and women should be content to be sturdy athletic supporters, everyone hid their smiles or quickly left the room to keep from embarrassing the woman.

Not to be deterred, Joslyn challenged every contender, determined to show the world she was the best runner anyone had ever seen. If she couldn’t officially beat these girls in school events, she’d beat them unofficially. At least, the defeated girl would know who was best.

Amber was simply the next in line, the next contender to fall. Joslyn’s reputation beat them before the race was run. Amber knew no one had ever lost to Joslyn. How, then, could she win? She tried. Born competitors always try. They really don’t have a choice. It’s something inside that drives them. But Joslyn was better. In fact, she was the best anyone had ever seen. And everyone knew it, except her mother.

By the time Joslyn reached high school, she had convinced her father to support her desire to compete on the school’s track and field team. Things had changed. Lots of girls were into sports; not just the ladies’ events. They crunched each other in field hockey. They played basketball, lacrosse, and soccer with the same drive as boys. Sports brought elevated self-esteem, poise and strength, a sense of fairness and integrity – traits even a socialite mother could appreciate.

Joslyn’s mother realized she’d never control her daughter’s desire to run and compete. She saw a value in sports she had never before understood. She used her daughter’s ability to her own advantage. If Joslyn could win enough to become a celebrity, Mrs. Hart thought, that alone might bring her the prestige she desired.

One spring day, after practice, George Emerson, Joslyn’s high school coach, called her into his office.

Blotting the water from her hair, Joslyn slid into a chair and dropped the damp towel from her shower on the floor.

“Yeah, coach?” she said.

George Emerson was one of those big men. The ones who throw sixteen-pound balls half the length of a football field in shot put competition. At his best, he fell just short of making the U.S. Olympic team. Now he sagged a little around the waist. His sandy hair was thinning, but his eyes still had the fire of a fierce competitor.

“Have you given any thought to where you’re going to college?” he asked. “You’re good enough to get a scholarship to just about anywhere you want. If you have some idea, I can help.”

Joslyn smiled. She had this quirky smile. The corners of her mouth turned up almost like a cartoon character. And her velvety gray eyes sparkled.

“Something I say amuse you?” Emerson asked.

Joslyn shook her head. “No,” she said. “It’s just something I haven’t told anybody yet.”

Emerson raised his eyebrows as if to ask, So, you going to tell me now?

“I’m not going to college right away.”

“Oh?” Emerson was surprised.

“I’ve decided to take a year or two and train for the Boston Marathon. Then I’ll be ready for college. And if I win …”

She just smiled her quirky smile again and shrugged.

✸✸✸

At the rest station in Wellesley Hills, Joslyn grabbed a cup of water, drank it and grabbed another. As she reached for the second cup, the volunteer said, “Hey, lady, you don’t have your number on.”

“Must have lost it,” Joslyn blurted.

“But you can’t run without a number.”

“Watch me,” she said and trotted on down the highway, leaving the confused volunteer in her wake.

“You hear that,” he said, turning to the other volunteers.

“Ah, they’re always losing those things. Lots of them tear off,” another volunteer said. “That’s why they write the numbers with Sharpies on their thighs.”

Of course, by then, Joslyn was too far away for the volunteer to see if, indeed, she had a number stenciled on her leg.

✸✸✸

Seeing Joslyn was determined to run the marathon, George Emerson introduced her to Patricia Paulson, one of the best long-distance running trainers in New England. At fourteen, Patti Paulson had trained for the 1944 Olympics, but they had been cancelled because of World War II. She had missed her chance but had devoted her life to helping other talented girls reach their potential. She’d seen several of her athletes compete in Tokyo, Mexico, and Munich and was impressed by Joslyn’s abilities.

Patti Paulson was not a slave driver. She didn’t have to be. The young women who came to her were driven by compulsions far beyond anything Paulson could employ. She was there to channel their energy. To watch and improve technique so the women could eke out a bit more speed, a bit more stamina.

Joslyn knew this was her chance. She completely alienated her mother when she announced she would run in the next Boston Marathon. Mrs. Hart would not hear of it. Joslyn was going to Wellesley, where she’d earned a track and field scholarship. Wasn’t that enough? Didn’t she let her daughter do her thing? Run to her heart’s content? But why this? Why now? When everything Mrs. Hart had dreamed of was so close at hand?

Joslyn argued she would still be able to go to Wellesley, if that’s where she wanted to go, after the marathon. In fact, if she won the race, she’d probably get a better deal.

This did not satisfy Mrs. Hart, who told her daughter, if she did not go to Wellesley and go now, she’d have nothing to do with her … ever again.

Joslyn stoically accepted the ultimatum and turned to her father for support. He meekly shrugged and told his daughter, she was on her own. He understood her desire to compete and to win, but he had commitments, too. He had made a solemn vow to his wife, and he’d stand by her.

Undeterred, Joslyn threw herself into her training. She sacrificed everything to achieve her goal. She gave up her friends, finally understanding what people meant by the loneliness of the long-distance runner. She gave up movies, and pizza parties, and dating.

Then she gave up Zack, the young man who professed to love her and who wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. Joslyn agreed with him. She loved him. Or thought she did. She thought it would be nice being married to Zack, raising a family with him, growing old together. But that would have to wait.

“How long?” Zack asked.

“A year. Maybe two.”

“What? While you run yourself to death?”

“I don’t plan to die at this, Zack,” Joslyn said. “I plan to win.”

“And then what? What happens next? You going to take the next four years and train for the Olympics?”

“Now there’s a thought,” Joslyn mused. “Don’t know. I haven’t gotten that far yet. Let me win the Boston Marathon first.”

“While I sit on my hands and wait,” Zack groused. “You’re gone every day of the week, from morning till dark. You don’t answer my phone calls. You won’t go out with me. What am I supposed to do?”

“Wait for me. If I’m worth it, you’ll wait.”

Zack dropped his head and studied his shoes a moment.

“I am worth waiting for, am I not?”

Zack didn’t look at her.

“Zack?”

“I can’t do this, Jos. I can’t just put my life on hold while you waste yours on this foolishness.”

“You think what I’m doing is foolish?”

“What else can I think? What’s the point? You win a race. You think it’ll make a difference in the world. It’s not like you’ve decided to write a symphony or paint a picture that will outlast you by centuries. It’s just a race.”

“Not to me. It’s everything. To me. It’s all I’ve ever dreamed about since I was a little girl.”

Zack threw his hands up. “Then go for it. Go chase your dream. But don’t expect me to be waiting at the finish line.”

“If that’s what you want.”

“It’s not what I want, Jos,” Zack retorted. “It’s what you’ve forced on me.”

“Yeah. Right.”

And Joslyn turned, walked away, and never looked back. All that was left to her was the race.

It was Christmas Eve, 120 days before the marathon. Joslyn had worked out most of the day, weight training, building endurance, keeping up indoors while winter coated the streets with ice and snow, making them impassable for road work. Paulson had worked with her until two o’clock. Joslyn said she wanted to do two more hours, then join Paulson and her family for dinner.

She was obligated to be home on Christmas Day, even though the atmosphere was so contentious she’d rather have been at the North Pole. Even that would have been better, waiting for Santa’s return and reveling with all his elves over another successful year.

It was dark when she left the gym. Flurries dusted the streets and fluttered along like the foam that gets pushed up the beach by waves. She never saw the car that had slid on the ice and careened over the sidewalk, through the shrubbery and into the parking lot. She never had a chance to react.

She awoke in the hospital. Her mother and father were there, waiting for her to recover consciousness. Patti Paulson was there. So was George Emerson. Only Zack was absent.

“What happened?’ she asked.

✸✸✸

Between Mile 20 and 21, as the Boston Marathon passes through the town of Newton, racers face Heartbreak Hill. It’s not much of a hill, just four tenths of a mile long and is rises only eighty-eight feet. But it comes just after runners descend a hundred-fifty foot hill over the previous half mile. It comes at that point on the course where muscle glycogen stores are likely to be depleted, the point runners refer to as hitting the wall. It demands every ounce of effort and strength and will. Only the greatest hit the wall and rally to burst through.

Joslyn had faced the hill on Washington Street, climbing from the Charles River crossing at the 16-mile mark, and beat it. She had stared down the hills on Commonwealth Avenue and pursued them with a vengeance. Then she hit the wall, a challenge that had forced many lesser-trained runners to a walk. Gritting her teeth, she drove forward, nostrils flaring as she huffed toward the top.

✸✸✸

Joslyn’s recovery from the accident was the greatest challenge she faced and she knew she had little better than 50/50 chance she’d regain full use of her body. She had suffered broken bones and deep, jagged gouges in her legs. She’d lost so much blood, doctors feared for her life. If it had not been for the dedication of the paramedics and their quick, thoughtful aid, she might have arrived at the hospital D.O.A. As it was, she was in a coma for nearly a week. All she remembered of the evening was saying goodbye to a friend who worked nights at the reception desk. Her next memory was seeing her mother’s and father’s face through fluttering, unfocused eyes.

That was the beginning of her come back. Of conquering a hill far greater than Heartbreak Hill or any hill anyone could throw at her. She slowly regained her strength until she could no longer stand being bed-ridden. Her physical therapist worked with her tentatively at first but, with greater confidence as each day, Joslyn was more determined than ever to get back to her goal – to win the marathon. It was her single, all-consuming thought and her therapist encouraged the idea if that was what Joslyn needed to heal.

She missed the race she had been training for. She missed the next one, too. But she never lost her vision. Her dream never faded to black like the end of a movie. She was in denial when anyone said she couldn’t run. She told her doctors they were … frankly … stupid, if they thought she was just going to find a garden bench and watch the roses grow for the rest of her life. They argued she’d have a perfectly normal life but not as a racer.

Still she pushed herself. She fought back. She regained inch by inch, moment by moment, what she had lost in that single point of time. It was as if the Grinch had stolen more than Christmas that day. And every time someone reminded her of her accident, told her she’d never race again, she’d respond the same way.

“Wanna bet? How much have you got to lose?”

Joslyn believed she had nothing to lose and everything to gain with the same strength and faith she put in God. She would run again. She would race again. And she would win.

✸✸✸

Half a million people line the streets to watch the Boston Marathon. It’s the most widely viewed sporting event in New England, even surpassing watching Bill Russell lead the Celtics in an NBA playoff or watching Steve Grogan lead the Patriots to another touchdown.

So it probably wasn’t unusual for people to start paying attention to Joslyn as she approached Copley Square. In the last mile, people had begun pointing and murmuring. She had outrun all but three women on the course. She didn’t have a white tag fluttering from the front of her tank top. She wasn’t officially entered in the race, but she was determined to make her point.

She caught up with the third-place runner who was startled as Joslyn slipped past her. Instead of angering the runner, Joslyn’s pass seemed to take the wind out of her and she ran even slower. The third-place runner didn’t know Joslyn wasn’t official.

Pounding the pavement, she drew up on the second-place runner. Alert as a winner has to be, this woman heard Joslyn’s breathing and feet hitting the road behind her. She seemed to pull whatever energy she had in reserve and apply it to keep her position. But Joslyn was going for the gold. No second-place runner was going to stand in her way. She gulped air and drove herself on. Ever so slowly she pulled up to the second-place racer. Ever so slowly she pulled ahead. But there was just too little race course left to catch and beat the woman who crossed the finish line first.

When Joslyn crossed the line, she glared toward the judges platform, seeking out the face of Arthur Forshay and staring him down. When he recognized Joslyn, he was shocked. Astounded. He’d never seen anything like it. No one had ever started with the handicap Joslyn had, started so far back in the pack, and won the race. Of course, Joslyn had not won. She’d come in second. And even that was discounted. She was not official. Her finish did not count. She was disqualified, as she knew she would be. It just didn’t matter. She had run the Boston Marathon and had come so close to proving all her detractors wrong.

Patti Paulson caught her at the finish line, wrapped her in one of those aluminum foil space blankets, and gave her an orange to eat.

Joslyn couldn’t decide if she wanted to laugh or cry. So she did both, alternating from one to the other.

“I did it,” she whispered in Paulson’s ear.

“I am so proud of you,” Paulson said. “I just wish it was official.”

“Doesn’t matter. I know what I’ve done, and that’s all that counts.”

When Arthur Forshay tapped her on the shoulder, Joslyn swung around so quickly she almost smacked him in the chin with her orange. “Oops” was all she said.

“You warned me,” Forshay said. “You told me you were going to win this race. You were going to embarrass all of us. You nearly did. I can’t speak for the Athletic Association, but I wish you had won. You’ve certainly taught me something. And I just want to say, thank you.”

Joslyn grasped his hand and then pulled him to her, kissing him on the cheek.

“Thank you, Mr. Forshay. If you hadn’t been such a fussbudget, I might not have run this race.”

She kissed his cheek again, and he laughed with her.

At that moment, Mr. Hart pushed through the crowd to grasp his daughter in a bear hug. He held her away to look at her, tears pooling in the corners of his eyes.

“Where’s Mom?” Joslyn asked.

Mr. Hart just shook his head. “You’ve just got me, baby. I couldn’t stay away. Not on this day. Not when this means so much to you.”

“I love you, Daddy,” she said.

“I love you, too.”

When he pulled his daughter to him again, she winched. He frowned.

“Are you alright?”

“I just ran twenty-six miles, Dad.”

Paulson put her hand on Joslyn’s shoulder and pointed down.

“And you’re bleeding.”

Hart, Forshay, Paulson and everyone else who overheard their conversation stopped and looked. Joslyn indeed was bleeding.

“Guess I worked up a humongous blister,” she said, shrugging.

Everyone stared at the blood oozing around the top of Joslyn’s prosthesis she’d run the race on, looking more like a mannequin’s than a human’s leg and foot.

This story was set in 1975, the year the Boston Marathon began offering racing opportunities to people with disabilities and impairments. Women had only been allowed in the race beginning in 1966 and only officially in 1972. In 1996, the B.A.A. retroactively recognized as champions the unofficial women’s leaders from 1966 through 1971.