At mile 23 of the 2018 Boston Marathon, Rachel Hyland heard her husband Sean yell, “Rach, you are in 8th place!” Or something that sounded like that. He must have said 18th place, she thought. Rachel was in marathon delirium and she didn’t know what to believe, but there was no way she could have been in the top-10 at a marathon major. The temperature was in the low 40s, rain was coming down in sheets and a headwind had blasted the point-to-point course all day long. But while some runners were faltering in the torrential weather, Rachel was enjoying every minute of it. “I was so grateful to be there,” she said, “and so happy to run on the course with all my friends and running community and everyone.”
This wasn’t Rachel’s first Boston Marathon. She’d moved to the Boston area in 2010 from New York state to teach Spanish at Phillips Academy and to be closer to her then-boyfriend Sean Hyland. She’d found an incredibly supportive running community in the BAA (Boston Athletic Association) – the same group that organizes the marathon. The group provided her with a training regime that helped prepare her for her first Boston Marathon in 2012. Between 2012 and 2018 Rachel had trained for Boston four times, but injuries had always prevented her from toeing the line. So when she started the race in 2018 she was just grateful to be running – even in a downpour. Living in Boston gave Rachel more advantages than just a training group. For one thing, she’d experienced this kind of weather before.
“I kept thinking back to this one run about eight weeks before Boston where I did 20 miles with 10 at marathon effort, all in the pouring rain, in the 30s. The rain didn’t let up once during the run but I just couldn’t move it because I was teaching the next day and the day before I was coaching at a track meet so it was my only time. I had this four-hour window on a Sunday and it poured freezing rain the entire time.”
While few people expected to see Rachel running in the top-10 at Boston – herself included – it wasn’t because she hadn’t put in the work. In the months leading into the race, she had logged just as many miles as the professional runners. The only real difference was that while they could spend the rest of their days recovering, she spent them standing in front of a class of high schoolers.
“Especially in the media, it was easy to say, like, ‘who are these recreational runners [at the front of the race]?’ Because, yeah, compared to the top professionals, yes, I am a recreational runner. But I think I did my best training cycle ever. I put in a few hundred-mile weeks. I put in the work while working a full-time job and it definitely wasn’t easy, but I think the mental challenges of that, like balancing training with everything else, plus the mindset going into it. I think it all contributed.”
The limitations that were placed on Rachel’s training – fitting it in around her teaching, her coaching and her relationships – were one of the things that separated her from the many professional runners she was racing against in Boston. But in a way, those limitations ended up being one of her strengths. In the final miles of the race, when her hands were going numb and her legs were starting to ache, Rachel was more determined than ever. It had been six years since she’d had the opportunity to run Boston. She had sacrificed so much to be here. And this wasn’t just another opportunity to impress sponsors or win prize money – this was her hometown race and she was going to give it her all.
“When you step on the line, it’s about having the mindset of ‘I am prepared for anything.’ Anything from here to the finish line, 26 miles, I might feel something I’ve never felt, I might encounter something I’ve never encountered before, but I’ve done everything I possibly can up until this point to prepare me for that. Just having that mindset. I will deal with anything.”
While others started to succumb, Rachel surged. She had heard Sean right – she was in 8th place. And by the time she got to the last mile, she was in 3rd.
“I had run a certain section of the course many times and that is the stretch from 15 to 23. That’s just the section of the course with the most hills, there’s some ups, some downs, it’s really important to train on that section. I think those are my favorite miles of the race, in particular, the top of Heartbreak Hill, mile 21, down to mile 23. That’s like the best stretch of the race.”
Running along familiar streets, Rachel was energized by the sight of cheering fans. In addition to Sean, she was cheered on by her BAA teammates and a group of her students. Running in a daze of exhaustion and excitement, she passed Shalane Flanagan – a multiple time Olympian who had won the New York City Marathon less than six months earlier – struggling to keep up her pace in the cold. But not long after passing Shalane, Rachel started fading as well.
“I don’t think I did enough visualization of miles 24 to 26, because it really wasn’t a section that I had run in training, and so during that stretch, particularly the last mile, I was passed by the eventual 3rd place finisher Krista DuChene.”
The last mile might have been where Rachel struggled the most, but it was also where she drew the most inspiration.
“That final stretch on Boylston is just filled with energy, with fans. That’s where the bombings took place in 2013. I remember the first time that I crossed the finish line after the bombings – just on a run – and that felt significant. Any time I run in that area near the finish line, there are daffodils on both sides. There’s just this… it just feels really emotional and special.”
In a time of 2:44:29, Rachel crossed that finish line in 4th place. It was a result beyond her biggest dreams and one that defied the expectations of what was possible for an amateur runner with a full-time job. The inhospitable weather made for conditions that uniquely favored locals, particularly gritty runners like Rachel. And the finish meant even more because of the unique spirit of the city of Boston that Rachel had come to know so well.
“Whether you’re in the race or not, it’s just this parade of human spirit. You have all sorts of people just dealing with all sorts of setbacks along the way. Someone might be dealing with an injury, or it could be a personal challenge, but despite whatever happened in that Boston winter or in that individual’s life or with your injury history, people still line up. And if they don’t line up because they can’t or because they’re not healthy, they’re still there. They show up and they cheer.”
Rachel will be showing up to Boston again in 2019. Even if she’s unlikely to repeat her top-10 finish, she’s still hopeful that the right weather will carry her to a PR. But whatever happens, she’ll be a grateful participant in that parade of human spirit.
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