Hit the Ground Running: Boston Marathon runners find inspiration in fundraising for charity

Ed Wholihan was cold, wet and exhausted, and though he was only a few miles from the Boston Marathon finish line, he had just hit The Wall.

He was on Beacon Street, having made it up and down Heartbreak Hill while runners around him dropped like flies. The gray skies and steady drizzle had permeated every step of the race so far—more than 20 miles so far. Many runners around him had slowed to a walk.

“At some point in a marathon, almost everybody starts to run into a point where they start to second-guess,” said Wholihan, recalling his experience hitting The Wall in the 2015 Boston Marathon. “The pain starts to kick in. The energy starts to run out. That’s when you really need to reach deep inside to get through it.”

But Pine Street Inn, a Boston homeless shelter, had a lodging facility nearby. A handful of staffers and residents were waiting to cheer him on, because he had raised about $8,000 in contributions for Pine Street Inn with his marathon run.

Hugs were exchanged. A staffer snapped a photo of a jovial Wholihan, wearing a white shirt with a Pine Street logo under a thoroughly-soaked royal blue jacket, posing for the camera with his hands up in the air and a beaming smile.

“It’s really the drive and the extra motivation that [charity runners] get from supporting a cause greater than just finishing a race, that drives a lot of us to wade through and power through the doubts and the challenges in getting across the finish line,” he said.

Indeed, Wholihan made it over the finish line and celebrated in a hotel room with other charity runners before curling up with a blanket on the Red Line train for his trip home.

A year later, Wholihan is gearing up for his second Boston Marathon. He’s running to raise money for Pine Street Inn again, which he and his wife have been supporters of for over 20 years, he said.

“I initially started it just as a fundraiser, but frankly, I think I and Pine Street have gotten as much value from me spreading the word and acting as an evangelist to promote their cause and spread the word about all the good work that they’re doing,” said Wholihan.

He noted that many people he spoke to were unaware that Pine Street Inn offered longer-term transitional housing for more than 800 guests. Additionally, as a financial officer for healthcare and technology companies, he was particularly struck by Pine Street Inn’s job training program, part of a two-pronged approach to combating both the causes and symptoms of homelessness.

“Purely from a somewhat selfish perspective, I think that running for Pine Street for me has made it a much more rewarding, much more satisfying, much more successful experience than if I were ‘just running a marathon for myself,’” said Wholihan.

Rick Muhr, a running coach who trains charity runners through the Marathon Coalition, is helping 225 runners prepare for this year’s Boston Marathon. This is his second year training Wholihan.

“Charity runners in general finish at a higher percentage rate than any other segment of the marathon, including the front-running Kenyans,” said Muhr, attributing this drive to the knowledge that the run has consequences beyond personal enrichment and athletic achievements.

Muhr’s role as a marathon coach for charity runners began in 1996 when he lost his 57-year-old mother to leukemia. The last time he spoke with her, he promised that he would do something significant with his life and live with more mindfulness and purpose.

After giving the eulogy at his mother’s funeral, Muhr returned to Massachusetts and ran a marathon in her memory— “the only way at the time that I knew how to grieve,” he said—which snowballed into working with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training program, training charity runners.

Since then, he has had a role in coaching more than 20,000 marathon runners, with over 15,000 being charity runners. With a full-time job as a regional sales manager for WinCraft, a company that produces licensed products for colleges, coaching thoroughly consumes his nights and weekends.

The most significant role in coaching charity runners is not physical but emotional. “I transition away from being a coach and I become a therapist [three weeks before the marathon starts],” Muhr said.

But the hardest part is on marathon day. It’s not the running of the marathon that’s the most difficult—Muhr moves around throughout the route and runs with his trainees for portions of the race—but the end, because this means saying goodbye to all the runners he’s worked with.

He trained 216 charity runners for last year’s Boston Marathon, together raising over $2 million, and he expects that the 225 charity runners he’s working with for the 2016 Boston Marathon will reach those fundraising totals again.

“They know that their fight from Hopkinton to Boston is far less than the fight that the population they’re supporting has been waging for many, many years,” said Muhr.

 

The 2015 Boston Marathon was a greater challenge with greater stakes than Jennifer Nodelman had encountered during her previous running adventures.

Suffice to say that she was familiar with marathons—she has completed 18 since she caught the marathon bug in 2008—but this time around, she had a couple of extra motivators. She raised $10,000 on behalf of St. Francis House, a homeless shelter for which she had served as a board member since January 2014, and she was finally completing her dream of running the Boston Marathon after struggling to be accepted into the race in previous years.

But she had a sizable speed bump: an injury.

Three weeks before the race, a doctor told Nodelman that a painful muscle spasm in her calf during a training run was actually an injury that might prevent her from finishing the race. She was devastated.

“I said to myself, ‘I have to try it,’” Nodelman recalled. “I owe it to myself, my family, my family, my donors, but especially to our guests.”

She gave herself permission to stop during the race if she needed to, but she had to at least start. She spent three weeks between her nerve-wracking doctor’s visit and the race trying every remedy she could think of, from physical therapy to acupuncture to laser therapy, she said.

On the day of the race, she arrived determined to enjoy herself. Thoughts raced through her head: how this could be her only chance to run the Boston Marathon; how if she had really damaged her leg, this could be her last marathon ever; how she needed to make this race awesome.

“I took my time,” said Nodelman. “I ran slowly, I walked where I needed to and I finished.”

Nodelman will be running again on behalf of St. Francis House in the 2016 Boston Marathon. Going back the second year to raise funds feels harder. She has to convince people to give money again and has already exhausted the “once-in-a-lifetime” donations from her social network during the first year, she said.

“Especially working in Boston, it’s disturbing to me to see people when I get off the train that I know have spent the night sleeping on cement under some sort of industrial blanket or walking around with just a shopping cart with all of their earthly possessions in it,” said Nodelman. “Some folks may not have had the support that I’ve had and fallen into desperate situations.”

Nodelman, who works as a delivery management director overseeing a team of project managers at John Hancock—one of the major sponsors of the Boston Marathon—first became involved with St. Francis House through a previous employer who was looking to do board placements for local nonprofits.

She was captivated by the holistic approach of St. Francis House, incorporating help for short-term needs like shelter, food and clothing, and longer-term assistance such as an on-site medical clinic, mental health counseling and the 14-week job-and-life-skills Moving Ahead program.

Christine O’Halloran, a social worker who worked in the Moving Ahead program for a year and a half, will also run the 2016 Boston Marathon on behalf of St. Francis House.

“Because of working there, I’ve been able to see how well money is spent there,” she said. During her time at St. Francis House, she worked with clients on life and job skills, including resume writing and interviewing.

O’Halloran now works at the International Institute of Boston, a refugee resettlement agency, but she still keeps in touch with some of the St. Francis House guests. She had previously run the New York City Marathon, but she is especially looking forward to her first Boston Marathon experience.

“I think I’m spoiled from watching Boston for so many years, because I don’t think that the energy in the crowd and the atmosphere can be replicated anywhere else,” said O’Halloran. “So I think that Boston is going to be even bigger and better.”

 

Scott McEwan, a carpentry teacher at the Home for Little Wanderers’ southeast campus in Plymouth, keeps a calendar on his desk with his training schedule for the 2016 Boston Marathon. He did track and cross country in high school and got back into running over the last year and a half. He hasn’t run a marathon before.

“I had always put it on my list of grand things I was going to do,” he said.

He is one of five Boston Marathon runners raising money for the Home for Little Wanderers. The child welfare nonprofit’s southeast campus, located on 48 acres in Plymouth, offers a combination of residential and educational services to a small population—about 36 students at the moment—ranging in age from elementary to high school, said McEwan.

The small size of the school and classes help students, many of whom are in state custody, deal with emotional, behavioral, and/or educational difficulties, said the Home for Little Wanderers spokeswoman Samantha Hall. McEwan’s woodshop provides a respite from the traditional academic classes while teaching useful skills.

His participation in the Boston Marathon will have an impact on the students beyond just fundraising.

“It shows them that anything they think of, too, can be attainable,” he said.

The calendar on McEwan’s desk is visible to students when they stop by his classroom. They ask questions: about the marathon itself, his training schedule, how many miles he’ll be running today, if he’ll win the race.

He explained that the elite runners start the race before him, and he definitely doesn’t have any expectations about besting them. But one kid still thinks there’s a possibility that McEwan could win. The kid promised to run all around his own neighborhood if—when?—that happens.

“I’m going to be sad when it’s all over,” said McEwan. “I’ll have to pick another marathon to run.”

Nicole Fleming is a Boston Globe metro correspondent, freelance writer, and author of The Girl Who Ate Boston food blog (www.TheGirlWhoAteBoston.com). Follow her on Twitter @GirlEatsBoston.

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