When you can’t go fast — go far.
Federal Way resident Bob Toohey dreamed of his champion finish at the Boston Marathon until an injury forced him to revamp his expectations back into reality.
The 66-year-old said he had no intention of running the Boston until he began long-distance racing six years ago. Starting with half marathons, Toohey then wanted to challenge himself and go for a full marathon, documenting his path on his personal blog.
Toohey ran his first 26.2-mile race at the Eugene Marathon in 2012, then ran the Tacoma City Marathon in 2015. With each race, the finish time got better, he said.
“I was very surprised at my performance in Eugene,” Toohey said of last year’s race, noting that a fellow runner at the 2018 Eugene Marathon said Toohey’s pace would easily set him to a three-and-a-half hour finish.
Toohey was aiming for a sub-four hour finish. He completed the marathon in three hours and 46 minutes, earning a first place in his age division and a qualifying time for the Boston Marathon.
“I say get old enough to where people who are running with you either die or quit,” he said with a laugh as he explained his Boston-qualifying secret. “Just wait ‘em out.”
The rolling registration of Boston leaves some runners just outside of the qualifying quota; some athletes may spend years qualifying for Boston, although missing out on the cut due to the registration process, Toohey said.
“I really feel fortunate that I got in,” Toohey said.
Federal Way’s BPA trail has been Toohey’s training grounds since the beginning, he said. He has lived in Federal Way since 2000 and works as a safety professional for Continental Mills.
Generally Toohey begins his marathon training about 16 to 17 weeks prior to race day. For Boston, he added on another four weeks to the usual training regiment.
A 20-mile BPA trail run has about 1,300 feet of elevation again. Two, or three loop variations can be made to earn the graduated mileage.
As soon as Thanksgiving was over, Toohey laced up his running shoes and began training on Dec. 1. He uses Hal Higdon’s marathon training plan for racing preparation. There are variations of runner levels and Toohey opted to training at the intermediate two level.
“I got a little aggressive with it … that may have been my mistake,” he said. Shortly after training commenced, Toohey strained his hamstring.
There was a point in his training when reality set in. When he was supposed to be covering 17 miles, he was only running and walking 10 miles. Toohey recalls coming home to his wife and saying, “I think Boston is off.”
After he made an appointment with a sports medicine doctor, recovery slowly came. With his injury, he couldn’t achieve the speed needed for his goal Boston time, but he could achieve the distance.
“I could run 20 miles on a hurt leg as long as I didn’t go too fast,” Toohey said.
This was the first major sporting injury he’d ever endured, hindering his Boston aspirations and yet, he had no control over it.
“At some point I had to make the decision: it’s all about running Boston now … it’s not about setting any kind of personal best. It’s about showing up and participating in one of the greatest sporting events in the world. And I’m going to have to be OK with that.”
The energy in Boston was electric, the runner’s high buzzing from the streets and hotels to the start line on Monday, April 15.
In Boston, the race isn’t necessarily about the super athletes in Toohey’s perspective. Instead it’s about participating, even when you don’t — or can’t — put your best foot forward.
The crowds, lining the entire course six people-deep for the entire way, were there to celebrate every runner, Toohey said.
“That’s what Boston Strong means: We’re for everybody. We want everybody to succeed at the level they are at.”
The course route starting line is in Hopkinton and ends at the Boylston Street finish line in Boston, with a slight downhill decline for the first 15 or so miles of the race. Toohey, who trained on the hills of the BPA trail, said the first half of the race shatters your quads.
In total, the Boston Marathon has an elevation gain of 825 feet and the infamous Heartbreak Hill has only 85-feet of elevation in a quarter mile. Despite the difference in training to reality, the Boston rute was no easy feat, Toohey said.
“There was just an electric atmosphere from the anticipation of the event,” he said. “For most of us, this is the event of a lifetime.”
People pass you; athletes you figured would and some who surprise you as they run by, Toohey said.
The race builds camaraderie for the city, all of the athletes and the entire corridor of the course.
“I wanted the full sensory experience, not of my music track. I listened to that for 18 weeks [in training], I know what’s on my music track,” Toohey said of his decision to opt-out of wearing headphones on race day. “What I wanted to experience was the crowds, maybe saying hello to a runner on the way …”
As the scenery changed with each inch forward, gratitude remained on Toohey’s mind.
He thought about his journey, the good luck and motivational videos sent by family members before the race start, and also spent many miles praying.
“When you’re running 26 miles, you’re mind goes crazy,” Toohey said. “You know, ‘What am I going to eat? What’s going back on at home? I wonder what I have to do at work on Monday.’ All that kind of stuff.”
Toohey ran past a fire station with a large Boston Strong sign on it. He ran alongside double amputees with prosthetic limbs. He ran next to individuals with congenital disabilities. He ran with several blind runners and their guides.
It all comes back to gratitude, he said.
Upon entering the city, the final hour of his marathon became more enjoyable. He and many other runners in his pace pack began to engage with the crowd, let loose and have fun.
“It was surreal. You never know what life is going to give you,” Toohey said about crossing the finish line. “I wanted to keep on crossing the finish line … sometimes I wish the finish line was a mile wide so I could keep running through it.”
Because once the end arrives, the dream is over. You earn you medal, put on warm clothes to combat the rain and cold temperatures, then you’re walking around Boston like everyone else, he said.
“It was everything I had hoped it would be. It was different than I thought it would be,” Toohey said. Although aiming to beat his Eugene 2018 time, he finished the Boston in just under five hours.
“When I first registered for Boston, I had all these images and ideas of how I was going to rule Boston,” he said. “The story turned out different, but it turned out better.”
It would have been much different, and most likely a more painful experience driven by competition, he said, had he tried to keep up with the sub-four hour pack throughout the Boston Marathon.
Somewhere along the marathon, Toohey traded competition for community.
“I think I got the experience that I was supposed to have.”
Toohey said it’s still too soon to tell if he will be back at the Boston start line in the future.