Haley Lebsack shares her love for the Boston Marathon
Haley Lebsack, director of outreach and communications at Recycle Utah, is a walking contradiction.
“I’m a lazy athlete,” she says. Though she loves running and leads a local running group over the summer, she isn’t out to set any records. But while she may not have the fastest times or grandest competitive ambitions, running is still her thing. It’s what connects her to the people she loves, and few races are as social, and few as meaningful to Lebsack, as the Boston Marathon. A race she, her sister Natalie Colvick and their friend, Alyssa Zybell, ran on April 16 through the wind and rain — conditions race director Dave McGillivray told boston.com were less comfortable than a race he ran in Antarctica.
However, Lebsack said the race lacked none of its charm.
The Boston Marathon, the world’s oldest and best-known marathon event, regularly attracts crowds of 500,000 rowdy fans and draws some 30,000 runners each year.
“I’ve done other big city marathons that have good crowd support, but there’s something about Boston,” Lebsack said. “One fan in Boston is like 12 fans everywhere else.”
Lebsack started running her freshman year of college at Washington State University as a way of dealing with anxiety and staying fit. She then continued running with her mom, who has become a longtime running buddy.
In 2003, she finished the Portland City Marathon in Oregon, which was the first of many for Lebsack. After finishing, she overheard a group of women talking about qualifying for the Boston Marathon. Such a large marathon seemed out of reach to Lebsack.
“This is my Boston,” she said to her mom at the time. She didn’t know that the conversation would plant the seed in her mind to compete in the race, which would drive her to cut almost an hour off her time to meet the qualifying requirement.
When she made the cut along with her uncle, Matt McDonald, in 2014, she said it was well worth it. It was the year after the Tsarnaev brothers detonated homemade bombs near the race’s finish line, killing five people and injuring more than 250.
Lebsack said the whole city turned out to support the runners after the previous year’s terrorist attack. Everywhere she and McDonald went they saw cheering fans – before, during and after the winding road race.
“There were people in Boston cheering the buses that were driving the runners out (to the start),” she said.
For Lebsack, it was that open enthusiasm for the race across the city’s populace that exemplified the spirit of the race. It was what made the Boston Marathon different. During the lead up to that race, Lebsack had run several other marathons to qualify, and found that sometimes the citizens of the host cities were annoyed by road races that impeded traffic and disrupted their days. That wasn’t the case in Boston.
“Everyone is out and no one cares that the road is closed,” she said. “They are celebrating these athletes and the human spirit.”
On race day, Lebsack found herself fulfilling running dreams she didn’t know she had, like running in the same race as Meb Keslezighi, the first American man to win the race since 1983 — the year she was born. It was a quintessential running moment.
“How often does an average athlete get to be on the same course as these elite athletes?” Lebsack said. “I can’t go play in the NFL, but I got to be on the course with Meb.”
Crossing into the final stretch, Lebsack suddenly felt something she hadn’t expected – the 26.2 miles had gone by too quickly.
“I remember crossing onto Boylson and thinking ‘It can’t be over; this is the most fun it’s ever been,’” she said.
She knew she had to come back, and raced again the next year despite a nagging injury.
“When you’re at my level, you don’t waste a Boston entry,” she said. “You don’t know if you’re going to go again.”
She then took the next two years off to try out different varieties of races, such as the six-day, 120-mile Trans Rockies Race in Colorado. But last year Lebsack’s sister, Natalie Colvick, said she wanted to run the Boston Marathon with Lebsack and their mutual friend, Alyssa Zybell at her side.
Colvick had recently spent a year taking care of their ailing father, who was suffering from throat cancer. Colvick helped bring him back to health, but needed to do something for herself after dedicating a year to her father, and the Boston Marathon seemed like an appropriate way to celebrate the end of a difficult time for her and her family.
However, Lebsack was struggling with injuries again and knew she wasn’t going to be able to meet the qualifying time. Friends suggested she enter the race as a fundraiser, for which the Boston Marathon approves fewer than 6,000 bibs, according to Runner’s World Magazine.
It was something she never thought she would do – mainly as a point of pride as a runner. Qualifying through a fundraiser seemed like a cop-out, but actually going through the process changed Lebsack’s opinion.
“Fundraising $10,000 while training for the Boston Marathon is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I know there are runners that do that every year and I tip my hat to them,” she said. “That was the hardest three months of my life.”
Because of her father’s recent bout with throat cancer, Lebsack decided to raise money for Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, a Harvard-run teaching hospital.
On April 15, the night before the 2018 Boston Marathon, organizers sent out a notification cautioning runners about the dangers of hypothermia, an ever-present hazard during the cold, windy deluge predicted for race day, which worried Colvick.
But at the starting line in Hopkinton the next day thousands of runners gathered in wind gusts up to 25 miles per hour, which pushed the windchill close to freezing on a day when 2.5 inches of rain fell — Lebsack looked at her sister and saw a huge smile spread across her face, and knew they had made the right decision. Her sister fully embraced the race and its traditions – she high-fived the bystanders and volunteers, danced at mile markers, drank beer along the way and even celebrated the longstanding tradition of kissing a Wellesley girl – a student of the Seven Sisters liberal arts college near the midpoint of the race.
The three runners ran through constant headwind and rain.
“It felt like someone was following you with a bucket of water; dumping it on you,” Lebsack said. “For two-tenths of a mile I ran through standing water.”
Because Lebsack, Colvick and Zybell didn’t take off their throwaway gear – essentially warmup clothes runners shed over the course – until the last stretch of the race, Lebsack said it was the only race in which she never looked at her watch. When they did remove their gear, it was only to reveal their unicorn-printed tank tops that celebrated the symbol of the race and the idea of chasing something unattainable – a perfect race.
This year’s women’s winner — Desiree Linden — was the first American woman to win since 1985– coincidentally, also the year Colvick was born.
Lebsack said the Boston Marathon was as close to perfect as it gets, including the weather. It was one more reason the race, and marathons in general, mean so much to Lebsack, even when she’s not trying to break away from the pack or set a new personal record.
“Running for me is my therapy; it calms me down,” she said. “It’s always been how I’ve met my friends and my people, and how I find common ground with people with different religious views; different political views.”
It’s where she finds people that lift her up, and where she can do the same for others.
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