Going the distance
You'd have to get up at dawn to catch a quick glimpse of Marylee Schroeder as she runs along Island roads, working to get faster, faster, faster. But if you miss her here at home, you might be able to spot her on the TV screen April 21, among thousands of other runners in the Boston Marathon.
With her sixth consecutive Boston Marathon looming only 12 days away, Ms. Schroeder doesn't expect to win, but she has her own goals. "I'm competing against myself," she says. "I want to run a better time than I did before, and I want to feel good running."
Photo by Ralph Stewart
Along with girlish laughter she possesses a will of steel that gets her out of bed, into her running shoes, and through the door to run before sunrise every other day, rain or shine, summer or winter. It's the will that every Patriot's Day gets her up Heartbreak Hill and down again with some 20,000 other athletes, ignoring the pain and pushing for the finish line.
One would not immediately think of this slender, unassuming West Tisbury mother of three as a determined distance runner and fierce competitor. But look again: however slender, her legs are powerful, and her stamina great.
Ms. Schroeder, now 44, came to long-distance running in her late 30s, like many women. Although she was on her high school track team in Long Island, N.Y., and ran for fitness at Ohio Wesleyan University, marathons were not in her plans. She briefly considered long-distance running in her 20s, rejecting it because of all she read about the harsh effects of continued impact on the joints.
Arriving on Martha's Vineyard in 1988 with her husband-to-be, Joe, she took to the Island roads for her every-other-day jogs and soon got to know local runners. The couple married and eventually had two children, Alexia and Michael. Ms. Schroeder worked at a real estate firm while Joe became physical education teacher at the West Tisbury School. Currently, Ms. Schroeder is treasurer of both the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School and the Up-Island School districts.
Photo courtesy of Marylee Schroeder
About ten years ago Ms. Schroeder got an inspiration: "I wanted to see if I could run a little farther than three or four miles," she recalls, and decided to train for the upcoming Martha's Vineyard 20-miler race.
"Your body is an amazing thing," Ms. Schroeder says. "You say, ‘There's no way I can run seven miles,' then all of a sudden you're out there running seven miles."
She started pushing herself, adding one mile, and then another to her routine workouts, but found she was exhausted after even a short jog.
"Sure enough, I was pregnant. I had to wait on my long-distance running for a year and a half or so."
Whitney, now nine, whom the Schroeder's call their miracle baby, arrived nearly three months ahead of schedule by emergency Caesarean section. The tiny infant, only two pounds, two ounces, was rushed to Boston for intensive life-saving care. After nearly three months in the hospital, Whitney came home to the Vineyard, a plump and healthy seven-pound baby.
Beginning with pushing Whitney's stroller around the neighborhood, Ms. Schroeder slowly regained her strength and was training again.
By the time she finished her first Martha's Vineyard 20-miler in Feb. 2001, Ms. Schroeder had set her sights on the Boston Marathon. She remembers thinking, "If I can run 20 miles, I should be able to run 26.2 miles. But the other 6.2 miles is really tough."
To enter the event, runners must complete a marathon at their qualifying time within the previous year.
Ms. Schroeder entered the Bay State Marathon in Lowell, but frustratingly missed the 3-hour, 45-minute qualifying time by only seven seconds.
"I made the typical runner's mistake: I over-trained, I ran way too much," she recalls. "By the end of it I hated running. I said ‘I'm not running another marathon. I'm done. That's it!'
"But the next day I was planning my next marathon," she recalls with a chuckle.
Next came the Hartford [Connecticut] Marathon that Ms. Schroeder calls "a disaster," complete with pre-race traffic jam, logistical snags, and a knee injury. But even with these pitfalls, Ms. Schroeder finished only 15 seconds away from qualifying.
Still motivated by visions of running the Boston Marathon, she picked herself up, let her knee heal, dusted off her shoes, and tried again. Only six weeks later she ran the 26.2 miles of the Philadelphia Marathon in three hours, 35 seconds, jubilantly qualifying for Boston.
Despite pre-race jitters and nightmares about missing the start, Ms. Schroeder's first Boston Marathon in April 2003 was unforgettable.
"All I could hear was everybody's sneakers hitting the ground. You just hear the thumps on the road, it's very intense. The cheers sounded like they were background music to the running sneakers."
Now Ms. Schroeder's marathon routine is second nature. She trains for six to eight months ahead to build up her time, gradually adding long weekend runs to her usual six-mile regimen. She runs on hilly terrain and does occasional speed sprints on the high school track. She dines on pasta the night before marathon day and, along with a number of other Vineyard competitors, joins the Cape Cod Running Club on a chartered bus to the starting area. She eats a half bagel with peanut butter and banana, stashes four high-energy "running gel" packets in her pocket, uses the bathroom on the bus, and she's off.
Even after running the Boston Marathon for the past five years, Ms. Schroeder finds it thrilling every time, even with the certainty that it is the toughest and most painful race she knows.
"I really enjoy it, it is the most incredible feeling. Especially the fans, they're out there for hours, they're out there for everybody, and they're out there for me, who is not the fastest runner.
"I love going through all the different towns, the atmosphere, the clothes people are wearing, the music they're playing all changes from one town to the next. It's a whole change of scenery and culture too."
She looks forward to seeing the Wellesley College students lining the route - "You can hear them from miles away!" But no matter how many supporters are out there, it's catching sight of her four special fans - Joe and the three kids - that makes Ms. Schroeder's marathon day. And she knows just what to expect a few minutes after she sees them there at the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Hereford Street.
"When you turn onto Boylston Street there's a huge Boston Marathon banner at the finish line, and it never seems to get any closer even though it's only a couple of minutes away. By that time I don't hear anybody cheering, I'm so focused on finishing the race."
Ms. Schroeder likes to joke that her family drove her to racing. "The more kids I had the further I went running," she laughs. "I needed time by myself."
But the truth is she just loves it. "I hope I can keep doing this for a long time," she says.
Vineyarders can turn on their television sets on April 21 to cheer on Ms. Schroeder as she crosses that elusive finish line.