Rising To The Challenge
A team of nearly 200 Tufts runners - led by President Lawrence S. Bacow - has set its sights on Bostonís historic marathon.
As he waited outside on a frigid morning in January, Don Megerle realized he was part of something special. The newly-appointed director of the Presidentís Marathon Challenge, Megerle was curious to see if anyone would brave the subzero temperatures for that morningís run. Though Bostonís marathon was still months away, he knew that every training run for the team was important as they prepared for their upcoming 26.2 mile journey from Hopkinton, Mass., to downtown Boston.
"On the first really cold day of the season, at eight Ďo clock on a Sunday morning, I was standing there thinking that there was no way anyone was showing up," Megerle explains, noting that the temperature that morning was two degrees below zero. "Then 30 people showed up for the run, both students and staff. It was amazing, absolutely amazing. When they came back, their faces were frozen and one kid - David Wholey (Aí05) - had ice coming down from his beard."
In the months since, Megerle has come to realize that the nearly 200 students, faculty, staff and alumni who comprise the presidentís marathon team are a focused and driven group.
Though many have never run regularly - let alone complete a marathon - each runner accepted President Lawrence S. Bacowís challenge to raise money for medical and nutrition research at Tufts by running alongside him in Bostonís historic marathon. The group - which includes runners from each of Tuftsí undergraduate, graduate and professional schools - has been fundraising and training together for months. (Last year's participants raised $350,000 on the Hopkinton-to-Boston run.)
"Thereís a lot of team spirit and camaraderie," says Megerle - who coached the menís swim team at Tufts for 33 years before taking his new position with the Marathon Challenge. "Everyone is really excited to be a part of this."
Perhaps the most excited runner is the president, himself, who is considered by many runners as the teamís unofficial captain.
"I love running with students, faculty, staff, alumni, and parents," says Bacow, who will also run with his two sons - Jay and Ken - on marathon day. "We all train together and the team spirit is infectious."
That team camaraderie - coupled with the cheers of hundreds of Tufts volunteers who staff water stations along the marathon route - may prove extremely valuable as the team navigates Bostonís notoriously hilly marathon course, which includes the aptly-named "Heartbreak Hill."
But discipline - both mental and physical - is critical to conquering the course, says Bacow, who ran Bostonís marathon for the first time in 2003.
"The marathon is at least as much an exercise in mental discipline as it is a physical challenge. You have to be disciplined to run outside in January when it is 12 degrees. You have to be disciplined to set aside the time to train when there are so many other things going on in your life. You have to be disciplined to eat properly and to hydrate while running the race. †You have to be disciplined to not go out too fast at the start," Bacow explains.
"And you have to be disciplined to keep going at the end when every muscle and bone in your body tells you to stop. †Members of our team really motivate themselves," he adds.
They also get a huge boost from each other and Megerle, who - in addition to his duties overseeing the administrative aspects of the Marathon Challenge - has become a personal coach and motivator for most of the runners.
"I love running with students, faculty, staff, alumni, and parents," says President Lawrence S. Bacow. "We all train together and the team spirit is infectious."
"Iíve had even more fun than I ever thought possible," Megerle says. "And Iím expressing myself, getting to know these kids, and more than just their names, really getting to know them. Theyíre always coming over and talking about their training or problems theyíre having. Itís been really great."
To support the Tufts team, Megerle does a fair amount of his own running around. On a typical day, he darts between meetings with runners, trainers and volunteers, while constantly sending emails to his team about upcoming runs, training tips and other useful information. He works weekends and frequently arrives in the office at 4 AM.
And heís not alone. Tuftsí Miriam Nelson - Director of the John Hancock Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition and Associate Professor of Nutrition at the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy - leads a team of faculty experts, coaches and trainers who have advised the team on everything from nutrition to strength training.
For runners like sophomore Angie Lee, the personal care has been a big boost.
"Motivation wise, it really helps that Coach Megerle is there and that he has set up these team runs," says Lee, a native of Washington state and a former member of the Tufts track and cross country team. "And Sundays when we go out on the Boston Marathon course itís amazing, because you can see how many people are out there doing the same thing."
The regular connection with Megerle and other members of the team has helped Tufts graduate Deborah Jospin feel connected as she trains for the marathon at her home near Washington, DC.
"I live in Chevy Chase, Maryland so Iíve been training by myself but Iíve been using the team guidelines and I check in with my friends in the group regularly, and if Iím in Boston Iíll train with them," says Jospin, who is also a member of the Board of Trustees. "But I always feel like Iíve had the support of the team and everyone has been very supportive and encouraging."
Though she doesnít have many opportunities to run with the Tufts team, Jospin hasnít missed out on runs with the president. "Iíve had a chance to run with the president when heís been in Washington," she adds.
Despite the large size of the group, Megerle says each person has become an integral part of the team.
"Everyone has a story, a reason that they are running. Some people are running in honor of a family member or friend who cannot run or who has passed, others are running for the challenge," he said. "One guy told me is running just to meet President Bacow," Megerle laughs.
For Jospin, running the marathon was about the completion of something she began as an undergraduate. "The last time I ran was 25 years ago, and I was a senior at Tufts," she says. "That year some friends and I decided we wanted to run the marathon. We didnít qualify, but we ran at the back of the pack and had a great time.
"This year it was a goal. I just want to prove to myself that I can still do this. Iím not sure that I can but I want to try," the lawyer and founder of her own consulting firm, explains. "I decided to run the marathon this time because I thought the 25-year anniversary since my last run was timely. And it was really something I wanted to do more than anything."
For undergraduates, training for the marathon is a particularly demanding challenge amid their difficult coursework and extracurricular commitments. But runners like senior Ari Levin saw the Marathon Challenge as the perfect opportunity to train for such a grueling event.
"Especially for the long runs, Iíve just had to motivate myself to do it everyday and not to be satisfied with one single run and to keep thinking of the big picture," says the Maryland native.
Lee was attracted to the close-knit character of the team. "I was worried, coming from the cross country team, which had become like a second family to me, that this wouldnít be like that," she says. "But I have definitely gotten to know new people and developed new friendships and formed bonds with my teammates."
Levin agrees that the team spirit has been a remarkable part of the experience. "Thereís definitely a team mentality and a common bond and thatís definitely helped out for motivational purposes," he says.
Since the team began training together, Megerle has noticed a transformation among the runners.
"For many of these people, itís their first marathon ever. And theyíre not runners, but theyíre becoming runners, and theyíre getting tuned into becoming an athlete, and what it means to be an athlete," Megerle says. "And Iím starting to treat them this way. And they love it. Even if theyíre having a bad day, I try to motivate them and keep them going."
For Bacow, itís also about the team - and the Tufts community as a whole - coming together.
"I love hearing the cheers from all of the members of the Tufts community who come out to support us on race day," he says.†"While the race itself is grueling, there is an extraordinary feeling of accomplishment when one finishes."
Profile by Rebecca Dince, Class of 2006.
This story originally ran on April 11, 2005