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Preparing for the Boston Marathon

The Boston Marathon, one of the most recognized running events throughout the world, is so much more than a quest to conquer 26.2 miles. Thousands of runners representing their countries, communities, and families come together for one common goal: to support a cause bigger than themselves. Injury Prevention Specialist Sara Collins, a thirty-two-year-old Newton, MA resident, will be running on April 18th to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS). Her inspiring story of selflessness and perseverance illustrates the true meaning behind the Boston Marathon.

Why do you participate in the Boston Marathon? 

My interest and involvement with the Boston Marathon has evolved over the course of my lifetime. I pretty much grew up along the course – soccer games, swim meets and dance performances more or less spanned these 26.2 miles. When I was a child, 8 or 9, I remember wanting to be part of the medical team, not run. Weird thing for a kid to dream of, right? That dream came true in 2008 when I became part of the medical team for the next 4 years. In 2013, I was a spectator by the finish line and, unfortunately, had to use my first responder skills; I made a commitment to myself on that day that I would run Boston in 2014, my first marathon ever – and I did!

2013 was also significant in that my former colleague and mentor, Jane Gruber, was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer that attacks the plasma cells in your blood. I was also working in cancer rehabilitation at the time, so my connection to cancer was very strong. I became involved with The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS) via TEAM in Training, an organization that raises funding for LLS via marathon, half marathon, triathlon and other organized sporting event participation. The stars more or less aligned and I was asked to be a member of the 2014 Boston Marathon team, where I ran in honor of Jane, my patients and the millions of patients and families affected by blood cancer. I am happy to say that I was invited back to the team to run in 2016 where I continue to promote LLS’s mission to advocate for patients and families and to cure ALL blood cancers.

Do you have any specific goals for this race? 

This marathon will be my second Boston and third marathon overall. Despite everything I know about training and injury prevention, I was pretty reckless during my first round of training and ended up with really bad iliotibial band syndrome for most of the season. Once that resolved, I broke my foot 2 weeks before the marathon. Odds were not in my favor, but I did finish! This year, my goal is really just to train smart (listening to my body and giving it what it needs). If it’s more rest, I rest an extra day. If it’s an extra hill workout, so be it. I want to enjoy everything this race has to offer. And if I PR, well, that’s just icing on the cake!

Describe your preparation for the Boston Marathon:

Training for a marathon is a big commitment. We started training in December for a race in April. We wake up early every Saturday for our long run, usually anywhere from 12-20 miles. We have hill workouts and speed workouts during the week, and sometimes we’ll find time for a leisurely 5 miles. And then there’s cross training – the pool, yoga, bike, weight training at the gym.  Six of the seven days a week you are working towards that race on Patriots Day. It is so worth it.

Besides getting miles in (anywhere from 20-40 miles in a week depending on your training), nutrition, cross training, and rest are the most important parts of the marathon process. The definition of food changes to fuel and you are literally fueling your body all day. The quality of the food is most important, having a good balance of carbohydrates, protein and fats that will give you energy and your muscles what they need to recover. For me, that’s a lot of peanut butter, sweet potatoes, chicken and pizza. All the pizza. However, rest may be the most important part of all of this, because our bodies repair themselves while we sleep. If we don’t get enough rest, our bodies get stuck and we become more sore, sluggish and the likelihood of injury increases. It’s a tough concept for a lot of athletes to understand, but the results of rest and being kind to your body can be tremendous.

What setbacks have you encountered throughout your training?

I could write a book on this topic! As an Athletic Trainer and Injury Prevention Specialist, I work with a variety of injured athletes, and many of them are runners. It’s scary to get a pain somewhere and frustrating when that pain won’t go away, especially when you are training for something major like a marathon. I’ve dealt with iliotibial band syndrome, nutritional fatigue, a broken foot and currently, bursitis and hamstring tendinitis. Am I currently frustrated and freaking out about how I’m going to finish this race? Yes! Am I going to finish the race? Yes! Between the team here at Boston Children’s Hospital, the staff at The Micheli Center, and my coaches with TEAM in training, everyone is helping me get through this rough patch and are confident that I will have a successful marathon. As my coach Sarad Tomlinson says, “The hay is in the barn”. That means we’ve put the work in training wise, whatever that may be, and that we are all ready to run this race. I trust what he is saying.

The Boston Marathon is without a doubt a tremendous physical challenge – what about the mental obstacles? 

I’d say the mental part is the hardest part. Some days are awesome, some are awful. A 15 mile run can feel better than a 3 mile run. But where does your mind go? Usually it’s “If I can’t run 3 miles I can’t run a marathon”. Not true, that’s just a bad run and those are going to happen. But we tend to focus on what’s not working and that can mentally and physically break us down. It’s important to focus on what is working and why you are running. Terrible tempo run but great pool workout? Log that as a win and take that with you during your long run. Don’t think you can make it up the hill? Channel your inner Rocky and get up that hill! You will do it. For me, remembering who I am running for and why I am running gets me through anything because running through a tough 20-miles is a lot easier than months of chemotherapy.

Mental fatigue is also something that most runners deal with a few times during the long training season. Like I mentioned, training is a huge time commitment and we all have jobs, families and other interests and obligations we have to tend to. Maybe extra rest is what you need to get through it. Maybe it’s changing up your routine. Maybe it’s knowing how much free time you’ll have once all this is done (me!). Make sure you are enjoying yourself and know that in the long run all of your hard work is going to pay off. That medal around your neck is a pretty cool thing!

What advice would you give to any aspiring runners?

To quote Eleanor Roosevelt: “Do the thing you think you cannot do.” Running is hard. Truthfully, I hated it my whole life. I did a few “fun runs” prior to my marathon career because I thought they’d be fun and they weren’t. I made excuses like “dancers can’t run” or “I have a bad ankle”. Truth was, I really didn’t have a purpose for running before, so I didn’t like it. That changed and I’m about to finish my third marathon. I’m doing something I didn’t think I could do. It doesn’t have to be a marathon, a half marathon or ultramarathon. It can be a one-mile fun run. It can be a 5k run-walk. Start slow. Take care of yourself nutritionally, physically and mentally. Focus on the small progressions, not on what’s going wrong. You’ll inspire yourself and so many people around you. Do whatever YOU think you cannot do. I bet you can do it!

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