A bit slower and a lot more painful, Ben Beach prepares for 52nd straight Boston Marathon
Beach, now 69, suffers from a rare neurological disorder that sends his left leg gyrating awkwardly, the lower leg extended sideways.
A better way is simply to see him run. Beach, now 69, suffers from a rare neurological disorder that sends his left leg gyrating awkwardly, the lower leg extended sideways and nearly parallel to the ground with each stride.
“It’s shocking, really,” Beach admits. “But I’ve made my peace with that. This is what running is like for me now.”
Beach, from Bethesda, Maryland, will start Monday’s Boston Marathon and attempt to extend his record to 52. He has run with task-specific dystonia since 2002, when he was merely 34 years into his streak and tracking but always one year behind Pennsylvanian Neil Weygandt.
Weygandt retired from the race in 2011 at 64. The next spring, Beach equaled the mark and then passed Weygandt in 2013, the year of the bombings near the finish line. Along with thousands of other runners, Beach was still running when the course was closed. But marathon officials declared those beyond a certain checkpoint, including Beach, official finishers.
Running used to be less fraught for Beach, who ran his Boston personal best of 2 hours 27 minutes 26 seconds in 1981. In last year’s cold, wind and rain, Beach struggled to the finish in 5:46:59. Even while extending his record, the 26.2-mile distance these days is hardly the leader’s stroll up the 18th fairway at Augusta but more like an up and out of the trenches into no man’s land.
“Last year was tough, and more than twice as long as it took in the good old days,” Beach said. “That’s kind of pathetic and I’m disappointed my running is so labored. But all of us have to grind it out at least some of the time.”
With that self-effacing nod to his iron will, Beach is happier to acknowledge the element of fate in his remarkable run – last year, he found himself in the emergency room facing hernia surgery two weeks after Boston. This year, the week before this month’s Cherry Blossom Ten Mile run in Washington – Beach is the only runner to have completed every Cherry Blossom race since its inception in 1973 – left knee pain hobbled his preparation. Beach completed the race in 1:44:45, just over his goal pace of 10 minutes per mile.
“When it gets close to these two races, I tend to be a little more cautious and paranoid,” he said. “But over the years, there’s no doubt I’ve been extraordinarily lucky.”
Chris Bain, from Cabin John, Maryland, has a deep appreciation for Beach’s streak. Like Beach, Bain started his Boston streak while an undergraduate at Harvard. Bain now toes the line for his 22nd straight Boston Marathon. “I keep track of (Beach),” Bain said. “He’s exactly 20 years ahead of me. I’d love to think I can do what he’s done, but it’s hard to fathom, much less plan.”
Bain has been a prolific and talented local runner but now with three young kids and at age 41, his annual running focus is Boston. “I don’t know when (my streak) became a thing, but I just love everything about the race.” While Bain still runs well under Boston qualifying times – he finished in 2:42:56 two years ago – he is still three years away from Boston’s Quarter-Century Club and the relaxed qualifying time of six hours.
Beach’s longtime friend, training partner and Cherry Blossom race director Phil Stewart labeled Beach’s annual Boston trek “Ben’s Burden” long before Beach owned the record. In a strange coincidence, Stewart, too, developed dystonia; although Stewart’s is less disruptive, both have received treatment at the National Institutes of Health. Beach and Stewart ran Boston together in 2013.
“Once Ben got to 50 in a row,” Stewart said, “I think he became a little more philosophical. If something came up now so that he couldn’t run or he didn’t qualify, he could live with it.”
That may be. But with the streak record his own – and growing more Ripkenesque each year – Beach has within his sights a new and greater goal: the record of 58 Boston finishes, held by marathon legend Johnny Kelley.
“I’m not another Johnny Kelley,” Beach said quickly. “He was an Olympian (1936 and 1948), won Boston (1935 and 1945) and finished second (seven) times. He’s an idol of mine for obvious reasons.”
But if Beach can maintain his streak through 2025 – six more years, when he would be 75 – he will have completed 59 Boston Marathons, the most ever. “If I can keep going, it’s within reach. But it’s harder to imagine now than it was 15 years ago.”
Some friends have suggested that Beach end the streak on his own terms and try something else. Because the dystonia limits his running to a few times a week, Beach swims, bikes and rows regularly. Moreover, he has the unwavering support of his wife and three grown children, who have regularly accompanied him to Boston on his annual pilgrimage.
“I feel good about the streak,” he said. “And I don’t want it to end. I’m struck by how adaptive human beings are. Runners know that the even slightest imbalance will almost guarantee an injury, but here I am, still bumbling along. The way my body has adjusted – it amazes me.”
He’s not alone in that regard. “I’m in awe of Ben Beach,” said Dave McGillivray, the Boston Marathon race director. “To do what he’s done for over half a century is mind-boggling. He’s the real deal.”
Tail wind or cold and stormy, running with the elites or just beating the cutoff time, count on Beach, left leg flailing, to finish. Because for Beach, it’s always spring and a good day to run, with cherry blossoms along the Potomac and the magnolia trees on Commonwealth Avenue perpetually in bloom.