Shannon Hays had run the Boston Marathon three times before this past Monday’s race, and each had come with unique weather conditions. Her first in 2009 had 10 to 15 MPH winds. Her second in 2011 had a helpful tail wind. Her third in 2016 was hot.
But the conditions the Forsyth Central High School teacher and cross country coach faced Monday were nearly unprecedented. Rain poured. The temperature dropped to 40 degrees, with a wind chill near 27 degrees. A blustery head wind reached gusts of more than 40 MPH.
The elements took a toll on the best of runners. Most of the elite professionals dropped out. More than 3,000 runners didn’t finish, and close to 4,000 were treated for hypothermia, including Hays.
But in the 122nd year of the historic race, Hays finished in 4 hours 25 minutes, nearly an hour more than her personal record.
“I just remember throwing every time goal I’ve ever had out the window and saying, ‘This is survival,’” Hays said.
Hays didn’t come to competitive running naturally. She mostly played basketball growing up in Kentucky. During a year as an exchange student in Sydney, Australia, Hays’ met another exchange student from upstate New York who ran competitively. She invited Hays on her training runs, and Hays discovered she could keep up.
Inspired, Hays returned to Kentucky and started a cross country team at her high school. Without a proper coach, Hays scoured running magazines for tips. Eventually, she came across an issue of Runner’s World. On the cover was Uta Pippig, a German professional runner who had just won Boston, so Hays began to research the race and was instantly intrigued.
Hays didn’t act on her interest until she started running marathons after graduating from the University of Kentucky. From the beginning, her goal was to qualify for Boston, but Hays failed her first nine tries.
“I had almost given up on it,” Hays said.
On her 10th try, Hays finally hit a Boston qualifying time in 2008 in San Francisco, finishing in 3 hours 34 minutes. She’s since ran 24 Boston qualifying times, including 11 before Monday’s race.
“When I failed those nine times, I had hope that I knew there was more, and it wasn’t something I was willing to give up,” Hays said.
Hays’ best qualifying time for this year’s race was 3:27, well under the 3:45 cutoff for her age group, which put her in the second of the race’s four waves of runners. Starting in the rural New England town of Hopkinton, Massachusetts, Hays could tell right away this 26.2 miles would be different.
The harsh elements kept away crowds that are normally three rows deep, which gave Hays a clearer view of the small towns of Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley and Newton that make up the course she didn’t get in previous races.
“Looking around I was like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know there was a town here,’” Hays said.
Enduring the elements created a camaraderie among the runners, and Hays needed the encouragement she felt from them, the race volunteers and the few spectators shouting from apartments and houses as she sensed the hypothermia building.
At one point, the cold and rain and pain were so constant that Hays needed a simple mantra to keep going: right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot.
“I knew that if I slowed down too much that the hypothermia could possibly kick in and get even worse,” Hays said. “I knew I had to keep pushing and persevering. I couldn’t stop.”
She did, eventually taking the race’s famous final two turns on Hereford Street and Boylston Street towards the finish line. Hays crossed and was immediately whisked away in a wheelchair to a heating bus. She needed another few hours in a medical tent before she was well enough to return to her hotel.
Even days later, back at Central teaching Spanish and helping coach the Bulldogs’ track and field team, Hays could still feel the effects of the grueling race.
But the experience did nothing to lessen the thrill for Hays of finishing the Boston Marathon again.
“Every time I’m there, I appreciate being there,” Hays said. “It wasn’t natural for me to get there. I had to work really hard and figure some things out. So it means something. It means something to cross that finish line.”