When second−year Tufts graduate student Sapna Bansil began training for the Boston Marathon this past September, she had never run a race in her life. She wasn’t an athlete. She wasn’t even exercising on a regular basis. Now, just seven months later, Bansil is ready to compete in one of the premier athletic events in the world.
“I think that’s the great thing about being on the Tufts team,” Bansil said. “You don’t have to be a world−class athlete.”
On Monday, Bansil will be one of 98 runners representing this year’s Tufts Marathon Team, which includes graduates and undergraduates, alumni, parents, faculty and staff. While the size of the team was reduced this year from 200 to 100 — and then to 98 after two runners dropped out due to injury and pregnancy — by its sponsor, John Hancock, the team has still managed to raise more than $500,000 in support of childhood obesity research at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.
The team is overseen by Don Megerle, who spent 33 years at the helm of the men’s swimming program at Tufts and is now in his eighth year coaching the marathon team. While Megerle has never personally run a marathon, he fell in love with the event as a spectator.
“[The runners’] reactions, expressions, the tears, the joy — it was just indescribable,” Megerle said. “You have to be there to see it.”
Since then, Megerle has been as dedicated to his runners as they are to the race.
“Three years ago, I waited until a quarter to 10 for someone to finish,” he said. “When she crossed the finish line, you’d think she’d won the thing.”
The marathon course begins in Hopkinton, Mass., crosses the Wellesley and Boston College campuses, heads into downtown Boston and ends in Copley Square. The last half of the marathon is notoriously difficult, including the 0.4−mile−long Heartbreak Hill in Newton at roughly the 20−mile mark of the race.
While training hasn’t been easy, especially for first−time runners, Megerle has been there every step of the way. When Bansil recently received treatment on a sore foot at 7 a.m., Megerle was there with her. When first−year graduate student and fellow first−time marathoner Jen Iassogna needed treatment on her leg a couple of weeks ago, Megerle was at every 7:30 a.m. physical therapy session.
“He’s one of the most important people I’ve ever met,” Iassogna said. “He loves Tufts and loves his runners.”
“His dedication to each and every one of us — for me, that was the thing that got me through in the beginning when the training runs were very hard,” Bansil added.
While some of the more experienced runners don’t require as much guidance from Megerle, he constantly sends the team emails with mental advice and does whatever he can to help them through the experience.
“The only thing I don’t do for them is I don’t run for them,” he said. “I do everything else.”
The team has been training since the fall, gradually increasing the intensity of its workouts and then tapering down. According to Bansil, the runners progressed from 10 miles in November to about 12 at the end of first semester, 15 in February and finally 19 in early March. Since then, they have been tapering; on Wednesday, they were all the way down to four miles.
For the runners, seeing the crowds surrounding the course is one of the most unique parts of the experience. Approximately 500,000 people come out to watch each year, including thousands of college students who gather at hotspots including Heartbreak Hill and the finish line in Copley Square.
With the race just three days away, emotions are running high.
“On Monday at 10:40 a.m., I was thinking about starting, envisioning every single hour,” Bansil said. “I kind of find myself thinking about the things I’m going to say to coach Megerle [at the finish line].”
But Megerle knows how it will go. There won’t be much need for words.
“When I see Sapna at the end of the marathon,” he said, “we’ll both hug each other and cry.”