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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, May 25, 2024

The Boston Marathon is 26.2 miles, but the journey to get there is longer

Graphic for "Tufts Marathon Team" feature

Donald Megerle has never run a marathon. But that does not stop Coach Don, as his runners affectionately call him, from training 50 athletes from the Tufts Marathon Team to complete the race every year.

Megerle has been a part of the Tufts community for 52 years now, serving for 33 years as the men’s swimming coach before transitioning over to leading the marathon team in 2004. When he was first invited to take on the position, Megerle had to learn how to apply his coaching experience to a new field.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” Megerle said of his first year coaching the team. “I coached and I did all that other stuff, but I didn't know the structure of the marathon. I didn't know [about] fundraising. I didn’t know anything about bibs.”

But after the first marathon, he was hooked. For Megerle, supporting his team from the sidelines on race day is a feeling like no other.

“This is where I could start crying,” Megerle said, recalling watching his runners approach. “I'm at the finish line. And as far as I'm concerned, they're running to me.”

Megerle’s office is so covered in photos and gifts from his athletes that there isn’t a single spot of bare drywall. Megerle is proud of that impact. 

“It energizes people,” Megerle said. “They see the picture on the wall, they see the letter they sent me, all kinds of memorabilia, just everything about them and me and what I've done here — it's us.” 

What makes the Tufts Marathon Team unique is that any member of the Tufts community — including undergraduates, alumni, professors, dining staff and even former presidents of the university — have a shot at obtaining a marathon bib, which is the term for the participant number assigned to runners. 

Despite its open-door policy, for some runners, getting to the starting line in Hopkinton may prove more challenging than reaching the finish on Boylston Street. This is due to the challenge of fundraising. The team provides a coveted opportunity for runners to be able to set foot on the Boston Marathon course. Typically, to qualify, runners must meet challenging marathon qualifying times for collegiate-age athletes: three hours for men and three hours and 30 minutes for women. 

Fundraising provides an alternative route to qualification. John Hancock Financial, an insurance company, has long partnered with the marathon to provide bibs for charity-based teams who can raise money instead of posting a qualifying time. 

The Tufts Marathon Team has the largest number of runners in the charity program. From 2002–12, the Tufts Marathon Team’s contract with John Hancock Financial allocated them 100 bibs for each of the Boston Marathons. In the years since then, the team has been given 50 race bibs annually. 

This has given runners like senior Chris Hale the opportunity to race in Boston this April. 

“Getting to the Boston Marathon is really hard because the qualifying times are really challenging,” Hale said. “So we have the opportunity to join the Tufts Marathon Team and have the potential to run the marathon, [which is] awesome.”

Unfortunately, there generally aren’t enough bibs to go around, and not everyone on the Tufts Marathon Team is guaranteed one. Sheyla Zakashansky, a member of the team, knew that her chances of getting to race in 2023 were slim as a first-year. She discovered the team after noticing their runs on Strava, a social media app where users can share their workouts.

However, Zakashansky wasn’t discouraged by the prospect that she would have to wait her turn for a coveted bib. She is motivated simply by her passion for the sport.

“I like running for the sake of running,” Zakashansky said. “For my main goal of doing the marathon by the end of senior year, I try to focus on the short term right now. I do it for exercise and I do it for [those] uplifting endorphins and happiness.”

Undergraduates aren’t the only ones vying for bibs. Margaret Branco is an employee of Tufts Dining Services, and at age 50, is set to run her first marathon this April with the team. 

“This is my dream,” Branco said. “I never had had a chance to get into the marathon.”

When Branco learned that Tufts had a marathon team, her manager at Tufts Dining Services put her in touch with Megerle, who came down to Dewick-MacPhie Dining Center where Branco was working to meet her in person and extend an invitation to join the team. Despite being older than most of the other runners, Branco does not feel left out. 

“I am like a mama for the group,” Branco said with a laugh. 

Branco enjoys getting to know other members of the Tufts community and running with them. 

“They welcomed [me] very well,” Branco said.“They are very nice, [we] take care of [each other] … when we run with each other, [we say] ‘keep it going, keep it going!’”

To qualify, Branco is facing an additional hurdle students don’t have to face: an additional $7,000 in fundraising. Student runners need to raise $3,000 for the Friedman School of Nutrition, but everyone else on the team, including Branco, has to meet a $10,000 requirement.

“It’s more … pressure for us,” Branco said. “$10,000. That's a lot of money.” 

But Branco is determined not to give up. 

“I need to figure it out,” Branco said. “Because this is part of the dream. Right? Nothing comes free.”

Such steep fundraising demands may be a barrier to participation for many runners, but Megerle is determined to not let it hold any of his team members back. 

“We have never, ever, not allowed someone to run the marathon based on the fundraising goals that they did or didn't achieve,” Megerle said.

That’s good news for Branco, and anyone else who faces the huge obstacle that fundraising can be. 

“I said [to her], ‘Margaret, here's what you do. You train with us. You commit to our program, and everything will be fine,’” Megerle said.

While competing in the Boston Marathon is a possibility for this year's batch of Tufts Marathon Team runners, future team members may not have the opportunity to use the fundraising option to get a race bib. This is because last fall, John Hancock announced that it will be dropping its sponsorship of the Boston Marathon after the 2023 race. After this year, Tufts will lose the 50 annual bibs John Hancock provided.

Unless the Boston Marathon can find a new charity sponsor to buy the bibs, runners from the Tufts Marathon Team won’t get any entries in the future unless they can meet the demanding qualifying times. According to Megerle, finding a sponsor for the charity program will not be easy.

“It has to be a big name [sponsor] because it costs a lot of money to buy these bibs,” explained Megerle.

For now, the team has to put its concerns about the future on the back burner and focus on the 2023 marathon as it rapidly approaches. No matter what times the runners post, they can be sure that Megerle will be waiting for them at the finish. 

“When it's all said and done, you're going to turn around, and I'll be standing there,” Megerle said. “It's unconditional.”