One of the bummers of getting older, as most baby boomers can attest, is that the list of stuff you don’t do as well as you once did keeps getting longer.
Bennett Beach, 67, can measure his decline with a stopwatch. Three hours, 27 minutes, 56 seconds: That’s the difference between his best time in the Boston Marathon (2:27:26) and his worst (5:55:22).
On April 17, he’ll be running the famous race once again. If he completes the course in less than six hours, he will have officially finished his 50th consecutive Boston Marathon.
No one has ever done that.
Nor, as far as he knows, will any of his 32,000 fellow racers be coping, as he is, with the rare and debilitating neurological movement disorder known as task-specific dystonia. Whenever he strides, Beach’s left leg gets hijacked by erratic signals from his brain. His walk is nearly normal, but for the past 15 years he has been running with a severe limp.
His pursuit of the milestone has been fueled in roughly equal measure by antithetical parts — an Ahab-grade obsession mixed with an older-but-wiser acceptance of his body’s limits. “If someone had told me 30 years ago I’d be struggling to finish this race in six hours, I’d have said, ‘Spare me.’ Now I’m grateful.”
Beach is a marathoner by demeanor: quiet, unassuming, self-effacing, iron-willed. And by body type: 5-foot-7, 125 pounds.
He played all sports as a kid, distinguishing himself at none: “I just didn’t have the size or strength.” As a senior in prep school, he happened upon a radio broadcast of the Boston Marathon. “It was 30 degrees, it was sleeting, and these guys were out there running 26 miles,” he remembers. “Just the sort of bizarre, crazy thing I was drawn to. I already knew I’d be in Boston the next year, so I decided I’d give it a shot.”
He’d never run a road race before, never had a track coach. As a Harvard freshman the following spring, he cooked up his own one-month workout regimen. He added a mile a day to his training runs until he topped out at 20 miles two days before the big race. “Laughably stupid,” he now says.
But it worked just fine. He finished that first marathon in 1968 in 3:23, well under his goal of four hours. “Here I was, an athletic washout, running a famous race, hearing my name called by the public-address announcer as I crossed the finish line. It was beyond my wildest dreams. Chokes me up just to think about it.”
When the 1972 marathon approached, Beach was no longer living in Boston. He was ringing doorbells in Wisconsin for George McGovern’s presidential campaign. By then, the race had its hooks deep enough into his DNA that he flew halfway across the country to run it for a fifth straight time. Psychologically, that’s when the streak was born.
“I’m a guy who latches on to things,” he says. “When I find something I like, I do it over and over again. It’s become part of my identity.”
On April 2, Beach ran in his 45th consecutive Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run in Washington. (No one else has done that, either.) This fall, he’ll host his 45th consecutive tailgate party at the annual Harvard-Yale football game. And on the first day of every month since he and his wife, Carol, started dating — 470 and counting — they do something they’ve never done before. Ben keeps a list. He can recite it by heart.
Through the decades — marriage, law school, three kids, a long career as an editor at the Wilderness Society, a grandchild — Ben has also kept running. In his prime, he trained up to 90 miles a week, willing himself into becoming a top-flight marathoner and keeping his times below the three-hour mark until he was just shy of his 50th birthday.
In 2002, his left leg started to misbehave. Whenever he ran, it would drag or clip his right ankle or fire off at other erratic angles. For four years, he consulted a procession of doctors, all of them baffled. Finally, a neurologist uttered the word “dystonia” and referred him to the National Institutes of Health near his Bethesda home.
His problem isn’t his muscles, the NIH doctors confirmed. It’s his wiring. For reasons medical science doesn’t fully comprehend, when his brain sends the “stride” signal to his left leg, the instructions get scrambled.
There’s no cure for dystonia, but Ben gets partial relief from injections of Botox into his left hamstring every four months. By weakening the muscle, the Botox renders it less susceptible to the neurological chaos.
He still trains for two hours a day, mostly by running stairs, biking, rowing, swimming or hitting the elliptical, all of which he can do with less difficulty than running. He limits his runs to 15 miles per week, which he calls “a lousy way to prepare for a marathon.”
With his lopsided stride, it’s amazing the rest of his body hasn’t broken down. But the marathon gets more grueling for him by the year, so much so that his grown kids have taken turns running for stretches alongside him to help keep his spirits up.
In 2013, Ben got hit with a searing pain in his left calf at the 10-mile mark, the worst muscle pull he’d ever suffered during a race. Stopping was out of the question. A Pennsylvanian who had started his own streak in 1967 had finally succumbed the year before to hip and back pain, so this was the race that would crown Ben as the consecutive-streak king.
It was also the year of the Boston terrorist bombing. Ben was in his 21st mile, on pace to walk his way to the finish line in just under six hours, when the race was stopped. Eventually, the Boston Athletic Association deemed that every runner who had been at least halfway through would get credit for a finish. That ruling preserved streaks not just for Ben and but also for dozens of others in the marathon’s Quarter Century Club.
Since then, Ben has been breaking his own record each time he finishes. And now, with 50 in sight, he’s also becoming a bit of a celebrity.
On the day before the race, he’ll be tossing out the first pitch at a Red Sox game (courtesy of a childhood friend with ownership connections). He’s also slated to appear at a BAA pre-race news conference and has been featured in a Dystonia Medical Research Foundation news release. His doctors consider him a marvel: “We have some patients who are able to continue running, but there’s no one like Ben,” said Katharine Alter of NIH.
Assuming he can finish this year in under six hours, some of Ben’s friends (and maybe Carol, who’s way too clever to comment) think he should retire on a high note and a round number rather than wait for time and dystonia to do their thing.
I’ve been Ben’s neighbor and friend for more than 30 years. Gingerly, I raised the subject with him last week as we were tossing a baseball in his back yard, prepping him for the big Fenway Park moment.
He dismissed the thought with a gentle smile. And no, it’s not only because there’s another 67-year-old with a 47-year streak nipping at his heels.
It’s because he’s still looking ahead, not behind. What he sees is the legend of Johnny Kelley, the most famous Boston Marathoner of all, who ran the race 61 times, finished 58 of them (but only 24 consecutively) and won the event twice. That’s the whale he’s still chasing.
“Fifty-eight seems like a long way from here,” he said. “But I have it in my head that some smart person is going to solve dystonia. That would be a game-changer.”