Physician, heal thyself.
Or, um, anyway … heel thyself?
Dan Larson didn’t want to stop. As any marathoner will tell you, who does?
Of course, sometimes you need to stop.
He had been suffering flu-like symptoms all week, fever and chills the night before, but nevertheless there he was on Monday, April 21, 1975, trudging his way through his sixth Boston Marathon.
He had just about reached the 15-mile mark, Heartbreak Hill still miles from the horizon, and if the effects of strep throat weren’t compelling enough to pull himself out of the race, he could at least be pushed out.
His girlfriend at the time saw him running by, saw the misery in his face and posture, and urged, “Danny. Danny, you’ve got to drop out.”
He did drop out. He never did that again, until a global pandemic told him and everybody else to sit this one out on Monday.
Larson, a 68-year-old former Scotia-Glenville High School cross country runner who competed for Yale University on his way to becoming an M.D., is not only a member of the Quarter Century Club recognizing Boston Marathon finishing streaks, he’s almost at the top of the list. His 44 straight finishes include a sparkling personal course-best 2:27:41 in 1978, his intern year at Middlesex Hospital in Connecticut and the first year his future wife, Victoria, attended.
They haven’t missed one since, but the COVID-19 pandemic has brought everybody to heel, a little bit of a poignant echo to the only Boston Marathon Larson has failed to finish in 50 straight starts back to his freshman undergraduate year at Yale in 1970.
On March 13, the Boston Athletic Association postponed the Boston Marathon until Sept. 14, still miles from the horizon, and if by some miracle that happens, Larson intends to be there and maybe call it a career, if he can achieve the tidy milestone of 50 total finishes. In the meantime, like thousands of others on Monday, he has an alternate plan for “participating” in the iconic race, a nod to a global sports fixture that has been run on the Massachusetts’ holiday, Patriots Day, every year since 1897.
“I’ve kind of decided I have about one more marathon in me, and it’s going to be my 50th Boston,” Larson said by phone from his long-time home in Queensbury on Friday. “If that has to wait ’til September or until April of 2021 — or to be realistic, it might be 2022 — who knows? Life has lots of surprises and curveballs, so we’ll see what happens.
“For someone like me, this is very disappointing. I really had this goal of 50 finishes. But on the other hand, what difference does it make to me? It’s not like I’m a high school senior or a college senior. Can you imagine the disappointment there?”
At 44 straight Bostons, Larson is tied for sixth on the Quarter Century Club registry of active streaks, behind No. 1 Bennett Beach of Bethesda, Maryland with 52.
The only one disappointed when Larson was a college senior was his track coach at Yale, Bob Giegenback, who was OK with Larson running as a nobody freshman in 1970, but was less than thrilled in 1973 for his senior distance runner hitchhiking 110 miles from New Haven, Connecticut and sleeping on a frat house floor to run Massachusetts roads and hills for 26.2 miles while the spring track season was in full swing.
“I’ll let you decide how you’re going to put this in print,” Larson said. “But I had run a very good two-mile time in the Army-Columbia-Yale track meet on Saturday, and he knew the marathon was on Monday. And he said to me — he had this weird accent — he said, ‘Lahson, you’re not going to run the marathon on Monday, are you?’ And I said, ‘Uh, yeah, Gieg.’ He said, ‘Lahson, you’re going to fudge up your track season.'”
Only he didn’t say “fudge.”
And Giegenback was right, Larson had just run a two-mile PR in a meet that Saturday, ran Boston on Monday and didn’t come within 20 seconds of the PR the rest of the spring.
But his love of the Boston Marathon had firmly taken root.
By 1975, he was working on a modest streak of five finishes, with an avid desire to run Boston every year. And an entire streak of 50 finishes likely would be intact today, if not for the strep throat.
“Jim Forbes [a former Scotia teammate] was there at the start, and I think he was running as a bandit, and he said, ‘You know, Dan, you can give me your [bib] number,’ and I said, ‘No, Jim, I shouldn’t do that.’ And if I had, the streak would still be ‘alive,’ but then I’d be held to blackmail and ransom for decades after. And he would not be above doing that, I can tell you.”
Larson actually could’ve finished the 1975 race by walking it in from the 15-mile mark, but for a young runner used to hitting Copley Square in the neighborhood of 2:30, the prospect of a four-hour time carried no appeal.
He’s been aware for more than a few years now that his record would stand at 50-for-50 instead of 49-for-50, had he simply sucked up his pride in 1975.
“The line I’ve used many times: ‘Oh, the silly hubris and pride of youth,'” he said. “That false pride of youth. I didn’t want to do it in four hours, and if I’d only had that, I’d be there.
“Water over the dam, like so many other decisions one makes in one’s life.”
COVID-19 has taken countless decisions out of people’s hands.
It can’t remove the April yearning of Boston Marathon veterans like Larson, though.
Boston Athletic Association organizers and officials in the town of Hopkinton, Massachusetts, have been urging people to not show up at the starting point on Monday, even for the symbolic gesture of toeing the line. There’s a reason the race has been capped at 30,000 official registrants (85 were members of the Quarter Century Club last year) since 2015, and cramming even a small fraction of that into the tiny town would well exceed physical distancing protocols.
The BAA advisory applies to the entire race course.
So many Boston Marathon runners will be coming up with makeshift ways to honor the great race and everything it represents on Monday. For his part, Larson will be participating through a leg in a virtual relay.
“The people I’ve spoken to are running around their own neighborhood. One guy is doing it on a high school track,” he said.
“But you’re going to find these strange little things. I always have my traditional weekend meals, my rituals of what I have when, so I’m going to have my rice dinner on Sunday night, and on Monday Jimmy Forbes and his daughter, who legitimately qualified for Boston, are going to run 10 miles, and I said I’ll do the last 6.2. I’m taking the easy end of this one.
“I think there’s a bunch of us who are being pretty philosophical about it. I guess I’m an exercise addict, but I’m trying to put it in perspective and do the fun parts of it.”
The last two Bostons haven’t been much fun for Larson, in retrospect more of a nod to the streak than anything else, since the weather was so lousy in 2018 and 2019.
And he was operating under no delusion of capturing any faded glory this year, no matter the weather, since he’s still feeling some aftereffects of a biking accident last fall, when he broke his collarbone and injured his neck.
He wears a Yale track singlet for Boston every year and still has the blue one he wore as a freshman, even if a new one needed to be recruited several years ago “to accommodate my enlarging midsection.”
The Yale shirt will remain in storage on Monday, “reserved for special occasions,” he wrote in an email.
“When I realized I wasn’t having as much fun anymore, I thought, ‘You know, I’ll try to do this No. 50 finish,’ and then we’ll see what happens when I don’t have this self-imposed pressure,” Larson said. “And maybe I would still do it, I don’t know. I have every intention of doing the next one, whenever it is.
“Whether it’s this September or whenever, it’s going to be an amazing response.”