By Christopher Roberson
For Julie Sgroi, the foreign language department head at Lynnfield High School, completing the Boston Marathon meant much more than just crossing the finish line on Boylston Street – it meant fighting for her sister, who was diagnosed with brain cancer last summer. “I thought it would be a great opportunity to run the Boston Marathon in her honor,” said Sgroi, adding that her sister has endured brain surgery, chemotherapy and radiation at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), and “I had never run the Boston Marathon before, and I knew it would be a very special moment having her see me cross the finish line.”
Therefore, Sgroi ran the race as a member of the MGH Emergency Response Team. “They successfully treated my sister’s husband for pancreatic cancer a few years ago, and now they are turning my sister into a miracle,” she said.
Speaking about the race itself, Sgroi, a resident of Newburyport, said the wind, rain and cold temperatures proved to be major obstacles. She said Race Director David McGillivray declared this year’s marathon as “the race for shelter,” as the weather made it tougher than the marathon he had recently run in Antarctica.
“It was really hard, the pain set in way too soon,” said Sgroi. “My shoes were soaked before I got to the starting line. I had thrown out the idea of racing in a particular time, and after watching several people being taken off the course, my new game plan was just to finish.”
However, her sister, her children and her students back in Lynnfield kept her going. “I thought about what my sister is going through and I thought a lot about my two children and my students,” she said.
In addition, Sgroi said Newton’s famed Heartbreak Hill was not as difficult as she had imagined. “Maybe the crazy weather softened the blow a little bit,” she said. “The most challenging parts were the hills after Heartbreak.”
One of the last challenges was dodging the rain ponchos that runners had discarded along Hereford Street. “I saw a few people slide on ponchos and almost get hurt,” said Sgroi.
After running down Hereford Street, Sgroi made the well-known “left onto Boylston” and could finally see the finish line a half mile away. “Turning onto Boylston Street was indescribable; it was hard not to tear up,” she said. “Because of the weather, it was a little dark, so the glow of the finish line lights looked like Times Square; that was really cool.”
In terms of training, Sgroi said she had a “fantastic coach from the Heartbreak Hill Running Company.” As both a teacher and a mother, she said, most of her practice runs began at 4 a.m. Sgroi also said her husband was always “very supportive” and would follow her runs with an app on his cellphone. “He would send me encouraging texts to keep up my good pace or that I was almost done,” she said.
Sgroi said she took a serious interest in running after her father passed away two years ago. “Running was a great way to de-stress and I wanted to run races in his memory,” she said. “That year, I ran several races, including a half marathon, my first marathon and I did the Mount Washington Auto Road Race.”
Peabody resident Cheryl Welsh, a third-grade teacher at Summer Street Elementary School, said she ran the marathon for the first time last year as a “bucket list item.”
“This year, I ran the marathon to start my 60s in a healthy and challenging lifestyle,” she said, adding that she trained by running 15-32 miles each week for the past year.
Speaking about the harsh weather conditions, Welsh said it was a stark change from last year’s marathon when temperatures soared into the 80s. “The weather for any Boston Marathon is always a question,” she said. “You just have to be ready for anything and everything.”
Welsh said the various scream tunnels kept her motivated along the route. “I enjoyed the many folks that lined the streets the entire 26.2 miles with their music, their bells and well wishes as well as the folks watching at home,” she said. “They will never know how much we all appreciated their enthusiasm and cheers.”
Unlike Sgroi, Welsh said Heartbreak Hill presented the greatest obstacle. “That’s when you have to dig deep inside and decide what you are made of,” she said.
Welsh said she took up running four years ago when she joined the North Shore Striders running club in Salem. “I have really enjoyed the camaraderie among our members during our group runs, getting outdoors with great cardio benefits as well as the serenity of my solo runs,” she said.
Wilmington resident Jessica Stryhalaleck, a Spanish teacher at Lynnfield Middle School, competed in the race this year and last year.
Although running a full marathon was something she always wanted to do, she never thought it would be possible. “However, when I surrounded myself with members of the running community who supported and encouraged me to reach my goal, I realized that running a marathon was indeed possible,” said Stryhalaleck. “I qualified for the Boston Marathon twice: at the Chicago Marathon and again at the Providence Marathon.”
Including Boston, Stryhalaleck has now run 12 marathons.
Speaking about her training, Stryhalaleck said that every week she ran “40 to 45” miles and participated in “two to three” strength-training classes. “I do much of my training at 5 a.m. or even earlier,” she said. “There are days when I will arrive at school having already run eight to 10 miles.”
In addition, Stryhalaleck said she considers herself to be an “outdoor runner,” having never used a treadmill during her training. “I ran through snow, in temperatures as low as six degrees below zero and in awful wind chills,” she said. “I enjoy the challenge of running in all conditions, which definitely served me well during this year’s Boston Marathon.”
Stryhalaleck said miles 12 and 13 was the most challenging section of the course this year. “Marathoning is very fickle, but the cold, rainy, windy conditions may have contributed to my not feeling great at a relatively early point in the race,” she said.
She said the last six miles were her favorite part of the run. “Despite the fact that I was hurting, and despite the weather, I had a great time interacting with the crowds during these miles of the race,” said Stryhalaleck. “I was floored by the number of people of all ages lining the streets to spectate; the conditions did not stop them, and I was very touched by that.”
After the race, Stryhalaleck found that her running outfit was so waterlogged that it weighed six pounds. “We laughed at the fact that I was carrying that much weight,” she said. “I was certainly not alone in being very, very cold at the finish. It took me quite a while to warm up afterward.”
Stryhalaleck said she has enjoyed running since the age of 12. “It connects me to like-minded friends; it is an opportunity for me to challenge myself and it allows me some time to myself to sort out my thoughts,” she said. “The mental and physical challenge of running makes me a better person off the road; I feel as though running helps me handle life’s challenges in a stronger, more positive way.”
Lynnfield resident Brittany Hunt, a paraprofessional at Huckleberry Hill Elementary School, also ran in the marathon, as a member of the Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge team. To date, she has raised $5,694 for cancer research.
“I am running in honor of my grandfather who is currently battling cancer and for all others who continue to fight as well as those who lost their battle,” Hunt said in a statement on her Dana-Farber webpage. “I feel extremely lucky to have the opportunity to raise money for such an amazing cause.”
Out of the four Lynnfield teachers who ran from Hopkinton to Boston, Stryhalaleck recorded the best time of four hours, three minutes, 30 seconds. She was followed by Hunt with a time of four hours, 18 minutes, 49 seconds; Sgroi with a time of four hours, 43 minutes, eight seconds; and Welsh with a time of five hours, 20 minutes, 48 seconds.