Beyond Mile 21 is a miniseries featuring the personal stories behind members of the Boston College Community about their journeys to run the Boston Marathon.
After his first three mile run at the beginning of his freshman year of high school, Nathan Whitaker, MCAS '18, wondered whether he should quit the cross country team at the end of the week. Six years later, he’s completed three marathons and is one month away from his fourth: the Boston Marathon.
Looking at Whitaker now, you couldn’t picture the unathletic high school freshman struggling to get through one cross country practice. Sure, he’ll be the first to assure you that he is by no means a fast runner, but his overall athleticism is undeniable. With a whopping three marathons under his belt since his first in his hometown of Seattle his senior year of high school, he’s no amateur when it comes to finishing the 26.2 mile course. And—as if running wasn't enough—Whitaker spends 20 hours a week practicing and racing for the men’s crew team here at Boston College in addition to the roughly 20 hours a week he trains for the Boston Marathon.
“It’s a lot to do crew and running at the same time,” admitted Whitaker. “[Last] Monday, we had a half hour test and a 20 [for crew], which is difficult, and then I ran 18 miles in the afternoon. That’s part of it—sometimes I just have days when I wake up in the morning and know it’s going to be hard.”
The Boston Marathon falls towards the end of the racing season for men’s crew, perfect timing for building up to such a feat in training both on the water and on the treadmill. Despite running two marathons before even coming to college, Whitaker was initially hesitant about going for another, wary of how it would affect his performance on the crew team. His sophomore year, however, his coach advised him to run the Philadelphia Marathon in November after the fall round of racing concluded for the crew team. One year later, Whitaker decided after some serious consideration that the stars aligned for him to run the Boston Marathon.
The timing—the tail end of his junior year—was just ripe for Whitaker. He reasoned that he should plan on reserving his senior year to focus completely on crew, but he still wanted to run one more marathon before he graduates from BC next May. “We’re already in Boston—if I was going to choose any random marathon to do, I might as well do this one,” said Whitaker. “I mean, I’d been to Marathon Mondays before, and they’re pretty fun. The people from BC always do really well.” Not knowing where he will end up after graduation, 2017 may be Whitaker’s last chance to run the Boston Marathon while living at Mile 21, so he decided to seize the opportunity.
What ultimately punched Whitaker’s ticket to the race, however, was the marathon’s emphasis on volunteering. “I had been looking for a volunteer opportunity in Boston anyways, and I figured I might as well combine running a marathon and volunteering in one event,” remarked Whitaker. He eventually settled on running for the Hale Reservation, which runs camps and educational programs for disadvantaged children on over 1,000 acres of land in Westwood, Mass.
“I really liked it because I grew up in Seattle, and I went to this little private high school, which was great. It was in the forest, and every time you went to a different class it was like going on a mini hike,” said Whitaker. “I think that’s one of the reasons I like exercising today.” From the extensive list of organizations runners can choose from, Hale was the only one that stood out, and by October, he had begun fundraising towards his $6,000 goal.
Although Whitaker has not made it out to the reservation yet, he plans to start volunteering there after Marathon Monday, using the time he’s dedicated to fundraising in the past six months to help out on-site instead. But before he can start thinking about that, the race still looms ahead.
For Whitaker, running a marathon has become something of a science. Tell him a day between now and April 17, and he’ll tell you exactly how much he will be running. Short run days—about eight miles or so—are his favorite for obvious reasons; long runs are his biggest dread in training because of their sheer exhaustion. “Your day is just done [after a long run]. I get home, and there’s no way I have any energy to do anything. Just eat dinner, take a shower, and go to bed,” he said.
Even though it’s his fourth marathon, Whitaker still shares every marathon runner’s fear of the dreaded “wall” that comes right around Heartbreak Hill and into Mile 21—right as he prepares to run past his friends and supporters. But so much experience and preparation means he’s managed to time every part of his run almost to the second. If all goes according to plan, he’ll cross the finish line on Boylston in just under three hours and 45 minutes, logging his miles at a sub-8:40 pace.
This time around, Whitaker is thoroughly prepared to conquer the 20-mile slump that hits at the bottom of Heartbreak Hill. “I’ve been running for a while, so I have some songs that really get it done,” he said. “I know what song I’ll be putting in for Mile 21, and I know what song will get me through Heartbreak Hill.” Kanye West’s “I Am A God” will push him up the hill, and a healthy dose of EDM featuring Tiesto and DJ Snake is cued up to accompany him through the gauntlet of BC students lined up on Mile 21.
After finishing the race and before heading out to the Hale Reservation to see the impact made by the donations he raised, Whitaker has big plans for Monday afternoon. “I’m definitely going to be eating a pepperoni pizza and sleeping the rest of that day,” he said. But come early Tuesday morning, Nathan Whitaker will be back at crew practice—business as usual.