By Jonathan Gault
April 19, 2019
When Stephen VanGampleare first received the email stating that he’d be starting two minutes after the elite field at the 2019 Boston Marathon, he ignored it. 2019 was his fifth consecutive Boston, and he felt he knew the process well enough by now that he didn’t have to read through the entry materials he had received in the mail from the Boston Athletic Association, which organizes the race.
Had he done so, he would have noticed a small but significant change. In each of his previous Boston Marathons, the “Start Schedule” section read as follows:
Elite Men & Wave One 10:00 a.m.
This year, that section read differently. A couple of weeks before the race, VanGampleare was reading a LetsRun messageboard thread about the Boston Marathon that explained that the start procedures had changed for the 2019 race. Confused, he went back through his entry materials, and found this, under “Start Schedule”:
Elite Men 10:00 a.m.
Wave One 10:02 a.m.
It was confirmation of a move that the B.A.A. had decided to implement following an unusual situation in the 2018 race. B.A.A. policy stated that only athletes from the Elite Women’s Start were eligible for prize money (which required a top-15 finish). But after historically awful weather conditions led to a slew of high-profile DNFs and several women from the mass start running times that placed them in the top 15 overall, the B.A.A. received criticism; why could men from the mass start earn prize money but women from the mass start could not? So, in a misguided attempt at gender equity, Boston created an Elite Men’s Start for the 2019 race, with Wave One starting two minutes later.
Initially, VanGampleare was disappointed. He knew his PR of 2:24:25 from the 2017 California International Marathon was not fast enough to get him into the Elite Men’s Start, with its cutoff of 2:19:00. But he was also frustrated. He didn’t understand why the B.A.A. had made the change, and after an email to the B.A.A. went unanswered, he went to Twitter to vent:
@BAA Is it because you’re upset you had to pay money to people that weren’t in the elite field last year, or is it just because you’re trying to eliminate as much of the competitive aspect as possible from the race?
— Stephen VanGampleare (@run_svg) April 2, 2019
By Marathon Monday, VanGampleare had completed his own personal five stages of grief and come to terms with the situation.
“At the end of the day, that’s the decision that they made,” VanGampleare says. “I wasn’t extremely happy with it, but that’s what they decided so you’ve just kind of have to go out and deal with it.”
VanGampleare did more than “deal with it”: on Monday, he ran the best marathon of his life, slashing almost six minutes off his personal best to run 2:18:40 and qualify for next year’s Olympic Trials. He finished 26th overall, but first among runners from Wave 1, earning him an unofficial title in the process: 2019 Boston Marathon Open Division champion.
VanGampleare, a 28-year-old manufacturing engineer from Colorado Springs, is a fitting winner of the Open Division. He doesn’t have a coach, and he doesn’t have a team, but he does run a lot of miles: between 110 and 115 per week on average during this buildup. He had a brief, undistinguished collegiate career at Creighton University, where he recorded a best finish of 39th at the Missouri Valley Conference Cross Country Championships in 2008 before leaving the team after what he terms “a difference of opinion” with the coach following his sophomore year (Creighton did not have an official track team; VanGampleare thinks his fastest 5,000 in college, run in an open meet, was 15:59).
Since making his Boston debut in 2015, VanGampleare has steadily improved each year (aside from the weather disaster in 2018): he ran 2:33:35 to finish 121st overall in 2015, and improved to 2:33:28 for 50th in 2016, then 2:25:35 for 37th in 2017. Last year, on the heels of his 2:24 at 2017 CIM, VanGampleare thought he was ready to run even faster, but he was derailed by the weather in Boston (203rd in 2:42:45) and wound up fading in the second half of Chicago in October, running 1:10:17/1:15:01 for 52nd in 2:25:18.
“I’ve felt for a while now that I’ve been capable of running low-2:20, 2:22, somewhere around there,” VanGampleare says.
But he wasn’t expecting a sub-2:20 in Boston, let alone an Olympic Trials qualifier — a significant goal of his for a long time.
“At that [finish], I think I was — still kind of am — in a little bit of disbelief that I actually hit that time,” VanGampleare says.
When VanGampleare arrived at the start area on Monday morning, he knew he wasn’t going to be able to start with the elites, but couldn’t help but think about what might have been, gazing at the 67 men in the elite start, divided from the masses by a wall of volunteers in neon jackets.
“It kind of sucks,” VanGampleare says. “It could have been just trying to pack up with all those guys from the get-go, and instead I’m going to be trying to chase them down. And if I do chase them down, by the time I catch up to them, they’re probably going to be moving slower than I’m going to be moving. It’s not like we’re going to be able to work together or anything like that.”
The sound of the gun to send the elites on their way was followed by 120 seconds of scrambling. As the volunteers slowly stepped backward, creeping toward the start line, VanGampleare felt other occupants of Wave 1, Corral 1 shoving their way forward to find the best starting position. This is not uncommon at road races, but VanGampleare says that it was worse than usual compared to the previous Bostons he’s run.
“It seemed like everyone really felt like this was the start of a whole different race and they want to be out in front of it,” VanGampleare says. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh man, somebody’s gonna get run over at the start of this thing.’ And as soon as the gun went off, I saw a couple guys over to my left go down.”
Starting with the masses didn’t impact VanGampleare’s strategy. He’s always been good at holding back early in marathons, so when he saw a few guys take off early on the opening downhills in Hopkinton, it wasn’t a problem for him to hang back. Even if he had started with the elites, VanGampleare doesn’t think he would have been tempted to pick up the pace early on.
“I’m well aware that I’m not at the point where I can sustain 5:00 [mile pace] for an entire marathon,” VanGampleare says.
Eventually, VanGampleare settled into a group of four or five through the first 10 miles (he hit halfway in 1:09:50), but that pack gradually whittled down, with his final rival dropping back around the start of the Newton hills at mile 16.
At that point, VanGampleare wasn’t aware that he was leading the open race; he wasn’t sure he had caught all of the guys who went out hard in Hopkinton. But the fans in Newton quickly clued him in.
“I started having people yelling at me ‘Hey, you’re the first regular guy!'” VanGampleare says. “I guess that’s kind of a compliment?”
As VanGampleare began blowing by athletes from the Elite Men’s Start, he knew that if he was passing them despite a two-minute headstart, they were probably in the midst of a bad day. But it still gave him a confidence boost.
“It’s still kind of reassuring to be like, you know what, these guys are in the elite field, I’m performing as well or better than them right now so there’s no reason why I can’t be there someday too,” VanGampleare says.
He also began looking at his watch. A lot. Usually, VanGampleare tries to ignore his watch, only glancing at it occasionally to ensure he hasn’t drastically fallen off pace. But with the clocks on the course displaying the elite men’s time, he checked it more than usual in Boston — especially in the final mile, when he realized a Trials qualifier was within reach.
So does VanGampleare view himself as a winner? Stephen VanGampleare, 2019 Boston Marathon Open Division champion?
“No,” he says with a laugh. “To me, the winner is the person that has the fastest time, no matter what part of the field they’re in, non-elite or the elite. But that’s also always been one of the more appealing parts of the marathon. Yeah, you can be an elite but that doesn’t mean you can show up and not have to worry about some random guy from who-knows-where coming out and beating you on that day.”
Indeed, that’s VanGampleare’s biggest takeaway from his 2019 Boston experience. VanGampleare believes that he may have been able to run faster under the previous start procedure — and it certainly would have made things easier for him by giving him more people to run with, particularly over the final 10 miles when he was running solo.
But more than anything, VanGampleare can’t help but think that one of the best things about Boston — the chance for anyone to take a crack at some of the best runners in the world — has been lost.
“I think if this is going to be how the race is going forward, you definitely lose a little bit of the intrigue of the possibility of someone from the non-elite field having a big day and cracking the top 15 and getting some prize money, like happened last year,” VanGampleare says. “I think it’s a unique aspect of marathoning, and it would be nice to have that stick around at a race like Boston.”
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