For 6 Vermont runners, the Boston Marathon is a journey longer than 26.2 miles
Training partners Nancy Johnston, Maxine Stent, Halie Lange, Elizabeth Bianchi, and Lois Sparks check out the finish line before this year’s Boston Marathon.

For 6 Vermont runners, the Boston Marathon is a journey longer than 26.2 miles

BRATTLEBORO — At first glance, the Boston Marathon started on April 18, 26.2 miles west of the city in the daffodil-dappled town of Hopkinton, Mass. But for six Vermont running friends, it began months earlier in a colder, darker place.

Lois Sparks of Vernon kicked off her training on snowy local roads in the predawn hours of January, having done so annually since her first race six years ago at age 57.

Nancy Johnston of Guilford joined Sparks and their headlamp-wearing peers each Tuesday at 5:55 a.m. after she realized the 2022 event marked the 50th anniversary of the official inclusion of women.

And Nicole James of Brattleboro, facing a chronic autoimmune disease, decided to participate upon learning she could raise funds to help Boston's Tufts Medical Center help people like her.

The trio, along with Elizabeth Bianchi, Halie Lange and Maxine Stent, spent the winter months preparing for the marathon, which drew 30,000 runners who had to meet stringent qualifying times and vaccination requirements in the first Patriots' Day race since pre-pandemic 2019.

Some 100 Vermonters from Burlington to Bennington stepped off on April 18 beside their Windham County peers, the latter who trained with the help of Lange's father, Hank, a retired multisport athlete who has coached locally since moving to Brattleboro almost a half-century ago.

The elder Lange, standing on a dark track just before sunrise one recent morning, pulled from an encyclopedia of trivia to illuminate his points.

Take the late 17th century English poet John Milton's quote, “The mind is its own place, and in itself. Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n.”

Good running, Lange said, aims toward reaching the in-between of purgatory.

Next came the song Do-Re-Mi from The Sound of Music. “Mi” is a runner's “me” pace, the coach said. “Fa” is indeed “a long, long way to run,” he continued. But try to hit the higher notes too early and you'll mess up the harmony of the full performance, he concluded.

By the time Lange cited his running-with-a-candle analogy - too slow and you won't finish, too fast and you'll snuff out the flame - he was encouraging his charges to find their own light.

“Peak performance has more to do with knowing and trusting yourself than any formula that I can prescribe,” he said.

Several runners wanted to race in Boston because of childhood ties. Bianchi, a nine-time Massachusetts capital marathoner, remembers handing a sponge to four-time winner Bill Rodgers in the 1970s.

“Running Boston myself, I have found great memories and meaning,” Bianchi said. “Seeing friends and family along the way, running through Kenmore Square when the Red Sox game gets out - the fans and support is amazing.”

James has dreamed of participating ever since watching the race as a child from her grandparents' house in greater Boston. Her autoimmune disease made it challenging to qualify. Then a charity team for Tufts Medical Center gave her the chance to run - until a last-minute Covid diagnosis sidelined her just before the start.

The silver lining: James still raised $10,000.

“My hope is that one day,” James said, “they will help someone like me find a new treatment or a cure for a disease that currently does not have one.”

For Halie Lange, the lone Gen Zer amid the group of middle agers, Monday was her first Boston Marathon. She nonetheless boasted the longest track record of them all.

“I have been running with this group since before I was born - literally, inside my mom,” the 26-year-old said. “As a kid I would set my alarm for 5:15 and go to the track with my parents. Now it is just a way of life - something so ingrained that no matter where I am, Tuesday mornings are always reserved for a workout.”

Lange appreciates the sisterhood.

“I was extremely lucky to have these women to look up to as a kid,” she said. “It is rare to find such a dedicated and strong group of seemingly normal people waking up each morning to push each other through the elements. They are my role models.”

For all of the 50-degree sunshine and 500,000 cheering spectators along the route, the race was a challenge. Lange, facing headwinds, finished in 3 hours, 25 minutes, and 57 seconds. Bianchi, Johnston, Sparks, Stent ran behind together and reached the end in just over 4 hours.

“To be honest with you, I don't even like running Boston,” said Stent, an occupational therapist for the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union. “It's actually my least favorite marathon.”

So why does she continue to climb Heartbreak Hill?

Because she can.

“Every marathon runner dreams of Boston,” Stent said. “It's an honor and an accomplishment to be able to run it. And I have so many of my running friends joining me, it makes it much more fun.”

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates