Boston Marathon: Why I'm running

Jennifer Phinney ran her first marathon -- the Boston Marathon Shadow Run -- at her military base in Iraq in 2007, and now, 11 years later, she will run her first Boston marathon -- in Boston. Courtesy Jennifer Phinney

Some might wonder why a person would subject himself or herself to running 26.2 miles -- the chafing, the shin splints, the torture. But for many runners, the "why" far outweighs the aches and pains. Heading into the Boston Marathon (April 16), here are the stories of four runners and what is pushing them mile after mile (after mile).

"Running is my therapy."

In 2007, when Jennifer Phinney learned that her 18-month deployment would be extended by six months, she dealt with the disappointing news by running -- and winning -- her first marathon. She did so without having to leave the base in Iraq.

The Boston Marathon Shadow Run, a simulation of the race in Massachusetts, was held at 5 a.m. to avoid the 130-degree daytime temperatures. Phinney ran it in less than four hours -- and there was not a single spectator to cheer her on.

Even before she returned home from Iraq, she signed up for her second marathon, the Twin Cities Marathon in Minnesota. Now the 41-year-old has run six marathons, including a six-hour finish at Grandma's Marathon in Duluth, when she was eight months pregnant. She received two roses at the finish line, one for her and one for her unborn daughter, Taylor. That is still her nine-year-old's favorite bedtime story.

To mark the 11th anniversary of her Iraq victory, Phinney, who retired three years ago with 20 years of service and is now a hairstylist in Austin, Texas, decided to run her first Boston Marathon -- in Boston.

"[Running in Boston] is very symbolic for me," said Phinney, whose father inspired her to join the military. "It makes me think of all the soldiers I deployed with: the people who never made it home, the people I know who have no legs, and how it affected even just the families and the kids who are around us.

"Running is my therapy. Sometimes I find myself crying because I am so high on life when I am running, and sometimes I reflect on those soldiers, and it chokes me up."

On race day, she says she's ready to soak it all up: the runners, the energy, the spectators. "When the music starts and the national anthem plays, it will all be very emotional for me," Phinney said.

"I got another marathon in me."

William Pioli wanted to spend Christmas and New Year's training for his first Boston Marathon in April. But when his employer, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, needed people to set up power lines in Puerto Rico after the devastation caused by twin hurricanes Irma and Maria, he was the first to volunteer.

Pioli headed to San Juan in December, and for a month, he worked long, rigorous days with his team. The weather was humid, and the uneven terrain made progress difficult. The 66-year-old's only opportunity to train for Boston was before the sun rose. So at 4:30 a.m. every day, he woke up, stretched, started his GPS watch and ran a little more than six miles in the capital city. Sometimes he'd catch a late-night pub crawler walking home.

For 2018, he found a few reasons to run his fourth marathon. He and his wife, who is a teacher, are retiring. He thought to himself, "I am going to do one more marathon this year before I retire, and running the Boston Marathon would be the best way to end my 54-year running career."

Another inspiration to run is his daughter, Captain Susan Pioli. She is assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Pioli calls her "Captain Susan" when he talks about her. "You qualified, Dad. You have to take advantage of it," she said to him. He thought to himself at the time, "I got another marathon in me."

On race day, quitting is not an option, he says. He wants to repeat or better his qualifying time of 3:29.

"Just to make a point that I am legit," he said.

"I am very fortunate to have recovered."

When Devin Strzempek ran a 10-mile road race in 2016, little did he know that four weeks later, his life would change completely. The then 28-year-old suffered a rare spinal cord stroke, leaving him with no feeling in the lower half of his body. He couldn't stand or walk. The doctors were unsure if his muscles would ever regenerate.

Strzempek immediately started physical therapy. At first, any movement seemed impossible. He lost his stamina and his sense of balance. But after several weeks of therapy, he could stand up. Then, he could walk from his couch to his bedroom. Throughout his recovery, he thought to himself, "I need a big goal to work toward. Only then will I be able to push myself."

He decided to run the Boston Marathon, his first 26.2-miler. It might take years to reach that goal, but it would mean everything for the Boston native to say, "I couldn't walk within my apartment two years [ago]. Now I ran 26.2 miles across my town."

After the first year of physical therapy, he reflected on his significant progress and decided he'd run the 2018 Boston Marathon. "I am very fortunate to have recovered the way I have," he said. "Being younger and healthier when it happened was definitely a blessing that I don't take for granted because it helped my recovery in the long run."

To train, the 30-year-old runs every day before work, and he takes the steps to his third-floor apartment. He still can't differentiate between hot and cold and sharp and blunt objects, but he thanks his body every day for what he can do.

On April 16, he has one aim: to finish the race. It doesn't matter how long it takes him. "I have been the person cheering runners on and having a good time in the stands," he said, "and now when I run up the final hill towards the finish line, I will definitely need the spectators' energy."

"I'm crossing this finish line for both of us."

Fourteen years ago, the day before the 2004 Boston Marathon -- and 13 days after the birth of her first daughter -- Susan Leggett Day lost her father, Jim Leggett. He'd gone on a run in their hometown in Ohio and suffered a heart attack. He was a seemingly healthy 58-year-old and liked to boast that he had the blood makeup of a 22-year-old -- a bragging point his doctors once told him.

The morning before his run, the two promised each other that they'd run the Columbus Marathon together that year and qualify for Boston. This had been the goal ever since they ran the 1998 Columbus Marathon, their first and only marathon.

For several years after her father's death, Day felt guilty when she went on runs. She thought running a marathon without him meant leaving him behind -- leaving his dreams behind. She also blamed herself for his death. He had taken up running when she ran cross-country in high school, and had he not been running that day, he'd still be alive, she thought.

But that attitude changed after she listened to survivor stories from the 2013 Boston bombings. "I thought to myself, 'This is ridiculous. I have this wonderful opportunity to do something that I love and have it coincide with something that will bring honor to my dad's name and fulfill his dream. Why would I not do this?'" said Day, who qualified for Boston by running the 2016 Columbus Marathon.

As the 46-year-old trained for Boston through the cold Ohio winter, she thought of her father and the time they ran the Columbus Marathon 20 years ago. They stayed together for 17 miles, after which he insisted that she go on ahead. He didn't want to hold his daughter back. It still bothered Susan sometimes that she'd left him behind -- after all, running was "their thing."

"He started that run 14 years ago and never made it home. I'm crossing this finish line for both of us," Day said. "I want to be able to say, 'It took me a long time, Dad, but I accomplished it.'"