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22 March, 2017


Mary Lou Hills in the Boston Marathon jacket that proved to be her motivation in crossing the finish line.
I like stories about ordinary people who have accomplished extra-ordinary things...There is generally an inspirational message in the telling and something special to tuck away in the back of our minds.

Take Mary Lou Hills of Southampton, for instance.  A homemaker and business woman approaching middle age, she preferred going for casual walks around town as a form of recreation until the year 2000 when her 20-year-old son was tragically killed in a car accident.  She started running after that for the therapeutic benefit and as a way to help her deal with debilitating grief.

"Running became a passion," she admits.  Runs around the block became extended runs along the streets of the Lake Huron community.  Her bedtime reading evolved into books on running strategies and techniques.  Then came the competitions -- five and 10-kilometre races, and a handful of half-marathons.

Mary Lou even completed the 30 km Around-the-Bay Road Race in Hamilton, but it was a half-marathon in Niagara Falls in 2010 that really changed her approach to her growing passion for running.  As fate would have it, she met Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to complete the Boston Marathon in 1967.  (A race official tried to rip off Kathrine's number partway through the event and disqualify her because women were not officially allowed to compete in the marathon in those days...She had entered the race "illegally" by registering as K. V. Switzer.)  Today, half of the Boston Marathon's participants are women.

From that point on, the 56-year-old Mary Lou dedicated herself to qualifying for the world's best-known and iconic marathon, drawing in excess of 30,000 competitors and more than 500,000 spectators annually.

Qualifying for the Boston Marathon is no simple feat.  There are stringent rules, Competitors must run in an officially sanctioned marathon and meet time requirements.  Based on her age, Mary Lou had to run 26 miles and 385 yards (42.195 km) in four hours and 15 minutes. In a year of advanced training, she ran five days a week, anywhere from seven to 20 km per day.  On her "rest" days, she stretched, did yoga and worked on exercising her core muscles.  Then there was a strict sleep schedule and an even more strict diet.

"It was carbs, carbs, carbs," Mary Lou recalls.  "I basically ate nothing but bananas and pasta for 365 days."  She admits that she may not have made it without the patience and support of her husband, Mike who became chief cook and bottle-washer in preparing her special training meals.  He also went out on training runs -- Mary Lou running and Mike on a bike, loaded down with water bottles and energy snacks.

"Most of all, he gave me emotional support.  He understood what qualifying for the Boston Marathon meant to me and he helped overcome any doubts that I may have had," she said on reflection.

Mary Lou decided on the Mississauga Marathon as her qualifier.  "It's a relatively flat course," she explained.  "I thought that would help my time."  And the strategy worked with Mary Lou crossing the finish line in four hours, 13 minutes and nine seconds -- with more than a minute to spare.

A few weeks later the long-awaited invitation arrived in the mail...A card with her name embossed on it read: "You Have Been Accepted Into the Boston Marathon."

"I'll never forget that moment," she said in an interview.  "I had done it...I had qualified for the Boston Marathon!"
Mary Lou enroute to her four-hour,
44 minutes finish of the Boston
Marathon in 2012.

"Qualified" is the key word.  Actually running in the marathon is something else again.  There are no shortcuts. It took another excruciating 12 months of preparation. This time she had a program specifically designed for the granddaddy of all marathons with emphasis on longer runs, faster times...and hills.  The Boston route is known for its uphill climbs, one of them being "Heartbreak Hill" that has proven to be the undoing of countless marathoners.

To make matters worse, the race is held in the early spring, so Mary Lou had to do her peak training through a Grey-Bruce winter of snow, sleet, rain and high winds.  A few days before the big race she developed pain and tightness in her hips that got so bad that Mike had to load a mattress into the back of their car, enabling his wife to stretch out on the trip to Boston. To make matters worse, much to the Hills' surprise, when they arrived in Boston after having their supply of bananas confiscated by U.S. customs, the area was in the middle of a spring (2012) heat wave.

"We thought the weather would be like Grey-Bruce in April, cool, maybe a bit rainy," Mary Lou said. Instead they were greeted with desert dry temperatures reaching 93 F, or 35 C.  Concerned about the extreme heat, officials strongly advised participants to consider deferring their participation in the race until the following year and thousands took the advice, but Mary Lou was not one of them.

"I wasn't going to let hot weather scare me away," she said.  "Although, to be honest, what really kept me from deferring to 2013 was the thought of another 12 months of training."

On the morning of the event, hundreds of school buses transport the participants to the starting line outside of Boston.  The runners are sent off in waves, with those in wheelchairs going first, followed by the top seeded competitors, then batches of 5,000 to 10,000 at a time...It was 45 minutes before Mary Lou's wave even started moving.

The heat was the worst of it, but the hills were a close second.  "It seemed like every time I looked up, there was another hill to climb," she remembers.  Gatorade Endurance, the drink of choice among runners, was freely handed out by the cup full at water stations along the course and kept our Southampton girl going at a determined and steady pace.

She also credited spectators with motivating her.  "There wasn't a metre along the whole route that wasn't deep in people, cheering and pushing us on."

I know from experience as a one time distance runner, that there can be a lot of negative thinking in the early stages of any race, especially one that is 42 kilometres long.  At some point, an inner voice speaks up and tells a runner that there is no turning back, similar to a second-wind.  Unfortunately for Mary Lou, that voice was a long time coming on this occasion and she found herself wondering if she would be able to finish.

She, however, had purchased a commemorative race jacket at a Boston Marathon Expo the day before and she remembered thinking "If I don't finish, I'll never be able to wear my jacket."

That thought was enough to push her aching, sweat-drenched body onward.  She crossed the finish line without stopping and in a more than respectable time of four hours and 44 minutes.  "I did it -- I ran the Boston Marathon!" she remembers screaming to herself.

The next day Mary Lou went out on the town to celebrate, her medal for finishing the marathon proudly hanging around her neck.  She and Mike ate the best cannoli available in Boston and had a beer at Cheers on Beacon Street, before taking in a Boston Red Sox baseball game at Fenway Park.

The best part of the day following the marathon, however, was waking up in the morning, opening the Boston Globe newspaper and seeing her name and time included in the race results.  "That's when what I had accomplished really sunk in...I was part of an elite club of runners who had finished the Boston Marathon," she states with understandable pride.

She thinks her son would be proud too.

Without question, Mary Lou Hills demonstrated that with determination and supportive motivation, it is possible to turn a tragic personal loss into an amazing accomplishment.  She has been an owner of a general insurance brokerage in Southampton for 25 years and continues to be active in the community as a volunteer advocate and vice-chair of the Business Improvement Association.

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