Early on the morning of April 16, just hours before he ran the Boston Marathon, Father Ryan Lerner stepped out of his hotel into a cold rain. Boarding a shuttle at Boston Common, he rode to Hopkinton, where nearly 27,000 other runners huddled under large tents in the Runners’ Village at Hopkinton Middle/High School.
Father Lerner, 37, secretary to Archbishop Leonard P. Blair and chancellor of the Archdiocese of Hartford, was about to run the eighth marathon of his life – his second Boston Marathon – and with the help of friends, family, co-workers and parishioners – raise over $12,000 for The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. Founded 30 years ago by Paul Newman, the Ashford, Connecticut-based camp provides “a different kind of healing” to children coping with cancer, sickle cell anemia and other serious illnesses through summer sessions and family weekend programs, and through year-round outreach to hospitals and clinics throughout the Northeast.
In the staging area in Hopkinton, runners wore layers of clothing to keep warm; some donned ponchos and even garbage bags to stay dry.
“Of course, everyone was ultimately competing against each other, but the fact that we were all dealing with the same tough weather conditions provided a certain solidarity to all of it,” Father Lerner said.
“Once we stripped off the pre-race layers, we were all in the same boat — wet, cold and eager to run. You couldn’t help but think, though, of the many who go without shelter or dry clothes on days like that. It put things in perspective.”
As is his custom before the start of any race, just before the first wave of runners kicked off at 10 a.m., Father Lerner prayed silently — thinking about the long run ahead, thinking of those who are suffering and thinking of the Hole in the Wall Gang campers and their families, to whom he was dedicating the race.
The gun went off and after a bit of jostling and shuffling, Father Lerner found his stride and launched down Route 135, clicking a button on his watch to keep track of time and pacing.
“It’s critical, especially in the early miles to find your pace. I was shooting for 6:30s and the rolling downhill of the first several miles made it challenging to stay in control without tensing up.”
As he approached the town of Ashland, the second of eight towns and cities on the way to Boston, he thought of how he’d started running cross-country and track at Manchester High and then at Trinity College, and of how running taught him discipline, perseverance, goal-setting and the camaraderie of being on a team.
He also thought of his three running mates in Connecticut, a high school athletic director, a high school coach and teacher, and a customer accounts analyst for an aerospace manufacturer. Although Father Lerner runs most mornings alone around Hartford and West Hartford, the four get together at least once or twice a week, if not for a pre-dawn run in Coventry or Manchester, then for the long runs that are a necessary part of marathon training. In February and March, the group completed two 16-18 mile trail runs at West Hartford’s Reservoir 6 in pounding rain and temps in the 30s, which was fitting preparation for the Boston Marathon’s conditions.
Father Lerner has run since he was 14, starting about four years after his twin sister, Meg, began running. He runs the Manchester Road Race every Thanksgiving. Besides Boston, he has run marathons in Richmond, Va.; Hartford; and Burlington, Vermont.
Now on Route 135, wearing bib 1936 in the 2018 Boston Marathon, he clocked an average of 6:08 minutes per mile for the first five kilometers.
“Too fast,” he thought.
At the 10k mark, he was running 6:15; at 15k, 6:23; at 20k, 6:32. Nearly half-way through he was on pace. As he ran, he prayed in a way that’s similar to his approach to priestly ministry. “I pray to God that I do my job: ‘Let me do well with what you’ve given me.’ That simple prayer throughout the race kept me focused,” he said.
The raw cold and rain continued along the route into Framingham and Natick. For the first few miles, Father Lerner could not feel his toes, saying his feet were “like two stumps.” At the same early point in the race, he and all of the other runners were soaked to the bone.
“Whenever I got pulled into thinking about myself, my discomfort, how the weather would impact my race, the inevitable pain of the later miles, and so on, I would notice someone racing with a prosthetic leg or in a wheelchair,” he recalled. “At one point, I was passed by a blind runner accompanied by a guide. And I was thinking about the Hole in the Wall Gang campers.”
The night before the race, Father Lerner and 17 of his teammates attended a dinner hosted by the camp in downtown Boston. Camp staff and volunteers, as well as campers and their families, attended and some shared their stories.
“These amazing kids are up against seemingly insurmountable odds, and yet face each day, every challenge, with courage and hope,” he said
The cheering from the sidelines was a constant source of encouragement. Thousands of spectators lined the course, wrapped in garbage bags and ponchos and screaming for each runner like they were family. At about 85 minutes into the race, Father Lerner knew he was nearing the marathon’s halfway mark.
At about mile 20, he started up Heartbreak Hill near Boston College, which is the fourth in a series of hills over the course of a few miles in Newton before the final descent through Brookline into Boston.
“I always try to be strong on the hills,” he said. “That started when I was in high school. But what was neat about this run is that I felt stronger toward the end than I’ve ever felt in a marathon. Usually mile 20 is where I’m expecting to hit the wall and start to fall apart. That was not the case this time.”
Father Lerner kept up his pace fairly well over the next few miles. A groove in the pavement almost caused him to fall, just past the 24th mile.
It was at that point that he started to dig deep in order to run as hard as he could until the race’s end.
Soon the end was in sight.
“It’s an insane feeling to run into downtown Boston with 25-plus miles behind you. You make your turn onto Boylston and it’s absolutely crazy. Crowds line the street and people are cheering from windows high up in apartment buildings. … The rain was pounding. I could see the finish line and it seemed that even the police, who were present from beginning to end, were rooting us through the finish. The volunteers all but embrace you when you cross the line,” he said.
Father Lerner crossed the line with an official time of 2:49:42. He placed number 558 over-all, out of 25,822 who finished. It was his second best time in a marathon. His fastest was in Boston in 2006, when he finished in 150th place with a time of 2:41:02.
When he crossed the finish line, Father Lerner said a prayer of thanksgiving to God, and with tears in his eyes, offered his run for the campers and their families, for all who suffer and for the intentions shared with him leading up to the race.
“That’s the kind of thing that keeps you focused,” Father Lerner said. The team of more than 25 runners raised about $250,000 for The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, enough to send 100 kids to a summer camp where they can let loose and have fun with kids like themselves.