Sandy Boyd thought he was signing up for little more than a long jog.
He’d enjoyed his first race, a 10-kilometre run on Mother’s Day in 1988, and thought the next step would be triathlons. Boyd signed up for an Iron Man event in 1989, but decided he’d try a full 42-km marathon in Saskatoon beforehand.
Decades later he laughs at how naïve he was.
“I had no idea what I was getting into,” says Boyd. “I’d trained but no coaching. I read some books, but that was it. So I went out and started running. First 10 km was great, first half was always nice. After that, probably about 30 km my feet started killing me.”
He finished the race in just under four hours — with stress fractures in both feet.
But Boyd kept running, and at the turn of the century he decided to challenge himself by running 50 marathons before turning 50. He’d already done around 25 at the time, and figured it wasn’t an impossible task.
“I’m always fairly optimistic,” he says. “Everybody else thought I was probably crazy but I thought, ‘yeah I can do that, it’s doable.'”
This weekend Boyd will run his 50th marathon. Boyd’s brother David is organizing the race on Pender Island, B.C., in his honour prior to his 50th birthday on November 25th. (He jokes he’ll have time to run another if anything goes awry.)
Most runners, according to Boyd, usually do two or three marathons per year. Boyd has already run five in 2016. His latest was last weekend in Winthrop, Wash., which he ended up winning.
“I was running in Winthrop and thinking, ‘geez, I just have one more and I’m done.’ It’s quite a nice feeling to think I’m coming that close to being done the goal that I set out for myself.”
Boyd’s running has taken him to races mostly around Western Canada and in Seattle. He’s from Calgary originally — Boyd, his wife Jeanette and children Sonje and Seamus moved to Nelson in 2007 — and used to push his kids in the local marathon while they were still in strollers.
He did six straight years with Sonje in the stroller and another with Seamus. Boyd remembers meeting someone at the race who was trying to break the Guinness Book of World Records mark for running a marathon with a stroller. “I said, ‘whoa, what’s the record?’ He said, ‘Four hours and some minutes.’ I’m like, huh, I’ve done five of them faster than that already.” (For the curious reader, the current record for a marathon with a stroller is two hours 42 minutes 21 set in 2007.)
In 2002 Boyd set upon qualifying for the next year’s Boston Marathon, which he calls the holy grail of races. To do it, he went to a Seattle race intent on running the required time of 3:10.00. It poured on the runners, but Boyd was unaffected. Three hours is the time semi-competitive runners try to break, according to Boyd, and he was on his way to doing so.
“I was flying. I was going to go under three hours,” says Boyd. “I was doing great, like 1:28.00 at the half.”
With just three km to go, Boyd decided he’d jump over a puddle rather than run through it. When he landed he felt a shot of pain in his hamstring. He tried stretching, but ended up hobbling to the finish line. “Not only did I ruin it for myself jumping over this puddle, not making Boston, but I ruined my dream of three hours there, too.”
Boyd’s never broken three hours, his best time is 3:05.00, but he did finally go to Boston in 2005. He remembers running alongside 16,000 people with thousands of spectators lining the streets.
“It’s just a magical place because you’re running and everybody’s happy to be there because they qualified and are there and are just having fun. Everybody’s cheering for you, especially. It’s a nice thing.”
Yet despite years of running, Boyd still has a hard time articulating why he keeps it up.
He likes the challenge, and how natural it feels for his body to run. But that’s before the pain sets in. Boyd broke his back surf kayaking in the 1990s, and the injury still nags at him in the latter stages of a race.
“Why I like it, I don’t know,” says Boyd. “A marathon isn’t a comfortable race to run, and after 49 of them I was [talking to a] race director who’s an ultra-marathoner. He said, ‘was it fun?’ I said, ‘yeah the first 35 km is fun. It’s always fun. The last seven km are always miserable.'”
This year Boyd has taken his time in competition. He’s not trying to break three hours anymore. Instead he talks to people during the race, offering encouragement and taking in the sights. By slowing down, Boyd is having more fun.
Naturally friends ask him what he’ll do after he’s done 50 races. Ultra-marathons appeal to him, Boyd did the Mount Robson 50-km ultra in September, but it’s more likely he takes some time off. His race isn’t over, but he’s in no hurry to get to the finish line.
“Everyone says well what are you going to do afterwards?” says Boyd. “Are you shooting for 100 before you turn 100? Or are you going to be a couch potato?
“I’ll probably spend a couple weeks on the couch.”