by Sasha Reddy
Of the 23,824 runners who qualified and applied to participate in the 2021 Boston Marathon – the world’s oldest annual marathon – nearly 10,000 were turned away. Though the race is sought after by hundreds of thousands if not millions of athletes across the globe, only a small fraction of marathon finishers ever get to see the starting line in Hopkinton, MA. Boston is like the biggest trophy in the case: it only alludes to the countless hours of waking up before the sun, diligently planning exercises around work and family time, and running through the pain of blistering skin, swollen joints, and physical and mental exhaustion that had to happen to attain it. Along with their coach and relentless cheerleader, Personal Trainer Jen Besten, these two HAC members were grateful to make the coveted 26.2-mile trek this past October.
Tushar moved from India to America 22 years ago to spend quality time with his family and explore all that the US has to offer. When he started running in 2015, it was out of self-indulgence. “This is my time,” Tushar admits. His two sons, who grew up playing sports and following NFL games, inspired Tushar to pursue a sport of his own. And it didn’t take long for him to notice the way running enriched his relationships with family, too. Starting his mornings with a jog at 4:30 am gave him the daily energy boost he needed to be fully present when visiting his mother, who was ill at the time.
Not long into his running journey, a friend of Tushar’s suggested that they try and run the Abbott World Marathon Majors together. “These races,” Tushar notes, “set in New York, London, Berlin, Tokyo, Chicago, and of course, Boston, are widely known in the running community for their challenging routes and legendary crowd, but also for their attention to celebrating cultural diversity, global inclusion, and above all, the human spirit.” It was an easy decision; the opportunity to travel and pursue his new passion abroad was too good to pass up.
After running his first-ever marathon in Philadelphia, Tushar went to Germany to attempt his first world major race in Berlin. “I was truly out of shape,” he laughs. “At the international level, everybody just comes so prepared. It’s just a different atmosphere.” Though it felt like he’d suddenly entered the big leagues, he was less concerned with running his best possible race than he was with enjoying the experience.
Still, that enjoyment would be cut short. At the 22nd mile of the Berlin Marathon, Tushar began to experience severe leg cramps. He was taken to a medical tent on the course and transported to the hospital soon thereafter. Though in pain and dismayed about falling short those last few miles, he wasn’t alone. “That moment changed my life,” he says. Looking around the hospital, he gazed upon many other runners who had found themselves in the exact same boat. It was one of the most humbling experiences of his life.
“I didn’t know anything about Boston as I started my journey”
“I rededicated myself to training with a focus on calmness, strength, and diet,” says Tushar. After returning from Berlin, he contacted Jen Besten for training help. “If I want to do it, I have to take it seriously.” he proclaims. In retrospect, Tushar laughs imagining Jen’s skepticism at having to show the ropes to a 48-year-old running newbie.
But Jen was excited to work with such a studious client. “Tushar is a very diligent athlete,” she praises. “He does the work that’s put on the plan and sees himself working towards a goal. He is very good at following what is put in front of him.”
In addition to training one-on-one, Tushar began taking Jen’s Strength Training for Runners class. Through talking to other participants, Tushar learned about the Boston Marathon – another of the world majors – and decided to reserve it as the last race of his circuit. “I didn’t know anything about Boston as I started my journey,” he says. “If you don’t have each and every aspect of your game figured out and have worked on it and mastered it, you can’t be at Boston. It’s the toughest course…I had to be in the best shape to go and qualify for it.” In the meantime, he set his sights on the other world majors.
“Running in these races has been an incredible experience for me. Well above and beyond anything I ever expected when I first set out to complete this goal.”
Over the next four years, Tushar jumped from London to Tokyo, then New York City to Chicago, slowly knocking out one race after the next. He even returned to Berlin to finish the race he had not been able to before.
“Running in these races has been an incredible experience for me,” Tushar says. “Well above and beyond anything I ever expected when I first set out to complete this goal. From crossing each and every iconic landmark (Brandenburg Gate, the Verrazano-Narrow Bridge, Tower Bridge, Asakusa, Tokyo Skytree, the Scream Tunnel, and the towering CITGO sign come to mind), to making friends among the throngs of runners who came to take part, each race left me with a set of unique memories that I am so fortunate to have experienced. Every starting gun was a ‘goosebumps’ moment for me, but especially in international races, not the least because of the pride that I felt to represent the United States and wear the American flag over my heart.”
By 2020 Boston was the only marathon left to check off. At 52 years old, the possibility of sustaining an injury and never being able to complete his last race was a real concern. Rather than attempting to qualify for Boston and risk being cut, Tushar was encouraged by his family and Jen to “take the charity route.” That is, rather than running a qualifying marathon, Tushar would commit to raising a certain amount of money for charity in exchange for an invitation to race.
“I took up a hefty goal because I never wanted it to be a walk in the park when it comes to Boston,” Tushar smirks. “If I’m not physically pushing myself, I can push somewhere else.” With support from every friend and family member he could possibly ask, Tushar successfully raised almost $20,000 for the TB12 Foundation, a charity he discovered after reading Tom Brady’s book The TB12 Method following his first go in Berlin.
What makes the Boston Marathon especially challenging is the great change in elevation – runners spend most of the time schlepping downhill, which requires some diligent pacing. When Tushar was finally able to run Boston, it was just as if not more challenging than he had been told. But thanks to the more “technical” aspects of Jen’s training, Tushar had mastered pacing himself through changes in elevation. After finishing the race, the feeling of achievement was unmatched.
“Boston was a work in progress,” Tushar says, “It took five years to get there – and it was worth it, everything.” It was the perfect finishing race to a life-changing marathon series across the globe. “[I’ve] completed 11 marathons and 8 half-marathons with a personal best time of 3:51 – none of which would have been possible without the support of my family, coaches and community. Ultimately, all the sacrifices made while training for these marathons were worth it when I felt the bond with the thousands of runners crossing the finish line, a moment of laughter, tears, and joy that we all shared collectively. By participating and completing the world majors, I have been fortunate to feel like a part of something much bigger than myself – a global running community which truly brings out the best of mankind.”
Renee Baffone is currently a stay-at-home mom of four. She still remembers the exact day she went out for her first run: Saturday, January 4th, 2014, when she ran/walked three miles to her first Weight Watchers meeting. “I knew I was done having kids,” Renee remembers. “I’m like, ‘I have to get my body back in shape.'”
Renee fell for running hard and fast. At times, she was training six days a week, getting ready to complete one race or another. During her third marathon, the 2015 Marine Corps Marathon in DC, Renee’s pace worsened from her previous 26.2-mile race. “In my head, I just thought you run a marathon every couple of months, and you get faster,” she remembers. “And I realize [now] that’s not how it works.” She got in touch with Jen on the train ride home to ask for coaching.
“I remember when I first sat down with Renee,” Jen says. “She mentioned the Boston Marathon.” Renee had already had her sights set on the race that many consider the pinnacle of a runner’s career. “I told her maybe, but it’s like peeling off a layer of an onion. You don’t just get there overnight. We do a little better each time, and eventually, things line up.” When Renee was training on her own, her focus was running as many miles as she could as often as she could. But Jen is a stalwart believer in quality over quantity. Every component of the training plan she devised for Renee served a specific strategic purpose, whether it was boosting run speed, upping endurance, or perfecting pacing. Jen also taught Renee to get rid of the “junk miles” – all the excess distance she’d been running when rest would have served her body better. With years of adhering strictly to the training plan set out for her, slowly, Renee’s performance improved.
“…every time I got that rejection letter, it just put more fuel in my fire…”
Since she began coaching with Jen, Renee has run at least four qualifying races and achieved the time necessary to register for the Boston Marathon. However, due to the race’s limited field size, she has gotten turned away each time. “I know how hard it was to run that pace for so many miles,” Renee says with tears in her eyes. “I would get my qualifying time and still get cut. And every time I got that rejection letter, it just put more fuel in my fire to get faster with Jen and get that time to get in.” Renee wanted to show herself, her family, and her coach that, even if something seems hard to achieve, you can do whatever you set your mind to. “If it’s in your heart, if it’s in your mind, if it’s in line with God, you keep trying.”
Renee feels fortunate to be able to have the support of Andrea Bradley, HAC Personal Trainer and co-facilitator of HAC’s running club. Andrea has traveled with Renee to all of her qualifying races, offering sideline support to push Renee through “when the wheels would fall off the bus.” Around the 23rd mile of Renee’s most recent qualifying race, a girl jumped onto the course to cheer on another runner who was just a short distance ahead of Renee. Fatefully, the girl that jumped in happened to be wearing a Boston Marathon jacket. Andrea, who had also found her way to Renee, began shouting enthusiastically,
“Do you want that jacket!? You need to follow that jacket!” Renee had already spent five years chasing that jacket – having it manifest right in front of her was like finally seeing the light at the end of a tremendously long tunnel.
Renee says that of all the marathons she’s run, her favorites have been Philly and Boston, her first and last. “It’s because I put no pressure on myself,” she says. “All the other ones in between, I was trying to qualify. I was running races and wouldn’t know what was around me. I was in complete tunnel vision.”
To avoid that feeling of absence she’d felt during many of her qualifying races, Renee decided to run Boston without listening to any music. “I just wanted to remember everything about the race,” she says. “I just wanted to take it all in.”
“It was unbelievable, and it was worth everything I’d put myself through physically for five years.”
The Making of a Great Athlete
Competing at such a high level requires serious dedication. “I travel 35-40 weeks a year out of 52,” Tushar says, noting how much of a juggling act it can be to find time to run. On many occasions, Tushar would schedule 20-mile runs on a Sunday, leaving him little time to rest before jumping on a plane for an important business meeting the following day. But once he’d found the motivation to continue training despite exhaustion, time constraints, and other obstacles, Tushar found that that motivation rubbed off on all other aspects of his life, professional and personal.
“You find a way. You make it work,” Renee concurs, “and that comes from within.” But running is equal parts a solo sport and a team effort. Even when you run alone, the coaching, wisdom, and encouragement of others are necessary parts of the equation. From fellow runners to spouses to family and friends, many people played instrumental roles in both Tushar and Renee’s journeys. Still, without one particular individual, crossing the finish line of the Boston Marathon might not have been possible for either.
“Just listen to Jen. Just listen to her.” Renee emphasizes. At points, Jen would write up a plan with a particularly challenging pace or long distance, prompting either Renee or Tushar to question, “Can I really do this?”. Upon remembering Jen’s unfailing confidence and leadership, that doubt was quickly quashed. “I trusted her. She believed in me,” Renee says. “She always set me up for success.”
“If she says something,” Tushar adds, “all I have to say is, ‘Am I doing it right?’ I have 100 percent faith in her and the team we work out with.” Tushar strongly believes that Jen’s leadership has made all the difference for him as a runner. Jen has always been compassionate, motivating, generous with her know-how, and an all-around wonderful human being. “That, I think, is the key ingredient.”