Boston: The holy grail of marathons

April 17, 2011 

Many distance runners describe the Boston Marathon as their sport’s Super Bowl, but in some ways that doesn’t seem fair.

The Boston Marathon has more than twice as much history (it turns 115 tomorrow), it has more than five times as many spectators (more than 500,000 spectators typically line the course) and when is the last time weekend warriors played in the Super Bowl?

“For a marathoner, the ultimate goal is to qualify for Boston,” said Tony Phillippi, a director of the Tacoma City Marathon who’ll run his 10th consecutive Boston Marathon on Monday.

“It took me until my ninth marathon and when I finally did, it was one of my most memorable moments,” he said of qualifying.

While Olympians, world champions and pro athletes battle to win the race, just getting into the race is a monumental achievement for most of the 27,000 participants.

You can get into the race by securing one of 2,000 fundraising spots and raising at least $1,500. But most have to get in by posting a fast qualifying time. That time is based on the runner’s age.

For Phillippi that meant several near-misses before finally getting in. In 2001, he needed to run a 3-hour, 15-minute, 59-second marathon (7:26 miles for 26.2 miles). He missed qualifying by 11 minutes at the Yakima River Canyon Marathon. Five weeks later he crossed the finish line at Olympia’s Capital City Marathon with what he thought was a good time, but he couldn’t bring himself to look at the clock.

He collected his finisher’s medal, talked to friends, returned his timing chip and went for a walk. Finally, standing alone in the park he mustered the courage to take a peek at his watch.

It read 3:15:39.

“I’d qualified by 20 seconds,” Phillippi said. “I let out a yelp and I was pretty happy for the rest of the day.”

He’s qualified for and run the Boston Marathon every year since.

Alex Bunn of Olympia is running his fourth Boston Marathon on Monday and also describes the race as the pinnacle of his running career.

“When you’ve qualified you are in an exclusive club,” Bunn said. “You don’t have to be an elite runner, but you have to work pretty hard. It’s something most people aren’t able to do.”

Once you get to Boston, that’s when the fun begins.

“It is the world’s biggest party,” Bunn said. “They go nuts. The whole town is on fire. It’s a kick.”

In nine previous Boston Marathons, Phillippi has seen almost everything. Many runners say the wildest part of the race is the section passing through Wellesley College, an all-women’s school.

“It’s this ear-piercing screaming,” Phillippi said. “They want to hug you, some women will ask you to slow down for a kiss. I’ve seen bare breasts. But if you run slower by the time you get there they’re all hoarse.”

The spectacle starts Monday morning at 7. Here’s a look at a few of the 92 South Sound runners who’ll be in the field.


Tony Phillippi

Tacoma, 49

Event manager

Qualified: 3:04:07

Monday will mark Phillippi’s 10th Boston Marathon and his 201st marathon, so if you think he’s a running maniac he won’t be offended.

In fact, he and two other running nuts found a club called Marathon Maniacs in 2003. All three of the founders (and many club members) will run Boston. For Steven Yee of Bonney Lake it will be his 261st marathon. It will be the 186th for Chris Warren of Renton.

Phillippi says it’s easy to get caught up in the pageantry at Boston and run yourself into the ground.

“It was intimidating my first time,” Phillippi said. “... The crowd makes the race. You have wall-to-wall spectators for almost all 26 miles. It’s easy to get sucked in and run too fast for the first half and then you’re really hurting for the second half. A lot of people make that mistake. You really have to be aware.”


Mark Thompson

JBLM, 46

Military doctor

Emelia Thompson

Boston University, 19

Qualified: American Medical Association fundraising.

Emelia has never run a marathon but as a sophomore political science student at Boston University, she is well aware of the race.

“It goes almost right through campus,” said Emelia, the youngest person with South Sound ties running in the event. “It is a really big deal for students. They wake up early to cheer. They line the streets and hang out the balconies.”

Emelia spends her summers living at Joint Base Lewis-McChord where her father, Mark, is stationed. Mark recently returned from a deployment to Afghanistan.

Mark is an experienced runner with 23 marathons. This will be his second Boston Marathon, both of which he qualified for through fundraising.

The Thompsons had their share of challenges training for Monday’s race.

A cold winter in Boston made the streets icy for Emelia.

“I haven’t fallen yet, but there was one time where I slid about 10 feet,” she said.

Mark had even bigger challenges. He battled dust, heat and traffic while training at Bagram Airfield and Camp Dwyer in Afghanistan. Then, in winter, he had to deal with cold and snow, too.

“But I was lucky that I was stationed at two FOBs where I could get in long runs,” said Thompson. “I had a friend who was stationed at a FOB so small he had to take 100 laps.”

The Thompsons plan to run together, at least for the first 25 miles, but, Emelia said, “I think the father-daughter rivalry will kick in for the final mile.”


Alex Bunn

Olympia, 39

Weatherly Inn administrator

Qualified: 2:44:24

Tammy Bunn

Olympia, 38


Qualified: Medical conference donation

Tammy Bunn says her husband isn’t above a little good-natured ribbing when it comes to qualifying for Monday’s marathon.

Alex had the fastest qualifying time of all 92 South Sound residents. (A fact he didn’t realize until he was interviewed for this story). Tammy is running in her first marathon and qualified by attending a sports medicine conference.

When she heard that many of the runners who’d posted qualifying times didn’t get into the race before it sold out, Tammy said she felt a little guilty.

“He says I cheated,” Tammy said with laugh.

Because of their busy work schedules and three children, the Bunns aren’t able to train together. In fact, they won’t even run the race together.

Because of Alex’s fast time, he will run in the fastest wave with the professional athletes who will be vying for the win. And because Tammy qualified as a fundraiser she will have to run in the slowest wave.

“It is pretty cool to be able to rub elbows with the pro athletes and to run with the superstars of American running,” said Alex, who is running the race for the fourth year in a row. “It’s just a really cool, big event.”

Bunn first tried to qualify 15 years ago while attending Westmont College in Santa Barbara. His dad promised to send him and his roommate to Boston if they both got in. His roommate qualified and Bunn was on pace with four miles to go.

“Then I just knew I was done,” Bunn said. He didn’t qualify, neither went to Boston and Bunn felt bad.

But when he finally qualified a decade later, it made the experience that much sweeter, he said. “I’d say that qualifying for the race is one of my more significant accomplishments.”


Dennis Smith

Olympia, 60

Orthopedic surgeon

Qualified: 3:39:13

Dennis Smith might be the oldest South Sound resident in Monday’s race, but he’s by no means the slowest.

His qualifying time was 21 minutes faster than the 4-hour cutoff for his age group and he was fast enough to qualify even if he was 10 years younger.

Smith, who turned 60 in July, has enjoyed running in the new age bracket.

“I’ve realized once you turn 60 you can start winning some events,” Smith said.

Smith won his age group at last year’s Bellingham Bay Marathon to get into Boston.

“I wanted to run Boston since I was in my 20s,” said Smith, who has run 11 marathons.

In his 20s he used to run during his lunch breaks with people training for the Boston Marathon.

“I thought it was so neat, but at the time I was younger and could not afford to spend the time to train,” Smith said.

As an orthopedic surgeon, Smith is well aware of the pounding his body takes while running. He reduces the impact through cross training, usually cycling and swimming.

The cross training led to his participation in the half Ironman triathlon. He also qualified for November’s New York City Marathon, another prestigious marathon.

But make no mistake about it, when he lists his athletic highlights all those other accomplishments will rank below Monday’s experience.

“If I could only run one more marathon for the rest of my life,” he said, “it would be Boston.”

Craig Hill’s fitness column runs on Sundays in The News Tribune and The Olympian. Please submit questions and comments via, or Get more fitness coverage at and

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