34 years after Boston Marathon, Tacoma athlete keeps moving

A wooden sign inscribed with a message easier said than done hangs on the wall above a clock in Shari Wikstrom’s Tacoma home.

“Thou Shalt Not Whine.”

Wikstrom could make a pretty strong case for giving up her exercise routine. Her husband and running partner, Bob, was hit by a car nearly 30 years ago. Her hips often ache from years of distance of running. She has atrial fibrillation that makes hills a tough proposition. And she’s 80 years old.

But she doesn’t whine about these things.

Instead, “the first thing I think about when I wake up is: Will the weather let me get in my walk?” Wikstrom said.

This time of year is especially enjoyable for Wikstrom. She reads about the Super Bowl of marathons, the Boston Marathon, and the athletes heading east to realize their dreams.

“Anybody who takes running seriously wants to qualify for Boston,” she says as flips through an old scrapbook.

Monday, 86 South Sound residents are registered to run the 119th Boston Marathon. Wikstrom knows how excited they must be.

In 1981, Wikstrom was part of the local contingent headed for Boston. It was an experience she describes as a fantasy.

To qualify, she needed to run a marathon in 3 hours, 30 minutes or less. She entered the first Tacoma Marathon in October 1980.

Wikstrom, then 46, finished in 3 hours, 29 minutes, 56 seconds.

Her dream of qualifying had come true, but she had no intention of actually living out the second part of the dream: actually running the race.

The trip was too expensive. And leaving her three teenage kids during Easter and spring break seemed a little indulgent.

Wikstrom entered the race, but just so she could buy the shirt.

“I am qualified, entered and frustrated,” Wikstrom wrote in an essay about her experience.

Wikstrom was working as a nurse at Annie Wright School at the time, and her coworkers urged her to reconsider going to Boston. She could represent the school, they told her. Maybe the school could help finance the trip, they said.

It was worth a try. She went to the school’s headmaster. Not only did he pull together funding for a plane ticket, but he arranged for her to stay with an Annie Wright alumnus in Boston.

She was ecstatic.

Now she just had to train. Wikstrom ran 70 miles per week. She mapped out 12- and 16-mile routes from Annie Wright to her house in Lakewood and regularly ran home from work. She logged longer runs, too, and left thinking she was ready for anything Boston could throw her way.

Wikstrom left on Good Friday in 1981, stocking the refrigerator with dyed Easter eggs and a ham. She posted “notes all over the kitchen hopefully to cover any situation that might arise.”

She dyed her hair, too. “I thought I’d run faster without grey hair,” she wrote in her essay. And Wikstrom saved the plastic gloves and cap that came with the kit to use for a little extra warmth during the race.

It proved to be a good decision. Race day was cold and overcast with rain in the forecast.

The cheering crowd was so loud, Wikstrom didn’t hear the starting gun. The pack of runners was so large she needed several minutes just to reach the starting line and few more minutes to get up to her regular pace.

The first 15 miles went as planned. She covered the distance in 2 hours. “Then it hit like a ton of bricks,” she said. She needed nearly two more hours to finish the race.

“I’ll always wonder and probably never know why I died on Heartbreak Hill,” Wikstrom wrote about the race’s famous hill. She finished in 3:57, her slowest marathon time.

But even then she subscribed to the “Thou Shalt Not Whine” philosophy.

“Now I can look back on the whole experience and glory in the fact that I did qualify, I did go and the total experience was incredible,” she wrote.

Wikstrom planned to keep running. She and Bob hoped to spend their retirement traveling and running races.

Then, after watching a Seahawks game in 1986, they went out for a run. A driver, distracted by a lit cigarette dropped in his lap, veered off the road and hit Bob. Bob, who’d run three marathons of his own, flipped twice and was left with injuries that ended his running career.

“It ruined our old age,” said Wikstrom, whose running resumé includes nine marathons.

Instead of whining, they walked. They still traveled. They picked up new hobbies. They started entering cribbage tournaments. They were good, sometimes even winning cash prizes.

Recently, Wikstrom started doing Zumba.

A few years ago, Wikstrom developed a rapid heartbeat she feared might limit her walking. But thanks to medication and limiting uphill routes she still gets in four miles almost every day.

She schedules her doctor appointments so she can walk to the office. And just like her marathoning days, she keeps a brisk pace. Four miles takes her just more than an hour.

“Running and now walking has been my joie de vivre,” Wikstrom says. “My joy of life.”