On the third Monday in April, or Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts, people crowd shoulder to shoulder on Boylston Street, aiming to catch the moment the first Boston Marathon runner crosses the finish line. Regardless of whether you’re the first or last to cross, stepping over the blue and yellow line marks the culmination of months, even years of dedication.
This year, no new paint refreshed the finish line, and no cheering crowds echoed through the city, as the country shuttered its doors to ride out the coronavirus pandemic. The original date for the Boston Marathon was scrapped, and though the Boston Athletic Association initially moved the race to September, it was soon apparent that hosting an event of that size wouldn’t be feasible then either. Runners were given two options: a refunded entry fee or the opportunity to run in a virtual race and earn their medal, but their time wouldn’t be official.
Though it lacked the usual fanfare, on June 22, Boston saw a first as eventer and Chronicle employee Jess Halliday and her sister Tanya Halliday, who planned to participate as charity runners, crossed the faded finish line not on their own two feet, but on the backs of a pair of gray Irish Sport Horses. A select group of friends stood by lending their support, and the sisters got to experience their Boylston Street moment together, extending their arms for a high five as they did so.
They did it for two reasons. Jess, who was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer in 2018 and recently underwent major surgery, recognizes she may not have another opportunity. The sisters also wanted to urge BAA officials to reconsider the decision not to extend 2020 participants an invitation to run another year, as many other canceled marathons have done.
“I understand why this year is the way that it is, but the head of the BAA, [Tom Grilk,] wrote that this was a lost year, and I took that to heart a little bit because it’s not a lost year,” said Jess. “There are people who will never have this opportunity again. Whether they tell me I can run again or not in the future, there’s a good chance that I won’t be here, which sucks to think about but is a reality, or there’s a chance that I literally cannot physically run. I want the option to, but I really want the option for all the people who have put in all those miles and all the blood, sweat and tears. Everyone’s running for such a personal reason. I think the BAA can find a better solution that works for everyone.”
Sparked By A Time Capsule
The idea to run the Boston Marathon was born when the Halliday family gathered for Thanksgiving in Stow, Massachusetts. As they cleaned out the family condo, they came across an old Y2K time capsule, and amongst the memories was a piece of paper on which Tanya had written that she hoped to one day finish Boston.
Jess’ decision to join her sister was spurred forward after she ran a 5k in Boston with her parents, Renee and Jim Halliday. Fresh off a three-month workout ban following a different surgery, Jess struggled through the 3.1 miles.
“I thought I could just pick it back up, and running 3.1 miles would be nothing, and I felt like a total failure that it was hard,” she said. “I did it, but it was hard. I was like, ‘You know what? I want to run a marathon.’ That’s a goal of Tanya’s, and it’s something we can do together. She lives in Utah, so we don’t get to do a lot of things together anymore. When she comes home she’ll ride when she’s around, but it’s not like when we were kids. We’re a year apart, so I was like, ‘Oh this is something I can do with my sister,’ and as a family, we’re very close-knit.”
The sisters knew a charity team would be their way in rather than a qualifying time, and luckily they had a connection. Jim works with former hockey player and current president of the Boston Bruins, Cam Neely. Neely’s eponymous Cam Neely Foundation for Cancer Care is one of the many charities aligned with the marathon, and Neely offered the sisters a spot.
“I thought it meant more to do it for a cause that I feel very strongly about, so we decided to run for his team,” said Jess. “So that’s kind of how it all got started.”
Each charity has a fundraising goal of at least $5,000, but Neely’s is $10,000. The Hallidays pooled their fundraising efforts, and through clinics, spin bike fundraisers and raffles with donated prizes from friends and family, earned their entry.
Jess was visiting Tanya in Utah to run a half marathon in March when news broke that Boston was going to be postponed until September.
“It was obviously warranted, but still a letdown,” said Jess. “You pour your heart and soul and hours and hours into training for this thing. I’m nonstop many days. I work full time for the Chronicle [as an advertising account manager], have my own barn, and teach and train and whatever else is going on at all ends. There are days where you’re running for up to three hours as part of your training. I had to treat it like a part-time job, so I was really bummed. Obviously, we didn’t know what the future was going to look like at this point too.”
They eased up for a few weeks and had just begun increasing their distance again when the BAA announced on May 28 that the race would be a virtual one. For Jess, who describes herself as “not a runner,” it was a blow.
“The Boston Marathon, it’s like the greatest day in Boston,” she said. “It’s like literally part of the city. There are over 30,000 runners, and then the streets are lined—at no point are you alone. As a kid I used to go and watch at the start line, and as I was older I’d go to Boston Court, and people are out there supporting everyone.
“There’s just this feel along the way,” she continued. “I like running, but I don’t love running. I want to do it for the whole experience with my sister. So I don’t feel that a virtual marathon supports what everybody was intending to do. And I absolutely understand and respect their decision to do that for everyone’s safety. I think that’s paramount, but I also think there are other ways to do it.”
Making It Happen
While Tanya still plans to do the virtual run, Jess no longer has that option. A year after she finished chemotherapy, a routine appointment came back with abnormal results. A CT scan showed a cancerous mass blocking the majority of her right lung.
Jess went in for surgery to have half the lung removed on June 5, but scar tissue from undetermined prior trauma complicated the procedure and extended her hospital stay. With no visitors permitted, Jess had plenty of time to think.
Some of the people on her charity team suggested she might tell her story to a media outlet, but Jess wasn’t comfortable with that approach. “I’m not going to get in front of a news camera and go, ‘Oh poor me. Here I am with cancer, and I want to run the marathon,’ ” she said. “I don’t mean to complain that I can’t go run 26 miles, but it is something that I feel strongly about, and it’s a goal that I wanted to set with my sister. I don’t know how realistic it is that I will ever get to complete the marathon. The future looks unclear for me at the moment. I would love to think that I’m going to have the opportunity, but I’ve certainly learned that there’s no time like the present, and take advantage of it while you can.”
That’s when she concocted the plan to ride along the marathon route. The original plan included riding the entire route, trading out horses three times so as to not overtax them. Ultimately concerns about traffic and setting up a police escort made her scrap it.
In a modified version she and Tanya rode their horses over the start line in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, before loading them on the trailer for most of the route. They stopped at each of the major mile markers—Framingham Station, Natick Center, Wellesley College, Newton Firehouse and the Johnny Kelley “Young At Heart” statue. At Mile 25, they unloaded the horses and mounted up so they could take the right on Hereford Street (it’s a one-way street, so you can’t drive on it in that direction), followed by the left on Boylston. One friend drove the trailer, another volunteered to walk the final mile to horse wrangle if necessary, and another followed behind them with the hazard lights on.
They notified police of their plan and invited some friends to witness the occasion, but Jess and Tanya wanted to keep it low-key.
“We didn’t tell a lot of people because we were seeing how I felt,” said Jess, who only had her breathing tube removed two days prior to their ride. “So it was kind of up in the air if it was going to happen or not. Especially taking into consideration the weather. It’s been so hot up here, which is why we also did it super early in the morning.
“The night before we concocted the whole plan and sent out a couple of personal invitations,” she continued. “The Hopkinton Running Club met us at the start line, which they’d all run Boston or had a desire to run Boston, so that was really special. They definitely loved that. That’s something we’ve never seen before. They were kind of our cheering squad at the beginning. We had personal friends, barn friends and then the charity team running buddies at the finish line. Once people saw us riding down Bolyston Street certainly people started coming out of their businesses and out of their cars just filming, being what is happening? Are there horses in Boston right now?”
Jess selected two of her former upper-level event horses, Grey Street or “Quinn” and Rare Occurance or “Ro,” who are now schoolmasters for her students, as their mounts.
“Both of them are campaigners, have a ton of prelims on their record, and they’ve taken amateurs and juniors at this point up the levels as well from their first events to [the U.S. Eventing Association American Eventing Championships] and that sort of thing,” said Jess. “They’re literally sainted. They’ve been with me for so many major moments in my life that it only seems right to have them be involved, plus I know them well enough that I’m like, ‘You know what? They’re going to be fine.’ They are not surprised by anything that I do at this point.”
Two local news stations showed up and shared the Hallidays’ story.
“They did a great job covering it and being there, which was really nice for them to do,” said Jess. “It was to help raise awareness of the BAA’s decision and to help them reconsider and see our side of it, but it was just as much our personal feat to cross the finish line because again, I don’t know if it’s ever going to be possible, and once I started training for this you just dream of your Boylston Street moment.”