MARICOPA — Andrea Jackson was 39 when she discovered she liked to run. The preschool teacher and real estate agent has lived in Maricopa for 18 years, but it wasn’t until about a decade ago that she first laced up her running shoes.
“I did it just to prove that I could,” she said. “I told someone I would train for one half-marathon because I hated running and I thought, if all these other people can do it, I need to basically ‘suck it up buttercup’ and try — and I got hooked. I really liked it, and I like to race too, just the environment of a race is the best part.”
Jackson continued running after her first experience, setting her eyes on her ultimate goal of the Boston Marathon, the oldest annual marathon in the world and also one of the most well-known road racing events. The 26.2-mile race is grueling, with the average run time for the last 20 years about 3 hours, 54 minutes, a time that is somewhat dependent on weather conditions.
Some 30,000 runners compete every year, and in order to even be chosen to participate, runners must race in a qualifying marathon. Categories based on age and gender are used to determine who qualifies and the times range anywhere between 3:20 for 18- to 34-year-old women to 5:20 for those women 80 and older.
At 48, Jackson would technically need to run a 3:50 to qualify, but due to the 31,500 applicants this year, that number decreased by 1 minute, 39 seconds. Jackson qualified with a time of 3:41, but another 3,161 applicants, including her friend and running partner Kaying Phu, did not meet the cutoff.
With the qualifier under her belt, she was ready for the April 2020 race to begin. She booked her flights and hotel almost a year in advance and trained daily during the 12 to 16 weeks leading up to the race.
“March 13, which was only five weeks before the race was supposed to happen, I had just run my second of three, 20-mile training runs that day,” she said. “Right after I got home from running 20 miles, I found out that they postponed it, which was not fun.”
The race was originally postponed to Sept. 14 due to the COVID-19 outbreak, but because the pandemic is still ongoing, the Boston Marathon decided to go virtual.
“They gave us from Saturday, (Sept. 5) through Monday (Sept. 14) to run our 26.2 miles,” she explained. “Then we submit our times to them, and we’ll get our medal and shirt and everything mailed to us. That’s really it, you just run it on your own and send them your time.”
It is by no means an honor system, however. When she runs, Jackson wears a GPS watch that tracks her route, heart rate, step count and mileage all in one. She can then submit that data to the Boston Marathon to secure her place. Still, it’s nothing how she envisioned it would be.
“A race is an exciting thing, and the Boston Marathon is a huge accomplishment, and to not get to go is very disappointing,” Jackson said. “Running it virtually is not the least bit exciting, it’s just not the same thing.”
She managed to make it special in her own way though. Her friend Phu, who similarly was disappointed by the Chicago marathon being virtual this October, ran the whole race with her for her own time.
The two started at 4 a.m. at Pacana Park on Saturday and ran the first 10 miles by themselves. Then they planned to return to the park and pick up a group of runners with the Maricopa Running Club for another 6 miles before returning a third time for the final 10-mile leg with a group of guys from the club. However, several of the guys decided to run 16 miles with her to help support her. Jackson circled back with the group for her big finish just before 8 a.m.
“I have to admit, you don’t feel fabulous the day of a marathon. … It’s pretty brutal on your body,” Jackson said. “That’s why when you train, you don’t train 26 miles. Most marathon training plans never have you run more than 20 miles for training because it’s just not good for your body to be doing it for that many hours.”
She still managed a great run, though, clocking in at 3:42.24. Her husband, Richard, anticipated the virtual run would be hard for Jackson and deployed friends and family to surprise her before, during and after the race, showering her with love.
“(There was) a lot of support out there, which is really nice because that was the part I was dreading. At a race you have tons of people there cheering you on,” Jackson said. “I even had a friend that is a runner that lives in Ahwatukee that drove out for the end. I had one of my old preschool families come to see me at the end (too), which was really fun.”
Even the weather cooperated. The projected high of 85 never arrived, and Jackson ran her whole marathon in 70-degree weather.
She has already submitted her Saturday time, officially making her a finisher of the marathon.
Jackson is still determined to travel to Boston and compete in the 2021 race. Those who qualified this year are all able to register for 2021, but because there have been more registrations for 2021 since April, there is still a chance some will not qualify with their original times.
However, that has no bearing on Jackson’s ferocious desire to see herself crossing that finish line.
“I will 100% not give up until I go to Boston — I just won’t,” she said. “If I have to run another race someday and qualify again, I will. I will go to Boston.”