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A wait off her shoulders

Chan, poster child for perseverance, trained for 15 years to qualify for Boston Marathon

By Barbara Matson, Globe Staff, 4/16/2003

The Boston Marathon just grabs some people, seizes their hearts with a grip at once exciting and unbreakable. Running legends Joan Benoit Samuelson and Alberto Salazar are two of those people, and as the 107th Boston Marathon approaches, Nike is featuring their faces in its marathon advertising campaign. Billboards displayed in Back Bay station and in sporting goods stores across the city celebrate Marathon Monday with portraits of famous runners, who share their Boston experiences.

Connie Chan is one of those people, too, and her face shares space on the Nike billboards with former Boston champions Samuelson and Salazar because her Boston story, too, is irresistible.

A psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, where she is co-director of the Institute for Asian American Studies, and the mother of a teenage daughter, Chan is gearing up for her 12th Boston Marathon.

Sitting in a tea shop in Harvard Square this week, Chan pauses to tell her story, and the tale still brings a catch in her voice. It took her 15 years to qualify for this race.

In 1977, Connie Chan was a 24-year-old psychology graduate student at Boston University. When Patriots Day came, a holiday peculiar to Massachusetts, the native of Hawaii decided to take a look at the event that had closed down the city.

She was awed.

Not expecting more than an interesting afternoon sitting on the sideline with her books and a box lunch, Chan felt her heart swell as the first runners came across the line.

''It was the most remarkable thing I'd ever seen in terms of a sporting event,'' said Chan. ''I thought it was incredibly moving and emotional. I said `Someday I'd like to do that.' And the next day, I started running.''

When the race was over -- actually, several hours after the winners crossed the line, because she could not tear herself away from watching the stream of runners reaching the finish -- Chan walked home to Cambridge from the Prudential Center.

''These people have just run 26 miles -- I wasn't going to ride the T,'' she said.

Chan grew up playing basketball and surfing and doing whatever sports were available to girls. ''In Hawaii, you're always doing something,'' she said. She was an athlete, but only a desultory runner.

''I didn't run in high school or college,'' said Chan, who went to Princeton. ''I played basketball, so running was a punishment. You know -- if you were late, you did laps.''

After watching the marathon, Chan began running a mile or two a day, struggling some, but still inspired by the vision of runners straining down Boylston Street, the crowd clapping and cheering. After training for 18 months, she completed the Ocean State Marathon in 4 hours 25 minutes.

A sense of accomplishment was accompanied by a feeling of helplessness: The qualifying time for Boston for women under 40 was 3:20, more than an hour faster than Chan had run.

''You can tell pretty early on whether you have the natural ability to run two 5-minute miles or not,'' Chan said.

Though a serious athlete, she knew she was in the ''not'' category.

As her knowledge about running increased, and her training intensified, she joined a running club, ran more races, worked harder -- and still found Boston out of reach.

''I had a certain longing and sadness because I wasn't in it; I couldn't stay away,'' said Chan, as she dropped her marathon time to 3:45 over five years. ''I would train as hard as a clubmate, and they would run a minute faster per mile and I'd start to think `Why should I bother?' But then I was watching my teammate run, and I realized I don't run like that. My crude way of understanding -- it's sort of embarrassing, but it works -- is that it's like dogs. There are dachshunds, and there are greyhounds. A dachshund can never run like a greyhound; there's a difference in bodies. And that gave me a sense of relief.

''I mean, I'm not exactly a dachshund -- maybe a golden retriever. But I can be the best golden retriever . . .''

In the meantime, marathoning was growing, and the Boston Athletic Association expanded its race, adding runners and changing qualifying standards. In 1990, when Chan was 36, the qualifying time for women 35-39 dropped to 3:45. At once, it was within reach.

''I had given up on it,'' she said. ''I had my daughter [born in 1987], I was recently tenured, I was doing all those things young professionals do. The Boston Marathon was not foremost in my mind; I just put it aside.''

Chan poured a little more tea and reconsidered. She had put the dream aside, but it was hardly out of her vision.

''It was kind of a reminder of my limits,'' she said. ''You can't have everything in life.''

But Chan could have the Boston Marathon.

During a sabbatical year in Hawaii, she stepped up her training, running a 3:36 marathon in San Francisco in 1991 to qualify for Boston.

By the time she got to the starting line that fine spring morning, her heart was full.

''It had been 15 years -- I was 38 -- and I hadn't waited 15 years for anything in my life,'' said Chan. ''My chest was tight; I had tears in my eyes. I thought `Now I'm fulfilling my dream. I'm just going to go and have a great time.' ''

Running through that dream landscape, Chan finished in 3:20, about 18 minutes faster than she had run before (or since). She was the 177th woman finisher.

''It was just a magical day,'' said Chan, ''that peak experience athletes talk about.''

Now 49, she has been running 40 miles a week for 25 years and feels out of balance if she doesn't run for two or three days. And though she has run 28 marathons, 11 in Boston, she still has to qualify each year.

But she has never considered running as a bandit, without a number.

''The Boston Marathon is something I'm very passionate about,'' she said. ''It's a focus and a light in my life. It doesn't honor the people who had to qualify. It wouldn't seem right to me. It wouldn't be meaningful to me.''

Chan reaches a new age category next year, and will challenge the other 50-year-olds to keep up. This year, the marathon is another chance to simply let her spirit fly, to move into the stream of runners rushing toward Boylston Street, the cheers of the crowd pushing her forward.

''You know, that's why runners love Boston,'' Chan said.

''You're interacting with the crowd the whole way.''

Should spectators choose to interact this year, look for No. 15709 in the Hawaii singlet.

This story ran on page F9 of the Boston Globe on 4/16/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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