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Michelle Zapponi pounds down a snowy South Boston street. (Globe Staff Photo / David Kamerman) More Marathon training photos
Michelle Zapponi pounds down a snowy South Boston street. (Globe Staff Photo / David Kamerman)
More Marathon training photos

Cold Feat

When you live and run in Boston, training for the Marathon takes stamina, heart, and a whole lot of Vaseline.

There is a routine. And it starts, and ends, with the Vaseline. It's rubbed in places you don't want to know about to prevent screams that you most definitely don't want to hear. Then come the layers. The short white socks, the underwear, the tight shirt to wick away the sweat, the second shirt for warmth, the windbreaker, the tights, the sneakers, the hat, and then, finally, the Vaseline again. This time it's rubbed on more respectable places: the nostrils, the earlobes, the lips, sometimes even the cheeks. Coated in a second skin of goop and with more layers than a wedding cake, you step outside into a burst of frigid air that makes you gasp a puffy cumulus cloud.

And then you're off.

What I remember most about training for my two Boston Marathons, in 2002 and 2003, is how it was nothing like the training I'd done for my four previous marathons. The others were fall races, October typically, which meant I started training in the crisp, fresh spring air, peaked in the heat of the summer, and tapered off my workouts in September, just as it started cooling down. Training for Boston, if you happen to live in Boston, means you start in January, when it's icy cold, you build up your mileage in February, when the roads have been narrowed by snow, you peak in early March, when not much has changed since January and February, and you taper off in April, just when it's starting to get nice outside.

For the runners who live in Boston and train for Boston, there is a kinship. It might be acknowledged with a nod on the slick Esplanade or while passing on Heartbreak Hill one Sunday morning or on the commuter rail during a weekend ride out to Framingham, where long training runs back to Boston often begin. Forget what you read, what you hear. The Boston Marathon is special not because of its history or the crowds that line the course or the hills at mile 20 or even the inspiring finish down Boylston Street. It's special because of the time of year when it's run, and what that demands of the runners just to reach the starting line.

I remember the stares. From the drivers idling at stoplights, from the families in living rooms where fires were roaring, from the shovelers in the driveways and sidewalks. I remember knowing exactly what the gawker was thinking: "He must be crazy," followed by "must be training for Boston."

There are options, of course, for those days when it's simply too cold, too snowy, too dark. But treadmills and tracks have their limits, and any marathoner will tell you that nothing can prepare you for the grueling 26.2 of Boston better than a long run, on the streets, in the cold. There's no other way to get that burning sensation in your lungs.

The surest sign that training is in full swing is when the groups of runners sticking together like schools of minnows grow larger. The running clubs around Boston - and there are many - organize weekend runs as motivational tools. It's easy to push snooze three or four times on Sunday morning if no one is outside waiting for you, but when there's a group of 30 assembling, the guilt can't help but get you up and out the door.

The group that I ran with, Cambridge Running Club, had the smartest plan of all. Start and finish at Carberry's Bakery in Central Square. We'd leave behind the smell of coffee and orange-chocolate muffins, knowing they would be there when we got back. And when we'd return two or sometimes three hours later, sweaty, sticky, steam pouring off our shoulders, soggy dollar bills in our hands, limping and hobbling from chafed thighs, with hair that looked part bed-head, part hat-head, we felt the stares from the patrons with cozy sweaters and Sunday newspapers, because we knew what they all were thinking.

"They must be crazy. Must be training for Boston."

Doug Most is editor of the Globe Magazine. His e-mail address is

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