Running with a purpose

BOSTON -- On the morning of April 16, tens of thousands of people from around the world will gather on Main Street in Hopkinton for the start of the 2012 Boston Marathon. Once there, jostled into a sort of herd, they will wait for the crack of a starting gun and then begin to run -- many of them fast -- and they won't stop until they've legged the equivalent of nearly 385 inside-the-park homers at Fenway or 736 laps up and down the Garden's parquet floor. They won't stop until they've reached Boston's Copley Square, 26.2 miles away.

For the average lounge-chaired Bostonian, this begs an obvious question:

For most of us -- the daily gym-laborers lurching wetly on the treadmill -- 26 miles is an absurd total; insane, silly, like trying to imagine bench-pressing a Ford Explorer or dunking from half court. Nevertheless, every April in Boston, thousands of people not only attempt this 46,145-yard dash, but complete it. And their reasons for running are as varied as they are poignant and profound.

Some, like Portsmouth, N.H.'s Andrea Ardito, run the Boston Marathon to raise money for charity. Ardito is running for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in honor of her late mother, Barbara, a Cape Cod middle school teacher who died of lung cancer 15 years ago having never smoked a cigarette. Ardito grew up watching the marathon on TV each spring with her mom. Last year, finding herself doing the same thing with her son, Ardito turned to him and announced that next April when the runners took off from Hopkinton, she would be with them.

"It's going to change me forever," Ardito says of running her first Boston Marathon. "That's how I feel.

"It has already reconnected me back to my mother, for one thing. Everywhere I go, I have someone patting me on the back and telling me how proud she'd be of me. I've heard from many of her old friends, wonderful people I haven't seen in years. And it's reconnected me to a part of myself, too. I've had to dig so deep, physically and emotionally, throughout this process to remind myself why I'm doing it. I think with cancer, everyone feels so powerless. But now I'm taking a step away from feeling powerless and feeling like I'm doing something. I just feel like my life has been filled up and opened again. It's been an absolute miracle."

Glen Jusczyk also will run in honor of someone -- his daughter, Malia, who at 3 years old is spending much of her time at Dana Farber, where she has undergone six chemotherapy treatments, nine hours of tumor resection surgery, a stem-cell transplant, 12 rounds of radiation, countless blood transfusions and the removal of a kidney -- all as part of her fight against neuroblastoma, a cancer of the nervous system that most commonly affects young children. On Marathon Monday, Malia's father, a laid-back bear of a man originally from North Attleboro, will cover the 26-mile course having dyed his normally coal-black beard a bright shade of pink, hoping its curious appearance will help raise awareness and funds for the battle his young daughter continues to wage.

"I can only imagine how it will feel crossing the finish line knowing all that my daughter has endured," Jusczyk says. "She is the true Ironman. Our family is dedicated now to helping find a cure for this monster, and helping other families cope with these darkest of times. If the pink beard doesn't bring awareness, I don't know what will!"

Perhaps running with a blindfold, hopes Wellesley's Chris Cavallerano.

Cavallerano, a board member of the National Braille Press, an organization that promotes the literacy of blind children through braille, plans to run his first Boston Marathon entirely while wearing a blindfold -- with the help of a guide.

"I'm really excited," Cavallerano says. "I'm not a runner, but I've tried my best to prepare and adapt, and we'll see come race day. But I'm very aware that so many people are pulling for me, so I want to make them and NBP proud.

"I guess, for me, I just believe that no matter who you are, what you do, what you have going on, you always have opportunities to help others and make a positive difference. This was my once-in-a-lifetime chance to do something epic to support the organization and their mission. It's just a small sacrifice, but one that will hopefully make a huge difference for others."

While there are many -- Ardito, Cavallerano, and Jusczyk among them -- who will run on Patriots Day for charity, there are others, like Boston native Austin Baker, who, by running, will represent the ideal of charity at work.

Baker is a resident of Father Bill's, a homeless shelter in Quincy, where he wound up a year ago after being laid off from his job as an operating room nurse's assistant. In the summer of 2011, in search of some structure and a bit of forward momentum, Baker joined the Boston chapter of Back on My Feet, a national nonprofit that promotes the self-sufficiency of homeless people through communal running. From his first team run to Wollaston Beach, Baker, 54, a former high school sprinter, found himself hooked. When he learned earlier this winter that he'd be running the Boston Marathon as part of Back on My Feet's partnership with the John Hancock Charity Bib Program, Baker smiled through tears and called it one of the best days of his life.

"When I run, it just puts me in a world of my own," says Baker, a father of two, including a son with autism. "After I run, I just feel so good inside. I'm able to accomplish a lot more in life, to be able to cope and deal with things a lot better. It just gives me a brighter world, and everything is opening up -- things I've never seen before until I started running."

Once he crosses the finish line, Baker says, "I don't want to just be known as a guy who finished the Boston Marathon. I want to be known as a guy who was homeless and got back on his feet and got himself together ... I hope that a lot of people will see that it doesn't matter how you struggle in life -- if you really want something and you want it bad, you can reach out and grab it. I wish a lot of people could see that and understand, especially people who are homeless. Just because we are homeless doesn't mean we can't accomplish things in life."

Still others run the marathon not for charity or to spread a message, but for personal satisfaction, to be able to look in the mirror and say, "I did that." For Rose Colleran, a health coach and mother of two from Medfield who will run her fifth consecutive Boston Marathon, completing the race gives her a deep sense of accomplishment.

"When I qualified and then ran my first Boston," Colleran says, "I had the sense of becoming something -- that I was a 'real runner.' By that, I mean that I felt that it proved that I was a certain level of athlete to be able to achieve that goal.

"I was not particularly athletic growing up, but after dating a runner in my early 20s, I began running and became a serious runner in 2006. It was one of the five best decisions I've ever made. Running and the running community have provided me with so much on a personal level. It gives me a sense of who I am -- not mom, not wife -- me."

Finally, there are those, like Olympian Ryan Hall, who run the Boston Marathon for one simple reason: to win.

"My strategy is to get to the finish line as fast as possible," Hall, a fourth-place finisher in last year's race, has said. "I always try to get the most out of my body as I possibly can. So, for me, I'm going to be running hard the entire way."

For all of these runners, as different as their reasons for running may be, one theme threads through their words: They run the marathon not because it's easy -- if it were, everyone would do it -- but precisely because it isn't. The Boston Marathon's difficulty is what affirms it, gives it cachet, makes it a thing worth doing. Therein lies its power and allure. That's why the race is such a dependable charity stimulant -- people are inspired to give money to those who undertake something they never could.

So, whether running for those who cannot, for the betterment of oneself or even to win, the end result of the Boston Marathon is an edifying, communal exhaustion that is, as Andrea Ardito puts it, something of a miracle.

"The Boston Marathon is just magic," Ardito says. "There's an energy there that you can't really touch. It's a swell of humanity. You've got everybody right next to each other and everyone down to the very last person is working hard. There's nothing in the world like it."

Tom Lakin is frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.