Bound for Boston: Trio taking hobby to running’s grandest stage

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(Photo by John Cook) Kristen Nickel (left) and Brenda Clark cross the Cass River at Caro’s Chippewa Landing park. The two are in training for Monday’s Boston Marathon.

TUSCOLA CO — On Monday, over 30,000 runners are expected to take to the streets during the 120th running of the Boston Marathon.

And Tuscola County will be well-represented.

Brenda Clark of Fairgrove, Kristen Nickel of Caro and Laura Dennis of Deford are three friends brought together by a love of distance running. Each has run in Boston before, but this will be the first year that the trio participate together.

Dennis and Clark ran in the 2011, 2014 and 2015 events, while Nickel, who hasn’t raced in Boston since 2001, recently began training with Clark and Dennis.

Running is the passion that brought them together, and Boston is the ultimate rush.

“The first time I went, it was overwhelming,” Dennis, 45, said. “The excitement that’s in the air, the amount of people, the supporters. If you can picture 26.2 miles lined the whole entire way, on both sides of the course, with people screaming and yelling at you — it’s pretty incredible.

“The vibe of the city is just — wow.”

Clark said the crowd is what makes the Boston race unlike any other in the world.

“It really pulls you in,” she said. “And you can feel yourself picking up your pace, it’s like you draw motivation from the spectators. I’ve told people before it’s like the Olympics on steroids.”

This is Clark’s fifth Boston, the 49-year-old has run it each year since 2011, except 2012 when temperatures soared into the 90s. It is Dennis’ fourth Marathon and Nickel’s third, though Nickel hasn’t made the trip in 15 years.

“I ran it twice, in 2000 and 2001, and then I said, ‘When I turn 50, I want to run it again,'” Nickel said. “I’ve run other marathons since then, but I knew I wasn’t going to do (Boston) every year, but I wanted to do it for my 50th.”

In order to take part in the Boston Marathon, a qualifying time must be met at a Boston Athletic Association-acknowledged race on a certified course. Nickel, who is 50, qualified by finishing the Whitefish Point Marathon in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula last year in 3 hours and 32 minutes.

Qualification is necessary every year. Clark qualified at last year’s Boston Marathon when she completed the course in 3 hours 43 minutes, while Dennis made the cut with a 3:34 at the Detroit Free Press/Talmer Bank Marathon in 2014.

Qualifying for one of distance running’s most prestigious events is rewarding, but a rigorous training routine must be followed because upon arrival in Boston, athletes must compete against the finest runners in the world. And that means practice — and lots of it.

Clark and Dennis get together about one time per week to train, while Clark and Nickel hook up to run when they can. In all, the three try to run six to13 miles a day, and 50 to 60 miles per week in preparation for Boston — most of which comes before the crack of dawn.

A common trait among the trio — each ran cross country and track in high school, gave up the sport for several years, then picked running up again.

“I started again in 2007,” Clark said. “5Ks, triathlons, stuff like that. Then I progressed to 10Ks, before you know it you’re running a half-marathon.”

Clark, who ran for Bay City Central, qualified for Boston in her first attempt, at a marathon in Traverse City in 2010.

“It didn’t start out that I thought I could qualify for Boston, but once I started doing some of my long runs, I said ‘I think I might be able to do this,'” Clark said. “(Her first qualification) was awesome, I was just on Cloud Nine.”

Nickel was a distance runner at Akron-Fairgrove, and is running faster now than ever before.

“I was told I would never be a Boston Marathoner, I was told I couldn’t do it,” Nickel said. “So that really motivated me. This is the fastest I’ve ever run. Getting old is great, you have different knowledge, different nutrition and a different, better mentality.”

Dennis followed the same path, competing in track and cross country at Cass City High School, giving up the hobby for a time, then starting back up.

“I did the Crim (road race in Flint) in 2001, I did my first marathon in Muskegon, then didn’t run one for a couple of years,” Dennis said. “But I picked it back up and have been going ever since.”

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(Courtesy photo) From left to right, Laura Dennis, 45 of Deford; Kristen Nickel, 50 of Caro and Brenda Clark, 49 of Fairgrove, will be running in the 120th Boston Marathon Monday, April 18.

Dennis said the 2016 Boston Marathon will be her 21st overall marathon, and she plans on it being her last. She qualified for the her first Boston, the 2011 race, in Detroit.

“I remember them slapping a pamphlet in my hand when I crossed the finish line in Detroit,” Dennis said. “And I was like ‘what’s this?’, oh Boston.”

The Boston Marathon is held each year on Patriots’ Day — the third Monday in April. The first running of the popular event was in 1897, one year after the first modern Olympics in Athens. An estimated 500,000 spectators travel to Boston each year for the running, on top of the nearly five million that live in the Greater Boston area. The race attracts the top distance runners in the world, but is open to anyone that qualifies. The Marathon is split into different age groups, with separate qualifying times required for each. There is also a wheel chair division.

Last year, over 30,000 people registered for the race, with over 27,000 taking to the streets.

Before the event, racers are shuttled to a large tent that ‘resembles a circus big top,’ Clark said. Any clothing, or other items, that are not kept on your person while you race is left in the tent, and donated to charity, Clark added.

After traveling to Boston in 2012, and deciding not to run due to the heat, Clark was given automatic entry into the 2013 Marathon. She was near the finish line that year when a pair of explosions rocked the town, and shocked the world.

“I was a block away from the finish line, I was a block away from the first explosion, so I didn’t get to cross the finish line,” Clark said. “I was far enough away that I didn’t see the devastation it caused. A group of us runners huddled around each other to try and figure out what happened. Was it a cannon? But why would they blow a cannon at the finish line? Was it a manhole cover? We didn’t know.”

Instead of continuing to the finish line, Clark, and hundreds of other runners, turned and headed away from the carnage.

“You could see there was chaos, so your gut is to go the other way,” Clark said. “So I turned and ran the other way. I don’t remember seeing the other explosion, which I was actually a lot closer to.

“It wasn’t a good experience.”

The blasts killed three and injured over 250 more. Beyond the physical devastation, the bombing had a searing mental impact on those who witnessed the event — both in person and from afar watching the countless hours of national news coverage that followed.

Clark told herself she would no longer run the Boston Marathon.

“I said ‘never again,'” Clark said. “And Laura took my arm and said ‘we’re going back.’ And we went the next year and that was one of the best things I’ve ever done. And I couldn’t have done it without Laura.”

Due to miscommunication, Dennis didn’t qualify for the 2013 Boston Marathon, but she made sure to make the cut in 2014.

“I said ‘you have to go back for closure, you need to cross the finish line,'” Dennis said. “I said ‘we’re together the whole race, I don’t care what happens, I’m not leaving your side, you’re crossing that finish line if I have to push you across.”

With extra security on hand, both Dennis and Clark ran, and completed the 2014 Boston Marathon.

And in a few days, they will attempt the feat again, running with Nickel as friends first — and athletes second — alongside the greatest runners in the world.

John Schneider is sports editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at sports@tcadvertiser.com

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