They’re called the squeakers.
They’re the small but special group of runners at every Boston Marathon that ride the razor’s edge of the qualifying time without ever knowing it.
They’re the runners who wake up at 4 a.m., battle through harsh conditions, and train to get into the most iconic marathon in the world.
But their qualifying times are what make them unique. Each year, the Boston Athletic Association is flooded with qualifiers for the Boston Marathon, too many to accommodate. So the BAA uses a system that lets the fastest in first. This year, the BAA received 30,458 applications and had to turn away 7,384.
In order to participate, runners had to clock in 4 minutes 52 seconds faster than the qualifying standard for their age group.
“When I got the e-mail that I made it, I was just totally elated and shocked. Then once I realized that I made it exactly, I was just really grateful. I could have very easily missed it by just going one second slower,” said Megan Clinton of St. Paul, Minn.
Clinton was one of 22 runners to hit the cutoff right on the nose. Let’s meet some of them.
Sarah Vanden Broek, New York
Sarah Vanden Broek doesn’t usually have the Twitter app on her phone, but in this case, it was necessary. While she was in Belgium for her wedding last year, she couldn’t stop checking the BAA’s Twitter feed. She was watching runner after runner share updates that they had gotten into the marathon.
“My husband is Belgian and we had planned an extended wedding celebration in his hometown,” she said. “So on the day the BAA was announcing, I was sightseeing with my family and just glued to my phone.
“We were touring the Flemish countryside, and I was stealing glances at my cellphone. We were eating dinner and I was on my cellphone.”
The more she scrolled through the thread, the more detailed the posts got. She noticed that people were starting to post not only that they had gotten in but also how much their qualifying time was under the cutoff.
She started doing the math. She was confident in the 3:30:08 she ran at the 2017 Chicago Marathon, but that didn’t ease her nerves.
“It was getting closer and closer to where I was, which was 4:52 under,” she said.
She was sitting on the couch with her husband and mother-in-law, her family had gone back to their hotel, it was beyond late, and the e-mail arrived.
“I exploded out of the couch,” she said. “I almost cried. I was crazy happy.”
Then she went to Twitter to share her news and saw that her time was the exact cutoff.
“I learned about the cutoff within 30 seconds of finding out that I got in,” she said.
Then her phone died.
“It was fine because I got in,” she said.
In those moments without the phone, it hit her.
“I started thinking about what a difference one second could make,” she said.
But strategizing is Vanden Broek’s strong suit.
“I knew how it worked,” she said. “I knew when I went to Chicago, right before the race, I knew I had to run way under a 3:35.
“Twenty minutes before the race started, I was talking to my really good friend Claire, who ran Boston last year, and I said, ‘I’m going to do it, do you think I can run a 3:32?’ She’s like, ‘No, Sarah, you have to run below a 3:31. You have to get as close as you possibly can.’ She really pushed me into that mind-set.”
Vanden Broek was a sprinter in college, but marathons are a different test. She essentially was in pain most of the Chicago race, but whenever she looked into the crowd, she saw signs — a Boston jacket or the unicorn flag — and kept pushing herself.
“If you look at my Chicago splits, the last mile and a half or so, I ran close to a 7-minute mile,” she said. “and then I pretty much sprinted it in with nothing left, because I was like every second counts for Boston.”
She’s already coming up with a game plan for Monday’s race. The numbers are rolling through her head again.
“For me, it was, ‘I don’t care. As long as I get into Boston, I don’t care what I do at Boston,’ ” she said. “Then I got in and I’m like, ‘No, I’m training for this. I’m going to try to get a PR again.’ It’s a challenge against myself.”
Robert Asztalos, Tallahassee, Fla.
Robert Asztalos remembers a saying he used to hear at the Naval Academy. Each year, there’s someone at the top of the graduating class and someone at the bottom. The person at the bottom is called an anchor. After they graduate? They’re called an ensign, like everyone else.
“Whether you’re the top of the class or the bottom of the class, you’re still an officer,” Asztalos said. “You made it.”
It’s even funnier to him when he thinks about his road to the Boston Marathon this year.
Asztalos has run 20 marathons. His first was the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington in 1993.
“Every time I cross the finish line, I go, ‘I’m never running another one of these again,’ ” he said. “Then two weeks later, I’m like, ‘I don’t know.’ Then I’m sucked into another one.”
In 2017, he ran the Soldier Marathon in Tallahassee, Fla., and clocked in at 3:50:08.
“I was scared,” he said. “You qualify, then they have the cutoffs.”
Then the quirkiest thing happened. Between the time he ran in Tallahassee and the time the BAA announced the cutoff, Asztalos turned 60. What a difference that year made, because it put him into a different age group.
“My [qualifying] time went down and I got in,” he said. “59-year-old Bob wouldn’t have qualified, but 60-year-old Bob qualified.”
With so many marathons under his belt, he wears it with pride.
“I am your classic squeaker,” he said. “It’s good. I finally squeaked my way into Boston.”
Laurel Osmond, Star, Idaho
The last time Laurel Osmond was in Boston for the marathon was 2013, the year of the bombings.
Just before she turned 30, she decided that she needed to do something big. She had run half-marathons, but she wanted to set her sights higher. Initially the thought of running 26.2 miles was a one-and-done proposition. But when she gave it a shot in Washington, D.C., she caught the bug.
“When I got done with that race, I was like, ‘I can run this faster,’ ” she said.
At that point, the Boston Marathon made sense.
“It’s kind of the holy grail of running,” she said.
She made the trip from Wisconsin with her family. Then an act of terror struck. Osmond was about two blocks away when the bombs exploded at the finish line. He husband was one block away with their children.
“When I was running, I was like, ‘This is an amazing experience,’ ” she said. “Having the rest of that happen — and I have to say that my family and I were super-blessed because there were a lot of miracles that happened to us that day that made it so we weren’t right there and I’m sure a lot of people have similar stories.
“And it’s kind of a silly thing when you think about all the people who have truly terrible stories from that day. But you go to Boston as a marathoner kind of as a celebration of all the hard work that you do — all those cold winter runs and all that stuff that you do — and you finally reach a goal and you want to celebrate. I never had that celebration because of that.”
She made it her goal to come back, knowing how difficult it would be. When she qualified in 2013, she made the cut by 18 seconds.
“So I’m kind of used to being on the cusp,” she said.
This time, she ran the 2017 St. George Marathon in 3:40:08.
“I thought, ‘Oh, I should be fine looking at last year’s numbers,’ ” she said.
But the longer it took for the confirmation e-mail to come through, the more she started to worry.
When she learned that the cutoff would be 4:52, it didn’t make things any more clear at first.
“I was like, ‘Well that’s exactly what I have. So am I in or am I out? I don’t know,’ ” she said.
Once she got the e-mail, the nerves vanished.
“I was thrilled,” she said. “We always wanted to go back and have a different experience.”
Erica Hunt, Edwardsville, Ill.
Erica Hunt’s reasons for running were quite literally life-changing. At 39, she was working in direct sales and typically eating fast food on the go, so she stopped and evaluated her health.
She saw an ad for a job at a fitness center and was curious, especially because of its mission to help women change their lives.
“I thought maybe I might finally lose some weight,” she said. “I did not feel good about my fitness. I did not feel good about the size of clothes I was wearing. I thought, well if I’m working at a gym, this might actually give me the motivation to get some of that physical fitness back.”
A year and a half later, she became the owner of Complete Fitness. Then it hit her: As the owner of a fitness center, running made sense.
“I thought I should have a rudimentary skill level at that because some of my members were runners and I should have some mild mastery of it,” she said.
She started running at age 41 and eventually fell in love. She ran two marathons. The second time, she shaved her time dramatically.
She remembers telling one of the fitness center members, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I took so much time off. I wonder what it would take for me to qualify for Boston.”
“Oh, you’ll never make that,” the member responded.
“So the line was drawn,” Hunt said.
She looked up the qualifying standard, wrote it on a bright orange piece of paper, and posted it by the phone in the gym so she could see it every day.
She did more marathons to get a feel for the training process. In 2016, she ran Go! St. Louis with a group of friends. One of them who had qualified for Boston before asked her, “You want to qualify for Boston today?”
“I had never said the words out loud. Not even to myself,” she said. “It was one of those really big goals that’s always out there, but too big to verbalize. So she hit me just at the right moment and I said, ‘You know what? I think I do.’ ”
They ran stride for stride. She clocked in at 3:54.
“That’s when I found out that your actual Boston qualifying time doesn’t really mean you get to go to the race,” Hunt said.
Her focused shifted immediately and she started targeting ways to get to Boston.
“All of a sudden, it’s a quest,” she said. “Let’s get this done.”
She ran eight more marathons over two years. She ran Go! St. Louis again last year and clocked in at 3:55.08, this time getting in because she was in a new age group.
“I thought, ‘OK, that’s close enough, I’m in with no problem. I don’t need to worry about this anymore. I can focus all my attention on my ironman training. No problem. I am in,’ ” she said.
She realized how close she actually came when she received her confirmation e-mail.
“I have never been so freaked out,” she said. “It was definitely a shock. I have a friend who made it in by two seconds and she was like. ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I got in that close.’ And I was like, ‘Eh, I can do you one better than that.’ It’s kind of cool to be on that edge.”
But getting to Boston, she said, is easily one of the biggest highlights of her life.
“It’s the Super Bowl of running,” she said. “It’s the race.”
Megan Clinton, St. Paul
Megan Clinton always looked at her running club as a form of positive peer pressure.
Mama Docs Run This is a special group — mothers, physicians, and runners — and when she found it on Facebook, she immediately identified as an anesthesiologist and a mother of two who’s run 12 marathons.
“You see somebody went out and ran this morning and posted about it and put a picture up and you think, ‘Oh, yup, I should run too. I’ll feel better.’ And you do feel better,” she said. “We support each other.”
Running Boston had been a goal for 10 years. She had ties to the city. In 2010-11, she did a fellowship at Boston Children’s Hospital. Her father, Joe Clinton, was from Framingham and she had extended family in the area.
“My dad always ran growing up, so I started out as a teenager going for runs with him,” Clinton said. “I ran my first marathon with him in 2000. That was sort of a dream to be able to run that together. So he inspired me.
“Once you run one marathon, either you say that was terrible and I’m never going to run one again or you get addicted. I fell into the addicted camp.”
She set her sights on Boston two years ago, working in runs around her schedule at the hospital whether it was at 4 a.m. or after her shift. She ran a 3:40:08 at the 2017 Twin Cities Marathon.
“I felt great, ran really well, but the last few miles, I think I was celebrating because I knew I had it,” she said. “Of course at that time, I had no idea that you had to have it by so much to qualify.”
Hitting the cutoff felt like a badge of honor.
“I didn’t feel like I was a squeaker because I beat the qualifying time by almost five minutes,” she said. “But it turned out it was the ultimate squeaker to hit it right on.”
Maryellen Pellegrino, Kohler, Wis.
Maryellen Pellegrino lives by the motto that it’s never too late.
At 51, she considers herself a late bloomer athletically. Growing up in the 1970s, in the early days of Title IX, there weren’t as many opportunities for women.
“I was just a regular girl in the ’70s and ’80s who wasn’t really into sports,” she said. “So I like to put it out there that it’s never too late to do something like this.”
She had always been a runner, but she didn’t start running marathons until she was in her 40s. Her first marathon was in Milwaukee. She’s run two more since then, one in Chicago and another in Madison, Wis.
The experience was enough for her to push to qualify for Boston. She put together a training schedule, and her husband Michael served as her pacer as she ran the 2017 Indianapolis Marathon in 3:55:08.
“It was the best I ever felt running a marathon,” she said. “I was really happy with my time. I just guardedly kept hoping it might qualify, but I wasn’t 100 percent sure. Just hoped.”
Then she did what she’s done her entire life.
“I am a praying person, and I definitely put this on my prayer list,” she said. “If it was meant to be, I wanted to go to Boston. You can pray for the little things, and I know this is a little thing, but it was on my list.”
The stars aligned. Because her husband paced her, he wasn’t able to qualify, but he was able to secure a spot as a charity runner, raising money for Dana-Farber in the memory of family members who died of cancer.
“I really feel like it worked. Everything came together,” Pellegrino said. “It was meant to be.”
Hugh Hauser, Fitchburg, Wis.
Hugh Hauser knows how to deal with disappointment. Two years ago, he trained vigorously to qualify for Boston and missed the cut by 20 seconds.
“It was just frustrating,” he said. “You think to yourself there’s however many thousand runners and why did it cut off at 20 seconds?”
It didn’t stop him. He had run Boston in 1996 for the 100th anniversary. In all, he has run 25 marathons, but he always wanted to come back to Boston.
“It’s one of those things that if you’re a runner and people are talking about running and they know you do marathons, the first thing people ask is ‘Have you done Boston?’ ” he said. “If your answer is yes, it’s just crazy. People are like, ‘Wow!’ It really is a big deal.”
When he ran the Maritime Marathon in Wisconsin last year, he set four minutes as the cushion he needed. He clocked in at 3:35:08 — 4:52 below the qualifying time.
“I was confident four minutes would be plenty,” he said. “So when I crossed the finish line and had 4 minutes 52 seconds, I was pretty confident I was going to make it.”
He sent in his registration form and waited. And waited. And waited.
“I wasn’t hearing back,” he said. “I started to think maybe I wasn’t going to get in. I was kind of disappointed, worried. It was like, ‘What’s going to happen?’ ”
He was on vacation with his wife in Wisconsin when the qualifiers started rolling in. His son was keeping tabs online when the BAA announced the cutoff times.
“He texted me and said, ‘They just announced the cutoff times, dad. I think you’re in, but I’m not sure because the cutoff is 4:52 and you’re right at 4:52.’ But on my registration, there was a 4:52-point-some figure. If they round up, you miss it; if they don’t round at all, you’re in.”
He was sitting in a park looking at a waterfall when he got the e-mail.
The flash of excitement was overwhelming. At the same time, he thought, “To find out that you’re the last one in, that you made the cutoff, wow, am I that slow?”
Hauser will turn 60 next year, which means he’ll be in a different age group. He’s thinking about hanging up his running shoes after Boston, but he could reconsider.
“If I qualify, I might,” he said. “I can’t tell my wife that.”