There’s certain jobs that sports-crazed American kids dream of growing up: Jobs with titles like shortstop, quarterback and starting point guard. Basically, anything that features thousands of people cheering on larger than life heroes with numbers on their chests.
These are all the dream jobs Ben Beach could never have.
Growing up, Beach idolized the likes of Roger Staubach and Yankees infielder Billy Martin. But when you get into high school weighing just over 100-pounds, you realize playing a contact sport professionally may not be the most realistic goal to set.
While everyone around him grew, Beach, who today weighs only 125 pounds, could never seem to fill out like the other kids. So towards the end of high school he started to do what seemed to make the most sense for a skinny, vertically-challenged athlete: running.
He hasn’t stopped since.
This year, Beach, now 68, ran his 51st Boston Marathon in a row. And not even the coldest Boston marathon in 30 years could stop Beach from finishing.
He holds the record for the most consecutive Boston marathons by a single runner. In total, he estimates he has run somewhere between 700 and 800 races over the course of his life, but not even he knows the exact number. His best time in Boston to date has been 2 hours and 27 minutes.
These days, he comes in at a slower pace. Running all those marathons has taken a toll on Beach’s body. He’s dealing with pain in his Achilles and groin. On top of that, he’s developed dystonia, a rare movement disorder that causes muscles to contract involuntarily, in his left leg. He can still run, but his strides are now reduced to an awkward gait.
In the bone-chilling rain of this year’s marathon, the coldest in 30 years, that run became harder than maybe ever. He even fell at one point.
But despite all of that, Beach doesn’t see himself stopping anytime soon. He loves it too much.
“It’s hard for me to articulate it,” he said. “I enjoy the freedom of being out there.”
Staying at the race for so long has endowed Beach with a certain air of celebrity, especially within the running community. Nobody does something like running the Boston Marathon for half a century without people taking notice.
But it’s Beach’s life outside of running that may offer some clues into what entices someone to stick with such a grueling competition year after year.
If Beach has something on his schedule, he sticks to it. So Beach’s family knows where he’ll be every third Monday in April.
“Now, we really look forward to the third Tuesday of April because we know, ‘Alright, it’s behind us,’” said Carter Beach, Ben’s oldest son. “We have a whole other year before we have to deal with the stress of this happening again … because he is getting old. I think the way it’s going to end is for him to not be able to finish a race.”
At his age, health is a growing concern. Beach, a father of three and grandfather of another trio, has several loved ones nervously wringing their hands for him each time he steps on a course. But they realize this is part of who he is.
“There’s some level of insanity that it takes to go out there and be out there for five hours when in the past you used to be out there for half that time,” Carter said. “But we know that he loves it, and I don’t think any of us would try to talk him out of showing up unless there was some sort of scary incident at some point.”
Over the course of his marathons, Beach has made several lasting memories. There’s the quietly precious ones, like the time a little boy on the side of the course locked eyes with Beach and simply said, “I believe in you.” Then there’s the ones that are painful, like the time five years ago when bombs at the finish line went off and kept Beach from completing the proper course in a day the city will never forget.
But out of all the recollections stored away, there’s still something special about that first Boston Marathon Beach willed himself to complete.
“Finishing that first year, it was just such a thrill to be running down that straight away,” he said. “Bare in mind, here I am, a guy whose sort of washed out at the sports he really cared about. Never run a road race before, didn’t know if I could finish …This great crowd of people [was] cheering for me. Because there were fewer people running in those days, the announcer could pick you out coming down the straight away. It was such a rush, it was unbelievable.”
For the 2018 race, the usual crowds had been thinned out by the bitter wind and rain. But once Beach starts a tradition, he tends to see it through to the end.
His wife, Carol, knows this better than anyone else. The couple met at a race in the 1970s. She said completing the Boston Marathon made him seem “really cool.”
This marathon was different than most for her. The horrendous weather made her worry about him more than ever. But at the end of the day, her husband still clocked in at five hours, forty-six minutes and fifty-nine seconds. And he made it out healthy.
“He’s ok,” she said after the race. “That’s all that matters.”
For Beach’s part, he said running in the pouring rain was “miserable.” He even had to run backwards at one point toward the end to stop the cramping that overcame him. But he came to finish what he started.
There’s a part of the kid in all of us that never really dies. Beach could never be the star athlete on the field whose number people would burn into their minds forever. But every spring, thousands cheer him on just like the pros. And as much as it hurts to keep on going at his age, the thought of giving it all up is even worse.