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Nicole Mailhoit / Gavel Media

Beyond Mile 21: Don't Rain on Ellen O'Brien's Parade

Ellen O’Brien has only one fear for April 16—rain.

“I’ve been checking the weather every day for a month,” O’Brien says in late February. “I don’t know what I’ll do if it rains. I’ve been planning my outfit since I decided I was running.”

She pauses for a second, then revises her answer.

“I guess I’m also afraid of my phone dying,” she says. She listens to an 8-hour running playlist while she trains, skipping songs to fit the mood. “It’s mostly Taylor Swift. I like to mouth the words when I run, so it has to be songs I know.”

She says she’s going to make a special playlist for Marathon Monday itself, timed loosely based on her four hour and 30 minute goal. She entertains the thought of putting “Mr. Brightside” on as she hits Boston College.

“Actually,” she interrupts her own train of thought, “my biggest fear is not making it to Mile 21, not seeing my friends. I am ready to literally tear my ACL to make it to Mile 21.”

Make that three fears for April 16.

The West Hartford native is under a month away from running her first-ever marathon. She’s far from new to distance running, though; O’Brien played field hockey and lacrosse growing up. Although she never got into cross country, she has run four half marathons with her mother to date.

“I wanted Boston to be my first,” O’Brien said.

She decided on her sophomore year because she’ll be abroad in Sevilla in 2019 and wants to enjoy Marathon Monday from the sidelines senior year.

“I came in thinking I would run it my freshman year,” she said. “But I’m happy I didn’t because Marathon Monday was way too fun.”

O’Brien is running for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in honor of her cousin Caroline who passed away from a brain tumor in 2011. Caroline outlived the six months she was given to live, surviving for a year with the inoperable tumor.

“We weren’t super close as kids even though she was only a little older than me,” said O’Brien. “But it really hits you at that age. I was 13 when she passed away.”

O’Brien says that the training and fundraising process has brought her closer to her aunt and uncle, who established Caroline’s Miracle Foundation, a smaller-scale Make-A-Wish for kids with brain tumors.

“It’s easy to get annoyed when you wake up early for a long run,” she said. “It helps a lot, thinking about doing it for a greater purpose.”

Dana Farber, where Caroline was treated, was the natural choice when O’Brien decided to run. Their team is the largest contingent in the marathon, and O’Brien went through a month-long application process before being accepted in October. She set her fundraising goal at $11,000.

“It’s scary because they take down your credit card when you register and charge you the $5,000 minimum commitment if you don’t raise it,” she laughs, only slightly nervous. “But I’m doing well so far.”

She’s gotten an outpouring of support from friends and family, supplementing their donations by selling Marathon Monday shirts to BC students. It’s good practice, she says, since she would love to go into non-profit development after graduation.

Since she started training after coming back to Chestnut Hill from Thanksgiving break, she’s balanced four days of running per week with sitting on the UGBC Student Assembly, Lean In circles, and working out with CHAARG.

Her Saturday morning long runs have become rituals, waking up to run along the actual marathon route every weekend along with hundreds of other runners preparing for the exact same thing.

“I didn’t realize how hard it is to just think of what to do for two whole hours,” she said. “I listen to music, but I also love seeing all the other people out there. It makes you feel connected to the other people running.”

After one of her very first long runs took her six miles out of the way on Comm Ave, she’s nailed the route through Newton and Wellesley. Now, she’s one of the familiar faces on the route, which is lined with families and houses that put out tables of snacks and water for the runners passing by.

When she can’t train outside, O’Brien runs on the treadmill.

“I can literally only watch ‘Downton Abbey’ when I’m on the treadmill,” she confesses. “I’ve tried to listen to music or watch other shows, but I just can’t do it. I watched so much ‘Downton Abbey’ over winter break.”

Before April 16, the most O’Brien will have run at once will be 22 miles, but she’s counting on the support from her friends at Mile 21 and family members strategically placed along the course to carry her into the finish.

She’ll be ecstatic with a sub-4:30 finish, but any finish at all is her main goal. Once she crosses the finish line, she’s giving herself a week off to rest before picking up a much more relaxed exercise regimen—reservoir runs, yoga, CHAARG.

“I’m worried that I’m not going to work out at all after,” O’Brien said.

But for now, that’s low on her list of fears.

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