Spencer McElwain was riding a bus headed back to Maine last April 15 when two bombs suddenly shook the 117th Boston Marathon’s historic foundation.
An accomplished distance runner at Caribou High School and the University of Maine, McElwain had spent much of Patriots’ Day 2013 watching the marathon and following the progress of his friend Rob Gomez of Saco.
Gomez, a former two-time cross country state champion from Limestone High School/Maine School of Science and Mathematics, didn’t disappoint. He turned in the fastest time of the day by a Maine runner and finished 32nd overall among 27,000 entered runners with a time of 2 hours, 22 minutes and 53 seconds.
“I had gone to cheer on Rob at Boston last year, and my girlfriend lives right on Mile 25, so we watched it from there,” said McElwain, who was at the race for the first time since his father Frank — the retiring superintendent of RSU 39, which serves Caribou, Linneus and Stockholm — ran Boston in 1996.
“I got onto a bus and left 45 minutes before everything went down. I was on my way back to Maine when it happened. When I got home and turned on the news, I watched it all night, but even before it happened, when I left there I had decided I wanted to run Boston this year.”
And with Gomez — the fastest Maine finisher in two of the last three Boston Marathons — saying last week that he’ll sit out this year’s event due to insufficient training, the 24-year-old McElwain could emerge as the state’s fastest when the 118th edition of the world’s oldest annual marathon is held Monday.
McElwain has limited experience at the 26.2-mile distance — one previous marathon, to be exact.
But he showed plenty of potential last October when he qualified for Boston with a sixth-place finish at the ING Hartford (Conn.) Marathon. McElwain’s collegiate and post-collegiate running resume earned him a free entry into the race, and he finished the relatively flat course in 2:28:12, good for a pace of 5:40 per mile.
“I felt great until the last 5K,” said McElwain, who works as a mechanical reliability test engineer at UTC Fire and Security in Pittsfield. “That was about the most painful feeling I’ve ever felt running.
“My goal was 2:26 and I was on a 2:26 pace until Mile 21. Then the wheels fell off after that.”
McElwain has sought to use that pain for training gain, taking input from his father, Gomez and training partners who include fellow Bangor-area distance specialists Adam Goode and Nick Wheeler and refining his running regimen in preparation for a more challenging Boston course.
“I realized I had to put in more mileage and do more marathon-focused training,” said McElwain, who increased his weekly totals from 80 miles before his Hartford run to nearly 100 miles during his prime training weeks for Boston.
“I have a lot of great running friends and they helped me figure out a good training schedule. Then I realized I could go out, do a few 100-mile weeks and still go to work the next day and feel fine.”
McElwain admitted that one overly fast mile early during his Hartford run may have led to his finishing struggles in that race, so he’s established three different paces he hopes to maintain during the early, middle and late stages of the run to account for the varying terrain from Hopkinton to Boston.
“My time goal for Boston is 2:25, but we’ll see,” he said. “I’m not so much worried about Heartbreak Hill and the Newton hills, I’m more worried about the downhills right off and how that might affect my quads later on.
“Hopefully I’ll come out at BC [Boston College] and be able to open up and have a quick finish with a smile on my face.”
Gomez suggested that how McElwain and other runners are able to put themselves into position to handle the late hills will be a major factor in how well they finish.
“The course is more difficult than a lot of other marathons,” Gomez said. “The first 10 miles are all downhill and your legs really take a pounding. Then when you get to the Newton hills and Heartbreak Hill that pounding comes to a head.”
No matter how McElwain finishes his Boston Marathon debut, he already is ahead of his personal schedule.
“I always thought I wouldn’t try running a marathon for a while until after I lost some speed, but that’s not the way it’s been,” said McElwain, whose post-collegiate road race victories include the 2012 Maine Half-Marathon in Portland. “If anything, I’ve gotten a little stronger since I’ve been training for marathons.”
And the buoyant atmosphere he witnessed a year ago while watching the Boston Marathon before terror intruded proved too much for the competitor in McElwain to resist.
“A lot of people are running because of what happened last year and I feel that way, too,” he said. “But for me the atmosphere as I watched the race was just so captivating, and that and my love of running made me want to run Boston this year.”