Highland Avenue. Boylston Street. The former is where more than a thousand Reagan Runners will cross the finish line Saturday morning. The latter is where tens of thousands have collected medals after completing every runner’s Mount Olympus: the Boston Marathon.
There are glaring differences on the races’ surface: the names on the street signs, the number of participants and the race lengths. But at heart of each event, the Welty family sees little difference.
That’s why, when the running family’s patriarch, Joe, heard the bombs go off from about three blocks away this past April in Boston, the tremors hit very close to home.
“The Boston Marathon is wonderful … like the Reagan Run … it’s an event of human achievement,” said Anthony Welty, the oldest of Joe’s three sons who shared his first Boston with his father in 2008.
“The crowds are smaller [at the Reagan Run], but just as supportive,” Joe said.
Joe, a family physician with KSB Hospital, will be running his 13th consecutive Reagan Run on Saturday, having only missed the inaugural race in 2000. He will also run his 11th marathon – and his fifth Boston – next April.
“Personally, I think I owe it to those people who were injured and killed in that event,” Joe said. “That support that those people give you through that is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. If they’re willing to come out and support it and let us do what we love, I owe it to them to be there.”
Joe says there’s no way he’ll beat his youngest son, Jonathan, this Saturday morning.
“No way. There’s no way,” Joe said, admitting Jonathan is “probably the fittest of the three at the moment.”
“I could arrange that,” Anthony interjects. “I’d have to hold him down at the start or something. That might even be difficult these days.”
Little did they know, Jonathan’s already fixed the result. He plans to run alongside his dad throughout.
Jonathan has little to prove. He, like his other brothers and father, was a standout at Monmouth College. He completed a sprint triathlon 2 weeks ago and will serve as an assistant coach for the Fighting Scots’ cross country team and the distance coach for its track program this upcoming season.
Joe never forced his kids to be runners. Yet Anthony, 29, and Chris, 27, were members of the same track team, the latter also being joined by Jonathan, 23, when he was a freshman.
“He was the voice of reason,” Jonathan said. “There was never a push from him to be distance runners or track athletes or anything. He would’ve been happy if we were baseball players, or whatever we did.”
Joe’s hands-off approach, coincidentally, saw Anthony and Jordan emerge as elite runners, and the middle brother, Christopher, develop into a phenomenal biker and sprint triathlete.
“Fitness, running, it’s a shared passion,” Anthony said. “It’s safe to say everyone in our family has it, and my dad and I share a very special bond with that. Always have, and always will.”
Anthony will miss just his sixth Reagan Run, as he’ll focus on his two sons enjoying the Kids Fun Run that precedes the 5K. He has a vision of a three-generation Boston Marathon, featuring his dad, him and one of his sons.
“That would put his dad well into his 70s,” Joe says, cracking up a bit.
One of Anthony’s favorite Reagan Run stories stems from the 2011 incarnation.
A few years removed from college, he admits he had lost some of his college fitness, while his brother was near his prime.
“Jon went out like a bat out of you know where, and was well ahead of me for most of the race,” Anthony remembers.
But Anthony pulled even shortly after they crossed the Peoria Bridge, about a half-mile left to tread.
“The thought going through my mind was, ‘Do I kick him when he’s down?’ You know, the brotherly rivalry thing,” Anthony said. “Or should I pull him up and try to finish strong with him. I took the high road, pulled him along with me and we both finished close together.”
Anthony’s reward? Jonathan leaned him out at the finish line, according to the elder brother.
“It’s pretty accurate,” Jonathan said, laughing. “I just kept him in sight, and as soon as we turned at the post office, I put on a pretty hard surge. I kind of had the college sprint legs left on me.
“He gets a little angry about it sometimes.”
The tale slipped into the ether, joining the myriad stories that runners share at Haymarket Square.
“To me, the Reagan Run is a wonderful community event,” Anthony said. “I get a thrill out of being there and, when the race is over, all gathering at Haymarket Square, enjoying each other and hearing the stories – I raced this family member, this colleague and tried to beat them.
“We enjoy that sort of thing in this family. That’s dinner-table conversation.”
Personal records aren’t what Joe is after in the Reagan Run.
His medal comes in the form of a crowd of 1,500 people affirming the things he preaches daily.
“I spend my days in my office preaching to people about getting out, getting active and exercising,” Joe says. “And every year, to see it grow how it has, that’s just a thrill to me to see that happening.
“For me, it is my absolute most favorite day in Dixon,” Joe said.
Joe runs at least a half-dozen 5Ks every year. So the unique challenge the Reagan Run provides – its course winding through the woods near the armory and grinding up severe-grade slopes – doesn’t hurt, either.
“As far as a race or a run, I’d put it right up there at the top,” Joe says.
He relishes the chance to shake hands with officers who block streets, EMTS and the generous souls who volunteer their time to hand out cups of water at all the hydration stations.
“It’s important to support the fundraising, but also to support the efforts of all the people who put those events together for us,” Joe says. “We as runners get to enjoy the fruits of their labors.”
Joe hit an impasse unlike any he’s experienced after the second explosion.
Already back in his warmups, he and his family were about to take the subway back to their hotel. When his son, Christopher, and his wife, Maureen, checked Twitter on their phones and found out what had happened, the family opted to walk to the hotel, rather than brave the subway.
They got about half a block.
“I stopped…my wife was concerned that I wasn’t going to be able to make the walk,” Joe said. “But it wasn’t for a lack of being able to walk. It was the thought of needing to go back and help.”
But the area was immediately secured, not to mention a crush of runners and family members made re-entry virtually impossible.
“The only comfort I had, was I know the incredible size of the medical facility they have at the finish line,” Joe said.
Anthony can speak to the medical staff’s prowess, having visited the enormous tent after both his Boston experiences.
“They’re among the finest medical staff in the nation in that tent. It’s a well-oiled machine, too. They have protocol for just about every situation,” Anthony says.
Joe’s niece and her husband are physicians in Boston, the latter a trauma surgeon at Brigham and Women’s hospital who helped limit the fatalities.
No matter which branch of the Welty family tree you examine, you’ll find relentless spirit. And Boston speaks to it.
“It’s on every marathoner’s bucket list to run Boston,” Anthony says. “You’re thinking about it all the time: ‘This is incredible. I’m actually here at the Boston Marathon.’ But what put it over the top for me was that I was able to run my first Boston with my dad. I’ll never forget that, as long as I live. It’s a significant part of who I am.”
Anthony is looking forward to his children getting a glimpse of that Saturday morning.
After all, the Reagan Run is a lot like Boston, if one could bottle up its spirit and then set it free in downtown Dixon.
“There’s a lot of linkages in my mind, between an event like the Reagan Run and the Boston Marathon,” Anthony said. “One of those linkages for me is the overwhelming community support. The volunteers and people who put the event on give us as distance runners an incredible gift in being able to go out and do these events. But also the people who come out and are clapping for you and make sure you take that next step down the course and finish what you came to do…It’s incredibly uplifting.”