by Jim Flint
PLAINFIELD – Candace Smith-Brown of East Calais knows something about patience and resilience. In early March, the 59-year-old grandmother was happily training for her fifth Boston Marathon. Then COVID-19 hit.
Organizers first postponed the race from Patriot’s Day on April 20 to September 14. As the pandemic spread, the Boston Athletic Association was forced into the difficult decision to cancel the iconic event for the first time in its 124-year history.
To help counter runners’ disappointment, registered participants were offered a full refund and given the option to complete a 26.2-mile virtual marathon during the second week in September. Smith-Brown continued her training through the spring and summer, getting stronger each week. She planned out her marathon route on the Montpelier and Wells River Rail Trail, beginning from the Plainfield Park and Ride.
On September 5, she hit the trail at 6 a.m. bound for the Groton State Forest. The morning was crisp and cool with temperatures starting out in the high 40s. In her backpack, she carried two liters of water, energy gels, and bear spray – just in case. On a June training run along the rail trail, she had been surprised by a raccoon romping overhead in a tree.
The first half of Smith-Brown’s marathon involved a steady uphill climb to the turnaround point near Lake Groton. Footing was varied along the rail trail, with surfaces of grass, gravel, sand, rocks, and mud. Smith-Brown used a well- practiced run/walk strategy to average 13 minutes per mile for the marathon. She tried to run two minutes for every minute she walked.
Smith-Brown’s summer neighbor, Anne Martin, met her at the start and provided support at road crossings along the route. During the second half of the race, two of Smith-Brown’s daughters, Jennifer Benoure from Milton, and Julia Ljungvall from Colchester, joined Martin. A third daughter, Jessica Orvis, completed a virtual half-marathon the same morning in Virginia Beach. All three daughters ran the Boston Marathon with their mom in 2015.
Four of Smith-Brown’s granddaughters, ranging in age from two to seven, donned blue Boston Marathon tee-shirts to form a cheering crowd. While waiting at road crossings, the girls picked bouquets of flowers. Joyfully they ran to greet Candace, give her high fives, and jog alongside their grandmother.
“This was my first time running on the rail trail alone,” said Smith-Brown. “I could hear the echo of my footsteps off the trees, as if someone was running behind me.”
Smith-Brown’s path to the 2020 Boston marathon involved an unexpected detour. While at home in January 2019, she began to feel a little woozy at the top of her basement stairs. Grabbing for the bannister, she tumbled hard down three steps. The fall resulted in a torn hamstring in her leg and severely strained ligaments in her wrist.
Mustering her strength, she climbed back up the stairs and drove herself to the doctor. The dizzy spell was caused by a condition called tachycardia, where the heart races. This happens when the electrical signals in the heart’s lower chambers don’t fire correctly. The rapidly beating heart can’t completely fill with blood and pump it through the rest of the body.
Candace’s heart condition and injuries from the fall required significant time to heal. She took medication for the tachycardia and underwent an ablation, a procedure that destroys the abnormal heart tissue that causes the condition. The setback postponed her goal of completing her fifth Boston Marathon in 2019.
Her first try at the Boston Marathon, in 2015, fulfilled a promise made to her late husband, Walter F. Brown, in his final days. Brown served as the official starter of the Boston Marathon from 1990 to 2013, which carried on a family tradition begun by his grandfather, George V. Brown, who fired the starter’s pistol from 1905 to 1937.
Walter’s dying wish for her to complete the Boston Marathon gave Candace the inspiration for a new lease on life. “Since I started running in 2015, I’ve lost 90 pounds,” she said. “I’ve lowered my cholesterol, and held off the onset of Type II diabetes.”
Smith-Brown credited the Magic Miles Random Runners, led by April Farnham, with helping to motivate her during this year’s extended marathon training. The Plainfield-based group gets together on Tuesday and Thursday mornings at 5 a.m. for socially distanced runs. During the winter months, they use head lamps for safety and insert screws in their running shoes for better traction.
Taking a year off to heal worked to Smith-Brown’s advantage. “I can run six miles now without giving it much thought,” she said. “In July, I started once a week running hard for four minutes and walking for one to two minutes. That increased my top speed to 11 minutes a mile.”
On September 5, Smith-Brown completed the 26.2-mile Rail Trail route in five hours, 45 minutes and 40 seconds, her fastest marathon time ever. Though the route didn’t include Heartbreak Hill, the long climb and varied course footing were challenging. At mile 22, she tripped on a stone and did a faceplant. “It was a little sandy so not that bad a landing, she said.”
The virtual marathon experience offered a reflection time for Smith-Brown. “It’s hard not to think about Walter. I would have never started running if he hadn’t encouraged me. The first year, the training and being with family gave me a way to process my grief. After that it started to become more about being healthier and not letting myself drift into depression.”
At the Plainfield Park and Ride, a cheering cohort of family, friends, and neighbors stretched out a yellow tape as a finish line to celebrate the virtual victory.
“We run with endurance the race set before us,” Smith-Brown said, quoting a scripture from the book of Hebrews. “This is a metaphor for life. Sometimes you’re feeling it more than other times. Keep moving on. Try to do the right thing.”