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Marathon runner Lisa Davis: ‘If Oprah can do it, I can do it’

The former Marine is running her 177th marathon and first Boston Marathon

April 15 means different things to different people. It’s Tax Day, as well as the anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers. This year, it’s also Patriots’ Day or Marathon Monday in Boston, where local schools and banks will be closed so approximately 30,000 runners and disabled athletes from all over the world can compete in the 123rd Boston Marathon.

Lisa Davis, a 50-year-old former Marine, will be one of those participating. For Davis, it’s her 177th marathon overall — but her first time running the Boston Marathon.

Davis is one of an estimated 50 to 60 people who have pulled off a hat trick of running in 100 marathons in 50 states and seven continents, according to research done by National Black Marathoners Association (NBMA) co-founder Tony Reed. Only three of the runners are known to be black. In January 2017, Davis also completed the Triple 7 Quest: seven marathons in seven days, on seven continents. Her record time — 7 days, 3 minutes and 27 seconds — not only put her in the Guinness Book of World Records, but she also became the first African American to pull off the feat.

Lisa Davis at the Noland Trail Marathon in Newport News, VA, October 2018.

Photo courtesy of Lisa Davis

“I’m a goal digger,” she said. “I don’t race anybody. It’s just me against me.”

For the Boston Marathon, however, she’s racing to support her coach, Beofra Butler, who will be running in her 100th marathon. Butler ran with Davis during her 100th marathon, so Davis wanted to return the favor and also saw it as an opportunity to honor the victims of the 2013 bombing.

“Boston is the only race where I have dedicated so much time and effort,” said Davis. “I’m honored to be able to even toe the line.”

The Boston Marathon, the world’s oldest annual 26.2-mile footrace, is one of six World Marathon Majors, a championship-style competition for professional and amateur marathoners. But perhaps the most alluring (and challenging) aspect of the race is that it’s also the only marathon that requires runners to meet a qualifying time (or BQ — Boston qualify) for their age group. A small percentage of runners also gain entry by raising money for various charities.

For women ages 50-54, the qualifying time is 4 hours flat. Davis ran a 3:50:49 at the Tunnel Vision Marathon in North Bend, Washington, in August. Butler ran a 3:34:11 at the same race in the 40-44 bracket, which was nearly 11 minutes faster than her age group’s qualifying time.

“I didn’t train for Boston,” said Butler, who is now 45 and in a new age group. “I stay ready. I train hard on a regular basis.”

Davis, on the other hand, had to cut more than 30 minutes from her marathon time to Boston qualify. She trained with Butler virtually for 16 weeks to meet the mark. Davis lives in Suffolk, Virginia, and Butler is in Cameron, North Carolina.

“She [Butler] didn’t give no slack. But I feel like the juice was worth the squeeze,” Davis said, laughing.

Beofra Butler running the Tunnel Vision Marathon in August 2018, where she qualified for the 2019 Boston Marathon.

Gotta Click That, Aimed and Framed

Butler and Davis have been invited to this year’s NBMA meetup in Boston. Olympian Meb Keflezighi was as well, along with Boston mayor Marty Walsh, several Boston City Council members, representatives from USA Track & Field and the Boston Athletic Association (BAA).

NBMA is a 15-year-old nonprofit that supports black American distance runners. For the past five years, it’s been hosting Boston Marathon meetups where black runners from any club are welcome to connect with each other. The gatherings also provide an opportunity to raise the visibility of black marathoners to other race participants, the BAA and the city of Boston.

“We want to make sure everyone’s visit to Boston is positive. The goal is to make the black athletes feel welcome and really like a part of something,” said Boston NBMA coordinator Adrienne Benton.

Reed, the NBMA co-founder, has attended three of these gatherings over the years. At 63, he has not qualified for Boston yet, but he has completed a hat trick. He said the number of black competitors is growing.

“Ethnic minorities will be the next running boom,” he said.

Currently, only 1 in 62,500 marathon runners is black, according to Reed. However, it’s impossible to know exactly how many Boston Marathon runners are African American because race organizers don’t track the ethnicity of competitors. This is a common practice among other race organizers as well.

Davis’ marathon career was unexpected and an example of one way to set fitness goals, push boundaries and meet new people. She doesn’t even consider herself to be athletic. As a Marine, she said she’d never run more than 8 miles. She took on the challenge of running a half-marathon after the birth of her daughter. She went from 130 pounds to 210 and needed to work off the weight.

Her first race was not easy. “It was a horrible experience. I was tired and overweight,” she said.

“I’m a goal digger. I don’t race anybody. It’s just me against me.” — Lisa Davis

But she kept running because she likes challenges and wanted to get better at it. She’d also heard about Oprah Winfrey’s 4:29:15 finish at the Marine Corps Marathon. Davis was inspired. So in 2002, she entered the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego Marathon determined to beat Winfrey’s time. And she did, by about 30 minutes.

“My attitude was if Oprah can do it, I can do it. We were the same age, color and body type.”

Seventeen years and 176 races later, Davis said the baby weight is gone. She runs early in the morning, so her training does not interfere with her work or her time with her husband.

She met Butler in 2015 during a Reebok Ragnar Relay race from Cumberland, Maryland, to Washington, D.C. The two were part of a team that collectively ran 201 miles. Since Davis and Butler don’t live in the same city, they talk about once a week to monitor Davis’ progress and keep her on track for her goals.

Both Butler and Davis are adding to a short but impressive history of black Americans participating in the race. In 1919, Aaron Morris was the first known African American man to compete in Boston. Ted Corbitt, Olympic marathon runner and designer of the modern New York City Marathon route, finished third five times as an individual and was part of a marathon team that won the race twice. The first black woman to medal in the marathon, Marilyn Bevans, did so in 1977. Most recently, Keflezighi, an Eritrean-born American, won the race in 2014.

In May, Davis will start Boston qualifier training again. She also plans to run the JFK 50 Mile ultramarathon in November. Butler will do a few triathlons, 5Ks and 10Ks before returning to the Tunnel Vision Marathon in August.

“Practice, patience and pacing” is what Butler preaches to her clients. Once she crosses the finish line on Boylston Street, she will have run Boston six times. She also initiated NBMA’s first Boston Marathon team, which includes Jetola Anderson-Blair, Laura Godfrey, Sandra Tezino and Butler. The top three finishing times from each team help determine the winner.

“Be consistent in your training,” said Butler, who is an active-duty Army member and certified running coach. “That’s the only way to be successful for a good marathon.”

Eryn Mathewson is the editorial coordinator for the Rhoden Fellows program. She enjoys coaching young journalists, writing and producing podcasts. When she's not working, she's probably running or watching "bad" TV.