Jenn Greiner (from left), Alison Steinbach, Bjarni Atlason, and Bob Surette are part of the Harvard College Marathon Challenge.

Jenn Greiner (from left), Alison Steinbach, Vladislav Sevostianov, Bjarni Atlason, and Robert Surette are part of the Harvard College Marathon Challenge.

Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Running for a purpose

6 min read

Harvard College Marathon Challenge participants hit the pavement for community and charity

Among the 30,000 runners measuring their fitness and testing their endurance Monday in the oldest and arguably most famous marathon in the country will be members of Harvard’s running community.

The reasons they’ll be running stretch the distance of the 26.2 mile trek from Hopkinton to Boylston Street in Boston, yet threading through them are certain primordial drives — the determination to overcome a challenge, the instinct to be part of something larger, the urge to test their own endurance — that they believe will propel them to the finish line of the 123rd Boston Marathon.

“Running is something that I’ve always loved,” said Alison Steinbach ’19, who is capping off her time at Harvard by taking part in the area’s most notable event. “It been a really important way for me to balance the busy days of schoolwork and college with something that I find really fun and enjoyable, relaxing, and productive.”

The marathon was an experience first-year Bjarni Atlason, an international student from Iceland, just couldn’t pass up.

“I definitely just want to try to enjoy the race and enjoy the course and all the spectators,” Atlason said. “I think I should be able to run just at the three-hour mark. But the priority is definitely just to enjoy the race and have a good time.”

Atlason expects to be energized by the spectators, who turn up in the thousands to cheer on both runners they know and the ones they don’t.

Two years ago, Steinbach was among the onlookers. “I was astonished how many people were out there and how many people were cheering,” she said. This year, as a runner, she’s looking forward to those cheers from the other side of the barricades.

Both Atlason and Steinbach are running for more than just personal achievement.

They are among five entries from the Harvard College Marathon Challenge, a listserv that helps raise funds for charities and connects Harvard’s recreational runners with others looking for training partners.

Atlason and Steinbach, along with two other Harvard College students and a detective from the Harvard University Police Department, are set to raise more than $67,000 to benefit the Phillips Brooks House Association, a student-run nonprofit focusing on public service.

“It just makes it that much more meaningful,” said junior Jenn Greiner, another of HCMC’s entries. Greiner, who grew up in Brockton, has wanted to run the race for as long as she can remember.

“I don’t think it’s coincidental that marathons are really major charity events. We run to help each other. I think its woven into who we are as human beings.”

Daniel Lieberman, the Edwin M. Lerner II Professor of Biological Sciences

Harvard community members not affiliated with HCMC are also running for charity.

Devan Horahan, assistant director of athletic communications, for instance, is raising money for Boston Children’s Hospital; Emily Collins, a marketing assistant in Harvard’s athletics department, for Boston Medical Center; and senior Audrey Warner and her sister Elizabeth Warner ’17, for Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

While fundraising is often an incentive, many run for the sense of community built through connecting with other marathoners.

“I’ve made friends just by running,” said Vladislav Sevostianov ’19.

One of those friends is Daniel Lieberman, an active HCMC listserv subscriber and the Edwin M. Lerner II Professor of Biological Sciences. This will be his ninth Boston Marathon. Through a post in the listserv, Lieberman and Sevostianov got together for a 22-mile run two weeks ago and ended up bonding as they learned about each other. Sevosianov, who has never run a full marathon, said Lieberman helped carry him through to the finish.

“Especially toward the end, after mile 20, he gave lots of motivation — the things you want to hear and the things you have to remember when you’re running the marathon,” Sevostianov said. “Having something to go back to mentally, to keep pushing onwards, will be critical.”

These kinds of connections are the reason Craig Rodgers, an academic counselor, started the group in 2006. “The idea behind Harvard College Marathon Challenge is really to promote non-competitive community running at Harvard,” he said.

Subscribers can post when and where they’ll be running for others looking to join them. It can also serve as a resource of best routes and tips for running in the cold, wind, and snow.

Another group, Harvard on the Move, which sponsors weekly runs for students, staff, and faculty, meets some of the same goals as HCMC’s listserv.

“It’s all a way to get faculty and students [and staff] to know each other through physical fitness,” said Rodgers.

It worked for another member of the HCMC team, Robert Surette, a HUPD detective. “I have gotten to know my teammates on a personal level,” he said. “Instead of just being a HUPD member, I hope they see me as a friend and fellow Harvard Community member.”

Steinbach definitely does, she said. She has run with Surette on occasion since the early fall.

“Early on in the fall, one person who responsed to my [HCMC listserv post] was a HUPD officer,” Steinbach said. “It turned out that person was Bob. So it was great to get to know him on that first run and then find out that we both are running [for HCMC], and its been great to get to know him since then.”

Since its creation, HCMC has raised more than $715,000 for the Phillips Brooks House Association, Project HEALTH, and the American Medical Athletic Association. While that’s a small piece of the more than $333 million the Boston Marathon charity runner program has raised since its start in 1989, it means a lot to those who’ve benefited from it.

“Human beings have been running for millions of years in order to help each other,” said Lieberman, who through his writing and research explored running’s role in human survival. “I don’t think it’s coincidental that marathons are really major charity events. We run to help each other. I think its woven into who we are as human beings.”