No matter how many times Chris Roberts stands at the starting line of the Boston Marathon, the same feelings wash over him.
There is no reason to believe anything will be different next April when he toes the line of one of the world’s most prestigious road racing events for the 25th time.
The 128th Boston Marathon on April 15, 2024, will represent the 22nd consecutive time Roberts has laced up for the 26.2-mile test from rural Hopkinton, Massachusetts, to downtown Boston.
“It still chokes me up every year at the starting line when they play the national anthem and the F-15s fly over,” said Roberts, an adjunct professor of dentistry in the School of Dentistry since 1990. “This is the epitome of running. How many people get to play in the Super Bowl or get to play in the Masters?
“You have the opportunity to be in the same competition with these elite athletes, and it chokes me up every year to stand on that starting line and say, ‘This is it, I’m going to run the Boston Marathon.’”
Roberts has long enjoyed running, from his days in high school and while studying at Ohio State University. He and his wife moved to Rochester, New York, to start and raise a family before moving back to his hometown of Findlay, Ohio, to start an orthodontic practice.
As his children grew, he would accompany his son and daughter in running community 5k events.
“Once they started getting a little faster than I was, I started running a little bit longer,” he joked. “I didn’t start running marathons until I was in my 40s. I qualified for Boston, and if you qualify for Boston, you’ve got to run. It’s such an iconic race,” he said.
He qualified for his first Boston Marathon by finishing the 1997 Columbus Marathon in 2 hours, 56 minutes. The following year he and his family traveled to New England several days before the marathon to visit his sister in Cape Cod.
After eating “way too much lobster,” Roberts said he ran his first Boston Marathon in 3 hours, 1 minute, 8 seconds. Considering he was in his 40s and his training regimen was fairly rudimentary, it remains a highlight.
“I didn’t really know anything about training for a marathon. I’d just put my shoes on and go out and run,” he said. “Now there’s all sorts of books, things online on how to train, how to prepare yourself and how to taper down before a race.
“Quite frankly, I didn’t know anything back then, I just went out and did it.”
Roberts missed a couple Boston Marathons when his children had high school sporting events but has competed in every one since 2003. The qualifying standards are stiff and not everyone who meets those standards is granted entry, making the accomplishment that much more impressive.
A record 33,058 qualifier applications were received for the 2024 marathon, and more than 11,000 qualified runners had to be turned away because of field-size limitations. But Roberts is safely in after recording a time of 3:53:05 in last year’s event, a full 12 minutes ahead of the 4:05 qualifying time needed for his age group.
Because he’s run at least 10 straight Boston Marathons, his qualifying time there automatically grants him a spot in the following year’s event. When he completes his 25th consecutive Boston Marathon, he will no longer need to meet a qualifying time to take part, just finish the race — which is no easy feat.
Roberts said the Boston Marathon is the most challenging course he’s run. The first five miles are largely downhill, which can encourage a faster pace than one desires. The course flattens out until miles 17 through 21, which feature a series of hills, including the final one called “Heartbreak Hill.”
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“It comes at a point in the race that you’d honestly rather not be running uphill,” he said. “If you started out too fast, those last hills can be really punishing until you get into the city of Boston.”
The race’s crescendo is on Boylston Street in downtown Boston, with the cheers of thousands of fans and supporters carrying weary runners across the famed finish line, which was the scene of devastation in 2013 when two bombs killed three people and injured hundreds.
Roberts had completed the race and was with his son and daughter-in-law outside their hotel when they heard sirens.
“It was a very emotional day,” he said. “It’s an athletic competition that has nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with protests or anything. But the people of Boston were unbelievable.”
He had no qualms about competing the following year, joined by his wife, Susan, who each year he’s run has volunteered to help competitors board buses in the morning then makes her way to the finish line to see him cross.
“That following year, you wondered what the crowds were going to be like and would people be afraid to be at the finish line,” he said, getting emotional. “I think the biggest crowds I’ve ever seen in Boston was in 2014. I wore an American flag on the front of my singlet, and people just … it was amazing.”
What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?
Our orthodontic department has a memorable moment every year: graduation. Our residents have been in school nearly their entire lives and graduate from our program around age 30, sometimes several years older. It’s an emotional time as their formal university training comes to an end and they enter the real world, no longer sheltered in the cocoon of academia.
What can’t you live without?
My granola. I’ve been making my own granola for decades. The recipe constantly changes relative to what I have lying around the pantry, but it is how I start my day.
Name your favorite spot on campus.
My favorite spot is just off campus, The B2B Trail. I love to go for a morning run along the Huron River and watch the crew teams practicing and the swans swimming gracefully. If I’m going for a longer run, I’ll take the path past Parker Mill Park to the Matthaei Botanical Gardens. The trail is an Ann Arbor treasure.
What inspires you?
Today’s students inspire me. The residents we have here in our orthodontic program are truly the best of the best. They keep me on my toes and inspire me to keep learning and trying to be better at what I do.
What are you currently reading?
“Knowing What We Know,” by Simon Winchester. It’s a fascinating story of how knowledge has been transmitted over time, from ancient times to modern day. As a runner, I listen to lots of recorded books when I run.
Who had the greatest influence on your career path?
Early on, it was the leader of my church youth group when I was in high school. He was a dentist and got me interested in the field. Later, when I became interested in specializing in orthodontics, the chair of the orthodontic department at the University of Rochester where I did my training, Dan Subtelny, had a huge impact on my career and my life.