Jana Groff begins a 10-mile practice run in McAllister Park in anticipation of the "virtual" Boston Marathon she is running on Sept. 13. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Just weeks after giving birth to her fourth child, avid marathoner Jana Groff qualified for her third Boston Marathon. When the coronavirus pandemic forced this year’s race to be moved from April to September, then switched to a virtual event, she was disappointed.

Boston Marathon organizers encouraged runners who had qualified to run a 26.2-mile route in their own cities and to send in proof they completed the marathon in under six hours. Knowing that running a marathon alone is not the same experience as participating with hundreds of other runners, Groff thought about how she could make the experience special.

After talking with several other local runners who qualified, she got the idea to bring the Boston Marathon to San Antonio. 

Since then, her idea has taken off. Groff, a 43-year-old businesswoman and fitness coach, will be one of 15 qualified runners attempting to complete the marathon at McAllister Park on Sunday. Runners will start at 7 a.m., she said. 

“It’s just friends putting on a little run for friends,” said Mark Purnell, the announcer for San Antonio’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon and one of the organizers for the McAllister Park event.

Purnell has rounded up volunteers to aid the runners along their 26.2-mile route by giving out water at rest stops and cheering them on. 

He will also be announcing the runners’ times as they cross the makeshift finish line, he said. 

“I was going to announce the finish line this year” in Boston, Purnell said. After the race was moved online, “I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ve got to do something and help out.’”

Purnell said the organizers set up the course by having a friend who is an official distance measurer to come out and track the McAllister Park route with a Jones Counter – a device affixed to the front wheel of a bicycle that counts the revolutions of the wheel and can measure precise distances.

After the route was measured out, Purnell said he checked the distance himself and it was spot on.

“The first half we’ll be going uphill, but it’s a gradual uphill,” Groff said. “When you turn around it’s mostly downhill except for around about mile 21, which is the same as the Boston Marathon. That’s the Boston Marathon’s infamous Heartbreak Hill, …. so we have a small hill – not quite heartbreak, but a hill. I think I’m planning to make a sign right there that says Heartbreak Hill.”

The San Antonio race’s finish line will be named after Martin Richard, an 8-year-old who died during the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, Purnell said.

The San Antonio virtual race will be open only to qualified runners, Purnell said. Anyone registered for the original race was sent a box by the Boston Marathon organizers containing a race program, T-shirt, runner’s bib, and participant medal. As a joke, all the participants’ bib numbers are 2020, Groff said, holding up her own.

To participate in the Boston Marathon, one of the world’s top marathons, runners have to qualify by finishing a sanctioned marathon in a set amount of time, and then apply. Qualifying times vary for athletes depending on gender, age, and health. After being approved, runners have up to two years to participate in the marathon before being required to qualify again. 

After qualifying in 2018, Groff set her sights on running in the 2020 race in April. Groff and a friend were set to go to Boston and run together – until the coronavirus pandemic swept through the U.S., shutting down all large events. 

Groff qualified in September 2018 after setting a new personal record in the Wineglass Marathon in upstate New York. Groff said she hadn’t been expecting to set a new benchmark for herself, much less qualify for the Boston Marathon weeks after having her son, but she was thrilled to prepare for the race for a third time.

“The Boston Marathon is absolutely my favorite marathon I’ve ever done,” said Groff, who previously ran the race in 2011 and 2015. “I’ve done it twice, and have gone with my husband once.”

On Sunday, racers will be asked to wear masks until they get on the course, Purnell said. Water stations also will include hand sanitizer stops.

He said anyone is welcome to come give socially distanced high-fives and cheer on the racers along the track.

“We appreciate everyone coming out and helping,” Groff said. “We appreciate the support from friends and family as we put on this race.”

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report. A native San Antonian, she graduated from Texas A&M University in 2016 with a degree in telecommunication media...