Amber Rollack runs the 2023 Boston Marathon.

Chasing the World Marathon Majors: Amber Rollack shares her Boston Marathon story

This coming Monday, 30,000 runners will line up in Hopkinton, Massachusetts for the 128th Boston Marathon.

The Boston Marathon, one of the world’s best-known road races, is the second Abbott World Marathon Major of the calendar year.

Participants famously have to earn their way to the start line by running a qualifying time (though charity bib slots are also available). For this year’s race, organizers received a record 33,058 applications, of which 22,019 were accepted (the remainder of the field is made up of elite athletes and charity runners). Runners needed to have run 5 minutes, 29 seconds or faster than their qualifying time to gain entry.

This year, the Brainsport Times is speaking to Saskatoonians who’ve completed the World Marathon Majors about their experiences getting into and running these coveted races (if you want to share your story reach out!). Today, Amber Rollack shares her story of running the 2023 Boston Marathon.

Q: Tell me a bit about yourself and your relationship with running.

A: I am 43 years old, born and raised in Saskatoon. I have been a runner since the age of 10, starting with cross country and track and then transitioning to road running in my mid-20s after the conclusion of my varsity track career. I am a complete introvert, so running has always been my cherished “me” time. I do love the running community and the social atmosphere of races and I will run on occasion with friends, but 95% of the time you’ll find me running solo. I have run nine full marathons.

Amber Rollack gives out high fives during the 2023 Boston Marathon.
Amber Rollack gives out high fives during the 2023 Boston Marathon.

Q: Why did you want to run the Boston Marathon?

A: Boston is iconic. It’s the marathon that even the non-runners know about. Arguably, it has the reputation of being the most famous marathon in the world. Naturally, it seemed like something to set my sights on. My dad ran Boston in 2011 (his second-ever marathon). It was after that I decided to try a marathon myself. The idea of qualifying for Boston was in the back of my mind. My first marathon was just over four hours and gruelling (with 12 km to go, I decided I would never run another marathon again). But, as is the case with most marathoners, once the the finish line high sets in, you start to look for the next race to run. It was at that time I looked at Boston Marathon qualifying times and I would have had to shave off more than 20 minutes to qualify, which seemed impossible. I ran another marathon in 2012 a few minutes under four hours, but I had put the Boston dream aside by that time.

Fast forward a few years, I had my son in 2014, so there was the post-pregnancy transition back to running (with two slower marathons in 2017 and 2018) and in 2019 I decided to really put the work in to run a good marathon time at the Sask. Marathon. My dad shared his marathon training plan with me (which he had gotten a number of years prior from the Runner’s World Smart Coach program) and that year I ran a 3:47 marathon. That was the revival of my Boston Marathon dream.

Q: Tell me about qualifying.

A: I had set out to train and make an attempt at a Boston qualifier at the Sask Marathon in 2020. The COVID pandemic put that plan on hold. But, in replacement of in-person racing, I participated in a number of virtual endurance running challenges during the pandemic that helped develop a habit of consistency and a really strong base, and I came back to in-person racing stronger than ever. My Boston qualifying attempt would be the Sask. Marathon in 2022.

My dad and I followed the same 16-week training plan, running together once per week at the Field House during the winter months to get the interval and tempo workouts in, while I covered the majority of the rest of easy mileage and long runs outside. We set a plan to run together at the Sask. Marathon (up to that point my dad had always been faster than me, so we never ran races together). I picked goal pace that would get me few minutes under the qualifying time, knowing that the Boston Marathon can have cut-off times for qualifiers depending on the number of race applicants in a given year. Dad and I finished the Sask. Marathon together with a time of 3:38:13: one minute and 47 seconds under my qualifying time. Lucky for me, Boston didn’t have a cut-off for the 2023 marathon, and dad and I found out in late September that we had secured our race bib for Boston.

Amber Rollack shows off her 2023 Boston Marathon finisher's medal.
Amber Rollack shows off her 2023 Boston Marathon finisher’s medal.

Q: How logistically easy or challenging was it to organize travel and accommodations?

A: Travel to Boston is very easy. We flew from Saskatoon to Toronto and from Toronto to Boston. My mom is the most organized traveller you will ever meet. The day dad and I ran our qualifying time at the Sask. Marathon, my mom booked five different hotels so that we would have lots to choose from and price comparisons if we did end up going. In the end, we opted for a hotel in central Boston at the final mile mark of the race (the famous CITGO sign was right across the street). Boston has a subway system, so there was no need to rent a car. It was $20 for a five-day subway pass. We were a short walk from Fenway Park, which after the marathon was the next highlight of the trip (As a Blue Jays fan, I couldn’t bring myself to cheer for the Red Sox, but Fenway Park is magical if you are a baseball fan).

Q: How expensive was travel?

A: It was not cheap. We approached Boston as once-in-a-lifetime experience and decided to make it a memorable family trip (dad, mom, my husband, and son). Flights were around $1,000 per person. We stayed for seven days. The hotel prices were much higher for the nights right around the marathon, with a $3,100 price tag for a stay from Saturday to Tuesday (the marathon is on the Monday). There are more budget-friendly options (although still expensive from what I understand), but they tend to be further from central Boston. It was really convenient to have a subway station right outside our hotel and the finish line was only three stops away, which is where the start line shuttles pick up the runners the morning of the race.

Q: Tell me about the race.

A: Boston’s weather is highly variable from year-to-year. It has been everything from really hot to gale-force winds and rain. 2023’s race was cool and rainy. The temperatures were around 10-12C, which is my ideal running temperature. It was mostly misty, but there was about a 10-15 minute period of steady rain at the midpoint of my race. The Boston course is challenging. It is a hilly course, and being a prairie runner, you definitely notice the subtle rolling hills at the beginning of the race. From 27-34 km the course goes through what is known as the Newton Hills: four noticeable hills, the final one being the famous Heartbreak Hill. The course will test the best runners. But … the crowds!!! The city of Boston comes out in full force for this race. It is 42.2 km straight of cheering spectators.

A particularly memorable moment was the women of the Wellesley scream tunnel, who you can start to hear from about a half a kilometer away. Wellesley is a women’s college along the course. It was my absolute favourite stretch of the race, giving out a string of high fives over a 300-400 meter stretch. I spent so much time running along the edge of the course to give high fives, my Garmin measured the distance as 42.97 km. But, the extra distance (and giving up likely what would have been a new PB) was well worth it, just to take the opportunity to interact with the crowd. That was what I wanted for my Boston experience. I’ll have other chances at PBs.

Q: What surprised you the most about the race/what had you not been expecting?

A: Boston lived up to every expectation. What I wasn’t expecting was how impressive the whole organization of the event was. It all runs so smoothly, like a well oiled machine … from the hundreds of porta-potties at all the right pre-race spots, the parked school buses at the finish line that store your finish-line bag, the bus ride to the start line, Athletes Village, the people collecting warm-up clothes, the separation into the start waves and corrals, and the finish line. It’s really impressive! I would strongly consider going back to Boston just to be race volunteer and experience that side of the event. They really do make it all about the runners.

A: How did the race compare to other races you have done?

Q: Other than Boston, my only other marathons have been the Sask. Marathon and Queen City Marathons, which are obviously much smaller in comparison. I have run some larger ultramarathon events (Sinister 7 and Squamish 50/50). Neither was as big as Boston, but just like Boston, the race directors and volunteers are so valuable in making the experience so memorable.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who gets into Boston?

A: Enjoy it for the full experience! Thank as many volunteers as you can! Give out as many high fives as you can! Worry less about your performance and your finish time, because you might only get one Boston. There is a mural on a building close to the finish line that says “Running Boston changes you.” It truly does, but perhaps not in the way you think it will. You maybe need a racer mentality to get yourself there with a qualifying time, but once you are there, let the experience humble you, because it will be the hundreds of thousands of volunteers and spectators that will carry you.

Q: Anything else?

A: Phew, I am sure there is always more I can say about Boston. I would highly recommend the marathon after party at Fenway Park, especially if you are a baseball fan. It was only $15 per person, which included a free beer, entertainment/activities, field level access, and “Green Monster” access (the famous tall green wall in left field).