In 2012, Shirley Reilly experienced a breakthrough year, winning her division of the Boston Marathon and then the women's marathon at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
BOSTON — As if there wasn’t already enough pressure on Shirley Reilly to win her second consecutive Boston Marathon Monday, Reilly has the added anxiety of an additional $35,000 in prize money attracting the best competition possible to the start line of the 117th edition of the world’s oldest marathon.
The newly minted Boston-London Wheelchair challenge will award an additional $35,000 to the top three men and women according to points won for their finishing placement in each marathon. The top point earner from the combined races, which are only six days apart, will get $10,000, while $5,000 will go to second place and $2,500 to third place.
That prize money is in addition to the $60,000 purse awarded to the individual winners in both Boston and London — ranging from $15,000 for the winners to $500 for a 10th-place finish.
Reilly, however, who took marathon gold at the London 2012 Paralympic Games after winning the Boston Marathon in 2012, didn’t seem fazed by the heightened stakes during the Champions Breakfast Saturday morning at the Fairmount Copley Plaza hotel, located just steps from Monday’s finish line.
“I think it’s great, having this Boston-London Challenge attracts more athletes and (raises) the level of competition to the event, so I think it’s exciting and I’m glad to be a part of it,” Reilly said moments before receiving her bib for the Boston Marathon.
Reilly’s winning time of 1 hour, 37 minutes and 36 seconds last year was one second faster than five-time Boston winner Wakako Tsuchida of Japan, who had won the five previous races in Boston.
“I was in the best shape of my life, just coasting really well and climbing really well,” Reilly, 27, said of unseating Tsuchida.
Nobody can attest to Reilly’s calm demeanor better than Cheri Blauwet — who was not only the last American woman to win the Boston Marathon but also was the last American woman to win back-to-back titles, winning in 2004 and 2005.
“It can be a challenge, and it can certainly be quite a bit of pressure,” Blauwet, a Paralympian who trained with Reilly at the University of Arizona, said of trying to repeat in Boston, “and I think there’s a lot of expectations that people feel they have to live up to. But Shirley is a very cool and composed person and I think if anyone can do it, she’s focused on what she has to do on Monday and not be so swayed by all of the events around it.
“She’s a very down to earth person. I think that will suit her well. I feel very proud that we are continuing to train women to be the best in the world at marathon and I hope that the legacy continues. But I think for now Shirley is at the top of her game and at the top of women’s competitive racing.”
A Boston resident herself, Blauwet said it was more thrilling to watch Reilly cross the finish line last year than to see Joshua Cassidy of Canada set a world record (1:18.24) in the men’s race moments earlier.
“Everyone was getting excited to see the men finish, and I was still more excited to see who was going to be the first woman to finish,” she said before being recognized herself at the Champions Breakfast. “I saw someone off in the distance and when they are still really far off it’s hard to tell if it’s a guy or a girl. When I saw them approaching I was like, ‘It’s a woman, who is it, who is it?’ When I started to realize it was Shirley I started screaming. It was just so neat to see her finally reach her peak.
“Having trained with her at the University of Arizona and then as a U.S. teammate, Shirley was one of the hardest workers I have ever met and she had really clicked along, clicked along, clicked along sort of in the third, fourth range for many years. And last year was a tremendous breakthrough for her.”
Reilly won the Los Angeles Marathon last year before heading to Boston, where Tsuchida held a 24-second lead at the 5k mark. But Reilly caught up quickly and was neck-in-neck with the Japanese power all the way up to the 40k mark before out-dueling Tsuchida in the final sprint.
The one-second victory was not only the third-closest finish in the history of the women’s wheelchair event, but it also was a personal record for Reilly.
The win came on an 80-degree day that didn’t faze the Arizona resident. Monday’s forecast calls for cold and Reilly joked that it will take a really good tail wind to top her performance from last year.
She also said the infamous Heartbreak Hill isn’t so heartbreaking for her.
“The (hill) right before it, they never mention the hill right before it, and that one hurts,” she said. “But I’m like, ‘This hill almost hurts as much as Heartbreak’ because it hurts so much and you go past Heartbreak and you’re like, ‘Oh that was it?’ because the one before it was worse.”
Arriving in Boston late Friday night, Reilly did admit returning as defending champion is a “little nerve racking” because the entire field is going to be gunning for her.
Besides Tsuchida, who set a world best time of 1:34:06 in Boston in 2011, the field this year includes two-time Chicago Marathon champion Tatyana McFadden of the United States, who won three gold medals in track at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, and Diane Roy of Canada, a five-time Boston Marathon runner-up who placed third last year.
Another U.S. Paralympian, Susannah Scaroni, is also in the field. She beat Reilly in the L.A. Marathon on March 18 despite the fact that Reilly had the lead for the first 30-kilometers.
“The times are different with different people (in the field) and I think Wakako (Tsuchida) will run a very fast time so hopefully, I can run a fast time too,” Reilly said of Monday.
And if she doesn’t post a fast time, Reilly and the rest of the field will have another shot at scoring points six days later in London — a city Reilly will be returning to for the first time since winning the marathon gold at the Paralympic Games along with a silver (5,000 meters) and bronze (1,500) all in the T54 class.
“I’m excited because I know the course now,” said Reilly, who finished fourth in last year’s London Marathon. “Last year I didn’t know the course, I was playing it very safe and it ended up backfiring because I got behind certain people on the downhill and I didn’t coast as well. There are things I learned so this time I think it will be better because I know the course.
“It’s going to be fun. I love London and I had a really good year.”