Marathon Challenge

Video Diary Jonathan Bush

A welcome distraction

Q: First question: So why did you do this?

Jonathan: Well, my friend Pierre, who knew about the project, said I should. I was in a very suggestible place. [laughs] If someone told me to join the Moonies, I think I'd probably be a member right now. I was in, you know, a difficult place personally. And there was something reassuring about joining a group to do something healthy for me. Forced health, forced purging of all kinds. I think that was the main motivation. Pierre also told me I needed to meet girls and that there would be all these girls in the marathon. [laughs]

In the summer of 2006, Jonathan was in the throes of a divorce, working through the terms of custody for his five young kids.

Jonathan: Also, of course, this is a chance to run in the Boston Marathon. The chance to be a part of such an incredible cultural event, as a Bostonian, is a great, great opportunity. So, having something fun and fabulous to look forward to, it seemed like a wonderful gift.

Q: When you took the first, baseline fitness test, your rating was very high. Were you already a runner?

Jonathan: Well, I had run a couple times a week, or maybe once a week, or maybe once every couple of weeks before. I'm an active person, but my life was pretty sedentary. My job largely involves seats—airplane seats, conference room tables, restaurant seats.

Jonathan is the cofounder and CEO of a fast-growing company called athenahealth.

Q: After we started, you seemed to disappear for about 12 weeks. What happened?

Jonathan: Yeah. Having too much to do means trying to make really strict priorities. And one priority I have is, when I have access to the kids, I take it, because I see them a lot less than I did before. So I had the kids in Maine for two weeks. And then, every weekend, we tried to go up there. But I promise, I was feeling guilty each of the 12 weeks I missed. I also ran a lot during that time. I got up to regularly running seven miles every weekend. And when I got back with the group, they were up to something like four miles.

Q: When you got back, it was funny, because everyone wanted to reintroduce themselves to you, but you knew who they were. What did you think of the group?

Jonathan: It was an incredibly nice group. I sort of missed out on the intense group feeling. I didn't miss out on it completely; I got to witness it. But certainly, by not being there as much as I should have, and being the distracted one, I didn't get to write into the silk screen of it, which would have been great, although I never felt remotely excluded.

Q: Did the team vibe help you at all? Or were you kind of on your own?

Jonathan: I think the runs, and the idea that the next one was coming, and blocking out time leading to the marathon was a huge help. I wasn't in good enough shape to do it before. It wasn't like everything else in my life, where I could squeeze it off the last minute. I couldn't have. And it's great for me that I had to build to something over time.

E-mail from Jonathan to Coach Don Megerle, October 25, 2006
I'm in vegas for the week but pretty sure I'll be back on sunday and raring to get running again. My divorce is final (last wednesday) and I rented a house in belmont, and I have moved the kids in and spent our first night there. So, I guess I'm out of excuses. Thanks so much for following up with me. From the emails I see, you are clearly working miracles with our group and I'm lucky to be a part of it. Seriously.

Running through the pain

Q: The group's 10-mile run was a big landmark. How did you feel after it?

Jonathan: I was a little sore, but not too bad. My feet, in particular, felt like they had tendonitis. And from there on, every time there'd been a long run, my feet would be sore. Various toenails would turn black and fall off. You know, definitely my body was taking an impact.

Q: But you didn't let pain stop you. Was there a mental element to it?

Jonathan: Yeah, absolutely. Running is massive effort and meditation. It's largely an intellectual exercise, not a physical one. You're really in the act—thinking about each part of you and seeing if you can keep it aligned in the right way. If everything's in the right place, you can go much faster than you can if you're slumped over and slamming your feet. That feeling of meditation—when you're actually outside of your body, looking at yourself—has accomplished a lot for me.

Notes taken by a NOVA producer after checking in with Jonathan, February 21, 2007
Caught up with Jonathan as he was sighting alligators on some sort of tour (cell phone cutting in and out) in Key Biscayne Florida. Jonathan is very busy now and will be right up to the marathon. He flew to Utah with his kids and a babysitter today to spend nine days at his brother's "very nice" place (we were invited) … He plans to run the New Bedford Half Marathon … Otherwise time (or lack thereof) has been a huge factor in his training. He doesn't have any…

The biggest benefit he attributes to running as well as to now spending so much time with his children is a longer attention span…When he runs he is forced to focus on the small things (e.g. arm motion) that may contribute to wasting energy. When he is with his children he is dealing with little children with little needs. A very different perspective for someone who has spent most of his life thinking about big thoughts.

He described himself as "stable - not sad."…The kids will be with Jonathan on Marathon Day.

Going all out

Q: What do you think this marathon quest means for you?

Jonathan: Oh, I don't know. But you know, everything's so safe in our bloody society. There're guardrails, and coffee can't be too hot. Or if it is, you have to have a printed warning. And this is something where you're actually invited to absolutely finish yourself off.

Probably the fundamental underlying truth about happiness in the human condition, I think, has something to do with "_____ or die trying." You're most fulfilled as a human being when you try to do something that seems important to you, or absolutely commit yourself to go all the way up against it, until you just can't go another step further. And the marathon's a classic example of that. It's almost an absurd example of that. All you're going to do is just run or die trying. This is a chance to actually pour yourself into something and see if you can do it.

E-mail from Jonathan to NOVA producer, March 22, 2007
The half marathon felt great. I put electrical tape around the middle of my feet where the blisters were and it completely protected them…

I've set my stretch goal as 8 minute miles for the marathon.

I'm in CA for the weekend and plan to run in both san diego and LA... not sure where in LA but I'll figure something out. Also, I have a meaningful number of mornings free next week in boston which I plan to spend running.

It will be hard as hell to pull myself together in time to hit 8s but I am committed to go down trying.

Hitting the mark

Q: So, how do you think it went?

Jonathan: I think I said that my goal was to break four hours or die trying. And I got there at three hours and 52 minutes and some seconds, I mean right under it. And I almost died trying.

Near the end, there's a little uphill, not much, just 100 yards uphill. And I blanked out at the top of the hill. There's a 90-degree turn, and my legs were moving, but I didn't see anything for a second. Then I got back in focus—you know, pan in: there're the people, there's the road. I ran, and when I crossed the finish line, I just absolutely didn't have anything left.

I was hypothermic, exhausted, shaking, and happy as a guy could ever be, because I had absolutely poured every last bit of myself into something and, as it turned out, hit my goal, my little four-hour goal.

Q: You got a cool jacket out of it, too.

Jonathan: Yeah. That would go into the "show off at work" category, or show off to my kids.

Q: So the kids weren't there?

Jonathan: No, no. That was too bad.

Q: What was that about?

Jonathan: You know, I don't know. [He pauses, somewhat choked up.] I think they had vacation plans, and I think my former wife thought the marathon was on a different day. I would have loved to have them there. And I nearly died when I saw the little kids scampering behind those barricades to hold onto their mom or dad and cross the finish line. It wasn't that I wanted to show off to them. My feelings were more about that there was a mom and a dad who were working together on something and were supporting each other.

But it was still very satisfying. My parents came. I'm seeing a lot more of my parents these days, which is satisfying. And they were very, I mean, they'd be proud of me if I had wiped out. They're very parent-like in that way.

Q: They seemed very excited. We have footage of them in the stands.

Jonathan: They are happy with their boys. They are happy with their two kids [Jonathan and brother Billy] and we're happy with them. That part of all of our lives worked out well. And they're happy with each other, and that's nice to see, too.

Q: Can you talk about the gift you gave your father and what it meant to him?

Jonathan: For my dad's birthday, I gave him a framed photo that a Herald reporter had taken of me finishing the marathon. I guess he liked it. I mean, I assume he likes it. I'm his son, I ran the marathon, I had a tough year, you know. And he actually gave me a gift, too. You know those little medals, those ribbons with the marathon medallions on the end they give you? I couldn't find mine, and he had, I guess, taken it. He had the medal framed for me, beautifully laid out with the ribbon, as if it was like the Nobel Prize, with the ribbon sort of piled up and pinned neatly. And it had, in calligraphy, "Boston Marathon, 2007. 3 hours 52 minutes, whatever seconds." So, it was nice to have something work out for all of us. We all needed that, I think, pretty badly. Maybe that's why we did so much commemoration of it.

Q: What's the future for you in terms of running?

Jonathan: I want to run the marathon every year. I've just got to find an angle. About 15 people came up to me after the company meeting that we had a few days after the marathon and said, "I want to run it too. Let's go. Let's do it together." And so there's about 12 of us who are going to try to do the Marine Corps marathon in September. It's apparently the flattest marathon you can run, and therefore, you get as high a score as you can. Maybe some of us will qualify [to run in the Boston Marathon].

It was a very satisfying and beautiful thing to be a part of. The crowd encouragement phenomenon was incredible. It was a very communal kind of feeling. The idea that people should get out and push themselves to be healthy and do something they didn't think they could do, it's something that we all share. It's unlike football or professional sports, where you're rooting for a guy who's way down on the field and making zillions of dollars, someone you don't actually have as much in common with. The runners and the people cheering the runners actually have a huge amount in common. Each could be the other very, very easily. I love the Roman Colisseum type of sports that we do and all that, but this is better. This is deeper and better.

Q: One of the crowd things that was funny was hearing the Wellesley women screaming. [Women of Wellesley College traditionally come out to root for the marathon runners.]

Jonathan: Oh, it was fabulous.

Q: You start to hear it from far away.

Jonathan: Yes, oh you can. Yeah, it's extraordinary, and a little embarrassing. I'm a shy guy with girls, just because I'm not used to that, whatever, part of being a single guy. But anyhow, at first I thought, "Gee, that's really great. I really want to be over there." And then, "Gee, I don't know, I shouldn't be over there." But it was terrific.

Q: You said at the start that your friend encouraged you to do this by saying you'd meet girls in the marathon. Did you?

Jonathan: [laughs] I don't remember one girl. I mean, there were thousands, but that was the last thing on my mind running the marathon; so that was a total failure. But the rest of it worked very well.

Interview conducted in May 2007 by Dan McCabe and Hillary Wells, producers of "Marathon Challenge," and edited by Susan K. Lewis, editor of NOVA online

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