“Regular Guy” Stephen VanGampleare Takes the Boston Marathon Open Title
The engineer from Colorado Springs ran a big PR, qualified for the Olympic Trials—and beat half the elite field.
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
On Monday morning in Hopkinton, Stephen VanGampleare tried to stay dry like the other 27,000 citizen runners who were waiting to start the Boston Marathon.
Like the rest of the masses, the 28-year-old mechanical engineer from Colorado Springs had taken a long, cramped bus ride from Boston Common, then spent about two hours sitting on a trash bag under the big tent in the athlete’s village in Hopkinton. After lining up at the start, he waited in the corral for two minutes after the men’s elite field took off, like the rest of the runners in Wave 1.
But when the gun finally fired, VanGampleare left all of the other citizen runners in his wake, running negative splits on the way to a massive PR of 2:18:40, the 26th fastest time of the day. He not only finished as the top amateur in the race, he also qualified for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials in the process.
Ever since, his phone has been blowing up and there was a thread about his effort on LetsRun.com by Monday afternoon.
“I’m still pretty pumped about it. It was definitely great to have everything go exactly as I was hoping it would,” VanGampleare told PodiumRunner on Wednesday. “As far as I’m concerned, though, I just went out and raced a race and it went pretty well. It doesn’t really seem like it warrants any extra recognition, in my opinion, but it’s cool that other people think so.”
VanGampleare had been disappointed that the Boston Athletic Association changed its policy about non-elite runners prior to this year’s race. After several non-elite women finished among the top 15 in last year’s weather-stricken race and were ineligible for prize money given the different start time for elite women, a protest ensued over the inequality between men and women. In response, the BAA announced that this year the men’s elite field would start two-minutes ahead of the citizen runners in Wave 1 so that non-elite men would also be ineligible for awards.
VanGampleare, with a 2:24:25 lifetime best set at the 2017 California International Marathon, lacked the 2:19 time required to start with the elites. He had tried to contact the BAA to complain back in March and, with no response, resorted to Tweeting about his disenchantment with the change on April 1.
— Stephen VanGampleare (@run_svg) April 2, 2019
“I thought it was a disappointing change,” VanGampleare said. “There were some regular runners who toughed out the weather last year and placed in the prize money. I think one of the best parts, one of the most intriguing parts, of the marathon is that you never know when there is going to be some random, regular guy who is not in the elite field who has a great day and beats some of the elites.”
VanGampleare became that kind of regular guy by running aggressively while staying within himself. He went through the 10K split in 33:04 (5:19 pace) with a small group of runners from Wave 1 and reached the halfway split in 1:09:50 (5:20 pace). At that point, he ran with one other runner until about mile 16, then took off alone. His second half split was 1:08:50 (5:15 pace).
He first started catching elites who were falling off from the first pack in the Newton Hills, and continued to overtake the early starters until he had passed roughly half of the pro field. In the final standings, he finished one place ahead of four-time U.S. Olympian and former 2:08:56 marathoner Abdi Abdirahman (2:18:56)—although he crossed the line about 1:45 after Abdi, given the split start. Since the BAA had made clear that the elite race is a “separate competition” (hence the new start time to avoid any confusion), VanGampleare isn’t technically the 26th finisher, and can instead be considered the winner of the open Boston Marathon.
No bad for a guy who is self-coached and does most of his training alone. He mostly runs solo because he works 50 hours a week designing medical devices for a Colorado Springs company and can’t always find the time to meet up with other runners.
One runner who does occasionally run with “SVG”—as VanGampleare is known among runners in Colorado Springs—is Brent Bailey, who himself ran 2:36:59 in Boston on Monday. “He works so hard and has been running 110–120 mile weeks forever, so it was great to see it all pay off,” Bailey said. “For him to be able to maintain focus and run negative splits on that course is just awesome. I always thought he could have that breakthrough and am so happy it all came together for him.”
VanGampleare is no stranger to the Boston course, having run the race every year since 2015. He ran 2:33 in his first two tries, then 2:25:35 in 2017 and 2:42:36 during the inclement weather last year. He knew he was “pretty fit” coming into the race and was hoping to run sub-2:20. But on race day he said he felt great and decided he should give the Trials qualifying-standard of 2:19 a shot.
— St. Mary's HS, CO (@SMHSColorado) April 17, 2017
“I figured if I was going to shoot for 2:20, there wasn’t any reason I shouldn’t shoot for 2:19. So my goal that morning was to sit right on 2:19 pace and hold on as long as I could,” he said. “I ran pretty consistently throughout, which is usually my strategy. I’ve have had a couple of races in Boston before where that strategy worked out, despite the hills in the second half.”
VanGampleare said he had a pretty good marathon build-up, even though there was more snow than usual in Colorado Springs. Although that resulted in him missing a few runs and workouts, he still averaged 110 to 115 miles per week at his peak. He said he knew he was fit when he managed to run marathon pace for the final 16 miles of 20- to 22-mile long runs in mid-March. Adjusting for the 6,000-foot elevation of Colorado Springs, he ran those stints at about 5:25 pace and said he felt great.
He’s run 11 marathons since finishing a modest college career at Creighton. He says he might run another marathon early in the fall before focusing on the 2020 Olympic Trials next February in Atlanta.
“I think that whole ‘tough-to-solve’ part is something I enjoy,” he said. “You can be completely prepared going into a race and then have the weather we had last year in Boston. You can do everything right and still have everything go wrong. It takes a lot of patience, a lot of work and sticking to what you think is going to get you prepared. It doesn’t always work out, but on the days where everything kind of aligns and goes well, it’s super rewarding to look back and think, ‘I nailed it today.’ And that’s pretty much how I feel right now.”