William and Mary student, a Peninsula native, conquers Boston Marathon

The Virginia Gazette

The Boston Marathon's Heartbreak Hill is probably the most legendary of marathon running "heartbreak hills," referring to steep inclines along a race course.

Boston's version is noted as particularly grueling because of the point at which the rise comes: 20 miles into the 26-mile race.

William and Mary sophomore Jessica Armstrong was so focused in the 119th running on April 20, her first Boston Marathon, that she nearly eclipsed the infamous hill without even noticing.

"I knew that Heartbreak was the fourth one but I didn't know how many hills I had run yet," said Armstrong, a 19-year-old chemistry major. "So I saw the sign at the top of Heartbreak Hill that said 'top of Heartbreak Hill,' and I said, 'Oh I guess I'm done. I guess that was Heartbreak.'"

The rest was downhill as Armstrong completed her second-ever marathon with a time of 3:15.49 (7:29 pace) in a race that featured around 30,000 participants.

The top overall female finish was 2:24.55, by Caroline Rotich of Kenya. The average time for the 834 females ages 18-25 that finished the race was 4:00.00.

Armstrong, a Newport News native and Peninsula Catholic High graduate, was one of 683 Virginians to start the race.

Chris Davidson started the track program at Peninsula Catholic more than 20 years ago and coached Armstrong up until her senior season. He says Armstrong's time was the fastest a Peninsula Catholic alumna has recorded in the Boston Marathon.

When Davidson spoke to Armstrong over the phone after the race, he asked her if she had really run 3:15.49. He was a little surprised.

The transformation

The pleasant surprise for Davidson stems from Armstrong being a novice marathon runner - her only previous marathon experience had been the Boston qualifier in Virginia Beach last year - along with her history as a Pensinsula Catholic athlete.

"She was not a star in high school," said Davidson. "She was a respectable runner. She was a key part of the school's first state championship in cross country."

As a senior, Armstrong served as a team captain in cross country, track and swimming. That begins to explain the drop in her times. Armstrong is a detailed planner with leadership qualities, although removing herself from the team environment and focusing on herself paid dividends.

She was named a William and Mary running club captain as a freshman and has since been voted president.

"It was kind of like a parallel to her academic life," said Davidson. "She was the most meticulous student. She didn't want just to get a 95, but get 100. That's the approach she shows in running. It didn't matter if she could be be a star. She knew she wanted be the best she could be."

Armstrong has competed in triathlons and half-marathons and trained with the Enterprisers, a local running group affiliated with the Colonial Road Runners Club, that meets early every morning for runs.

Armstrong also trained with Michael Leech of Newport News and William and Mary graduate student Maddie Gunter, each of whom also ran the Boston Marathon.

Armstrong and Gunter often ran long runs together for distances of 12-22 miles.

"She doesn't mess around with her training," said Gunter, "and it's a really high priority for her."

Gunter, 25, finished in 3:01.14 in only her fourth marathon and was part of an interesting Commonwealth to Boston Marathon trek in her own right.

By competing in the Boston race, Gunter, a Great Falls native, fulfilled a goal several years in the making. She and three of her former Langley High 4x800 relay teammates had joked about reuniting one day to run the Marathon together.

Making it actually happen proved especially poignant because the group, which also includes sisters Carolyn and Lauren Shaw, rallied around the other member, Amanda Steffy.

Steffy was diagnosed with leukemia as a senior at Cornell University, where she was a member of the track team. She finished in 3:27.42 on the blustery Monday.

Steffy is a nominee for the 2015 Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Woman of the Year and leads Team AmandaStrong in celebration of her Boston race.

The team goal is to raise $100,000 by June 13 to go directly to blood cancer research.

Donate and find out more about Steffy's story here http://www.mwoy.org/pages/calso/los15/asteff

Not the last we've seen of Armstrong

Like many of the other participants, Armstrong was treated for mild hypothermia when she crossed the finish line. It made for a unique sensation of feeling emotionally elated but physically drained, although that's exactly what she had planned for.

"It was just a weird sensation of being in so much pain physically but being so happy mentally with how I had done," she said.

Armstrong noted the honor that comes along with running the Boston Marathon, especially since the events of 2013. She noticed no shortage of city pride and Boston Strong signage.

"Throughout the race," Armstrong said, "I was extremely happy because the Boston Marathon is just such a huge goal for so many people and it's something that I never dreamed I would have the chance to do."

Armstrong isn't sure of her immediate marathon intentions but does plan on a Boston return. With grad school or medical school approaching in a couple of years, it's just a matter of when.

"Boston was not my last marathon," said Armstrong, "and it was not my last Boston Marathon, for sure."

Holtzman can be reached by phone at 757-345-2352.

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