Two marathons, one worthy cause

Two marathons, one worthy cause

Woonsocket’s Katie Vadenais, top left, and her children, Rowan Vadenais, left, and Quinn Vadenais, right, show their support for Woonsocket’s Steven Blais as he rows on a Concept 2 Rower along the Boston Marathon course on Monday, April 19. Blais, who is a 1997 graduate of Woonsocket High and a member of Team End ALZ, raised nearly $9,000 for the Alzheimer’s Association by running a marathon and rowing the same 42,195 meters that’s required to complete a 26.2-mile race.
Woonsocket’s Blais runs Boston course (and rows 26.2 miles!) to raise money for Alzheimer’s Association

WOONSOCKET – The Boston Marathon may have been moved from April to October, but that didn’t stop Steven Blais and several runners from throughout the region from crashing the 26.2-mile course on Monday, April 19, and keeping the Patriots Day tradition alive.

But the Woonsocket native did something that day that no one else wouldn’t have attempted in their wildest dreams. He ran three-quarters of the way up Heartbreak Hill, the legendary series of hills between miles 16 and 20.6, stepped off Commonwealth Avenue and under a pop-up tent near the sidewalk – and began rowing on a Concept 2 Rower.

Yes, that’s right, while there were runners over the course of the day struggling to scale the hills, there was Blais, off to the side, looking to row the same 42,195 meters that’s also required to complete a 26.2-mile race.

“I was at a traffic light, so anytime that the light turned red, cars would stop and people would stare at me,” Blais added with a laugh. “A lot of people were asking, ‘Whats going on? Why are you doing that?’ Runners were stopping and asking the same questions.”

“Some people had made some signs for me, which was great, and that gave everyone a little bit of information,” he continued. “And it was fun to see their reactions. ‘You’re doing what?’ That was kind of cool.”

Rowing all 42,195 meters in a tad over four hours was also cool. So was running the marathon’s final 5.6 miles and crossing the historic painted finish line on Boylston Street in Boston later that day, as well as raising close to $9,000 for a cause that’s very dear to his heart.

Sporting the purple New Balance singlet of Team End ALZ, Blais, who has seen members of his family, including his mother, lose their lives to Alzheimer’s disease, did the highly unusual and quite challenging “double marathon” to raise money for the Alzheimer’s Association.

“Alzheimer’s has been pretty severe in my family,” Blais said. “It’s been an honor to run for my mom, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, and so many people whose families have been affected by this disease. On my shoes, I had written the names of loved ones of friends and family who have passed or are suffering from Alzheimer’s, and it carried me through.”

A 1997 graduate of Woonsocket High who competed for the Villa Novans’ cross country squad, Blais resumed his running career in 2013, and in addition to competing in road races, he became a running ambassador for Lululemon in Cranston and led the November Project community in Providence that trains on the stairs of the State House early Wednesday mornings.

In 2018, he hooked up with Team End ALZ and raised $10,000, which was $2,000 more than his requirement, to receive a bib for that year’s Boston Marathon. Unfortunately for Blais and the other 30,000-plus runners that day, the steady rain, biting wind, and temperatures that hovered in the high 30s and low 40s made for a forgettable afternoon.

“That race was honestly the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life,” admitted Blais, who sloshed to the finish line in a time of 4:49:26. “It was so cold and I was so wet, and at about mile 14, a nagging leg injury caught up with me. It was later diagnosed as a stress fracture, so I ran in that rain with a small break in my leg.”

But despite the day being “pretty tortuous, it was one of the best experiences in my entire life,” he added. The race took place “about 11 months after my mom passed away from Alzheimer’s, and it definitely felt like she carried me through it.”

After that race, Blais remained in contact with the Alzheimer’s Association, and when last year’s marathon was postponed to September, and eventually canceled, no thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, “I knew that (the marathon) was a significant chunk of their fundraising every year, and it was discouraging to see them to lose out on that,” he added.

Last November, when this year’s race “got postponed from April to question mark,” Blais knew that he needed to take action, “and the week that I contacted them, they launched a ‘Run Your Own Race’ program,” he recalled. “When you registered, they gave you a fundraising platform and a team singlet and supported you in whatever ways that they could.”

A couple of months earlier, Blais got hooked on rowing, “and I didn’t know that I loved it until that fall,” he admitted. “A couple of friends and I decided to do personal rowing challenges. We added 100 meters each day and we did that for a month, and the following month, we decided to do 200,000 meters between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve.”

“We were just sitting on our rowers for 2½ hours every night, and it’s the most relaxed training that I’ve ever done,” he added. “It gave me a nice feeling to come home from work, put on my headphones, and just row for 20,000-30,000 meters.”

Blais decided to take his passions for running and rowing and put them to very good use, “and when I presented (the Alzheimer’s Association) with my idea of running the Boston course and rowing a marathon in the middle of it, they thought I was out of my mind,” recalled Blais. “But they were more than happy to support me.”

For someone who will readily admit that he’s “no stranger to doing really dumb things,” Blais received state-wide attention during his training, which included a few 20-mile runs earlier this year and his countless hours on his rowing machine.

When Marathon Monday finally arrived, Blais showed up to Hopkinton in the wee hours of the morning and crossed the starting line at 4:19 a.m. – after all, the date was April 19 – “and there was not a car on the road at that hour,” he said. “Main Street in Hopkinton was absolutely barren.”

It took him nearly 3½ hours to reach the 20-mile mark, “and I had to force myself to slow down a lot,” he said. “I’d look down at my watch and see that I’d been running the standard ‘Steven-runs-a-marathon’ pace, and I had to tell myself, ‘Slow down, You have a lot of work left to do.’”

A little after 8 a.m., Blais arrived at his tent and his Concept 2 Rower, which had been set up by two of his friends, Dominic Herard and Ashley Bouthillier, between Carriage Road and Commonwealth Avenue, and after taking a couple of minutes to change his shoes, Blais went to work on his second marathon.

“It took me 4:06 (to complete the rowing portion of the day),” Blais added. “I took a break after 12,000 meters, and then after each 10,000, just to shake out my legs a little bit. But I felt fine, and surprisingly, I never hit the wall that day.”

Around 2 p.m., Blais completed the final 5.6 miles of the marathon, “and while I was standing at the finish, I saw at least five more people come across,” he said. Completing that marathon “is monumental. It’s an achievement that’s wonderful, and whether you have the crowd or not, the look of adulation on people’s faces and the painted finish line on the road are incredible.”

While the road from Hopkinton to Boston is behind him, “the road to $10,000 is still going,” he said, referring to his ultimate goal that Blais hopes to raise through his fundraising page for this event – act.alz.org/goto/stridesofhope – but is still a little over $1,000 shy of that mark.

“The goal is close,” he remarked. “From the Friday before the marathon to that Monday, I had doubled my fundraising total. We were at $4,000, and now we’re so close to the finish line. I’m grateful to cross the finish line in Boston, but I have one more finish to go and I hope to do it.”

Fans applaud Blais as he crosses the Boston Marathon’s finish line on Boylston Street.