GRLs Who Race: Elite Lady Runners at the Boston Marathon

Photo graphic a composite of two photos: Left via Kim Van Acker, Right via Dannielle McNeilly, taken by Dells G.

Photo graphic a composite of two photos: Left via Kim Van Acker, Right via Dannielle McNeilly, taken by Dells G.

By Dominique Burton

#GRLsWhoRace

Kim Van Acker considers herself to be a novice when it comes to marathoning. A mom, coach’s wife, Woman of Faith and special education teacher, Kim completed her 6th marathon at this year’s Boston Marathon

As a former high school and college track athlete, Kim found distance running as a way to stay in shape and keep up with the high school kids she coached in her first years of teaching. She joined Black Girls Run! in 2011 and found a community of strong women to encourage her in this next phase of running. That first year, she ran her first 5K, 8K and half marathon. 

Strongly influenced by her Moms Run This Town running buddies, that she caught the marathon bug, completing her first 26.2 at the 2014 Outer Banks Marathon with a strong finishing time of 4:08! After running the Marine Corps Marathon the following year in under 4 hours, she was ready to push for her goal of achieving a Boston Qualifying time (B.Q.). She spent the next year becoming a student of the Hanson's Marathon Method and B.Q.’ed at the 2016 Marine Corps Marathon, with a time of 3:33:13. 

Two years and a few races later, the 2018 Boston Marathon proved to be a challenge Kim will never forget. She endured the harsh elements and physical challenges, finishing the historic race for the first time in 7:10:13. After some time away to restore herself physically and emotionally, Kim set her sights on rediscovering her love for running. Armed with this new self-awareness, her next marathon experience at Boston in 2019 was one of triumph and redemption. 

Dannielle McNeilly is a born and bred New Yorker, who ran her first marathon in 2013.  Previously profiled on RUNGRL after completing the 2018 Boston Maraton, Dannielle is still killing the distance running game and navigating the ups and downs of training and off seasons.

Since that time, she has continued to level up as she works her way towards the six-star medal for World Major marathon finishers.

RUNGRL was able to chat with these strong, dope women and get insights on their journeys to the much-sought-after Boston finish line. 

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

RUNGRL: Is this your first time at the Boston Marathon?

Dannielle McNeilly (DM): 2019 was my 4th Boston Marathon--I ran it in 2015, 2016 and 2018 as well. All different elements, times and experiences. 

2015 was my first Boston Marathon, I was excited, for obvious reasons. It rained that year and I was also the only woman on my team, Black Roses NYC, running that year. I was just happy to be there and I ended with a time of 03:25:09.

2016 was hot as hell. I didn't want to run because I was coming from a breakup and also not happy with how my training was going (knee issues). Again, I was the only woman [from my team], which only made me more miserable. I ended up having a bad race and walking. I finished with a time of 03:38:15, and I’d never felt so defeated, not to mention traumatized from heat. That took a while to get over. 

2018 was part redemption and part hypothermia. Having re-qualified in the fall of 2016 and running with 7 other women this time, I was much happier. But you saw what last year was weather-wise--YIKES. Still, I finished at 03:22:11. 

2019 was rain, clouds, sunshine and rainbows all in one morning. I didn't particularly want to run because I had Tokyo Marathon coming up, but I had to. 5 black people that I knew, including myself, had qualified for Boston. How could I not? I know how important representation is, so I was out there. Weather and post-marathon legs notwithstanding, I had a good race ending at 03:17:26.

It all goes to show that no marathon, even if you’ve run the course before, is ever the same.

Kim Van Acker (KVA): 2019 was my second Boston! I ran in the 2018 All-Weather Boston Marathon, after qualifying at the 2016 Marine Corps Marathon. I qualified for this year’s Boston (2019) at the 2017 Anthem Richmond Marathon. This is my 6th marathon overall, so I’m really just a novice at this whole marathon thing in comparison to a lot of other folks.

RUNGRL: Did you change anything from your normal training to adjust to the Boston course?

DM: Not at all. When preparing for Boston, I typically go upstate with my Black Roses squad to do a km course simulation, but that didn't happen this time due to my schedule. Boston was only 6 weeks out from the Tokyo Marathon, so I threw all my focus and energy into preparing for that. I only made sure I maintained decent mileage so I wouldn't be struggling too bad this go-round.

KVA: Yes! I intentionally ran more hills, but later discovered that the downhills were probably the thing I needed to focus on the most. It’s a net downhill course, with some pretty intense hills on the back half between miles 16-21, and they are killer after all of the downhills. I still remember my quads telling me the story of Marathon Monday!

RUNGRL: Can you share some highlights of your experience running from Hopkinton to Boylston Street?

KVA: This one is big. Last year’s race was a doozy, utterly hard, in so many ways. Having another opportunity to run this year was sweet. I truly felt blessed to get a do-over after just making it from Hopkinton to Boylston. I made sure I took in the sights and noticed as much as I could along the course. People were everywhere, along the ENTIRE route. 

I also took time to notice the spots where I stopped last year to visit medical tents. It was more of a moment to thank God that while I wasn’t having a perfect race this year, it was much better than last year. The finish on Boylston is NUTS. It makes you feel like you’re winning the race. The energy of all of the people cheering is like nothing I can describe.

RUNGRL: What would you say to runners, particularly Black women, looking to run/qualify for Boston in the future?

DM: I would say three things: 

  1. Do not purely aim to B.Q. with the minimum time needed. Aim for five minutes [under the cutoff] or faster. People are training and racing stronger and getting much faster all the time. The cut off for the first wave this past year was 3:07. 

  2. BE PREPARED TO WORK. Yes, marathon training is an of itself work but training for a BQ or training to run Boston in and of itself much harder. Running useless and lazy miles in addition to poor diet and lack of cross-training won't cut it. 

  3. Don't give up! While I respect people saying, "oh I'll wait to age qualify," I also think of it as a semi-defeatist attitude. I don't think anyone is incapable of a B.Q. You have to want it, but you also have to work (see #2).

We don't always set out to represent Black women during a run or race but, at times, our reality is that we stand out. Share your thoughts and feelings on this during your race.

KVA: Well, I definitely noticed the lack of Black women (and men) out there, but I know we were there. We stand out for sure. I think the thing that was great about this race, in the end, was that we were all just trying to finish. I can’t recall a time where I felt out of place, and if there was shade, I didn’t know it. I went into the race with the mantra: “Run your own race.” I think in Boston, you get the respect for just being there. 

DM: I have to breathe deep on this one. Not out of anger or frustration, but I do have a lot to say with respect to Black women and running. The sport is expanding and I like seeing that more women are beginning to participate thanks to platforms like RUNGRL. I know black women run these races, but as a strong performer, I look at things pretty differently. 

Running is a white, male sport. I have countless race photos of myself in a sea of white men. Other than in Chicago, when I was running with [Sharada] Maddox, I generally have no one running with me that looks like me. Don't get me wrong, I am unbelievably thankful for the talent and ability I have and the opportunity to proudly represent my fellow sisters and be a face for other persons of color as well. In the same breath, I'm also tired--I don't want it to just be me. 

I've seen people look at me like I don't belong in my [time] corral, let alone the race. Sometimes I want to say, "This ain't no charity bib, hun. I've EARNED my spot." But what can you do except show up and show out, as always? I know how much it means to other people to see me out there, to give hope to others. 

“Aspire to inspire” is my motto. It's the reason I continue to run and race. 

Follow Dannielle and Kim’s running journeys on Instagram.

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About the Boston Marathon 

The Boston Athletic Association (BAA), established in 1887, is a non-profit organization with a mission of promoting a healthy lifestyle through sports, especially running. BAA has hosted the Boston Marathon since its inception in 1897. The Boston Marathon is the world's oldest annual marathon and ranks as one of the world's most prestigious road racing events. BAA continues to manage this American classic, which has been sponsored by John Hancock Financial since 1986. The Boston Marathon has distinguished itself as the pinnacle event within the sport of road racing by virtue of its traditions, longevity and method of gaining entry into the race (via qualification).


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Dominique Burton

Co-founder and Chief Partnerships Officer