It's like I'm coming home in a way," said 16-time Boston Marathon runner Bonnie Bence. Bonnie has been racing since she was 62 years old, and she is now turning 78 this year. Throughout the past 16 years Bonnie has completed a total of 32 marathons; and something about Boston always brings her back to Beantown.
"I fell in love with the city and the people as well," she said.
Bonnie learned about the Special Olympics MA Xtra Mile Team through her son Chris, who works as the Director of Corporate Alliances for ESPN Relationships at Special Olympic International.
While this is just her second time officially running as a member of the Xtra Mile Team, Bonnie's connection to the Special Needs community dates back to her childhood. Her father was heavily involved with St. Mary's Special School in St. Louis, a school with the mission of enabling children with developmental and intellectual disabilities to experience success. Through his involvement at the school, Bonnie was able to build relationships with many of the students.
"We really got connected and I realized how truly they were just like me," said Bonnie. ''I had fun with them and I learned about what it means to be a Special Olympics athlete."
What it means to be a Special Olympics athlete today vs 60 years ago is a little different, according to Bonnie. From social and emotional communication education, proper sports training, accessible healthcare, and nutrition coaching, Bonnie explained that Special Olympics has grown tenfold from what it used to be. Being able to contribute to the mission and grow Special Olympics even further is why Bonnie runs on the Xtra Mile Team.
"I was excited to do it, but I didn't know it would be as great as it truly has been. There is a very special team spirit when you are running the Xtra Mile," said Bonnie. "[Special Olympics MA] takes the time to have athletes not only speak to us, but to write us notes. They just really go overboard for us."
Through her participation on the Xtra Mile Team, Bonnie has been able to build relationships with Special Olympics athletes that join the team's regular Zoom chats. One athlete has built an incredible relationship with Bonnie -- USA Games gold medalist Anne DeForge.
As Bonnie's pen pal, Anne sends updates on her life both within and outside of Special Olympics, as well as poems she writes in her spare time. Anne will be running the Boston Athletic Association (B.A.A.) 5K on the Saturday before the Boston Marathon and is excited to cross the same finish line that Bonnie will two days later.
''She's running the 5K, and so I'm going to be out there cheering for her first," said Bonnie.
While Bonnie's running career is certainly impressive, what's more impressive is the journey she has taken to get to this point. Bonnie only ran informally with her dad when she was growing up, as there weren't many options for her as a teenage girl trying to play sports before Title IX.
"They didn't have Cross Country for girls in my day. I played basketball in high school, but that was about it," she said. ''When I went to college I minored in Physical Education where there was some running; but they didn't really teach us how to run."
It wasn't until one of her other sons, Robert, taught her how to train and pace herself that Bonnie started racing. While Bonnie emphasized the importance of having a training schedule and sticking to it, there is one trick in particular that has helped her complete many races.
''I have a system now that I do that really works because of Special Olympics. When I get donations, I write down all of the names and I try to run certain sections of the Marathon for special people," Bonnie explained. ''For example, if I'm on mile six, maybe I'll tell myself that I'm running for one of my nephews who donated to the cause."
One of Bonnie's fastest times happened on a Heartbreak Hill run when she practiced this system. The family of one of her former students, who passed away in an automobile accident, had supported Bonnie's run. Bonnie made sure to tell the family that during her Heartbreak run, she would be thinking of their daughter.
"It was one of my best runs," said Bonnie.
For Bonnie, running the Boston Marathon isn't a nerve-wracking experience -- she sees it as a gift. She detailed the experience of wearing a Special Olympics Xtra Mile Team singlet tank top making her feel like a ''super star." People on the track cheered her on or called her to come over, thanking her for running for the mission and telling stories of their own Special Olympics experiences.
"Instead of being nervous, the race is the reward. I get to run and represent Special Olympics," said Bonnie.