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Professor leads physical therapy care at Boston Marathon

David Nolan, associate clinical professor and director of the Sports Physical Therapy Residency Program, oversees the entire psychical therapy care operation at the finish line for the Boston Marathon. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

David Nolan started volunteering at the Boston Marathon 16 years ago—and he never left.

Nolan, associate clinical professor and director of the Sports Physical Therapy Residency Program, began as one of the dozens of physical therapy professionals who deliver hands-on care to runners at the finish line. But in the past decade or so, he’s taken on more of a leadership role in that regard. Now, he oversees the entire physical therapy care operation for the Boston Marathon.

“It’s been really fun to be involved,” Nolan said. “You meet and treat athletes all over the world, and the runners are incredibly appreciative.”

Nolan is part of the marathon’s core medical leadership team; the day after the race, he’s already beginning to formulate the following year’s plan. His work ramps up in the fall with early planning meetings, and by January he’s finalizing the group of physical therapy professionals and students who will be delivering care on Marathon Monday. In the weeks leading up to the race, his focus is making sure his team has the information and education they need to be ready for the big day.

“It’s been really fun to be involved. You meet and treat athletes all over the world, and the runners are incredibly appreciative.”

David Nolan associate clinical professor

On the day of the marathon, Nolan is primarily bouncing between the various medical tents at the finish line and around Copley Square to ensure that everything is running smoothly for the runners and the caregivers. Dehydration, cramping, and heat illness are among the common ailments his team treats. How hot the temperature is on race day, he said, is typically what dictates how many runners require care.

“The amount of hands-on care is the one piece I miss. It’s much less now than when I was a volunteer [in those early years],” he said. “I’ll still be involved, though, maybe if there’s a case that’s complex or if volume gets really high. And I’m in there delivering care to some of the elite athletes, too.”

While reflecting on his Marathon Monday experiences, Nolan said, “One thing that’s stuck out is that very often, if not every year, you meet someone who’s done 30, 40, 50 marathons, and they say Boston is the best. People are cheering the whole course. You get the impression that other races don’t compare.” He added that medical care at the Boston Marathon is second to none, and that race organizers from other cities are often hand to learn how to replicate Boston’s success.

Of course, 2013 is also etched in his memory, the year of the Boston Marathon bombings. “What made that so impactful is that the race had always been a happy, joyful time in the city, with people celebrating the amazing accomplishments of the runners and raising money for charities. And then you have an event that takes the innocence away.” One big change since the bombings, he said, has been providing mental health support for volunteers who were at the finish line during the bombings and have needed assistance when they’ve returned to volunteer on race day in the years following.

Over the years, Nolan said he’s been moved by the strong sense of community and togetherness—both within his physical therapy unit and at a larger level among all those running, watching, and volunteering at the Boston Marathon. This includes the many Northeastern students and alumni who volunteer alongside each other every year; this year, he said, there are 22 Northeastern physical therapy students volunteering.

“It’s always been fulfilling to be involved as a volunteer,” he said.