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Overheated or dehydrated after the Boston Marathon? These Northeastern physical therapy students will help you recover

“If we were to treat 1,000 people, that would be a ‘slow’ day,” says Northeastern’s David Nolan, who heads the physical therapy team.

A time lapse photo of runners crossing the start line of the Boston Marathon.
“It’s such a fun experience,” says volunteer Shira Weiner, a graduating physical therapy student at Northeastern. AP Photo/Mary Schwalm

About 30,000 athletes from more than 100 countries will be participating Monday in the 128th running of the Boston Marathon.

Awaiting their arrival just beyond the finish line will be about 100 physical therapists, including 25 or more students — many of them from Northeastern University.

“I’m a huge runner myself, so I love running and I love the marathon,” says Shira Weiner, a Northeastern physical therapy student who will be volunteering at the Boston Marathon for the fourth time. “It’s just such a fun environment to see all these runners after they finish. 

“It’s not like a chore for me to volunteer. I have fun.”

One of Weiner’s Northeastern professors, David Nolan, oversees the physical therapy care operation for the Boston Marathon. He is in charge of five medical areas arrayed just beyond the finish line.

“If we were to treat 1,000 people, that would be a ‘slow’ day,” says Nolan, an associate clinical professor at Northeastern’s Department of Physical Therapy, Movement and Rehabilitation Sciences. 

Nolan and his team serve as volunteers. The medical staff began meeting in November to plan for the marathon, and Nolan finalized his team in early February. He acknowledges that his selections tend to favor Northeastern students, who are each paired with a licensed physical therapist on race day.

“And then it’s usually a little bit biased towards the students that have had a little bit more coursework and exposure and co-ops,” says Nolan, who also directs the Mass General Hospital/Northeastern University Sports Physical Therapy Residency.

As runners cross the finish line they are met by a “triage” team of physicians and athletic trainers who decide whether an athlete needs to visit one of the medical areas. The most common issues involve dehydration and cramping.

More worrisome are the potential for stress injuries (including broken bones) as well as the risk for heat stroke.

“In that exertional heatstroke category, your core temperature is 104 or higher — and we’ve had some people that are 110,” Nolan says. “In those cases we do ice immersion. They’re basically in a big tub of ice water, and instead of one volunteer doing massage on one runner’s calf, you have five, six or seven people around the ice tub — one monitoring rectal temperature, one monitoring vitals, others moving ice water over them to cool them. 

“If your core temperature is that high for too long, you start getting into organ failure and people could die. That’s why our group plays such a critical role because you don’t have time to transport them to the hospital. The outcome hinges on people being cooled quickly.”

Weather will be an important variable, Nolan says. Afternoon temperatures are expected to be in the low 60s, but a hot spell with minimal cloud cover could result in heat-related illnesses for the runners. 

The practical experience is one reason why Adam Schreiman keeps volunteering.

“There is an incredible environment that promotes teaching and learning despite how fast-paced everything is,” says Schreiman, who is earning a doctorate in physical therapy at Northeastern this year. “It provides the ability for me to learn from more experienced clinicians but also develop skills in efficiency, time management, communication and so much more.”

In addition to the goodwill of contributing to the Boston community, Schreiman finds that his marathon experiences have helped him improve his communication with athletes, work at a faster pace and learn to recognize and treat a variety of pathologies that are common to distance running.

“It has helped me build many relationships with medical practitioners so that I can continue to grow my network as I enter the workforce,” Schreiman says. “Having a large network is not only critical for finding jobs but also for continuing education throughout my career.”

In addition to all of those professional benefits, Weiner finds herself dwelling on the good memories as she approaches her final marathon as a Northeastern student.

“I always know at least five to 10 people running the marathon each year,” says Weiner, who is graduating with a physical therapy doctorate. “It’s a huge thing being able to come out of the tents — as long as I’m not needed inside — and congratulate them and see their smiling or exhausted faces right after they’ve completed the marathon. 

“And then it’s fun helping the runners in the tent, telling them they did a good job and they’re in here temporarily — and then getting them on their feet out of the tent and back to their families. It’s such a fun experience.”

Returning to the marathon reminds Weiner of Mary Hickey, the legendary Northeastern physical therapy professor who died of cancer in 2021.

“She said she loves to volunteer for the Boston Marathon, which made me super excited to do it,” Weiner says. “She told me that you know how well the runners are with it mentally at the end of the race if they can tell you their time — she said that’s a good sign.”

Weiner hopes to run the Boston Marathon someday. But currently she is rehabbing a foot injury, which has deepened her empathy for the runners she will be treating.

“I’ve done a few half marathons but unfortunately I injured myself,” Weiner says, laughing. “I partially tore one of my tendons. As a PT you shouldn’t ignore your pain and I ignored mine.”