It's the 1953-54 school year at St. Magnus Catholic School in Hamilton, Ontario. 14-year-old Ralph Walker is in many ways a typical teenager. He is experimenting with smoking and openly preoccupied with the opposite sex, which makes him the brunt of jokes among his male classmates and constantly gets him into trouble with the school's strict headmaster, Father Fitzpatrick. As penance and to redirect his energies, Father Fitzpatrick orders Ralph to join the school's cross-country running team under the tutelage of the school's avant-garde-thinking teacher, Father Hibbert. Some of the more unusual circumstances of Ralph's life are that he lives by himself in the family home, telling the authorities that he is living with his paternal grandparents (who are in reality deceased), and telling his widowed, hospitalized mother (his father was killed in the war) that he is staying with a friend. Ralph's focus in life changes after his mother falls into a coma. It will take a miracle for her to come out of that coma. After two unrelated and somewhat innocent comments made to Ralph by Father Hibbert on prayer, purity, faith, and running the Boston Marathon, Ralph believes that that miracle will be him winning the 1954 Boston Marathon, for which he only has 180 days to train. To obtain the necessary physical and spiritual requirements to achieve this goal, Ralph receives some help from his friends Claire Collins and Chester Jones, and from Alice, one of the hospital's compassionate nurses. Although he believes Ralph's mission is misguided, Father Hibbert, who has his own secret past running history, becomes Ralph's personal trainer. These actions place Father Hibbert and Ralph at odds with Father Fitzpatrick, who sees his and other authority figures' roles as needing to show Ralph his place in life.
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