So yesterday was the Boston Marathon. It’s a little foot race they hold here in New England every year on the 3rd Monday in April. Perhaps you’ve heard of it.
For the first time, your’s truly got to participate. It was my first marathon since I qualified in November 2014. And it was hard!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The day began with a hotel shuttle to Boston Commons. Or rather, almost to Boston Commons. When all was said and done, I could have walked the few blocks to the drop off point which was still a few blocks from Boston Commons and bag check. (You check a bag with post-race warm, dry clothes.) Then, it was a few blocks walk back to board the busses for the “20 minute ride” to the starting point at Hopkinton.
The stream of runners making their way around Boston Commons is amazing. I am an early person and was way early for what I needed but I was happy to be avoiding any added stress from running late. Really, there was plenty of time but you might not think so if you were waiting for a bus later.
I remember school busses being a lot bigger when I was a kid. We were on your basic yellow school bus and the ride was closer to 40 minutes than 20. We were pretty relieved to get off the cramped bus and walk into the Athlete’s village. It was fun riding out the Mass Turnpike though. Our long string of yellow busses filled with runners elicited honks, waves, and picture taking from other travelers on the road. It began to make you feel a little special.
Once at Hopkinton, I was pleasantly surprised by the Athletes Village. There were bagels, water, coffee, Gatorade, bananas, Clif products, and plenty of bathrooms. (8000 to be exact.) I looped around the tents a bit hoping to find a familiar face but decided it was ludicrous to try to find a dozen runners among 30,000 faces so I grabbed a bottle of water and found a patch of grass next to a young man from Minnesota. We chatted until his wave 1 was called to the starting corrals.
A noteworthy item was the security. Or rather not noteworthy. I felt very safe. One didn’t have to look far to see rooftop sharpshooters, or a patrolling bomb sniffing dog, but it was not obtrusive and it didn’t get in the way of enjoying the day. But I don’t think anyone will ever successfully mess with the Boston Marathon again.
Some complain about the wait in Hopkinton, but I didn’t find it so bad. Time passed quickly. And the temperature rose. And rose. I shed my Goodwill fleece jacket and sat there sweating in the sun. A gentleman from Texas who has done a dozen Boston’s was concerned and prophecied that it would not be a fast day.
Finally, wave 2 was called to the start. It was a big wave and we all made our way to the corrals which. I should have started my Garmin because it seemed like we walked about 2 miles from the village to the corrals. Forget running 26.2. You’d better be prepared to walk a long way if you are going to run Boston.
Part way to corral 6 I spotted the bus of my Delaware County friends by a nearby Exxon. I had time and searched for a way to go say hi but there was not way through the barricades so wished them well from afar and moved on.
It was fun to talk to those I rode the bus, and walked with. Runners from all parts of the US and all walks of life who had converged on Hopkinton for the honor of running the most prestigious marathon in the world.
1964 Olympian Billy Mills was the honorary starter for wave 2. I heard some voices over the PA system and then, more importantly, heard a starting gun and wave 2 began to move toward Boston. Unlike other big races where you wind up walking the first mile, at Boston you run. Within seconds of waving at the starting camera, and passing Billy Mills we were running.
The crowds even at this point were amazing. In fact, the support of the folks as we were walking to the corrals was amazing. It was clear we were part of something special.
Mile 1 went well. Right on pace at 8:00. Mile 1 was supposed to be my slowest mile until Heartbreak Hill. Sadly, this would be the last time all day I could say that I was on pace.
There is some small wooded sections at the start where a few guys broke away to pee. Of course they are in full view of the field and everyone knows what they are doing. A young woman to my right said “That always cracks me up”. I said “Don’t be jealous”. She laughed and we moved on.
This is the largest race I have ever done and being in the sea of runners was amazing, especially in the downhills from Hopkinton. As far as you could see, colorful runners bobbing along. It was a lot of work to stay in clear footing and also not get caught up in the adrenaline rush of the start. My plan had been to focus on my 1/2 mile splits carefully adhering to my 3:25 pace band. But unlike the Bucks County Marathon where I more or less ran alone, Boston offered a lot of distractions and it was difficult to think clearly and remember what my splits were supposed to be.
Did I mention the heat? I should have pretty quickly realized I was NEVER going to be able to run the race I’d hoped. Yes, I like running in the heat but as my friend Jamie said, I haven’t been. I’ve been running in the 30s and 40s. But Boston would be my only chance to requalify for Boston so I thought I’d better give it a go.
In the second mile I began falling behind. By the third mile I thought, “Let me see if I can make up 20 seconds this mile”. All the while the advice to not start to fast I had received from so many people rang in my head. “Okay. Just catch up and then you can follow your pace band”. Probably not the greatest plan.
By mile 7 and 8 runners had removed shirts and many were walking. Now, even in my worst races I have never felt bad or had tired legs early in a race. By mile 8 my legs were leaden and tired. I couldn’t believe it. I’ve never felt that tired so early. Whether it was a lack of training (I don’t think so) or all the walking pre-race and the day before the race (maybe) or just the heat I’m not sure.
The other problem that cropped up was the downhills were killing me. Yes. The downhills. Boston is a very difficult and hilly course and I had trained hard to be prepared for the up hills. But on each long downhill section, my left hip began to protest and eventually go numb and lock up. At one point it wouldn’t hold me up and I almost crumbled to the pavement.
By mile 9 I knew there would be no BQ that day. Time to do my best to enjoy being at Boston. From that point in, I focused on reading spectator signs, watching the crowds, and putting on a happy face for the cameras. (I was H-U-R-T-I-N-G. It was definitely an act for the cameras.) I hoped to slow down, recover, and run in to Boston. I had been running 7:40-7:50 minute miles but now let my pace drop to 8:15-8:30ish per mile hoping for some relief for my now very angry left-hip.
Oddly, I have never had trouble with my left hip before in any race. I have to assume it was the long downhills. I’ll need to do some experimenting in training to see if that is a problem and if it can be fixed.
I remember making the 1/2 at 1:43 something. I thought “Well, that’s a good half. If only I could pick my pace back up, a good day could still be in the cards”. But I knew it wasn’t to be. I knew those tracking me online would see a dramatic slowdown in the miles to come. It turned out more dramatic than even I expected.
From the halfway point on, on any extended downhill section I was forced to the side to walk, stretch my hip, do some leg swings, etc. to get the feeling back in my hip and to get the joint to sort of unlock and allow me to run. It was a slow and tedious process but each time I was able to begin running again.
I still made time to enjoy the day and the crowd. It was amazing to see a course of 26.2 miles mostly filled with people the entire way cheering us on. And so many people helping the runners. In addition to the official aid stations every mile, you couldn’t go more than a few yards without someone handing out orange slices, bananas, bottles of water, beer, cookies, tissues, paper towels, or with a misting hose setup to cool us down. I took advantage of everyone one of these and felt grateful for the few seconds of relief from the heat.
I want to take a moment to give a big THANK YOU to all the incredible volunteers. I can’t even imagine how many there are. (I’m sure the BAA must list it somewhere). Between the check in, athletes village, aid stations, and post-race, and medical tents there must be thousands and thousands of volunteers. All with a smile on their face to help you along toward Boston. It was truly inspiring. Even if I never qualify again I will come back and volunteer to cheer on my fast friends.
There are flags along the course as you enter each community so you know where you are. Framingham, Natick, Wellesley . . . And then you hear it. The famous scream tunnel. Plan A had been to run hard, stay on pace, and focus on a good time. Plan B involved enjoying race day including the scream tunnel. Plan B it was. Despite the opportunity to stop and smooch a pretty co-Ed, it was really uplifting to hear the youthful enthusiasm of the scream tunnel. And I also saw my favorite sign of the day. The girls all had “Kiss me it’s my birthday” (I did. 🙂 ) . Or “Kiss me I’m Irish”. Etc. One young lady standing quietly by herself had a sign that simply said “Don’t kiss me. I have mono”. I diverted, waved at her and told her I hope she feels better. She smiled and thanked me.
The next town after Wellesley was Newton. Home of the Newton Hills. I loved the uphills and hated life on the downhills stopping frequently to unlock my by now annoying left hip. But I kept moving with relentless forward progress. My pace became agonizingly slow. So much so that I stopped looking at my Garmin. I considered briefly switching it to Furlongs/Fortnight just to make the increasingly large pace numbers smaller.
I focused on getting to mile 17. At least from that point I was down to single digits in miles to go. After that, it was the famous Heartbreak hill at mile 20. I was not looking forward to cresting the hill and hearing “It’s all downhill from here”. That seemed dreadful and my cranky hip throbbed at the thought of it.
The crowds grew steadily bigger and more intense the closer to the finish line. It was amazing.
I finally made the approach to Heartbreak, where there is another, smaller grade. My hip felt better here. Finally we were at Heartbreak hill. Oddly, it was a was a welcome relief and I felt better than I had felt in a couple hours. I flew up the hill passing dozens of walking runners. Sadly, after a mile, it was back downhill.
But now I was newly inspired to at least try to keep running. I decided to put my head down and just get to the next aid station where I would walk for a cup of Gatorade and a cup of Water. The crowds cheered. I ran. Miles passed. 21. 22. 23. The Citgo sign loomed large. As it turns out you can see it a long way from the finish. That’s sad.
But I was steadily running now albeit slowly. I had to walk for one brief moment to unlock my hip when a man in a Redsox hat with a heavy Boston accent said “Come on. You can do this. It’s Bahston”. He gave me a high five, and I started running again. “There you go”, he yelled. “You’re almost there”. I felt a bit emotional after having a total stranger truly wish me well in my day. Inspired, I ran on. I wanted to get to 24.2. I’ve always felt if I can get within 2 miles of the finish the rest is easy.
The crowd became deafening at points as I made my way down Commonwealth Avenue. If you ever fantasized about being a sports star, this is as close as you can get unless you actually are a sports star.
I turned on to Hereford and ran the block to Boyleston and made the famous left turn toward the finish. I was hoping the finish was a lot closer but hadn’t hit the 26 mile mark yet so really knew it wouldn’t be. If you’ve never run a marathon, the .2 in 26.2 is significant. It is a lot further than it sounds. But I could see the finish and just focused on pushing through. I couldn’t help but look around and smile. The crowd was 5-7 people deep at the railing. For one brief moment I thought of 2013 and what an evil act it was to turn a joyous day for so many people into a cowardly moment of terrorism. But I quickly erased that from my mind and headed toward the finish, crossing the line (and hamming it up for the camera) in a ridiculously slow 3:56 and change. Over 30 minutes slower than I’d hoped for.
As we moved forward down Boyleston a voice on the PA system said “Water and Gatorade ahead”. We kept walking. I turned to the woman walking next to me and said “I hope that water is coming up soon”. Finally, someone shoved a bottle of water in my hand with a smile and a “Congratulations”. It’s amazing how much better a little act like that can make you feel.
Next we came to several tables of Gatorade that almost nobody touched. I commented to a volunteer that I didn’t really need to see anymore Gatorade for about a month. She laughed.
After the Gatorade was medals, MarathonFoto, and then warm blankets which, after the hot start were surprisingly welcome in the cool Easterly wind of the finish. There was a bag of food and the best post-race treat of the day was the Gatorade chocolate protein drink. Yum! We then had to make our way several more blocks to the gear check tents where I a) put on a warm, dry shirt b) struggled with a severe left calf cramp from bending over to pick up my bag.
Then it was back closer to the finish to the family meeting area where I found Janice waiting for me. Walking was difficult and I laughed at the thought that I’d just walk back to the hotel. That was 2 more miles and would have taken hours. We walked to Back Bay station (just a couple blocks) where my finisher’s medal got us free admission to the Orange line. I was very grateful.
So it wasn’t the day I hoped for but it was an exceptional experience I’ll always treasure. Assuming I can find a way to be a faster runner, I’ll be back someday. I have unfinished business in Boston.