The Philadelphia Marathon is a tale of two races. The first half is a delightful romp around all the best parts of the city with an enormous crowd cheering you on. The second half should be beautiful. It is run out along Kelly drive to Manayunk and back in sight of the Schuylkill River most of the way. Manayunk is crazy with people wanting to give you beer. It is also the turnaround where runners head back to Eakins Oval and the finish line. That run back from Manayunk takes an eternity and presents a great mental challenge especially when injured. My first time doing Philly, I didn’t know it but I had severe tendonitis in my right foot. (A harbinger of the future.) Shortly after the first half my entire right foot had gone numb. I also didn’t realize my protective band aid had slipped off my right nipple and, by appearances, it seemed I had been impaled as the blood stain on my white shirt went from my chest to my waist. As I passed the 26 mile marker, the barriers marking the course curved around, preventing me from seeing the finish line.
I ran on and on. Just when I felt sure the 26 mile marker had been mis-placed, I finally rounded the bend and spied the finish. Despite my poor time, despite my numb foot, and despite the terrified look of the teenager with the finisher’s medal as this crazy, bloody man came towards her, the finish was glorious!
In my first successful Boston Qualifying attempt at the Bucks County Marathon the last .2 is essentially a loop around the parking lot. I was on fumes. I knew I would BQ at the end and I could have slowed down but the finish line in a running race is powerful medicine dragging the runner towards it like a black hole sucking in all that come near. I crossed the line as close to needing medical attention as any race I’ve ever been in and barely able to stand. There was no big crowd. My wife wasn’t there. Just a few encouraging and concerned volunteers. Despite barely being able to continue a few feet forward, my spirit soared over the moon when, with my last physical ability, I stepped over that finish line and stopped the clock with a solid BQ. What a rush!
The finish line does not have to read 26.2 miles to be magical either. While I was never the fastest marathoner, I was often the fastest runner in my age group at shorter distances. I could whip out a pretty fast 5K. One of the pleasures I always allowed myself at a 5K or short course triathlon was the luxury of stretching out on some bit of grass post race completely spent while I recovered.
At each race, I’d make it a point to investigate the finish area before hand and pick out my targeted bit of grass. Around the 2 mile mark in a 5K, the mental demons show up urging the runner to quit. To beat the demons I would form a picture in my mind of just how heavenly it would feel to cross the line and collapse for a few minutes. It wouldn’t be the same if I’d jogged that last mile. It would be like skipping dinner and just having dessert. The luxurious collapse was meant only for those that worked hard and deserved it.
I thought the best finish line I would ever cross was Ironman Lake Placid. Looking back, I still can’t believe I was ever able to do that. 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of biking, and a full marathon. Even though I wound up walking significant parts of the marathon due to poor nutrition, I ran the last 8 miles or so and crossed the finish line running strong. For those that know Ironman, you know the Lake Placid finish line is one of the best in the sport. The Olympic Oval is magical and gets better and better as the night wears on. Some describe it as tribal. As an athlete you enter the oval and, after hours of internal struggle, are suddenly presented with music, bright lights and an a stadium full of people who all want nothing more than for you to run by and cross the finish line. The energy is positively amazing.
But then I went to the Boston Marathon. The Boston Marathon finish is like no other anywhere. Sure IMLP is awesome. The oval is alive. The crowd in town is great, but Boston takes the whole thing to the next level. The Boston Marathon occurs on Patriots Day in Massachusetts. It is a holiday and everyone is off work and everyone and I do mean everyone is watching the Boston Marathon.
The entire course at Boston is filled with spectators. There isn’t 100 yards anywhere where there are not people cheering you on. But the last 5 miles . . the finish . . is deafening. The throngs of spectators, many rows deep push you along with their cheers. Granted, when you make the turn onto Boyleston street you pass the 26 mile marker and have a straight view to the finish and can see just how far .2 miles really is. Honestly, it’s okay. You’ve worked so hard to get here and it seems the entire city of Boston has been packed into that .2 miles and they are there just to see you. The good will felt as a runner truly lifts you up. The volunteers after the finish are no disappointment either. There is no place in the world where you feel more special. They lavish attention on 26,000 finishers throughout the day not short changing a single runner. This continues even after the finish as simply flashing your finisher’s medal gets you and your family on to the “T” free of charge.
The finish line, all finish lines, are a special place. As I write this, my friends Andres Hernandez and Keith Straw, are a couple hours in to the Vermont 100. It is an extreme distance ultra run. They will cross the finish sometime later in the weekend. Tomorrow I have more friends like Steph Burke tackling the 2018 edition of Ironman Lake Placid. At midnight tomorrow, I’ll wish I was in the Olympic Oval banging the boards and willing the last few competitors to make the midnight cutoff. Elsewhere, running and triathlon friends will run across finish lines at events of all sizes. They will be greeted by a smiling face, perhaps they will collapse onto a patch of grass or maybe just wrap up in a space blanket and enjoy chocolate milk or cup of coffee.
I love the finish line. I think about the times I’ve wanted to quit but imagining the clock, the finish line, and a welcoming volunteer have kept me moving forward. I am a lucky and fortunate person to have been able to do so many great events in the past and to have experienced the finish line, but I do miss it and the thought of not being able to run across another of any distance leaves me feeling a bit empty.