Yeah? You ran yesterday didn’t you… how did it go?
Well Pfitz, despite doing just about every mile of your savagery cum training plan, I didn’t feel fit.
Get out. How can that be?
I don’t know. I just didn’t get my ‘marathon skinny’ going.
Well maybe if you’d put down the chardonnay and candy…
Don’t get all scientific with me. I get it. But I also think it’s because I haven’t done a marathon in 4 years. And I was…
SPIT IT OUT!
I was kinda sorta scared.
YOU? GIVE. ME. A. BREAK.
First, stop stealing my punctuation. Second, UP. YOURS.
OK ok . I know, you’re probably all sore and cranky today.
Meh, my quads are little sore, but I feel pretty good.
See, I told you I trained you good.
Well, you know I missed my last planned 20 with that foot thing. And that did wonders to sprout the seeds of doubt already sown in my head.
Is this a race report or ‘The Grapes of Wrath’?
You wanna test the ‘Cranky’ part of your “sore and cranky’ theory?
Then pipe down and listen, I’ll tell you about the race.
Oh. OK. Let me pull up a comfy chair.
Should I order in some food? You tend to ramble on.
If you wanna keep those kneecaps I’d suggest you pretend you’re mute for a bit.
Sorry. Carry on.
Thank you your highness. So, about a week before the race I started to kinda think ‘How am I going to get through this?’
It’s called ‘Taper Madness’, remember?
Well, it was more than that. I didn’t have any explicit time goals, I just wanted to have a good race and not suffer badly. I wanted to finish and want to do another one. I didn’t want to be chanting ‘Never again….never again…never again…’ with each footfall.
I don’t think you could said ‘Never again’ 3 times with each footfall unless you’re talking really fast.
Don’t – DO NOT – make me get the duct tape. OK, so I started to toy with the idea of Gallowaying the first half of the race.
Galloway. Jeff Galloway.
Oh, the guy who ran the 10k in the 1972 Olympics? The guy who is the proponent of the wussy ‘RUN-WALK-RUN’ program?
Yeah. He was a non-medalist in the Olympics just like you.
Anyway I’d done Galloway when I’d come back from injuries. And it was kinda fun and I thought “Why not?” The theory is that it delays the onset of muscle fatigue. So I made the decision to run at least the first half ‘a la’ Galloway. I also decided that if it was warmer, it would be smart to keep me from overheating.
Is that all it takes?
You are treading on some thin ice dude.
I know, sorry. Some days I just crack myself up. How was the weather? Was the forecast apocalyptic? Your track record makes me think you pissed off Mother Nature something fierce. What – you don’t recycle or something?
I have to agree with you on that. But apparently, Mother Nature and I are now BFF’s because IT WAS PERFECT. Seriously. 44 degrees at the start, maybe 52 at the finish. And the course – THE COURSE! - 20 miles of it was on a converted rail bed that was mostly packed earth. So nice to run on! And tree-lined throughout – near constant shade! Anyway, here’s how it all shook out:
Michel and I went down the day before and I hit the tiny little expo. The merchandise was pretty thin and we both cracked up at the guy in a booth who was selling rugs. Oriental rugs.
Yeah. Total non-sequitur for sure but gave us a hearty laugh.
After the expo we went to buy Gatorade and bananas. Then we went to dinner at Bonefish Grill.
What – no pasta?
I can’t do red sauce before a marathon and knew if I got some rice and bread or something I’d be fine. While waiting for our table we were sitting at the bar tables next to some people who turned out to be from Niagara Falls, NY. Small world. Then, on the other side was a mother and son who were running the race. They were really nice, had a great chat with both of them. By the time we got our table it was like 7:15 and I was getting itchy to just eat and get outta there. On the way home, we saw the incredible “Super Moon” on the rise. Nice way to end the night.
I got up the next morning at 5:00 and the thought of eating anything was nauseating; I have such a hard time eating in the morning. I made some coffee and then mixed some Gatorade and chia seed gel with it. I’d bought bananas and instant grits but the only thing I could manage to eat was some of Robin’s granola bars she’d made for me and the Gatorade/chia mix. It was not a breakfast of champions but I typically run on a mostly empty stomach. My plan was to supplement along the way.
Michel drove me to the start at the USA Baseball facility – I got there with about half hour to spare. It was 44 degrees out and I was wearing my bike-style CW-X shorts and a fitted tank. 20 minutes before the start, I ditched my jacket and pants giving explicit instructions to Michel to meet me at the finish with them. The race gets two thumbs up for having ample port-a-potties for sure. On my way there I saw the sign for the Beer Garden after the finish. My only thought was there has to be an easier way to score a couple free beers than running 26.2. The race does get a thumb down for starting late. The Half was supposed to go off at 7:00, the full marathon 15 minutes later. The half didn’t go off until 7:15 and by then I was really chilled. When we lined up for the start of the marathon, I picked up a ‘throw away’ sweatshirt from someone in the half and put it on to stay warm. My only thought was that Robin the germ phobe would be horrified.
The gun went off at around 7:30 and off we went. I started easy and at eight minutes and 30 seconds my watch beeped for me to walk for a minute. I was very self conscious and made sure I walked off the road so as to not impede runners. I just KNEW there was someone out there sneering at me, but I just kept thinking “Yeah, and I’ll see you at mile 20.” Ahead of me, two women stopped to walk as well. At the two mile marker, I stopped for my minute walk as did the two women. They were also doing walk breaks. At this point I was looking for a darn port-o-potty with all the gatoarde I’d consumed. At mile 3 we turned off the roads and on to the American Tobacco Trail. It was really pretty – nice packed surface and lined with huge pine trees. At mile 4 I finally saw 1 port-a-potty and by the grace of God a woman jumped out just as I was running up. In and out and no wait. I exited and 100 yards later saw Michel in the throng of spectators, gave him the thumbs up and kept going. I looked for the two woman and saw the hot-pink top of one of them up ahead. I passed the 4:15 pace group in which my new friend Sondra was running. By mile 5 I’d caught up to the other two woman and we walked together. A guy ran buy us and said grumpily “You’re impeding other runners.” We weren’t walking 3 across at all – he was just a running snob. We started running again and passed grumpy guy. At our next walk break we walked single file and he went buy us. I’m sure he was feeling a bit self-conscious that he’d said something to us and we kept passing him with reckless abandon. About this time the lead runners had looped back and they went flying buy. I still get a thrill seeing people run so fast with such apparent ease. Lots of cheers from the crowd. We hit the turnaround at mile 7.5, and I looked at my watch split of 1:10:27. I was a little disappointed that it wasn’t faster, but I hadn’t been paying attention to the splits. I remembered Galloways benchmark that you lose about 15 seconds a mile with the walk breaks, but the math wasn’t quite working out. Oh well. I kept running and at this point one of the two women – Christine – and I had separated from the other. She asked me if I thought we could break 4:00 and I told her we might. At this point I did glance at the average mile pace for the running portions and saw they were in the 8:40’s and 8:50’s and I thought we might have a shot to make up some ground. We were still playing ping-pong with the grumpy guy and he was starting to look hot and sweaty. We saw a woman who was dressed up in St. Patrick’s day gear and I noted I’d seen her pass her on the way back from the first turnaround and that we’d made up some significant ground on her.
At mile 11, we passed the spectator area and I tossed my hat, gloves, and arm warmers to Michel. My legs still felt very good, very fresh. At that point I made the decision to Galloway until Mile 20. I looked forward to the rest stops and it made the miles just fly by. In mile 12, Christine and I dusted grumpy man for good. She was in good spirits as well and we hit the half at 2:03 and change. I knew a sub-4 was probably out of the question but I really didn’t care. It was here I clicked ‘stop’ on my garmin instead of ‘lap’…and I didn’t realize until a good 30 seconds later. DAMN.
At mile 15 there was a long incline – not steep, but there. And then at mile 15.8, my Garmin lost its signal. It’s amazing how easy it is to get hooked on the technology. I didn’t know what my running pace was so I just told Christine we’d have to go on feel. We crossed the main road to the other arm of the trail. We saw the 22 mile marker on the other side. I said to Christine “3 miles out, 3 miles back.” At mile 17 I saw Michel again at the spectators section. I hadn’t expected to see him there and it was a nice surprise. My legs were starting to ache just a little. It seemed like we were on a perpetual incline and I made the comment that it would be nice on the way back. The trail was just so beautiful and we saw some spectators who had with them a very large GOAT. Not something you see in a marathon every day for sure. At mile 19 and change we made the turn around and hit mile 20 at 3:07 and I quietly told Christine that sub 4 was pretty much out of the question; she was on pace for a monster PR and she was totally fine with it. My goal had been to finish anywhere between my PR of 3:48 and my PW of 4:10.
It started to get hard. I sent up a prayer for a friend’s mom who was recently diagnosed with cancer. This mile was for her. I put on my iPod but it was more of an annoyance and I took it off after a couple of minutes. I was looking at my watch for the interval distance and we were both getting quiet. I started to think I was losing it a bit because I felt like we were on a perpetual incline – I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. I thought of my mom quite a bit, thought of when she was dying and how much harder that must have been on her than what I was feeling. I felt her with me out there; I could imagine her voice so clearly.
I’d been good about hydrating and taking gels, but my legs and hips were aching. At mile 21 I heard a “Go MONICA!” from the other side of the train and saw Sondra – she was running a hell of a race! At mile 22 I saw the lady I’d met at the Bonefish grill. I realized I didn’t even know her name. At the mile 23 water station I took a cup of Gatorade and my stomach rebelled. I grabbed a cup of water and drank it down but I felt the wave of nausea rip through me. At the turn onto the main road with 3.2 miles to go, Christine’s husband Stuart jumped in. He’d run the half and was pumped up and chatty and said “Think of the PIZZA at the finish!!!” I thought I would vomit. The running was now a grind. A woman was holding a sign that made us all laugh: Bloody nipples turn me on. My left foot was cramping in the arch and my left hamstring felt like it was going to seize at any moment. My thighs and hips were very sore. We’d been shielded from the elements on the trail, and when we turned on the road we got a face full of wind followed by an uphill. I used my arms as much as I could and made a crack to Christine “That wind wasn’t really necessary was it?” I wasn’t even looking at my pace, just the distance left to the next mile marker and the walk break. Christine’s husband was chattering away and she finally said “Stuart: stop talking, it’s annoying me.” It's amazing how little tolerance you have for anything when you're uncomfortable. After the mile 24 walk break, my legs hurt to start running, my left foot cramping even more. I had a couple dark moments, wanting to just break into a walk and thought “Banish them, banish those thoughts.” The nausea was irritating. At mile 25, we did the quick walk break and that mile and a quarter seemed very long. At 25.3 I said “less than a mile to go!”… at mile 25.6 I said “less than 3 laps of the track!” Christine slowed just a bit and I said “Come on girlfriend, I’m not crossing that finish with anyone but you!” We passed the mile 26 marker and kept running. Up ahead we saw the 13 mile marker for the half marathon and a turn and I said “there it is! A tenth to go!” We made the turn and Christine said “Come on MONICA!” and we both ran as fast as our tired legs would carry us. I saw 4:07 on the clock, and I had a momentary wave of disappointment: I thought I’d come in under 4:05. It didn’t last. I crossed the finish line and stopped and bent over. My legs and left foot just ached. I was so happy to be done running. I gave Christine a big hug – she’d run close to a 50 minute PR – and got my finishers medal that I joked was the size of a hubcap.
Pfitz: So… what were your splits?
Well, I’m kind of amazed. As much as I hurt those last 3 or 4 miles, I didn’t really slow down. My first half was in 2:03:21, and my second half was in 2:03:53.
Well, you can’t complain about consistency.
Nope. Now that I’ve kinda figured it out a bit, who knows? Maybe I can run faster. It was kinda fun.
And the beer at the finish?
It was most excellent Pfitz, most excellent.
Monday, March 21, 2011
Monday, March 14, 2011
Note: This is my Boston race report from the 2007 race. I'm posting it on my blog in homage to all my dear friends who are running the race this year! I hope my description gives you inspiration... proud of all of you!!!
Happy in the Chase
Boston Marathon, 2007
Be careful what you wish for.
I look out the window of the hotel. It’s 6:30 am and I see rain falling slantwise, wind whipping the flags on the flagpoles. I think of what I have said to my husband 2 days earlier Why do these have to be so hard? Why can’t I run a race without having to battle the elements as well? It was a pure and simple whine. An emotional vent, a rage at the heavens. Poor me. I get over it. Because you can’t run 26.2 miles feeling sorry for yourself; you might as well not even start. Suck it up, get your game face on, and roll. Make it a Who is the toughest? Channel your inner Prefontaine. Make it one for the ages. I ran Boston 2007. I FINISHED Boston 2007
* * *
Training for this race was a grind. Spring marathons are the hardest because the training is done in the cold and dark of winter. And I started in a bit of a hole: the Charlotte Marathon was in mid-December and was followed by some recovery downtime, a minor injury, and a nasty bout of the flu. The new year dawned with my not having run more than a mile in 3 weeks and the realization I had less then 4 months to prepare for Boston. And Boston is special. It’s not like any other race: it’s the big daddy, the Mecca, the Holy Grail, the “show”, the super bowl of running. Pick your overused cliché; they all work. You run in the shadow of giants. You breathe their air.
My training was flat. I logged more miles than ever, but I was tired. The Richmond/Charlotte double had taken its toll. There are people who can run marathon after marathon with little time in between. I am not one of them. I was weary - both mentally and physically - and my training reflected it. Most of it was alone. I missed the company of Franny and Robin on the long runs. Robin was sidelined with a stress fracture and Franny was taking time off for work and family obligations. I looked forward to the weeks after Boston - not the race itself - so I could take a step back from the monster miles, the stomach-burning tempo runs and catch up on my rest and my life. Boston was supposed to be my victory lap. In those intervening months of training I thought more than once Be careful what you wish for. I had no time goals. I wanted to enjoy the run, the course, the crowds. I didn’t want to go for broke and crash. I didn’t want to run so hard that the course and experience would be nothing more than a tunnel-vision blur. I am guilty of the mortal sin of covetousness: I want that finisher’s medal, nothing more.
With less than a week to go, the weatherman crashes my most modest of dreams with a single meteorological term that turned my knees to gelatin: Nor’Easter. What kind of word is that anyway? It sounds like something from Moby Dick. It’s a made-up term for a very real weather phenomenon. It is inches of rain and strong winds in bone-chilling cold. Shit. I wonder about those predicted 30+ mph headwinds, with 50 mph gusts; Could I take that kind of a beating over 26+ miles? Damn. I joke to my friends, All I prayed for was “Please, let it not be warm.” I guess I should have been a little more specific on the downside. I laugh, I fret, I cry. There is no way I’m not starting this race. There is no way I’m not finishing. It probably won’t be pretty. It won’t be perfect. This is life.
I arrive in Boston on Saturday, a day earlier then planned. The forecast for the bad weather has forced me to change my travel plans. I have wholly committed to running this race. But I have to actually GET to the starting line. My flight is not direct, and from the segment from Philly to Boston, there are no less than 4 other runners headed to the race. This gives me hope. When I arrive in Boston, I get my rental car and proceed directly to the runners’ expo at the convention center. The first order of business is to pick up my race number. I am bib number 17288. I pass the rows of runners with bib numbers in the 4-digits. I am humbled. I am a piker, a bush-league runner next to them. I find the line with my bib assignment and pick up my race packet. I then proceed past the rows of runners who have higher bib assignments. My head is held a bit higher. Faster than you. Faster than you. And you and you and you. Most of the time running is not so much about being first, but about not being last.
The expo is jammed and frenetic. The highlight is “THE WALL”. Adidas has their campaign, their “Reason XXX for running the Boston Marathon”. Reasons range from the trite (“Chicks dig runners”) to the philosophical (“Cheaper than therapy”) to the inspirational (“Running for Joe who is stationed in Iraq”). Any runner can grab a “Reason #” bib, write down their reason, and stick it to the wall. I don’t even have to think about mine. I grab the bib, stick it to the wall, grab the Sharpie hanging from a string and scrawl my reason. I take a photo to memorialize it. To run in the footsteps of my dad. – Monica C. #17288
BJ, Erin, and Reen will drive with me to the state park at Hopkinton. From there I’ll take a shuttle bus to the start. A day earlier, I’d chatted with a woman who was also staying at our hotel in Waltham. She was debating with how to get to the start. When I go to the front desk that morning to get a bowl for my 3 packs of instant oatmeal – my pre-race breakfast of choice – and to check out the howling wind and rain, I see her. Her parents and husband are in tow. It is 7:00 am. They are headed to Hopkinton. I’m not even dressed for the race. I tell her Good Luck! Hang in there, stay warm. To myself, I’m thinking ARE YOU CRAZY? It’s over 3 hours to race time. What do you intend to do? Freeze in the interim? I’m as equal a novice to the race as she, but can’t help to think – as she fights to open the door against the raging wind – Rookie. It ain’t gonna take 3 hours to get to the start 14 miles away. I’m certainly not being humble, but her caution borders on the absurd. The look in her eyes transmits nothing but fear. She’s done before she’s even started.
My phone beeps in volumes those 24 hours before the race. Text messages flow like the rain outside. From Craig, my dear South African running friend/coworker I will be sitting in my office with an umbrella open in support of your gallant and amazing run…From Maria Hey, what’s a little rain and wind and from Michel, my husband, who aches to be here U can do it. U know you can. I love you.
I’ve been dropped at the State Park at Hopkinton. All roads in are closed for all but residents. The sheer volume of runners would overrun a town of its size. Shuttle buses will take us in from this point. I exit the car with a steady rain falling, winds gusting all around me. I’m in full Gore-Tex rain gear, and old shoes and socks are on my feet. A quick hug to Erin, Reen, and BJ, and I’m off across the parking lot to get on the first available bus.
After I’m dropped off, I make the half-mile trek to the “Athletes Village”. It sounds so Olympian, but in reality the athletic fields and parking lot of the local middle school have been appropriated and packed with a large white tent, more port-a-johns than can be counted, and school buses for the bag-check. During this half-mile walk, I phone my dad. I know he is concerned about the weather. I call to tell him that the rain and wind have substantially abated. I don’t want him to worry for the next few hours. The wind chill is there, but I have dressed for the occasion. The rain is a steady drizzle interrupted by the occasional downpour, but the weathermen have assured us that it will get better, if colder, as the race progresses. At the village, I phone my friend Glenn. I’m trying to get a hold of Greta, his wife. Her bib number is also in the 17-thousands; we’ll be in the same starting corral. He tells me what she’s wearing. I change into my race shoes, peel off the rain-resistant gear, and check my bag.
I make the half-mile trek to the start and my corral. I’m making small talk with another runner. I remember nothing more about her than I’m sure she remembers about me. We’re passing the time, trying to forget what may lie ahead of us. Wind? Rain? Who knows. Give me the strength. I whisper a plea, a prayer for courage.
At the corral, I look for Greta. 1,000 people are in this area. Will I find a blond woman in a Kelly green jacket? With 2 minutes to the start, I miraculously spot her and make my way to her. My greeting is a frenzied GRETA! WE’RE HERE! CAN YOU BELIEVE IT! The comfort and calm at seeing her familiar face is enough to distract me from my fear and excitement. The rain has turned into a drizzle. I’m in the middle of a crowd and the wind is more memory than reality. In hindsight, I can say I love this moment. We move forward. We are on our way. A woman on a public address system tells us to smile and wave at the camera, and our shuffle turns to a walk, then to a slow jog, then to a run. I hear the chirp of the computers as our chips pass over the timing mat. We are off. I’ve started my journey to Boston.
Raindrops keep fallin’ on my head: Miles 1-14
The race is storied for its downhill start. A guy weaves past me after we start to run wearing a snorkel and scuba mask. Wiseacre. I have practiced my downhill form during my training, and put it right to work, repeating to my self Pop, pop, pop, hot like coals to keep my turnover quick and light, and stay off my heels. I take a quick check of my watch after the first mile and see 9:14. Nice and easy, my muscles are cold and this is a nice warm-up. At this point, Greta speeds up and I wish her a good race. Running my own race: this was a valuable lesson I learned in Charlotte, one I don’t intend to now forget. And while I don’t feel the wind too much at this point, I attributed this happy reality to the trees lining the streets and the densely packed crowd of runners. I run in the center of the road to avoid puddles along the sides. I stick right to the double yellow lines. My own yellow brick road.
By mile two, I am plenty warm and know my two technical shirts and wind-breaker are too much. Without breaking stride, I manage to remove one of my shirts and tie it around my waist. While I’d normally ditch it, it was a nice shirt and I’d worn it in Charlotte. It has sentimental value and I don’t have the heart to throw it away. I’ll pass it to Erin, Reenie, and BJ when I see them.
The running feels easy, and I click my watch every 5k. I’m not paying particularly close attention to the time, and miles are melting away. I have a very strange pain in my left ankle which is annoying. It hasn’t hurt up to this race. I write it off as a weird nothing and ignore it.
In Ashland around mile 4 we encounter some islands as the road forks. A volunteer with a bullhorn announces Runners to the right. Runners to the right. Funny. I’d have a hard time believing anyone would make a wrong turn with 16,000+ runners leading the way. Go figure. But as I pass him, he decides to interject a bit of Boston humor: Runners to the right. Yankees fans to the left. I laugh and say to two tall men running stride-for-stride next to me Did you hear that? They shoot me a look and say Why? Are you a Yankees fan? Yikes. They weren’t kidding about that Sox-Yankees rivalry. No, no, no. I didn’t grow up following baseball. I’m a nothing, a nobody. The one guy looks at me, and in his heavy Boston accent scolds me You’re not a nobody today. YOU are running THIS RACE. You ARE somebody today. I smile at him and say Thanks! Go SOX! It is the nicest thing anyone’s said to me that day.
My goal is to run on autopilot to get to Wellesley College, which is situated at about the half-way mark. There are stretches of rural road, empty of spectators, but beautiful. The course has some rolling hills, but certainly nothing like I faced in Charlotte. I focus on my form, and on the inclines I imagine a man with a fishing rod standing on a lamppost having hooked my shirt. He’s reeling me up the hills. It’s a great visual to keep my form correct. Lean into the hill, keep my head up. At the top of the hills, I can plan on a blast of wind.
There are some funny signs along the road, and at one mile marker one reads Mile 6: Be happy you don’t have bulls chasing you. I laugh out loud. I find I am smiling all the time. I can’t help it. We run through town squares, and they are packed with people. Before the race I had worried that the foul weather would keep people away. But as a Boston native assured me, this race is ingrained in the fabric of this city and its residents. A little wind and rain wouldn’t keep them away. They don’t disappoint: Adults hold signs, scream at anyone who ventures near. A Florida’s worth of orange slices are held out for anyone who needs energy, as are jelly beans, gummy bears, water. Children at the sides of the roads keep their hands out, hoping for a slap. I veer over and hit as many as I can.
Around mile 7 it starts to rain. Not hard, thankfully. A song pops in my head that Erin and I had been singing a day earlier on the way to pick up Reenie at the airport, a classic by Burt Bacharach:
Raindrops are fallin' on my head
And just like the guy whose feet are too big for his bed
Nothin' seems to fit
Those raindrops are fallin' on my head, they keep fallin'
It makes me think of all the worrying I had done about the weather. I had expected the absolute worst, but I’m running in conditions that are pretty decent.
So I just did me some talkin' to the sun
And I said I didn't like the way he got things done
Sleepin' on the job
Those raindrops are fallin' on my head, they keep fallin'
My dad had called me the Saturday and Sunday leading up to the race. I could sense some urgency in his voice as he read the articles about the weather. Will they cancel the race? They haven’t done it in 110 years. They are talking about the risks of hypothermia. Be careful. Pace yourself. The winds are going to be bad. I reassured him that I had bought an entire duffel bag’s worth of gear, that I had closely monitored the weather, and that if I had to wear an entire gore-tex suit to stay dry, I would. Erin, ever the rational, reasonable judge, was also there to provide wise counsel. And Reen, all heart has chimed in Quit yer bitchen. You’ll be fine. I was feeling good. I was in Boston. Nothing would keep me from this race.
But there's one thing I know
The blues they send to meet me won't defeat me
It won't be long till happiness steps up to greet me
The conditions could have been so, so much worse, and all my worrying has amounted to nothing but wasted energy.
Raindrops keep fallin' on my head
But that doesn't mean my eyes will soon be turnin' red
Cryin's not for me
'Cause I'm never gonna stop the rain by complainin'
Because I'm free
Nothin's worryin' me
After a couple of easy miles, the rain stops. I pass the half marathon point and look at my watch: 1:58:06. Wow. Didn’t think I was on a sub-4 pace. Before long, we enter Wellesley. We pass an open athletic field of a school, and the wind is pounding. I tuck myself off the shoulder of a taller runner. And then I hear it: A roar in the distance. I smile and know I’m coming up to the famed “Scream Tunnel” at Wellesley College.
It takes a full half mile to get there, and these women do not disappoint. I work with a Wellesley graduate, and I think to myself Mary, these women are doing you proud. They scream and hold Kiss me signs. A man in shorts bearing the Texas flag stops at least a dozen times to grant their wish. I slap some hands and the screaming is deafening. Their enthusiasm kills the whipping winds, falling rains. We all feel something more in our steps. These women scream their siren song, but their bewitching tune is one that propels us forward, not crashing into the rocks. They are extraordinary. My ears ring for minutes after.
Everywhere I look, I see your face
My sisters Erin and Reenie flew in from out of town to cheer me on. My sister Nicole has small children at home; her presence here is impossibility. I miss her. The course is packed with spectators throughout. But if you want to move from mile to mile, it not particularly spectator-friendly. My friend, BJ, had taken the day off of work to squire them about. I’ve known him for years. He is family. After consulting train maps, they have concluded they could probably make it to one or two stops, but not until later in the course. I have told them that I’d rather see them later than sooner, and any time after Wellesley would be fine.
My thighs are starting to ache. Wow, kinda early. Those early downhill miles – despite being run with care – are taking their toll. OK, this is going to hurt. Embrace the pain. Smile when you do. After passing through the scream tunnel, I spend the miles scanning the crowd for Erin, Reenie and BJ. I figure they’ll probably be in the famed “Newton Hills”. But I search them out anyway. I’m also looking for a port-a-john that doesn’t have a line. At mile 15 and change, there is a screaming downhill into Lower Newton Falls. I’d driven it the day before and again chant my down-hill mantra. At the bottom of the hill, I see a free port-a-john. Someone sneaks in just before me, and I curse. I hate, hate, hate losing time like this. And I hate that I always seem to have to stop. But I also know something else: the first of the four famed hills is just up ahead.
The evening before the race, my sisters and I have eaten a wonderful meal at one of my favorite restaurants in Waltham, ‘The Tuscan Grille’. We were joined by BJ, and my dear friends Dan and Tammy Smith. It is a wonderful, laid-back gathering. I attack the breadbasket with gusto, even have a glass of beer. It feels like family, this gathering of ours. I have a view of the front door, and while we are eating, a man walks in. I do a double take. Erin! Reenie! Look at that guy that just walked in. The one in the beige Boston Marathon ball cap. Doesn’t he look EXACTLY like dad? I have so wanted my dad to be here to witness this event. He had run so many Boston Marathons, and despite his retiring from the sport 20 years ago, he is still - to this day - my running inspiration. But having returned from California that day, his getting to Boston by the next day is impossible. And yet here is his spirit. The same white beard and mustache. And the Boston Marathon cap to boot. We laugh at this coincidence.
I bolt from the port-a-john and make my way to the base of first hill. I’d driven these hills three times before the race, and they are familiar. The jury is split on these hills: Ask Boston veterans about them and half will say They’re no big deal and the other half will rule They are death incarnate. As I drive them each time, I find that the truth lies somewhere between these two poles. I’ve trained hills, both up and down. Nasty, gnarly, steep, gut-churning hills. I throw them in the latter parts of long runs to simulate what I’ll face in this race. My friend Robin has warned me.
As I approach the first hill, I’m still scanning the crowds for my own personal cheering section. I turn to my left and there – standing all alone – at the base of the first hill, is the man I’ve seen at the restaurant the evening before. He is even wearing the ball cap. I laugh out loud I can’t wait to tell ‘em this one! I know my dad is following every step of this race, checking my splits. He’s probably driving his wife Marlene nuts. And I know – know to my bones – that when he sees the next split, he won’t think the delay is due to fatigue, but to my cranky gut.
The man with the fishing pole pulls me up the first hill. Wow. That really wasn’t that bad. At all. I look down at my wrist and see the blue and yellow friendship bracelet my son, Jean-Marc has made me, just for this race. I smile and think of him. He, Luc, Madeleine, and Michel: they are right here with me. There’s a bit over a mile to the turn at the Newton Fire Station and the second hill. The crowds are thicker, and pushing into the streets. So many of these people are looking for someone, a racer out there on this course. I scan the road looking for my crew. They have 6 eyes, I have 2. Keep on looking. You’ll find them. They’ll find you. I see hundreds of faces, all friendly, none familiar. I pass the Newton-Wellesley Hospital on my right. So not going there today. On my left is the stately Woodland Country Club. Oh, for the 19th hole. I’m feeling surprisingly good. I’m blissfully unaware of my time and am confident going into these hills. The second one is the steepest. I make the turn onto Commonwealth Avenue at the Newton Fire Station. The assault and ascent to Heartbreak Hill have begun.
Running over heartache
I’ve been smiling non-stop since the start of the race. I can’t help it; this is the unexplainable magic that is the Boston Marathon. I start up the second hill, the steepest in terms of grade, and I still smile. This isn’t that bad. Just keep going. In between the hills are sections of flat or downhill. In my head, I approach them as intervals. Two down, two to go. Regroup and attack on the next hill. The crowds are thick on both sides of the streets. They stand or sit in chairs. Some have drinks, others have pom-poms, signs, balloons. With their voices and presence, they carry us all over these hills.
At the base of the third hill, a man is running next to me. He turns my way. You look like you are enjoying this way too much. We are on the Newton Hills, you know. I have been smiling since my first step on this course. I can’t help it! How can you not smile out here! Look at these people! At my qualifying race the temperature was 19 degrees at the start. There were maybe 1,000 runners in the race. The course was empty of spectators from the half to the finish! He asks me where I qualified. I give him the Readers’ Digest version of my Richmond/Charlotte double. He laughs and points to his shirt: it is a Richmond Marathon race shirt. You’re kidding – you were at that race?! These spirits: they are all over the course.
I reach mile 20. The clock reads 3 hours and something. I don’t remember. Was it 3:02? :03? :04? I neither know, nor care. Six months before this race I would have been painfully aware of not only the hours and minutes, but of the seconds. What has happened to me? From where has this inner peace come?
Ten days before the race, during my last long run, I’ve had an epiphany: I will dedicate these hills – particularly “Heartbreak Hill” - to those who are suffering heartache. Winter is the lean season. It is cold and dark. It is the time we use to remind us of how much we love the light, the warmth. Raised Catholic, I am aware of this time of Lenten sacrifice. In the grander scheme, this race is a caprice. I am lucky to be able to participate in it with such joy and abandon. I offer this very humble sacrifice to these people. I know each hill will take minutes to climb, and that they are undergoing pain that lasts so much longer:
Gillian, my dear friend recently diagnosed with breast cancer. She is the mother of two young boys, and she and her English-born husband are a treasure to us here in America. Her Irish pluck and grace give all of us pause. Before undergoing her double lumpectomy, she informs her surgeon Make the girls look good. I have a party to attend this weekend. She is extraordinary.
Mom. She is suffering through the latter stages of dementia. She no longer remembers where I live, how many children I have or what their names and sexes are, the name of my husband of 20 years. She lives in a nightmare of confusion and fear.
De, my feisty brother-in-law. He has recently dubbed me “Spider Legs”. He’s a quietly funny guy who makes the best popovers and grilled chicken on the planet. He adores my sister, Erin. He lost his only sibling, several years ago. He injured his back – including a fractured vertebrae - in the early autumn and has been living in pain 24-7.
Pearl, Marlene’s mother. 90 years old, feisty and independent. But fighting a recurrence of her cancer.
Jon. My brother-in-law is burying his father this day. His dad has recently lost a horrific battle with cancer. He was in his mid-80’s when he passed, his family with him at the end.
Franny’s mom. My dear friend Franny, “Miss Daisy”. Her mother has been recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She is a warm, wonderful, and artistically talented woman, and her children are amazing, each of them. They are generous, solid, and strong, full of faith in and love for each other. A wonderful family.
Robin’s mom who is battling lung cancer. Robin is my other rock. Solid, strong as iron, smart and sassy. I wouldn’t be here without her.
Cody, my friend Mickey’s son. 4 years old and recovering from stage IV neuroblastoma. Stem-cell transplants, hearing decimated by chemotherapy. Mickey runs his first marathon wearing a shirt with the words “CODY IS MY REASON”. A living nightmare for parents. They live month-to-month, worrying about recurrence, praying to God to spare their son.
Kirk, another running friend, who has just buried his mother.
I approach the base of Heartbreak Hill. I am at mile 21 and a bit. I feel good. I start the ascent and feel the backward pull of gravity. Reel me in, Ishmael. I start my chant. I say these names as inspiration, as prayer: Gill Mom De Pearl Jon Franny’s mom Robin’s mom Mick Cody Kirk. Gill Mom De Pearl Jon Franny’s mom Robin’s mom Mick Cody Kirk. Gill Mom De Pearl Jon Franny’s mom Robin’s mom Mick Cody Kirk. I say these names over and over in my head, occasionally whispering them as I climb. Toward the end of this half mile climb, I condense it to one name, and I sound like the small ‘engine that could”: Gill Gill Gill Gill Gill Gill Gill.
The top of Heartbreak Hill is an illusion. You think you’re done, but then another small ascent challenges your grit. I have driven these hills and I know that when I see the steeples of Boston College I am done. I crest the first hill and keep charging. I turn a corner and see the steeples. I’ve never felt the second bit of incline. The hills are over. My legs are fine; I’ve not only survived, I’m ready to roll. Amen.
Hustle and Flow
The Boston College students are out in force. They are raucous with energy, youth, and beer. I am lucky to be running near one of their own. They scream JOSH!!!! RUN JOSH!!! They have outstretched hands and I slap so many. I look to the steeples of the BC church, and as I turn the curve of the road feel a strong gust of wind. Then I hear it: MONICA! FEVE! GO RUN GO!!!! I turn and see Erin, Reenie and BJ. I dart to them and they protest WHY ARE YOU STOPPING? I untie my lucky shirt from my waist and empty the pockets of my windbreaker. Feeling great! I’m outta here! I’m off. It’s a steep downhill and I pump my arms. Leg muscles be damned, we’ve got 4-something miles to go and it’s time to grind it out. At the 35 km split, I look at my watch. It reads 3:20:21. Holy shit! If I hustle, I can break 4:00! I’ve lost my ability to do precise math; I can’t figure exactly how much time I have to make up, but I start to move. A commuter train runs along the road. It is packed with people. I look up ahead to my left and see two runners, a rope tied around each one of their waists. They wear matching orange shirts. One reads Guide, the other Visually Impaired. They are both walking on the left side of the road. As I pass, I pat the blind runner’s back. You’re doing great! The spectators scream inspiration to this duo. Amazing. He is running this without seeing all that is before him. He can’t see the crowds, the buildings, the hills.
Somewhere around mile 23, I see the Prudential Building. The race finishes directly in front of it. Oh I am so close. Then I see the CITGO sign. The crowds are getting deeper. At an intersection, 3 college-aged kids bolt in front of me, pizza boxes in hand. We nearly collide. Taken out by 3 large cheese and pepperoni. If I could, I would have laughed out loud.
At mile 24, the 3 gels and the sickly sweet Gatorade I’ve consumed throughout the course wreak havoc. A wave of nausea rises up: I have over-carbed. Screw it. Do your best. You can puke at the finish. I’m really tired now, and I know I’ve got to manage this as best I can. Go too fast, and I’ll be heaving at the side of the road before the finish. Go too slow, and I’ll not only NOT break 4:00, I wont re-qualify for next year. We get to Kenmore Square. Holy cow, how will this end? Apparently, there is a hill going into Kenmore square. I never feel it. I’m running as fast as I can without ending in ignobility on the side of the road. And then I see it, a yellow sign of hope: 1 MILE TO GO.
I don’t know how I will react at the finish. Will it be like my first marathon – blissful, thankful disbelief? I know it won’t be like my second at Marine Corps, a grueling disappointing crawl. Will it be like Charlotte, the joyous, tearful shout of redemption? I don’t think so. It’s exciting, a drama played out in real time. My mind is focused, joyous and happy despite the nausea Living the dream! I am LIVING THE DREAM! How often do we get to do this? How often do any of us get to live our dreams? The road dips under Mass Avenue. I see a woman in a pink running skirt ahead of me, and I make a dash for her. We make a quick right on to Hereford Avenue and a short block later, a left onto Boylston. A quick glance at my watch and I see 3:57:something. Oh man. I see the finish line, a blue and yellow arch. I pump my arms. The crowds are ten or more deep. I’m sure the cacophony of voices is deafening. I hear nothing. Nothing. I’m running running running. My legs are on fire. My stomach is in my throat. I’m getting that medal. I’m steps from the finish line.
Spring in Boston
What is Spring? Is it a season, an aligning of stars, a state of mind? In my faith, we have celebrated spring with the Easter feast a short week and a day before I toed the starting line of this race. Spring is the conclusion of the dark season, the end to fast and sacrifice. It is the hope and promise of renewal, the warmth of longer sunlit days, the seasonal promise of redemption and salvation. The day before Easter, snow fell in Richmond Virginia, the first and only snow of the year. I ran that day and saw cotton fluffs on the pink and white blossoms of cherry and dogwood. Neighbors were out, walking on the roads as the sun broke and we marveled at this anachronism, this oddity and fit of Mother Nature. She awes us with her ferocity, tempestuousness, and beauty. On Patriots Day in 2007, I have found all of these. Whatever I feared before the start of this journey –one that started back in December – is dissolved in the magic and healing that is faith and belief and hope. Whatever nature decided to put down as speed bumps on this course – be it wind, rain, or cold - are negated by the warm embrace of those who love and believe in me. The mountains that challenged me on this day – mountains of reality or myth – are leveled by the courage and example of those who grace my life every day.
I cross the finish line, arms up. I laugh out loud and celebrate all that is determination and strength and energy and life. I look at my watch, at the 4:00:10, and am not disappointed at not finishing under four hours. As in my first marathon, I am again reminded that the reward of the journey is not at the moment and measurement of its completion, but at the gifts that have been so generously bestowed upon me along the way.
I am a Boston Marathon finisher. But I am more than that: I am a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend. I’m smiling, and I am wholly content.