Boston is next weekend and while I’m not running, I have some friends who are (and actually qualified). What better time to reflect on my run from last year? Here’s my Boston story. I know, it’s kinda long, but, if you know anything about the Boston Marathon, you know the story is never a quick one.
I grew up in Worcester, MA – dead center of the state, only about 45-50 minutes from Boston. And every April we were infected with the excitement that would grow around the Boston Marathon.
Maybe it’s the fact that we got Patriot’s Day (the day they hold the marathon every year) off from school? It’s not like I ever knew anyone who ran it when I was younger, but for some reason we all knew it was the holiest of running days.
As I got older and out of college, some of my friends became runners. One of them in particular joined up with a charity to run Boston. This was the first time I can remember thinking, “I’d like to do that some day.” But I wasn’t sure I ever really thought I would.
Flash forward almost 25 years. I’ve become an athlete with the realization that getting that elusive Boston Qualifier was never going to happen for me. Not only had race officials lowered the qualifying times, but now you were also competing with all the people in your qualifying bracket.
In simple terms, I am 43 today. In order to qualify for the race next year, I need to complete a sanctioned marathon in 3:15. Let’s say I finish in 3:12 (HA!), everyone who finished in 3:11 is in line before me.
Needless to say, I don’t think I’ll ever officially qualify. So what’s a 3:51 (now 3:43) marathoner to do?
JOIN A CHARITY!
And that’s exactly what I did.
Without getting into all the ins and outs, it was a tough application process but I wound up getting accepted to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute’s Marathon Challenge. I had to raise a certain amount of money and I would be granted a spot at the back of the race.
So I trained as I would for any other marathon. Patriot’s Day is observed on the third Monday in April so I needed to train through the winter. Not the first time I’ve done so and last winter was pretty mild so it wasn’t too bad.
The aforementioned friend was living in my old hometown and running the race again after a considerable hiatus, so I even had the chance to go up and stay with him for the weekend in order to run the final 20 and see what Heart Break Hill was really all about.
If you get the chance, running at least part of the course before a race is highly recommended. Marathoning is 80% mental and being able to visualize yourself crossing the finish line is tremendously helpful when you start spending too much time in your head at mile 18.
The week leading up to the race was spent checking weather.com 100 times a day. Early predictions ranged from thunder storms with temps in the 50’s, to partly cloudy (also in the 50’s – perfect running weather). As we got closer to race day, the thunder storm predictions faded away, but the temps started climbing. First into the 70’s, then the 80’s. Keep in mind, this is the Northeast in the very early part of spring, it’s not uncommon to get a snowstorm and they were now predicting 80’s?!? WTF?!?
My then fiancée (now wife) and I drove up to Boston first thing early Saturday. I was excited and wanted to get to the Expo to pick up my number and buy some marathon swag. When we finally arrived in Boston my heart sank a little. They were now predicting the second hottest race on record – high 80’s and possibly 90 – this is the only thing runners are talking about at the Expo. Remember, I trained through the winter so I wasn’t used to running in heat yet.
And here’s the kicker, for the first time in Boston Marathon history, the Boston Athletic Association (the race organizers) were offering a deferment program. That is, you could tell them you didn’t want to run this year and receive a guaranteed entry into the 2013 race. This was certainly not good news. Again, marathoning is 80% mental, the last thing a runner needs is that little voice in their head telling them not to run. They were being particularly vocal about having charity runners defer as the thought was, if you didn’t actually qualify, you might not be in top shape – while probably true, this was still a blow to my ego.
I held steadfast, I trained well, I was in decent enough shape, I had traveled to Boston and I would be damned if I wasn’t going to run this race!
The 2012 Boston Marathon
Monday morning comes, I’m carbed up and I made my way to Hopkinton from the hotel. While in the athlete village I remember drinking water and thinking to myself that it probably wasn’t a good thing that I was sweating as much as I was before the start of the race. This was just visions of things to come.
Since I was a charity runner, I was in the last corral of the last wave of the race. My start time wasn’t until close to 11 AM, which meant I wasn’t due to cross the finish (if I made it) until close to 3PM – potentially the hottest part of the day.
I’m not in a good mood at this point.
It’s finally time for me to line up and I make my sweaty way to the corral just as the gun goes off.
I went out too fast but I wound up calming myself down and doing the first half of the race in a pretty decent time. But then I fell apart. By the time I got to Wellesley College at the half way point, there was something going on with my left foot. It was so painful, I actually thought I had broken something. I started tearing up thinking that this was my one chance to run this iconic race and I was going to DNF. This was not acceptable!
I wound up walking for about a half mile and feeling a little better so I picked it up and ran again. My foot seemed stable so I was starting to feel a little better about my race.
When we got into the center of Wellesley, I was a little surprised to see that the entire running pack was veering off to the left of the course in front of the fire station. The firemen had set up a decontamination tent so I followed the pack and was treated to a cold shower for about 30 seconds. This was repeated by two more fire stations along the course, which was a really nice treat.
The kicker came as we made the right turn off Washington Street in Newton onto Commonwealth Avenue. Staring me in the face was a huge blinking road sign stating, “HIGH HEAT WARNING: WALK.” Seriously?! At this point, I need to bring up the 80% mental stat again. I’d been listening to a voice in my head the entire day telling me just what that sign was now flashing in my face. This was not something I needed to see, but I kept running.
I was able to make it up Heartbreak Hill, which is actually the third in a series of three hills in Newton, with only minimal walking. These hills are not really as bad as everyone makes them out to be, and are actually so-named for a famous duel at this spot between Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley during the 1982 race. You can read about it here.
The Coke That Got Me to the Finish Line
No, not that kind of coke. When I was almost done with the hills, I remember seeing a guy drinking a Coke while cheering on runners. I have’t had a soda in like seven years, but the idea of something cold and caffeinated seemed like the perfect combination at that point in the race, so I actually asked him if I could have his soda. I didn’t care that I didn’t know him, I just wanted that soda. He told me to keep going, that he would catch up and give me my own. When I started to protest, he shushed me and said, “Don’t worry, I can run faster than you at this point.” Normally, I would have been offended and taken that as a challenge, but I found it so funny, that I kept going – and deep down, I knew he was right. He jogged up next to me in less than a minute and handed me a cold Coke. Whoever you are, I’m forever indebted to you. I got the little burst of energy I needed to get my butt back in gear.
One of the biggest mistakes I made that day was asking my fiancée and parents to meet me at mile 22. It seemed to make sense at the time; they would see me and be able to make it to the meeting spot at the end of the race just after I finished. What I forgot was that seeing your family or friends on the sideline are huge boosts during a race – a boost I needed way before mile 22. By the time I saw them I was in awful shape. My head was full of negative thoughts and it was all I could do to lift my hand and wave as I trudged by.
After seeing them I barely remember getting myself through Kenmore Square and finally seeing Hereford Street. FINALLY! I was close to the last turn!! After just about another half mile I crossed the finish line.
I was off my goal time by more than 30 minutes but I had crossed the most iconic finish line in marathon history. As I was making my way to the meeting spot my family and I had agreed upon, I saw a bank clock with the temp – it read 93 degree.
I met up with my family and we made our way back to the Boston suburbs where we had stayed for my usual post-marathon hamburger. My fiancée and I then got in our car and drove us back ton NYC.
Am I happy I did it? As the title of this post states, it was the worst best day of my life. Running the Boston Marathon is something I’ve dreamed about for a long time.
I wouldn’t trade that day for anything.