Let's set the record straight. I do not believe in the runner's high. I grapple with the logic of participating in long-distance running. And I know running sucks most of the time. Inexplicably, I still run.
Two years ago I qualified for the Boston Marathon in Baltimore. I trained for Baltimore with the goal of earning a BQ, but the time goal was arbitrary. I wanted a training target- a reason to get out of bed at stupid o'clock and stay weatherproof through the dog days of summer. If there was a report card for training, my execution for Baltimore would have received top marks. I struck harmony between following a training plan and listening to my body. I found balance between wanting to pound pavement and knowing to hold back. I was diligent. I was consistent. It paid off.
My training for Boston began in mid-December 2016. Rather than adhering to a strict training plan, I opted to loosely base workouts on the model of easy-hard-easy-off-hard-long-off. This decision forced me to focus more on how my body felt day-to-day and to adjust accordingly. Without doubt, I successfully accomplished this goal. For consistency training, I can't say the same. During the four months of training I fell off the wagon a shameful amount of times. But, thanks to the dreadmill, an Ironman-bound running buddy, and a relatively mild winter, I crawled back into training each time I strayed. Quantifying the four months of workouts, I estimate my training was about 60-percent. As a result, my performance expectations for Boston were low.
As race day loomed nearer, a nagging knee-ache began plaguing every run. The first time it happened, I was running with Jordan and was forced to walk home because of the shooting pain inflicted by bending my knee. I was worried this would further affect Boston. With my infinite medical knowledge (just kidding, that’s why all of my friends are MD/PA/PT), I diagnosed that the pain was due to a tight IT-band. My long lost pal- Stretching- and I quickly became reacquainted. My yoga mat took a permanent spot on the living room floor and Yoga with Adrienne played like sitcom reruns on the TV. With each Extended Pigeon, Revolved Staff, and Funky Monkey (I made that one up), I found a little relief. Yet, the irritating twinge continued to pester me during runs.
Now, ask anyone who knows anything about the Boston Marathon what makes the run so difficult and they'll certainly tell you "Heartbreak Hill." The +3% grade hill with 91' of elevation gain is laughable when written out like that. But, after twenty miles of running, I was concerned I wouldn't be laughing. As coworkers, friends, and family asked if I was excited for the race, I brushed off their inquiries. I was going to Boston, but with subpar training and a self-inflicted knee problem, I knew the only thing I could prepare myself for, was a tough day and a potential suffer fest. Though I questioned myself physically, mentally I was ready for the 26.2 monster.
I drove my Crosstrek to Boston. The cost of flying versus the time of driving was a wash, so for the convenience factor we road tripped. I was pleasantly surprised that the drive was less than six hours. Turning off of I-90, Jordan and I immediately spotted the Hynes Convention Center and got suckered into paying $42 for parking in the garage. The line to enter the Race Expo was worse than the line for Space Mountain. People stood two-abreast and looped through the convention center waiting for entry. The space was at occupancy. I half expected the security guards to be like the doormen at a club- two out, two clicks on their counter, two in. Instead, they held the herd back until the fire marshal gave approval for entry.
The swarm darted for the escalators- only to wait in another line. This line was four-abreast and at least double or triple the length of the entry line. Seemingly everyone was clad in nylon or spandex with running sneakers on foot. People were amicably talking about this race or that race. I overheard a few people speaking in German and French and some native Asian language. When the line was finally released, I picked up my bib and race shirt and snapped a couple of photos in front of the step-and-repeat board.
Though I didn’t really need anything from the race expo, Jordan and I took a quick lap around the hall. It was unbelievable. All of the big brand names in athletics were there. There were samples. There was gear. There were supplements. And there were throngs of people. We scored a couple pairs of new running shorts and some Chamonix samples before high-tailing it out of the hall.
After paying the egregious parking fee, we drove across the river to meet my parents, Jordan’s parents, Jeff, and Emmie for lunch at the Miracle of Science. When my dad and I were talking previously he mentioned that he didn’t care where lunch was as long as it was close to an ice cream place. Jordan jokingly relayed that message to Jeff, who didn’t catch the joke, but delivered big time. We all indulged in a post-lunch treat at Toscanini’s; the Chocolate Pudding and Grapenut ice creams are definitely worth the wait.
While Jeff and Emmie headed to Fenway, Jordan, our parents, and I drove to check-in at the hotel. In planning for the race, I booked the hotel in Westborough to be close to the start line. I unfortunately neglected to consider proximity to amenities, activities, and restaurants. As a result, we had an extended happy hour and light dinner in the lounge area at the hotel bar and restaurant before hitting the hay.
Determined to catch some much needed sight-seeing before race day, we drove back to Boston for an Easter morning of touring. In a handful of hours, we visited Cheers, the Boston Public Garden, the Freedom Trail, the Boston Commons, Quincy Market, Fanuielle Hall, and the Boston Aquarium. The rudimentary tour was cut-short for Easter brunch plans in Sudbury where we connected with my mom’s cousin and her family. Brunch was lackluster, but reconnection with family in the area was great and I was excited to know they would be on the race course cheering me on. We followed the heavy brunch with a walk around Concord Battlefield- an appropriate visit the day before Patriots Day.
Back at the hotel, my Fenix 3 indicated we had walked more than 8-miles- so much for resting the legs. Our families reconvened at the pool for a little while before retreating back to the hotel bar and restaurant lounge. I gorged on the restaurant’s “Pre-Race Special” of gemelli and meatballs while Jordan and our parents attempted to figure-out race day logistics for spectating. About this time, I went to the front desk to request a T-schedule. A woman at the desk, also running, asked if I would be taking the hotel shuttle to the start line. She informed me that there would be no way for me to get to the start line without the shuttle as the hotel shuttle dropped runners off at a race sponsored shuttle to the Athlete’s Village. I left the conversation confused and concerned that I had misread the Participant Guide. My plan was to have Jordan drop me off on race morning at the Athlete’s Village- about 10 minutes from our hotel. Other options included driving all the way into Boston to catch the B.A.A. race shuttle all the way back to the start line or taking this mysterious hotel shuttle. I decided to take my chances with the original plan.
Before leaving for Hopkinton, I pinned my bib #13809 to my shirt, lightly stretched on the yoga mat that traveled to Boston with me, ate a bagel and a banana, and drank a little Gatorade. Despite being race morning, I was calm and clearheaded. Our parents kissed and hugged me before wishing me well.
The roads to Hopkinton were bucolic and densely vegetated. We passed quiet reservoirs with fishermen already floating on the water and lines sunk. Though my wave of the race wouldn’t start until 10:25 AM, it was before 7:00 AM. We hoped to beat the crowds and to arrive at the Athlete’s Village before major road closures. The small town of Hopkinton was abuzz with activity. Uniformed guardsman lined the streets and residents were busy setting out lawn chairs. Volunteers were zipping about the sidewalks directing foot traffic and motor traffic. Jordan dropped me off with a kiss and I walked into the Athlete’s Village. If I didn’t know better, I’d assume the race had already started. There were hardly any athletes in the fenced and tented area. As I walked through the entry arches, an announcer greeted me with his microphone, “Welcome to Boston #13809! You have arrived!”
The Village had all of the amenities a person waiting for 3.5 hours could want before a race- coffee, bagels, Clif Bars, bananas, Gatorade, water, and more Porta-Johns than one tush could possibly ever visit! After grabbing a bagel, Gatorade, and coffee, I realized why you’re allowed to bring a small Zip-lock into the race with you. Me, a first-time Boston marathoner, I only brought a sweater to wear while I waited- no Zip-lock, no extra nutrition, no extra sunscreen, no phone. As athletes slowly trickled in, I saw folks with small gardening pads, yoga mats, pieces of cardboard, garbage bags, and foil emergency blankets tucked in their Zip-locks. They brought in these extras for sitting on the damp ground while they waited. I on the other hand, had to convince a volunteer to let me have a flap of a banana box to sit on.
While I waited, I completed my little IT-band stretch routine. I also visited the Clif Bar booth where they had temporary tattoos with sayings like, “Chase your unicorn” and “Run, Forrest, Run!” I opted for Scott Jurek’s quote, “This is what you came for.” on my inner bicep. On the far end of the Athlete’s Village, Equinox had a platform with pre-race meditation stations. Though I firmly prescribe to the “don’t do anything new on race morning” belief, a little concentrated thinking couldn’t hurt.
My cardboard box and I found our way to a shaded spot where I lounged for the next hour or so. I was astonished by how the Village had filled in when I opened my eyes. People stood, sat, and laid shoulder-to-shoulder covering the entire field. The area morphed into Central Park on a breezy summer day. Surveying the scene, people were in various stages of pre-race routine- some stretching, some anxiously waiting in line for a Porta-John, some chatting, and some shoveling in food. An announcer elevated on scaffolding high above the Village chanted race notifications on repeat from a booming speaker system.
As I was doing a second round of light IT-band stretching and light massaging, the announcer called for the second wave of runners, those with white colored bibs, to make their way to the start line. I tossed my cardboard box flap into a recycling bin, stripped off my sweater for the clothing donation collection and walked into the first of two corrals for athletes. A couple of fighter jets from Cape Cod flew over Hopkinton towards Boston in celebration of the Marathon and Patriots Day. Race officials individually ushered forward corrals within the wave to the start line.
The Boston Marathon
The start line is a 0.7-mile walk from the Athlete’s Village. The energy of a wall of people moving toward a common goal was palpable. Even this pre-race parade had spectators as the most engaged neighbors were already tailgating on the sidelines and the least interested neighbors were at a minimum roosting on their porches. In anticipation of such a crowded start and such an excess of excitement I planned to start the race conservatively. Standing in my corral awaiting the start, I spotted a sniper on a nearby rooftop.
To my surprise, once the pack got moving, we were moving at a pace comparable to the pace I wanted to run anyway. I’ll attribute this compatibility to the waves being organized by qualifying time. I found myself idly chatting with an older gentleman who flew in from South Bend for the race. It was his fourth Boston Marathon and his thirtieth-or-so marathon. We chatted about our anticipated finish times and our training and before I knew it, we were separated at the Mile 1 water stop. That first mile went by in the blink of an eye. My pace was a comfortable 8:35 and though my knee momentarily taunted me with tightness, everything felt good.
I skipped on the water and migrated to the middle of the road to avoid runners flocking to the little waxed cups. A man running next to a girl behind me queried if it was her first Boston Marathon. This was a question I heard a lot. And I heard a lot of people boast about it being their fifth or tenth or twentieth (!!!) Boston Marathon- as if the race itself was a badge or the most interesting thing in the world to do more than once. When she said it was her first, he offered some advice. His advice went something like this: A lot of people think of Boston as the start to Heartbreak Hill and Heartbreak Hill to the finish. A lot of people will break this race into two- the first half and the second half. But, the best way to think about it, is as three parts: the start to Mile 16, Mile 16 to Mile 21, and Mile 21 to Boylston. Take it easy for the first 16; it’s downhill for the first four and flat beyond that! Enjoy the experience. Stay tough for the five miles through the Newton Hills. And give it whatever you’ve got for the last five miles to the finish. This man had no idea I was eavesdropping, but I took his advice to head and heart. From that point, I focused on staying relaxed through Mile 16.
At Mile 2, I began to take in fluids. Temperatures were supposed to spike to the mid-80s and the sun was already high in the sky. Though I wasn’t overly concerned with food intake, I knew taking in fluids would be critical to making it to the finish line on such an unseasonably warm day. From this point on, I took a couple cups of water at every aid station- one for my body and one to drink- and a Gatorade and water at every other aid station. I cannot emphasize enough how unbelievable and spectacular the volunteer support is in this race. From a logistics stand point alone, coordinating this many people not enlisted in the military is nothing short of a miracle.
Besides the volunteers, the streets- basically for the entire race- are lined with swarms of people. People standing on the railings along the race course were ten deep in some places. Little kids were perched atop shoulders and standing along the roadway with hands out waiting for high fives. When I was running the Baltimore marathon, someone was holding a poster that said, “For every little kid you high five, we’ll take 15-seconds off your time.” I high-fived as many little kids as possible. I’m certain that a smile didn’t leave my face for the first half of the race- my cheeks hurt by the time I realized I was grinning like an idiot from the joy and enthusiasm and positivity of the runners and the volunteers and the crowd.
Around Mile 3 I heard a familiar voice yelling my name. To the left, Jordan and our parents were cheering me on. I passed them and looked back to see my mom cheering extra loud, but still searching around for my yellow hat. A white haired, old man with running shorts too short for comfort ran up beside me and asked, “Are those your peeps?” Jordan’s whoops followed us down the road.
The next miles of the race flew by. Call it masochistic, call it elitist, call it dumb: I firmly believe people should not run with music. Music dilutes the experience. And frankly, listening to music while running can be unsafe. There were people running the Boston Marathon with earbuds in and they were missing out. The entire Boston marathon is like plugging in your headphones and cranking the volume. It is a borderline transcendental experience. The miles come easy when you are so fully engrossed in the experience.
I snapped out of the spell cast by the spirit surrounding Boston when I heard my name being cheered from the sidelines. Around Mile 9, my mom’s cousin, her husband, and son were cheering me on with a big poster emblazoned with my name. Hearing your name during a run is such a huge morale boost. My sense of purpose was reinvigorated; I refocused on staying smooth and easy for the next seven miles and thought about the change of gears that had to happen at Mile 16.
Prior to Boston I read about the race in order to have a couple key features to look forward to. I read about the Wellesley “Scream Tunnel,” but hadn’t given it much thought until I was in the thick of it. The race course cuts through the Wellesley College campus and the all-women’s student body REALLY shows up for the marathon! Simply put, words cannot do justice for the “Scream Tunnel.” This section of the race is lined with college students standing five and ten deep. Every inch of fence line has a poster in the hand of a student. The posters read, “Kiss me, I’m Irish”, “Kiss me, I’m Polish”, “Kiss me, I’m queer”, “Kiss me, I won’t tell your wife”, and the list goes on. Competitors were slowing at the sidelines to nab a kiss from the students or to lay one on their cheeks! The cheering was thunderous. The vibrations permeated my body. My heartrate quickened and again that stupid grin plastered itself across my face. Beyond the tunnel, the roar of the cheering was like an echo in the mountains. I incredulously looked over my shoulder more than once. Were those few minutes even real?
The verve of Wellesley drove me through Mile 16. My half marathon split was about 1:44 and I comfortably hit Mile 16 in 2:05. I had far surpassed the point where my IT-band had been problematic and I felt confident that the first half of the run was conservative enough to negative split. If I stayed tough through the Newton Hills, my experience at Boston was going to be less of a bust than I had expected.
By this point, the afternoon temperatures had risen dramatically and I’ll admit, the black wicking tee I ran in may not have been my best choice. One pin at a time, I moved my bib from tee to sports bra and waistband. I rang out my sticky, drenched tee and tucked it in the razorback of my sports bra. A nearby spectator was handing out orange peels and I grabbed a slice to break the monotony of sugary, salty Gatorade and bland water. With the refreshment of the citrus in my mouth, I shifted my attention to being tough. I attacked the rolling hills through Newton. Spoiler alert: they are not nearly as bad as people make them out to be.
Through this entire section of the race, the crowds seemed to be extra supportive and encouraging. My concentration on hitting Mile 21 was only broken when I heard an unfamiliar voice bellowing my name. Right near Heartbreak Hill, John Heuisler and his squad of people were on the sidelines rooting me to the finish. I hadn’t expected to see John, but his encouragement meant a lot. The top of Heartbreak was pure elation. I passed a lot of runners who were starting to drag- held back by heat and tired legs. I felt good, though. I thought of Doug Watson- eating hot dogs and drinking Dr. Pepper- encouraging me to attack beyond the top of the hill. I picked a light pole and took aggressive, even strides towards it.
Following the race plan divulged by the man nearly 20-miles prior, I knew I was in the homestretch- only 5-miles stretched between me and the finish line. My pace quickened slightly after Heartbreak Hill, but the turnover didn’t last long. The “Trials of Miles” began to weigh heavy and I switched into auto-pilot. Somewhere between Mile 21 and Mile 23 my head started getting a little fuzzy- part dehydration, part Zen. At one point, I looked up and saw a race official with a big arrow sign pointing runners to the left of the course. My gaze lowered and my body pulled to the left side of the course. Nearing the race official, I looked up again to see the big arrow pointing right. In a moment straight out of a cartoon, I batted my eyes and shook my head back and forth. Surely I wasn’t deliriously imagining things. Frantically I did a mental check- time tables, exponents, when was the last time I looked at my watch? I felt a little fuzzy, but chalked the misunderstood arrows up to inattention. Later I would find out that the changing arrows are how officials manage spectators crossing the course.
I fell back into auto-pilot. My watch indicated that I would make the finish line in good time- despite having run nearly a quarter-mile more than necessary. Those tangents really do add up! I was in my head crunching minutes and seconds to the finish when my peripheral vision picked up the wind milling arm of a brown sweatshirt. The spectators that I had put on mute refocused and there, just beyond Mile 23 rooting, hooting, and hollering were Jeff, Emmie, and Jonas! Seeing them put the biggest smile on my face! I had resigned to assuming I wouldn’t see any family or friends until the finish line and their support came in clutch during a time in the race that I had checked out. With a contented smile plastered across my face, I found my pace and reengaged.
The flocks of people pressing against the sideline restraining gates seemed to steadily thicken. There was clapping, yelling, and cowbells. Plugging back into the sounds of the Boston Marathon the colossal awesomeness of this race washed over me again. This thing is so much more than a race. I spotted the Citgo sign at Kenmore Square. It’s mammoth. A runner over my left shoulder shouted to everyone and no one in particular, “One mile to the finish from Citgo!” My pace quickened as I strode past the sign and the crowd of spectators ushered us runners to the finish line.
Rounding the final turn of the marathon onto Boylston Street has to be the closest thing to an arena an amateur athlete will ever experience. It is the Gillette Stadium for Average Joes and the Olympics of mere mortals. And perhaps even more momentous, all of us 9-5ers with families and other responsibilities were getting to share the asphalt, even if only for a day, with some of the greatest athletes in the world. My chest tightened with the realization of the surreal experience that lay behind.
With the finish line arch in sight, I spotted Jordan, my Mom, my Dad, and my future in-laws in the crowd. The smile that had taken residence on my face grew a little toothier as I threw my hands up and crossed the finish mat of my first Boston Marathon.
The race clock read 3:30:51. My chip time was 3:26:26. Miraculously, I finished the notorious Boston Marathon just 25-seconds shy of a marathon PR. And more importantly, I felt great!
The finish line support volunteers were unparalleled. It felt like there was a one-to-one runner to volunteer ratio. As if I stepped into a wormhole, I blinked my eyes and was wrapped in a foil space blanket, with a medal around my neck, and a snack goodie bag in hand.
Walking- or rather, hobbling- away from the finish line, I couldn't shake the feeling that there's something about Boston. From the thousands of volunteers, to the tens of thousands of runners, and the hundreds of thousands of spectators, the Boston Marathon is less a race and more an experience. It is both an act of ostentatious athleticism and humble reverence. Despite race, religion, politics, and background, this 26.2-mile parade is a celebration of humanity and even if for only one day, it unites. Though I didn’t understand the allure of Boston before stepping on the line in Hopkinton, I get it now and I look forward to my next run from Hopkinton to Boylston.
“If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon.”
To avoid the risk of sharing too much information, I’ll keep this brief. I felt awesome after the race! Jordan, our parents, and I took the metro out of Boston back to our hotel and then Jordan and I began the drive home. I napped in the passenger seat while he crushed out miles from Boston to Baltimore. Though a little sore, I still felt good after the drive. The next morning, I awoke for work and felt absolutely ravaged. My body began to revolt and I spent the entirety of the day in bed or the bathroom. Whether it was delayed GI-distress or a stomach bug I picked up from high-fiving one of the thousands of little kids along the sidelines of the race, I’ll never know. Whatever it was, it sure flushed the spirit of a good race finish right out of my system.
With a week and a half of active recovery, I began training again and now have my sights on Ironman 70.3 Syracuse. Let’s hope the aftermath of that race is a little less toxic!