In the week before the 2014 Boston Marathon, I twice sat in a podiatrist’s office receiving laser treatments on my aching left foot. I injured my foot running a half marathon sixteen days before Boston. That half marathon was meant as a trial run and a check on my post-polar vortex fitness. Absent other races and with a dearth of speed workouts in my log, I needed an indication of how I might run in Boston. That race gave me confidence in my winter’s worth of training, but also left a bruise deep inside my left foot that prevented me from putting weight on the foot. As daunting as all that sounds, after a whirlwind of treatments, and three runs in the week before the marathon, I had reason to believe that if I ran well I could run a 3:05-3:20 marathon and enjoy the day.
As I stood at the starting line at 5 minutes to 10:00 on a clear 50 degree Monday morning, I was confident and calm that my pre-race preparation would yield my expected time. I was well hydrated, had eaten and caffeinated myself in a familiar way, and the pain in my foot, though present, was muted. I was willing to end my day early if my foot didn’t cooperate. I planned to run as if it were fine and make it demand that I stop in the clear language of searing pain. Spoiler alert: my foot tolerated the marathon well through 21 miles and then was a nuisance but not a reason for a DNF (an abbreviation used in running for “did not finish”).
I made small talk with other runners, sang along quietly to the National Anthem, and looked skyward (along with everyone else) as a formation of Blackhawk helicopters flew overhead. The starter launched the race and we briefly surged forward, then stopped, then walked a bit, and we were off.
Within a mile or two of Boston’s early downhill running, I understood that this would be a long day for me. We were in open sun. It felt way too hot to this runner who did most of his long runs in temperatures most people use to keep ice cream frozen. I began drinking water in sizeable quantities early to try to hold off dehydration. Jumping ahead, I can tell you this varied from my hydration plan of keeping water consumption at a low, appropriate level. I don’t run well in warm temperatures and Monday was no exception. My decision making can be quickly impaired and that was in evidence as I started drinking Gatorade miles before I had planned. The real indication to me that I was in for an uncomfortable day came as we passed the mile 6 marker. Inasmuch as the final six miles of a marathon are like a separate race, the six miles at the beginning of a marathon usually serve as a warm-up to a seasoned marathoner. As this was my 15th marathon including three run in a thirteen month period at an average of three hours per race, I felt like I knew what I was doing and what to expect at various points in the race. While this thought wouldn’t do me in, disapproving it was a painful lesson.
I struggled from mile six to the half marathon point of 13.1 miles, and the issues holding me back crystalized. My stomach felt full and uncomfortable and I was feeling somewhat lightheaded. Those feelings were paired with pain and tightness in both my quads and hamstrings. That pain would intensify and wasn’t unique to my run. It is a known Boston Marathon feature.
Further on, I looked for ways to wake myself up and get on terms with the race. I started by skipping water stops with hopes my body would absorb the excess water I had taken in early on. That never worked, but it didn’t lessen my belief that it might. Marathons have a funny way of altering one’s thinking — mine certainly. I find it useful to have a mantra to repeat during a marathon. For Boston, my mantra was “you’re stronger than you think you are.” It had late race utility as I inched toward the finish line, but it also made me laugh when I saw a nearly identical phrase was a major race sponsor’s slogan and was printed on their signs. It made me think “you’re less clever than you think.” That thought was neither uplifting nor motivating.
I’m not too proud to reveal that I tried playing to the crowd as a way of getting myself going. In my bag of tricks, I found the classic “I can’t hear you” hand over the ear, the raise-the-volume arm wave, and the nearly obligatory Boston Marathon high fiving of fans. While the women of Wellesley College are well known for their cheering, I give the college cheering prize to the students of Boston College who kept me in the race as I withered. Their cheers carried me to Brookline where I spotted my marathon super-fan wife. She was frantically searching for me, so she could take my picture. I saw her first, ran to her, and planted a sweaty kiss on her lips.
Boston is known for its hills and going uphill was the one area of the race where I felt like the runner I thought I was at the starting line. Runners make the first actual turn of the race at the Newton fire station and then the hills begin and make their way to the fabled, but maybe misnamed Heartbreak Hill. I felt like a runner as I climbed the first hill and I actually passed a few runners. The thrill was short lived. Every uphill seemed to have a downhill (sounds obvious, but isn’t always true – in some races you just climb) that reminded me how crummy I felt. The heat of the day was drying my mouth and so I took to grabbing Gatorade to sip and then dumping water on my head. My distended, water-soaked belly was increasingly burdensome and I no longer felt confident drinking much of anything.
Heartbreak Hill is at roughly mile 21 and that’s a good place to stop and talk about what was really good about Boston for me and everyone. The crowd support was amazing and bordered on fanatical. I have run the fan-heavy Chicago marathon many times and thought nothing could compare to the volume of cheering on State Street (Chicago Mile 2), but Boston on this day was Chicago’s better. Screaming, enthusiastic fans lined the course, literally lined the course for 26.2 miles.
So much had been made of “Boston Strong” prior to the race as the city of Boston tried to pull itself back up after the tragedy of last year’s bombings. I am as cynical as the next guy (maybe more), but I was incredibly moved by the enthusiasm on display. I saw t-shirts, signs, hand lettered banners, even painted bed sheets all proclaiming the “Boston Strong” mantra that, like a depleted marathoner, collective Boston kept repeating so it could get to and reclaim the finish line. It was undeniably the greatest show of genuine civic pride I have ever witnessed.
If I could freeze a single moment at the 2014 Boston Marathon, it would be the moment where I found and kissed my wife. Moments after I left her, the burst of adrenaline our reunion sent through my system was gone. I felt exhausted and full of dread and uncertainty as I faced the prospect of another three plus miles on my feet. Noteworthy: it was at this point that my bruised left foot began to make its presence known. It felt like my second toe had been replaced with a bratwurst. The pain on the bottom of my foot was real but, and this was significant, not so much so that I needed to immediately stop. Rather, I found myself in a familiar marathon shuffle — a speed just above walking. With under three miles to go, the entire right side of the course was filled with walking runners. With the pain I was feeling, walking appear to be an attractive option. This is a common feeling in marathons as a screaming inner voice tries frantically to persuade you to slow your pace or walk all in the name of making the pain go away. While this isn’t true, to the glycogen depleted mind, it always sounds appealing. Two things prevented me from stopping: the crowd and the names of two of my friends I had inked on the soles of my shoes. My friends aren’t charity cases, but rather inspiring, accomplished athletes. One ran over 50 marathons and the other is an Ironman triathlete. What they both share is that they can’t run now (for reasons way beyond the scope of this) and they were both very supportive of me throughout my winter training. As I spied the Citgo sign that looms large over the course and stands adjacent to Fenway Park (home of the Red Sox), I thought of both friends and my promise, implicit in putting their names on my shoes, that I would run across a finish line they had both previously crossed and they would symbolically share with me. I wanted to honor my commitment, and so I trudged onward. I found that barely sufficient to carry the day, but the fans, electric in their collective Boston strength, literally urged me on. I saw signs saying “don’t stop running” and heard screaming fans direct their cheers to runners who were walking. They told them that they had to finish. They insisted that Boston Strong took everyone. I heard and received the message.
The race’s conclusion involves two turns that are so famous they are emblazoned on shirts that recite the directions “Right on Hereford, Left on Boylston.” Neither street easily gave up their length to me as I had to literally fight for every last inch until, finally, the blue and yellow finish line stanchion was in sight. I made the final push across the line, let a helpful volunteer hang a medal around my neck, and then I walked off the course.
It is difficult to explain the paradox of having an awful day of racing, a really lousy day of running, on a day that was so important to so many. I hope that in some small way my presence at the race contributed to the healing Boston needed, but for me it is a day of running I would like to forget and move past – as quickly as I can.