On Patriots’ Day 2014, we took our marathon back.
April 21 was the day we had been waiting for for over a year. When it finally arrived, 32,408 runners were in town to answer the starting gun, a million more lined the streets between Hopkinton and Boston, and millions more watched from home.
My weekend started the previous Friday, at the expo. Every year at marathon time, there’s a lot of energy floating around. It seems like the entire city is filled with runners. A trip to the expo is like dropping by to meet thousands of friends, many of whom you haven’t happened to meet yet.
This year, that energy was even stronger. For the most part, the events of last year, while never forgotten, went unmentioned (Except by the media, of course). Instead, we were all focusing on the race ahead of us. After a year of waiting, we were all ready and eager to take our race back.
One of my goals for the weekend was to get contributors to The 27th Mile to sign my copy of the book while they were in town for the race. Friday, after I picked up my number, I connected with Hal Higdon and Kathrine Switzer at their respective booths.
On the way home, I stopped by the Old South Church, where a volunteer gave me one of the blue and gold scarves knitted by people across the country (my mom in Vermont for one). I accepted the scarf and my blessing and hopped on the T.
Last year, I guided a visually-impaired runner in the marathon for the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired’s Team With a Vision. They didn’t need me to guide in the marathon this year. Instead, on Saturday I was happy to help out by running the BAA 5K as the sighted guide for John Valpey. John ran the 5K blindfolded to raise money for MAB-VI as part the Blindfold Challenge.
It’s hard enough running blind when you’ve had experience dealing with visual impairment. When someone like John is running blind for the first time, that takes it to a whole new level of difficulty. Throw in the fact that we were running packed in with 10,000 other people, in a race so crowded that some people hadn’t left the start chute when the leaders came back for the finish, and running blindfolded had to be terrifying.
The most rewarding thing about guiding is the level of trust your runner gives you. It’s just that – a gift, one that I value tremendously and try very hard to be worthy of.
John was nervous at the start, so I tried to provide as much guidance as I could, both verbally and physically, via the shoestring we were using as a tether. He gutted it out and handled everything, walkers, oblivious headphone-wearers, and kids dashing across his path, without incident. By the end John was ready to try a sprint for the finish, but so was everyone else. Cooler heads (mine) prevailed and we crossed the line safely in a time of about 31 minutes.
Afterward, we went to a Blindfold Challenge brunch, and then I went back to the expo to get more signatures. Amazingly, the volunteers at the church were still giving out scarves. They started with something like 7000 on hand and didn’t run out until later Saturday afternoon.
At the expo, I added signatures from Amby Burfoot, Cristina Negron , Jeff Galloway, and Mark Remy to my collection. I was especially pleased to meet Amby and his wife Cristina. Amby’s been very generous with his time via email and I had the great pleasure of helping Cristina publish her memoir. Meeting them in real life was a highlight of the weekend.
All this was very hectic. I was getting a little fried while anxiously waiting at the Runner’s World booth for Mark Remy so I could get his signature, head home, and maybe rest a little before my next event. That might explain why when I saw Jeff Dengate, who I’d met at the Adirondack Marathon in the fall, I started talking to him as though he were Mark. Jeff’s a great guy, so he let me off the hook gently. We discussed his upcoming attempt to recapture the Summit Ave Strava record while waiting for Mark (Jeff’s boss at Runner’s World) to arrive.
After a short chat with Mark, I rushed home from the expo just in time to get in the car with Ruth and our friend Adena to drive to dinner at Gail and Dave Martin’s house in Sharon.
Dave Cockman and his girlfriend Olga were also there, in from North Carolina for the marathon. Back in the day, I used to go to Gail for massages. Years later, after she married Dave and I married Ruth, Gail gave Dave Cockman a copy of my book, Chasing the Runner’s High, before his first 100 miler. Adena , who Ruth and I often run with, paced him there to his first finish (many more have followed since). We all try to get together whenever we get the chance.
As usual, we had a great time, with plenty of food, good talk, and lots of adult toys.
No, not those adult toys, massage toys.
No not THOSE massage toys. Oh, never mind….
Sunday, Ruth went to the Arlington Runners’ (our informal local running group) 10th anniversary run while I stayed home to do a radio interview for The 27th Mile. Then it was time to head back in the city for the MAB-VI volunteer appreciation brunch and say hello to a number of the people I met while guiding at last year’s marathon.
Back home after brunch, it was time to get everything ready for Monday’s race. As any runner knows, this is the most important thing that happens before the gun goes off. A mistake here, and you’re paying for it for 26.2 miles (and potentially long afterward). The new rules for bag check this year made the whole project even more nerve-wracking.
Finally I had everything sorted into four piles: stuff to put on in the morning, post-race gear for the BAA bag check, gear to take to Hopkinton (and possibly lose), and gear to take to Hopkinton that I didn’t want to risk losing. The latter pile had to be as small as possible, just my phone and regular glasses (needed because I’d be leaving home before dawn), since I’d be counting on MAB-VI’s Josh Warren to return them to me at the finish, and he would be collecting similar items from all the Team With a Vision runners.
Once I’d laid everything out, I took a “Flat Ray” picture of my race outfit and posted it on Facebook. When Josh saw that I was planning on running in my 2013 Team With a Vision shirt, he called to offer me a 2014 shirt instead. He meant well, but that was one decision too many. My brain went into overload, so I quit thinking before I started to make things worse and went to bed to get whatever rest I could.
The MAB-VI bus to Hopkinton had to leave early to ensure we would arrive at the Vision Center in Hopkinton before 7AM, when the streets closed. The bus was leaving the Boston Common at 5AM, so I set the alarm for 3AM. Unsurprisingly, that came all too soon, but Ruth managed to get me going in time to be the first person to leave a bag at the new gear check tents on the Common before boarding the bus.
We got to Hopkinton just as dawn was breaking. It was a beautiful day, bright and sunny but cool, for the time being at least.
I had almost 4 hours to kill before 10:25, the scheduled start time for my wave. The new security procedures kept everyone from moving freely around Hopkinton. I tried to get to the start to watch my friend Chris Ahearn and the rest of the wheelchair racers, but that wasn’t possible. Instead, I spent most of the time sitting in the Vision Center (or more accurately, standing and pacing around).
At 10:15, I told the other Team runners “I’ll meet you at the finish!” and left for my corral, #6 in the second wave of runners. I got there with plenty of time for more standing and waiting.
At 10:25, they let the first 5 corrals go. Then they held the rest of us back. Apparently, people hadn’t been able to get to their corrals from the Athletes’ Village in time, so we waited while they fed latecomers into the 5th corral.
I didn’t need the unexpected extra wait, but with timing chips it wasn’t a major problem. When they finally let us go, we shuffled up to the line, and then we were off!
I wasn’t trying for a fast race. While I had plenty of miles in the bank, what little speedwork I had planned had been interrupted by a March cold that lingered for a few weeks and a series of minor aches and pains. While I might have chosen to take a chance and shoot for a good time, this year was more about finishing than racing. I figured that I’d go out at whatever pace seemed comfortable. I was hoping for a respectable sub-4, but I wanted to avoid pushing too hard to try ensure that I’d make it to the finish.
Everyone around me was primed, ready, and looking to make up for last year. Throw in the long wait in Hopkinton, and it was no shock that most of us probably went out a little too fast. My first mile was a 7:40, but even so, plenty of people were passing me by.
After that, I settled in to a pace a little under 8 minutes per mile. That would have gotten me a qualifying time for next year if I held on to the finish. However, early on my quads started to feel the downhills. Misplaced optimism had me holding to that BQ pace for the first eight miles – it didn’t feel hard. Nevertheless, I wasn’t surprised when my splits began to creep up.
I was still in the low 8’s through Wellesley, putting time in the bank that I know I’d be giving back later. For the first time in my six Boston Marathons, I paused there for a kiss or two (or five), but that only cost me about 20 seconds.
Soon after that, when I reached the water station past mile 15 where Dave and Gail Martin were team leaders, it was getting warm and the wheels were coming off. I knew it would be a long slog to the finish.
My first 9 minute mile came when I reached the Newton hills. By then my water stop walk breaks were extending past the time I spent drinking. Some cold Coke and a kiss from Ruth in mile 19 kept me forging on.
After you reach the top of Heartbreak, the last five miles of the course are relatively easy. By this point, my quads were screaming with every step, but I knew that slowing down would just make the pain last longer.
The bright, sunny day wasn’t helping the runners, but it was good for the people lining the roads. This year, more than ever before, we runners were working as a team with the spectators, so I was happy that they had a pleasant day to support their efforts.
I didn’t want to disappoint the masses of people doing their best to carry everyone through to the finish. Instead, I tried to ignore the pain in my legs and feed off their energy as they willed us forward.
I kept my eyes on the road ahead and my mind on keeping my legs going, but at the same time I did my best to absorb the entire scene, waving whenever I heard a shout of “Go, Team With a Vision!”, or less often, “Go Saucony!” (I wonder if they thought Saucony was my town instead of a Team sponsor?)
I ran in at around a 9:20 pace, nothing special, but I was actually pretty happy with it considering how sore my quads were. My second half split ended up about 15 minutes slower than my first half, but the sun and early pace had taken a toll on everyone, so I was probably passing 70% of the runners around me.
At last, it was time to turn left on Hereford and right on Boylston. I managed to get back down to an 8 minute pace for the run to the line. And I finally got my Uta Pippig high-five as I passed the mile 26 mark after missing her in years past. Pro tip from Uta: if you’re giving high-fives to thousands of strangers as they sprint (or “sprint”) for the finish, a closed hand will help you avoid excessive wear and tear.
I finished in 3:47:01, which put me in 14,476th place (yay!). It was about the time I had expected, though I picked a hard way to get there.
Once I crossed the line, the gorgeous weather started working for me. The warmth allowed me to take my time in the finish area and let everyone’s joy soak in and wash away the remaining shadows from last year.
I congratulated my fellow runners, thanked numerous volunteers by name (an unexpected benefit of the badges required for enhanced security), and stopped for a picture with my friend Gio, the finish line water captain. Then I found Josh and the MAB-VI group for another round of congratulations before walking over to the Common to pick up my bag, get on the T, and head home.
That evening, while I was walking to the MAB-VI post-race dinner at the Fenway Beerworks, there were still runners coming in, doing whatever they had to do to complete the race.
Of the 32,408 runners who answered the starting gun, 3,762 needed medical attention at some point. One person I talked with at the dinner had spent two hours in Medical with cramps before getting up to limp their way to Boylston St. But by the end of the day, 32,144 had crossed the line in Copley Square – an amazing 99 percent completion rate.
Last year, the race ended, abruptly, and with events that were too painful to dwell on for long. This year, we ran as one, and we finished. The party around the city went on late into the night. We may have been tired, but no one wanted the day to be over. Paraphrasing David Ortiz, the Boston Marathon is our fucking race again.
Oh, one last thing: MEB!