It was only one short year ago that I was in Boston on this very weekend, getting ready to run the marathons of all marathons on Monday. People have since asked me, “Was Boston really all that?” The answer is it IS that, and so much more.
From the moment you set foot in Boston for marathon weekend, you feel you are on holy ground. The city transforms itself into a sea of blue and yellow, and you would feel out of place if you had anything on your feet besides runners. Runners signify athleticism over geekiness, a welcome change of events.
People everywhere near the runners expo at the Hynes Convention Center have their recognizable blue and yellow race day packages slung over their shoulder. Workers are lining the street with barriers and building the finish line stands. People are photographing each other on the finish line, smiling today knowing they may not be smiling on Monday. It is a hub of activity and excitement.
As you walk around on this blue and yellow cloud, it’s hard to believe it is just a regular weekend in other parts of the world.
I was humbled by the people I was meeting, runners who have run not one or two but sixteen and seventeen Boston’s. I met a man who had traveled from New Zealand for the race. People from all corners of America who regularly make this pilgrimage. The camaraderie is non-stop and all-invasive – not the place for a quiet weekend of reflection. It’s a place to embrace, and be embraced, by our great sport.
It’s hard not feel like you’re a part of running history by simply being there. At the runner’s expo I brushed elbows with storied people like Kathrine Switzer, Amby Burfoot, Joan Benoit Samuelson, and David Willey. Heady with touches of greatness and cross-eyed by the massive amounts of people, I actually got lost in the expo and couldn’t find my way out.
Everywhere, people are helping people. It restores ones faith in humanity. My high-tech Garmin watch broke on Sunday, and the manager at their booth simply gave me her watch to use. I was traveling alone, but was invited by a fellow runner to have dinner with his large extended running family in Boston’s storied north end. Everywhere people are speaking the body language of helping. It is impossible to get lost, or not know something. The first person you ask will help you.
It was surreal to walk out of my hotel at 6 am on race day and see the street lined with yellow school buses as far as the eye could see. Making my way to the Commons it could have been rush hour, as long lines of people waited to get on the buses that would take us out to Hopkinton, 26.2 miles outside of Boston.
The athletes village, set up at the Hopkinton high school, housed gigantic tents, with food and beverages being served at several tables for pre-race nutrition. People milled around in large groups, music boomed from speakers, and runners nervously chatted about their strategy or lack thereof. It was like being at a gigantic party. I reluctantly tore myself away from it and made my way to the starting line.
Waiting in my corral at the starting line, excitement crackling in the air, I could feel the ghosts of past runners who had stood on this same spot; albeit with fewer participants. In widely varying weather conditions, snow, rain, draining sunshine, people had stood here on Patriot’s Day, waiting to begin the journey to Boylston Street.
If the entire weekend leading up to the race wasn’t incredible enough, the race itself is out of a dream sequence. The festivities continue long after the sound of the gun. I saw a runner down a beer at the biker bar just down the road from Hopkinton, to the delight of the bikers. A runner veered off course in Natick to play lawn bowling with residents. Several runners stopped to kiss students in the Wellesley tunnel of love. I ran beside Captain Canada for a while, decked out head to toe in maple leafs and flags. Along the way people are holding up signs with the latest Red Sox score. Thousands of people lined the route, high-fiving and screaming the entire time.
It was evident that this was a moment in time. Despite a nagging pain in my knee that started only 5 km in, the momentum of both the crowd and the runners carried me through long after I would typically thrown in the towel. Boston is far from typical.
After Wellesley there are the Newton Hills, of which Heartbreak Hill is only one. Looming even larger is the descent from Heartbreak Hill to the Cleveland Circle, for me infinitely more difficult on my legs that were by then searing in pain, complaining loudly that they had had enough.
But Cleveland Circle leads to Beacon Street, and that meant thousands upon thousands of spectators lining the route, in some places 8 people deep, people on rooftops and balconies, everywhere spectators cheering you on. The Citgo sign appears, a vision to shoot for, proof that the end is actually in sight. If you can only put one foot in front of the other for a few more miles.
Fenway Park and the Citgo sign are the the last mile markers that send you through the famous directions, right on Hereford, left on Boylston, the shortest turn on the course, and undoubtably the loudest. Rounding the corner, the finish line is a short sprint away. Or crawl, depending.
As for the finish, let’s just say it is an odd juxtaposition, feeling physically terrible but mentally high. Yet I very much recommend it. If you ever get the chance to run the Boston Marathon, just do it. The mountains you may have to move to get there will be waiting for you when you get back. The memories of the race will stay with you forever.
My first marathon was no triumph, as you will glean from my last post, My First Marathon (warning: NOT a success story).
It left me with a bad taste in my mouth and an ache in my knee just thinking about it. So in the years immediately following it, I erased it from my memory, and kicked my running habit to the curb. We moved to London, England, smack dab in the middle of the city. Aside from a few magical predawn runs down Pall Mall, I found it generally too busy and smoggy to run, so I didn’t; I even had an opportunity to train with an amazingly multicultural, international running group, including some incredibly fit Kenyans, but I politely declined. A stupid mistake in retrospect, but at the time I had no interest. My running days were done, I thought.
Missing the sweet combination of ocean and mountains that we are spoiled by in Vancouver, we moved back and started a family. I was in various stage of pregnancy and post pregnancy for the next six years, so running took on new meaning: it was invaluable self time. I got to listen to music, think, and feel like the person I used to be before having tiny dependents affixed to my legs for the better part of most days (and nights). It was a welcome respite. I rekindled my romance with my former favorite pastime.
We took it slowly, flirting in the beginning with short, half hour runs, often with the baby jogger along as a third wheel. As our attraction mounted, we started dating Sunday mornings for longer runs. I found a 10 km training schedule in Impact magazine that coincided perfectly for the upcoming Vancouver Sun Run, and we were officially an item. I was back in love with running.
I was particularly pleased with a half marathon time I eventually posted, and the thought of training for another marathon crept into my mind. When I got home I immediately plugged my finishing time into one of those handy (yet for the most part useless) marathon calculators to see if I could possibly qualify for the Boston Marathon – if I was going to to do this again, I wanted to take it to the next level, and in my books running Boston was shooting for the stars. According to this very unscientific predictor, I would qualify easily. Ignoring the fact that I could not have run another step after that half, let alone another thirteen miles, I decided to give it a whirl.
I found a free training program online. It was boldly entitled “The Boston Qualifier Program”. That should work, I thought, and printed it off. It had one main problem: it wasn’t tailored for any particular age group, and used time instead of miles, so instead of calling for a six mile run, it said to run for an hour. But the qualifying time for a twenty year old man is drastically different from that of a fifty year old female, for instance, so the fact that we were all running the same amount of time for long runs puzzled me. However, it had promised success in the title, so I stuck with it.
I faithfully followed this program. Save for tweaking it in a few places to substitute spinning classes for those throw away runs – easy days to pad your mileage – I somewhat blindly did what it told me to do, hoping its creator knew what they were doing, and had not published it as a hoax.
There had been a few improvements registered in the running world since I had turned my nose up at it. The proliferation of GPS watches was a big one: I had a much better handle on my pacing and mileage thanks to this Christmas present. Gels and power bars were very much on the scene, and helped to sustain me better on long runs, as did water enhanced with electrolytes. And it was much easier to find physiotherapists and chiropractors with running expertise who could treat injuries. A new day had dawned since my first marathon, thirteen years earlier.
With technology on my side and scientifically improved nutrition, and the “Boston Qualifier” program in my back pocket, I felt ready to do battle with the marathon again. The Victoria Marathon – flat and beautiful – would be my testing ground.
Tight IT bands had been causing me knee pain in the run up to the race. My main worry was this would pose a problem for me, as it usually did after mile sixteen. The night before the race, as I restlessly paged through old Runner’s World magazines, I came across an article about preparing for your marathon. The tip that most resonated with me was to decide beforehand what type of pain would stop you in your tracks, and what pain you would run through. I’d been told by more than one medical professional that my IT bands would not snap if I continued to run even though pain was present. I decided to ignore any pain my knee might throw at me, and only stop if I felt discomfort that was alarmingly different.
My other worry about the race was that it would rain, but race day dawned sunny and beautiful, and a temperate 12 degrees Celsius – ideal running conditions. I drank a glass of water – instead of the two liters I had consumed before my last marathon – and headed to the starting line.
Things went swimmingly and according to plan up until the halfway mark when my right knee started hurting, four miles too early by my calculation. I tried to shake it out mid stride, the people around me throwing me strange looks, but I ignored them because it seemed to relieve it. I tried to change my stride a little, putting my right foot down gingerly, or kicking up my back heel more than usual. Just when I thought it was subsiding it would seize up again, and I would go through the motions to try to loosen it.
Otherwise I felt great. I was inspired when the out and back course afforded a view of the leaders, and they effortlessly strode past us. I repeatedly saw some spectators that held up a sign reading “My Grandma thinks you’re hot!” which cracked me up every time. I was well under my projected time by mile sixteen, and thought if I could run four miles with the pain, I could probably finish, and plugged on. The knee pain slowed me down a tad, but I tried to focus on the beautiful scenery and my fellow runners. I stubbornly ignored the pain as it came and went, and by mile twenty I decided there was no stopping me.
The last three miles are always a question mark – most of us don’t run that far for our long runs, so you wonder how you will possibly get through them. I didn’t feel great – my legs were shouting “enough!” – but I was still determined to finish this and meet the qualifying standard for Boston. The miles ticked down, one by one, until finally there was only one to go. There weren’t many spectators at this point, many choosing instead to line up on the final stretch, but someone had stuck posters to telephone poles that read “You’ve made it this far – you can’t quit now!” Quite right.
I savored the final stretch. People were cheering so loudly they managed to drown out the searing pain in my knee, and although it may have looked like I was hobbling, in my mind’s eye I was flying. This was the more like the ending I had been hoping for, thirteen years ago.
Better late than never.
I have been a runner since Santa brought me my first pair of proper runners and track suit in grade two. In case you are wondering, Santa wasn’t trying to rid me of my baby fat, I had actually asked for them, at the very top of my list. My friends were all about dolls, I was all about two feet and a heartbeat.
From that first run (incidentally, down the street to A&W, where I rewarded myself with a baby rootbeer), I was addicted to endorphins as though they were crack cocaine. And luckily runners bear no track marks, just ugly feet; sandals can be a problem when your toenails are missing.
Running came easily to me, unlike math, and I continued to run throughout Junior High and High School – it was great for improving fitness for other sports, plus you could get about three days off school per track meet, if you signed up for the right events. It turned out I liked lazing around and sunning myself on the track as much as running on it; it was all good.
It was only natural, once I graduated from university, moved across the country, got a real job in the real world, and got married, that I would finally train for a marathon, that pinnacle of achievement for anyone who refused to use the term “jog” and who knew the difference between a kilometer and a mile. Aside from coming out of nowhere to win the Boston Marathon (or taking the subway in the middle of it and then pretending to win it), how else is the casual runner to experience moments of glory? And who doesn’t need those?
I bought a book and joined a running group in one foul swoop. I was going to do this right, and give my marathon experience its proper due, although if anyone could run a marathon surely that person was me (hello! I’ve only been running, like, my entire life!).
I took my training seriously, read the book cover to cover, and didn’t miss one Sunday morning long run, even making it to most speed workouts and interval training on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I ate well, hydrated myself, got plenty of rest, and listened to my body when it complained. When race day rolled around I was as prepared as I could possibly be, nothing could stop me from a successful race. I had this in the bag. I pictured myself sprinting effortlessly down the stretch, arms raised in my personal victory, enjoying my moment in the sun.
In actuality, the scene resembled a horror film much more than the romantic comedy I had envisioned.
For starters, it poured rain the entire race, and although it was May it could easily have passed for February. It was miserable, and my first (of many) mistakes was thinking that Mother Nature would actually listen to the optimistic sun dance I was conducting in my head. She didn’t, I underdressed, and there is nothing like being cold and wet for four hours, I learned that day.
The next mistake was reading that book, which told me to wake up at least a couple of hours before the race in order to hydrate. The year was 1997, and that was the popular belief at the time. Between the hours of 4:30 and 6:30 that morning I drank two liters of water. Dehydration was the dragon you had to slay, we thought; none of us (in our running group, anyway) had heard of hyponatremia, where your sodium levels get dangerously low should you ingest too much water.
Taking in calories through gels or bars was also news to us. I was starving at the halfway mark and curiously took a gel someone offered me and choked it down. In the last few miles I started taking everything any sticky fingered child was offering: a banana rolled in dirt, oranges with pebbles, anything that could possibly sustain me was game. (A shout out to every sticky fingered child who braved the route that day – I would not have finished but for them.)
My dreams of glory were replaced by the reality of me, water logged and freezing cold, stumbling towards the finish line which, despite it being less than a mile from where I lived, I could not recognize. It was not pretty, and resembled the agony of defeat much more than anything else. It was not a success; it was traumatizing.
So much for my cocksure attitude. To make matters worse, I could not step off a curb without an incredible amount of pain for the next month, and all of my toenails eventually fell off from that rainy day, providing me with an unwelcome reminder of the incredible pain I went through in those last few miles every time I glanced at my toes.
I hung up my hat, threw my medal in a box, and decided marathons were not for me.
But the postscript to this story, and the story I prefer to relate when I speak of this experience (which as you might guess is rarely) is this one:
My running partner for this marathon had never run a mile in her life before our first six mile training run. Not one mile. I was incredulous. She, too, followed our program religiously, determined to achieve this goal. And she unapologetically kicked my ass quite handily come race day. She was adamant that it was all in the mind, and if you put your mind to it, you could do anything you wanted.
I did get back on the horse eventually, and started running again. It was, after all, in my blood. I ran another marathon and had a finish much like the one I had envisioned that first time, but it took me thirteen years to work up my courage to do it.
In the interim, I thought a lot about the success my partner had that day because she never wavered from the idea that she could do it, and wondered how it was that my mind had come up so short. She was also underdressed, over-hydrated and hungry, yet had a fantastic run, said she felt like she was running on air. I mulled it over and over, berating myself for not performing that day.
I wish someone had counselled me a long time ago that every day is different – both in life and in marathons – and one bad experience does not an ex-runner make. But I now know a runner cannot plan their race, and on every starting line to expect the unexpected. And if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.