Boston Marathon 2009
Training had been rough lately. After the Austin Marathon, I took a little time off, then spent some time biking, and I could never really get in a groove at all. With only a few weeks before Boston, I tried stepping it up, to no avail. Still couldn't find time to run every day, somehow. And when I did, something was wrong. I found myself wanting to walk all the time, and sometimes I'd just start walking, whether I was tired or not. I think I was a little burnt out. Fortunately, the last week of training has been pretty productive. Still a bit slow. But it seems like I've gotten my head together.
Boston had been a major goal of mine for years, ever since I started taking running seriously, goal #1 was to finish a marathon at all, and goal #2 was to run Boston. I'd qualified two years prior, but promptly got an injury and wasn't able to go. Running this race was several years in the making.
The Boston Marathon starts much later than most, at 10:00 AM, and it's on a Monday, not a Sunday. It's a point-to-point that splits the greater Boston area in half. So right in the middle of a workday, there's no way to get across the city. The solution? Make it a city-wide holiday, so everyone goes out to watch the race.
The incredible amount of spectator support is only a part of what makes Boston special. For one, it's the oldest continuously-running marathon in the world. To marathoners, Boston is often considered more important than the Olypmics, and unlike the Olympics, you don't have to be world-class to participate; you merely have to be really good. Boston is the chance to run with the greats, and to race along a hallowed course full of legends. Boston Billy. Rosie Ruiz. The Scream Tunnel. Heartbreak Hill.
The bus ride out to Hopkinton is intimidating. You get picked up by the bus only a few blocks from the finish, and you stay on a bus for a long time, long enough to realize how far you're about to run. You keep hoping the bus is going to pull over soon just so you won't have as far to run back to where you came.
At last, we were dropped off in Hopkinton and walked into the athlete's village, a field behind Hopkinton high school. There was Gatorade, Powerbars, bagels, coffee, and bananas. Had I known that, I wouldn't have bothered eating breakfast beforehand. I listened to the voicemails a few friends had left the night before after I was already asleep. Then just killed time for a long time, trying to stay warm. Kept hydrating. Wound up peeing three times before the start. The port-o-potty lines were so long that I only used them once.
With 45 minutes to go, I headed back towards the buses to drop off my warm-ups and have them taken back to the finish. I was already cold before I stripped down to my running shirt and shorts. Now I was colder. Then we had to walk down a hill about 3/4 of a mile to get to the starting area. Then I had to walk another 1/4 mile up a hill to get to my corral. Due to a good qualifying time, I was in corral one. Badass. I'm starting at the front. My bib number was 1,889 (they start at 1,000 and go to 26,000-something). Not bad! Once I finally got to my corral, I had about 10 minutes to stretch. Finished my normal stretching routine and 15 seconds later, the gun sounded. And we're off.
There were so many people running, and EVERYONE around me was fast. We were bumping elbows, yet holding a 6:15 pace! I wondered aloud if it was really going to be this condensed the whole time. By mile 3 though, it started thinning out and you could actually jockey for position. Throughout the ENTIRE race though, I don't think I was ever more than five meters from someone.
My goal was to beat my previous best of 2:53:58. I decided I'd work with the same strategy, which was to hold a pace of around 6:25 for as long as I can, then just make sure I don't hit the wall in the end. 7:00-7:30 miles in the last few would be OK. My first five miles or so were all around 6:15. A little fast. But the first five miles are the fastest part of Boston's course.
Miles 1-5 were a little sparse as far as spectators go. People were standing in front of their houses cheering us on, but few big crowds. One or two here and there. After mile 5 the crowds started picking up. I started playing to them for a while, waving my arms for noise. Made me run faster. After a while, I realized the crowds weren't going to stop and they'd only get bigger and more frequent. I stopped playing it up then. Every now and then I'd see someone in a Texas shirt or hat and flash the hook 'em. They'd flash it back and go nuts. Awesome.
I've said it before, but at mile 8 or 9 you start to realize how far you've gone, and better yet, how far you're going to go. You've been running abount an hour at that point and you're only maybe 1/3 of the way done. You realize that 8 or 9 miles have melted behind you, and ideally, you're not that tired. But the reality of running another TWO hours sinks in and your mental state is questioned for the first time.
Right about at mile 12, one guy who was in a cluster with me announced, "Get ready to enjoy this." We were approaching Wellesley College, an all-female university. Tradition states that the ladies of Wellesley College come out and scream their freakin' heads off. It was an average-sized crowd at best, but easily the loudest, and that includes the finish line. I went ahead and played to this crowd. I grinned the whole time as I ran by, and ran over to the rail, high-fiving each one of them.
Lots of them had signs saying "Kiss me," or "Kiss me, I'm a senior." I had a girlfriend, but it occurred to me that I may never do this again. I want to get everything out of the Boston experience. A peck on the cheek wouldn't hurt. And I've never kissed a redhead before...
I spotted a redhead in the front row and ran up to her. I put my hands on the rail and leaned over, intending to give her a quick smooch on the right cheek. Before I got the chance, she grabbed my head in both hands and layed it on me, the most assertive kiss of my life. I took a step back, almost dazed, then smiled and remembered to keep running.
I was pretty effortlessly holding a better pace than expected and was just starting to feel it right around the halfway point. I think that's where I started slowing down a little. I was still holding my position compared to the people around me, even passing some every now and then. Wasn't worried.
The hills begin to appear at mile 16. The first one was tough. Each is followed by a good downhill though, so you recover by the time the next hill appears. There are four of them, spaced out so there's about one every mile. The last one is infamously known as "Heartbreak Hill," and comes right after the mile 20 marker, right when many runners are hitting the wall. It's supposedly a beast and I'd been hearing legends about it. I tried my best to stay on pace through the first three hills without wearing myself out. I knew I was slowing down a bit. Each mile was coming in about 7:00. Not even at mile 20 yet. Eeesh...
The mile 20 marker came and went and I knew Heartbreak Hill was coming up any moment. I mentally pumped myself up by asking aloud, "Where's that hill?? I'm coming to kick its ass!!" I bet a few runners near me thought I was crazy. Didn't care. Started up the hill and held steady. Went ahead and let the hill slow me down a bit. Steady effort. Shorter strides, feet still moving. Kept my eyes down, didn't want to see the whole hill at once. Just focused on taking steps. The hill lasted half a mile. None of it was terrible. I crested the hill and recovered halfway down the backside of it. I turned my head to the crowd and shouted "WHAT HILL?!?" Felt good.
After Heartbreak Hill comes a solid downhill section that lasts about two miles. I got back on pace for them. 22 miles in and running a 6:30! It was a beautiful thing. At mile 23 though, it flattens out and you've gotta earn your miles again. Right at mile 23, I looked to my right and laughed. There was a bakery called "Athan's." I quickly memorized the cross streets. I'd have to tell Athan about this.
From mile 23 on, my body wanted to stop. I was capable of still going, but it wanted to stop. I just kept it moving. I wouldn't let myself think about stopping. I looked at my watch and saw that there would be about 20 minutes to go. Whatever my body wanted, whatever rest, food, water, or anything else, it would have to wait for 20 minutes. I told myself I could do anything for only 20 minutes (the same thought was later repeated for 15, 10, and 5 minutes). I couldn't even tell if my legs were tired or not. They weren't responding like normal though. My pace sagged back down near 7:00. Still moving strong though. Not even close to hitting the wall.
I made it to Fenway Park and the famous Citgo sign, the landmark that tells you there is exactly one mile to go. I looked at my watch again. I could break 2:50, maybe! I tried picking up the pace. I probably barely did. The engine was still working, there just wasn't much gas in the tank.
Crowds got thicker and thicker. Buildings got taller and taller. I was now running right through downtown Boston. There were a few turns to go around after running almost perfectly straight for 25 miles! I knew there were only a few minutes left and rounded a corner to see the finish line ahead. Yes!
It was still going to be 2-3 minutes to get there. I looked at my watch again. 2:50 didn't seem possible. I stayed at a strong pace, but didn't gun it to the end. Just looked at the crowd and enjoyed my last few minutes of the Boston Marathon.
Crossed the line in an official 2:50:07. A new best by almost four minutes! If I'd gone for it, I could've broken 2:50. Immediately over the finish line, I started walking and the cheering stopped. Eh? I looked around. No fans. The stands completely stop at the finish line. No one is there to cheer for you after you've finished. The entire street is dedicated to having lots of volunteers to hand out water, food, and those foil things to cover you up and keep you warm. A little anti-climatic. I walked slowly, stopped to take my shoes off, and kept walking. I just started to remember that it was cold outside.
You have to walk good half-mile to get to the buses that are holding your clothing bags. Since they're organized by bib number, people are usually are bum-rushing the same bus all at once. I stood in the cold for about a half-hour before getting my clothes. I hadn't stretched yet. I started shivering, then cramping. Finally got my clothes. Threw them on, then walked another half-mile to the family meeting area, organized by last name. L was the farthest one down.
Met up with my parents and eventually decided the next course of action would be to get away from the crowds at that part of town and find some lunch. Not only was the marathon going on, but the Red Sox game was getting out only a mile away at about the same time. We walked about another half-mile before finding the subway station.
We went down the stairs and headed down the tunnel. My parents and myself were the only ones headed in, and there were about 80 Red Sox fans coming out, having just gotten out of the ballgame, they were coming to watch the marathon. Upon seeing me in the tunnel, they all spontaneously burst into applause. I grinned. 80 strangers were cheering for me and me alone. Once on the crowded subway car, a 30-something guy got up and gave me his seat. "You ran, you sit." The people of this town treated the marathoners like rock stars.
My first meal after the marathon was at the Union Oyster House, the oldest restaurant in America. I had a crab cake sandwich and a beer. Somehow couldn't finish the sandwich. Went back home and showered. Rested for a while. Went to dinner. Then went downtown to a few Irish pubs with my dad, the Purple Shamrock and Paddy O's. Surprisingly sparse for a holiday, especially when there was a Celtics game going on.
I guess it's a bit of a downer when you're done. You feel like you've done this great big thing and there's little recognition. Of course, the people you know ask about it and tell you "congratulations," but after it's over, it's back to business as usual. Time to start thinking about getting back to work the next day. Lots of my students asked me how I did. Glad they cared.
I have now completed every life-long goal I've ever had that had anything to do with running. So I guess this blog is more or less coming to a close. To whatever loyal readers I have, thanks for reading! I hope you've enjoyed reading about my running as much as I've enjoyed doing it.
It was all worth it.