The air smelled cool and sweet when I emerged from my mother-in-law’s apartment building about 10 miles west of Hopkinton at about 6:45 a.m. on Monday, April 16th. It had rained Sunday night and instead of starting the day in the 60s, it was in the mid-50s. “Maybe,” I thought, “Maybe the forecast has changed.” No such luck.
I got dropped at the Athlete’s Village to wait the three hours until the race would begin for me. I was nervous. Getting out of the car, I choked up when I tried to say, “I’m running Boston!” I was finally at the race I had trained for months and more than 1000 miles to compete in. This was the race I had qualified for four years before, but injury kept me from even registering. I was about to race the granddaddy of them all.
It was still early, but people were streaming into the village. I will say I have been to no better organized race before. I found a space under one of the big tents and stretched out and felt the cool breezes wafting over me, almost chilling me. It was an illusion of course, because 45 minutes later when I got up for a trip to the john and stepped out into the sun I realized that the day had already heated up to over 70 degrees and it was just after 8 a.m.
The next two hours were spent first looking for my friends, David and Anna, then hanging out with them worrying about trips to the john, sunscreen, on boarding calories, and remaining hydrated. While hanging out with two people to pass the time was really helpful, all three of us were apprehensive about what lay ahead of us. We were called to move toward our corrals about 50 minutes before the start. It is a long walk to drop off our clothes bag at the school buses and then make our way from the Athlete’s Village to the main street in Hopkinton. David and I were finally together at the back of corral #1 of wave #2 less than 3 minutes before the start of the race. It was 10:20 and about 80 degrees. In the months ahead of Boston I imagined and prepared for all sorts of weather – cold, ice, sleet, snow, winds from all directions, rain, even torrential rain. It never entered my mind that I would be stepping to the starting line in an August-like heat. So, whatever physical impact the heat was to have, at that point it was already in my head. Despite our mild winter in New Jersey, I hadn’t run, no less RACED, in anything like this since the previous summer.
David (3:19) and I (3:20) had similar qualifying times and both had trained to go sub-3:15. We had no plans of running together in the race, but it was the smartest thing we did that day, because I may not have made it if I ran the whole thing alone. Running with him kept me aware of being in a race and not allowing myself to draw inside myself and not do the things I would need to do to survive (like drink water at EVERY water station!). Our already revised plans to run a 7:20-7:30 pace were immediately revised dramatically upward given the heat at the start.
Starting at the back of the corral was a good thing because congestion ensured that we would not go out very fast on the famous first three downhill miles of the race. Those first three miles were kept at a modest pace (high 7:40s to low 7:50s). That was where we should be, but what was missing was the feeling that I was holding back—that I could be going much faster. Never once during the race did I experience what I had experienced in the beginning of every other marathon—that I had to hold myself back and pace myself. I have no idea if this was psychological or physical.
The next few miles of country-ish roads with a bit of shade passed relatively uneventfully, except for the sunscreen that was melting into and burning my eyes. Somewhere after mile 6 we emerged into persistent sunlight and heat. Except for one mile with a bit of a hill that slowed us we kept the pace between 7:50 and 8:00 per mile for the first 10. It was on the outskirts of Framingham that people with hoses started to provide showers for runners. We ran under them and found ourselves beginning to drift back and forth across the road in search of shade, hoses, and ice. The Gatorade/water stations were at every mile first on the right and 100 yards later on the left. It became the anti-tangent race, where we ended up adding about a ¼ mile to the entire length with all the weaving back and forth across the road.
By mile 8 I realized there was a price to be paid for the frequent showers and dowsings—in addition to my clothing, my shoes and socks had become completely soaked through and I have always worn trainers in my races. I could feel their extra weight and realized I still had 18 miles to run. [The next week out of morbid curiosity I discovered that one of my shoes and socks weighed 1 pound 1 ounce dry. Soaked with water it weighed 1 pound 9 ½ ounces. That’s a half a pound at the end of each leg for 18 miles. This was my last race in training shoes. Next time I will be in lightweight, water-shedding racing flats!]
Our mile pace began to edge up after mile 10. We didn’t say anything, but we both knew we were saying goodbye to a 3:30 finish. That was happening while we enjoyed one of the few highlights of the race—the Wellesley Women! For more than a mile behind barricades along the right side of the route were the women of Wellesley College screaming and cheering for the runners. Most had signs all of which started with the same three words “Kiss me, I’m…” What came next was any manner of things “from Massachusetts,” “from Poland,” “a biology major,” “an English major,” etc. etc. etc. It was great! I will admit to bussing the young woman with the sign, “Kiss me, I’m from New Jersey.” David resisted the temptation!
As we emerged from that experience I realized that I was paying another price for the soaked shoes – I had a blister on the bottom of my left foot and we weren’t quite to the halfway mark yet. I hoped it was a wrinkled sock. After we passed the halfway point in downtown Wellesley, I realized I needed to do something. I sent David on ahead and I sat on the curb and pulled off my shoe. It was then I realized that it wasn’t a wrinkled sock, it was the fact that the sock and the shoe were soaked and my foot was a wrinkled mess. There was nothing to do but wring out the sock, put it back on, and tie the shoe tighter. I did that and then set about chasing David down.
I caught David soon after and we continued on. We now knew we were in a tough fight. It didn’t matter how much we might have saved during the first part of the race, the second half would be brutal. It was even hotter and we knew the Newton Hills still lay ahead of us. The weather, the shoes, the blisters (I now had one on my right foot as well) were taking its toll on me. While we dumped water on ourselves (and each other) at each station and took advantage of hoses and water tunnels (sort of mini car washes for runners), I was really looking for those kind souls with bags of ice. I would shove both my hands into the bag and grab a bunch of cubes. We tried them under our hats but the cubes were too cold directly on our heads (neither of us has enough hair anymore to disperse the chill), so I dumped mine in the front and the back of my shirt which was tight enough to hold the ice close to my skin while it melted.
The people along the route were fantastic. There was pretty much people along the entire route and big crowds in each of the towns. At times we would wave for them to cheer and they would roar; however, there was only so much they could do to help us. I was really laboring and tightening up.
Finally, at about mile 17 I told David that I had to stop and stretch. I wished him well the rest of the way, assuming I wouldn’t see him until the finish, and veered off to the side where I found a tree to help me do my stretches. I stretched my quads, my hamstrings, and my calves, and about a minute or so later I was back on the road, where soon I came upon the first of the Newton hills. I put my head down and let months of running hills the big, long hills in my town propel me over. I passed a number of runners and walkers. As I crested the top I could see farther ahead and spied the baby blue singlet that meant David wasn’t too far ahead. I now had a focused objective as I worked the hills. When I came over the top of the second hill I saw I was much closer to him. There was one hill left – Heartbreak Hill.
The Wellesley Women may have been the one highlight of this race, but my proudest moment came on Heartbreak Hill. David was in sight as I started the climb. There were so many people walking I had to weave in and out to continue my pace. Finally, I reached the top and David at the same time. I roared in pride at my accomplishment (and startled David). I was back from the dead (temporarily). David was happy to see me and we allowed gravity to bear us down the other side. There was less than a 10K race to go, or as Bill, my coach, would say—we’d reached the true halfway point in a marathon.
The feelings of accomplishment and sensing that the end was in sight were very short-lived. The heat, the accumulated miles, the blisters, and the hills continued to exact their toll. My pace up the hills had crept toward 9 minutes per mile. The first mile over the last hill we did in about 8:45, but my body was breaking down. Miles 23 and 24 I did in about 9:45/mile. David was clearly stronger and with about 5K to go I fell behind him in a water station and couldn’t catch up. I finally shouted for him to go on. He waved and shouted something I couldn’t hear and pulled away. I was running alone. I looked up and saw a bank clock sign showing 89 degrees—a bit of data I really didn’t need!
The rest of the race consisted concentrating on running through the pain and keeping at bay the very strong temptation to walk it in. For the last 5 or so miles of the race about a quarter mile after each water station I would be parched again. I was constantly looking for water and ice. I was determined not to walk. Mile 25 I did in 10:16. I checked my watch. I realized through my heat-addled haze that I had a shot at running 3:45 which would qualify me for Boston next year. I finally turned onto Boylston and made the mistake of looking down towards the finish line. It was achingly far away. I did mile 26 in 10:14. I could see the clock tick toward and past 3:45 as I stumbled toward the finish. I had to get there before it clicked to 3:46. I realized with yards to go that given my start at the back of the wave my chip time would be faster. It was! I officially crossed the finish line in 3:45:21.
I had run Boston and turned in my all-time slowest marathon.
Of course, I learned days later that the joke was on me. My qualifying time isn’t 3:45, it’s 3:40, so if I am to run this bloody race again it will be by requalifying.
It was only after the race that David and I were able to hear about how others did and see that comparatively we didn’t do so badly—we lost about 25 minutes from our PR (30 minutes from our goals). My bib (and starting place) number was 9545 and, even accounting for the people who never even started, my finishing place of about 5400 was pretty darn good.
Okay, so now that I have had an opportunity to reflect on it for a couple of weeks how was it really? It sucked when I did it, and it still sucks.
While I have appreciated so very much all the congratulations and good wishes from friends and fellow runners, it was still a horrible experience. It was worse than hitting the wall at the Wineglass Marathon. Hitting the wall was very painful, but self-inflicted. However, two weeks later and this still feels like it was an enormous waste of time. All the miles and all the months being wasted by a random spike in the temperature. If I had it to do over again, I would take the deferral and run a marathon a couple of weeks later. I am proud of my effort; however, I am not proud of or happy with the result.
So, in addition to recovering physically, I realize I need to recover psychologically and emotionally. My urge to find a June marathon to prove what I can do has passed. I’ll do some shorter races and then gear up for a fall marathon where I will endeavor to qualify for this bastard again. I WILL go back to Boston and obtain a result I can be proud of.