Quick Summary: Running the Boston Marathon on Patriot's Day, April 15, 2019, will be a lifetime memory for me. The fame of the event, the aura surrounding it, the vibe of being in it, the utter difficulty of the course itself, the splendor of the finish, the welcoming across the entire city of Boston explains why this marathon is like no other. I didn't run as well as I had hoped, yet the entire experience went beyond my expectations.
The Gory Details:
I first pondered running Boston while on the plane to run the Portland Marathon in October 2009. I wondered aloud, for the first time if I could ever qualify and run. Six serious attempts at qualifying finally resulted in a BQ time at the Monumental Marathon in November, 2017. Seventeen months later, it was a go.
In the week or two ahead of my departure, I was astounded at the outpouring of interest and support from friends, family, coworkers and fellow runners. Even though this would become my 86th marathon finish, this race was clearly different.
On the Friday before we flew out, my co-workers decorated my office door with 26 point 2 balloons (yes, a point 2 balloon...look at the little tiny blue thing below the yellow balloon in the foreground) and other Boston items plus a goodie bag. I was so surprised and moved.
I have some experienced runners with whom I work!
We flew to Boston early Saturday morning, April 13. The first order of business was to get to the expo and pick up my bib and go shopping for the obligatory Boston Marathon windbreaker. Amazingly, lots of other runners had the same idea! But we got to the convention center and it was a thrill to pick up my bib.
We then met up with our son David, his wife Susan and their oldest son Nathan who flew in just to be with us and see the race. We tromped all over downtown Boston on the Freedom Trail on a glorious spring afternoon and soaked in the vibe which was pre-race Boston.
On Sunday, I wanted to get off my feet and did so, kind of. While our kids went to see the Boston Red Sox play, Gretchen and I found a wonderful church with whom to worship on Palm Sunday, then took public transport out to the famous peak of Heartbreak Hill near Boston College. The trolley trip itself allowed me to preview the final five miles of the course. Seeing the hills themselves was quite helpful. We had dinner with our kids after they got back from the ball game and made final plans for how and where we'd meet up during the race. I got home, checked the weather for race day for the 147th time, made final adjustments and went to bed. Amazingly, I slept very well.
I awoke and grinned...today was finally the day of the Boston Marathon.
Since the weather reports had been changing rapidly the previous five days yet still called for rain in the morning, I stuck my head out after waking and saw dry pavement and little wind. Nice, I think and proceed to get ready. By 6:50am, I was out the door to walk from our airbnb to the Davis T (subway) stop and got drenched on the way. A major thunderstorm rolling through...water over my ankles in the streets soaking my shoes and socks. In that 3/4 mile walk, I got drenched, my disposable poncho no match for the downpour. My throw-away sweats soaked up the rain. Not the start I had hoped for. Yet, others had advised me to wear throwaway shoes and socks too...so, my good shoes and dry socks were safe in a bag.
I was ahead of schedule and the train got me downtown more quickly than I had allotted. So, I modified my plan and found a bench on which to sit inside the Park Street T station for about 45 minutes collecting my wits and avoiding more water.
Apparently, I looked "safe" and ended up offering directions to lots of fellow runners on navigating Boston's public transport system while I sat there. Never mind I had less than 48 hours experience on it myself at the time :-) .
The time came to get to the Arlington T stop, where I rigged a better "umbrella" out of an old space blanket I had stuffed in my hoodie and I ventured outside again. The rain had lessened to a strong drizzle. I found bag drop and headed for the huge logistics operation to transport 30,000 runners 30 miles west.
What a horde of school buses assembled to move all of us!! As a logistics guy myself, it was fascinating and beyond me to explain briefly. They have good practice though and it worked pretty well.
My sheer chance, I ended up with a great seat mate for the 45 minute drive to Hopkinton who was running his 3rd Boston and lived in a condo on Boylston Street..."Yeah, I woke up at 8:30 and just walked to the bus". We had a lot in common with three sons each and a lot of military connections. He helped me understand details of geography and the course as well. I appreciated his companionship.
Every race day has adjustments to make and my first one happened when our bus driver took a wrong turn in Hopkinton and dropped us off in the wrong place, near the start line not at Hopkinton High School's athletic complex. So, all of us on the bus ended up wandering a bit through a quiet, pleasant New England residential district, trying to find a high school we'd never seen before. We started hearing sounds, so followed that but, in the end, walked about a mile or so more than we would have needed. It worked out OK as I had enough time to get through the long portapot line and then change into my dry shoes and socks once my Wave was called and we were out of the muddy outfield grass of the baseball field.
We then did the walk BACK to the start line. And, man, it was great. Walking down there, thinking, hey, at long last, I'm actually starting the Boston Marathon. Had to almost pinch myself. Here's what it looked like, my only video of the day, with commentary.
The actual start was less organized than I expected. Because of the uncertain weather, the BAA had told us that our Wave 4 would start immediately on the heels of Wave 3 and not in corrals...just to get us on the road more quickly. And that's what happened. We just walked up to the start line and started running, corals 1 through 9, all jumbled together.
And so, with little fanfare, we walked up the hill to the start line, crossed the timing mat and I was running the Boston Marathon at long last.
And the hills started immediately, the first mile a steep downhill. I focused on holding back and not getting carried away. Early on, I stopped to take a photo of a house formerly owned by a friend's aunt, where our friend remembered visiting on marathon day, amazed as a girl by people throwing perfectly good t shirts into the bushes.
After years of marathoning, I have learned to relax at race's start and allow the day's rhythm to display itself during the first 4-6 miles. How am I feeling? What is the course like? How is the temperature? The wind? My legs, my lungs? Thirsty? Hungry? Calm? Uncertain? I almost always have that worked out by mile 5 and then execute the rhythm for another 20 miles or so.
Not so this day. And, ultimately, I would learn, only in the final 5 miles, not the first 5 miles, would I understand the day's running.
The combination of the awe of the event and its logistics, the choppiness of my start experience, the newness of the course (to me) and variable weather combined into sensory overload. There was just so much to absorb and process! In particular, the weather was cloudy and cool at the start but by mile 5 was sunny and getting warm in a hurry, well into the 70s. I peeled off my arm warmers, took off my cap, stuffed the grey Buff in my waistband and generally tried to get adjusted to running in warm weather after doing all my training in winter cold.
I was very happy my family had made arrangements to see me the first time around mile 10. What a thrill to see them waving their Purdue signs and cheering!
The T shirts they wore were a special treat and a story for another day. And, yes, we all like Purdue.
Immediately after taking this photo, I peeled off both shirts, handed the stinky black tech shirt, arm warmers and buff to my family and they chose to love me anyway. I wriggled back into the white singlet with the Purdue logo which was perfect the rest of the way. For fun, I took young Nathan with me and we ran about 200m of the course together...that was a hoot...I hope he remembers it.
What ultimately proved to be the hardest part of the run soon followed. This is totally unexpected on most readings I've ever made about the Boston course. I was surprised by just how flat portions of the middle section of the course was. I expected to simply slip into a rhythm and get through these "kind" miles ahead of the Newton Hills. Yet, that rhythm was elusive and it seemed the harder I tried to find it, the more hidden it became. I was knocking off the miles but it wasn't smooth.
Our next family meet up was at mile 17, just before the start of the infamous Newton Hills. Wow, that was good to see all of them again. We paused and chatted and I said goodbye to the kids, as they had to head for the airport from there. We had a most enjoyable talk and a good goodbye. I was so grateful for them making the effort to be with me for the event!
At the very base of the hills, a policeman was watching. I caught his eye, smiled and said "So it begins!" He got it, smiled back and seemed quite content to stand guard at the base and not run the next five uphill miles. Yeah.
In contrast to my frustration and weak negotiation of the middle, flatter parts of the course, I was pleased with how I handled the Newton Hills. I knew it was not one hill, but rather a series of four steep hills, separated by flat sections, as if one is going up four flights of stairs with a walk between each. I had prepared during training, mentally and physically, and I found I actually enjoyed them. I felt as if I knew where I was...I ran or power-walked the steepest portions and ran the rest...one, two, three, four hills...arriving at Boston College, mile 21, done with the most challenging part of the course I felt fine and knew the rest of the course from our Green Line trolley tour the day before.
My quads felt great coming off Heartbreak Hill, so I hammered the downhills the rest of the way, letting gravity be my friend. Looking around me at other back of the pack runners, it seemed I was in better shape than many at this point. The weather, however, had also changed, again...it clouded up, we got a couple of cloudbursts of rain at 22, cooled off and the wind picked up but it was a tailwind for us runners. I learned later that my family actually saw me at mile 22.5...they had some extra time and came course-side for one more look. Unfortunately, I didn't know they'd be there and missed them, despite their yelling, such was the overall level of cheering. That was so nice of them, though.
The crowds were great throughout the entire 26.2 miles but really went over the top during the final three miles. I could scarcely hear myself think they were so loud. Many, many shouts of "Go Purdue, Boiler up!" along the way when people saw my shirt and recognized the "P" as the Purdue logo (though one guy said "Go Providence" and another guy said "Go P", to which I replied the portapots were a mile back and I had taken care of that already....).
We came into Boston proper on Commonwealth Avenue and then into the green park portion of that long street. Less than a mile to go, I felt alert mentally and was soaking in the atmosphere. Finally, I saw ahead the most famous pair of turns in marathoning.
Right on Hereford, left on Boylston. It was everything I had hoped it would be.
I made the turn onto Boylston and I was excited to be there. 600m to go.
I wasn't in tears but I was deeply moved. I chose to jog, not race, down Boylston, looking at the crowds, taking it all in.
In a wonderful, serendipitous moment, as I ran on the left side of Boylston, I noticed and paused for for several moments at the small memorial to the victims of the 2013 bombings...that was a somber but useful reminder that even though we were having a joyous time, life throws difficulties, sometimes deep difficulties, our way. Remember that, Joe.
And then I finished the race, crossing the finish line and done. Wow.
I was grateful that the area just beyond the finish line was largely open by the time I arrived and no one seemed to mind I lingered a bit to soak it all in. I was grateful to have a guy snap a this photo which I'll always keep.
Boom. How amazing. I got the medal which is a small thing yet a link to a big moment.
Gretchen missed the finish, as she was stuck on a train in gridlock traffic. But I got hold of her and while she patiently worked her way to the finish area, I chatted up some volunteers, got my drop bag, put on a dry shirt and met her at the Very Crowded Corner of Arlington and Boylston. How great to see her!! We headed back to our airbnb, grabbed a couple of carry-out sandwiches at Davis Square along the way and spent the evening recounting our day and talking with relatives on the phone. There it was...the Boston Marathon. Done.
Adidas did a cool thing and produced a 58 second video in which every runner featured for a few snippets. Here's mine:
In the few days following the race, a few solid reflections have floated to the surface.
Most importantly, I hit all my objectives in terms of enjoying the full event. I never hit The Wall. I felt strong and fully engaged, mentally, the for the whole race and drank it in.
I must say I was disappointed in my time of 4:40:10, though. On reflection, I never found a "groove" until I got passed Heartbreak Hill at mile 21. On the one hand, it's kind of cool to find a rhythm that late in a marathon. Yet, I'm still perplexed I could not find it earlier and struggled in the flat, middle portions of the course. But I'm fine with that, there was simply so much going on and the atmosphere was so stimulating, I'm not sweating it. Did I really "run the best race conditions allow"?? No, not really. I could have done better. I'm smiling and mulling if there is another Boston in my future. I don't know. But I am mulling.
I'll write in a few weeks about my observations on the Hanson's training plan which I used in this race. I'm pleased and feel I understand it better now.
My goodness, what an experience. I've run the Chicago Marathon three times and the crowds there are good but nothing to compare with Boston. It's the oldest, grandest and best of them all. The organization of the event is astounding...the sheer number of volunteers is amazing. Nothing to compare it to. I've heard so much about this world-class event and now have experienced it myself. It did not disappoint and I'm so happy to have been able to run it. Those of you who have done it know exactly what I mean.
If you've read this far, I'm impressed...that makes you a marathoner yourself! Thanks for your interest and support. It means far more than you know.