When I crossed the finish line of my first marathon in March 2007, I began to dream of someday qualifying for Boston. Nearly three years and many obstacles later, I arrived in Boston as a qualified marathoner for the 114th running of the Boston Marathon.
I endured three days of miserable, dreary, windy, cold rain. I thought it would never end. My hotel room did not have a window, and the last sight I had the night before Marathon Monday was more rain. I couldn't imagine Boston had any other weather, and expected it to be gloomy and raining again in the morning.
But I woke exactly one minute before my alarm, arousing from a dream that I was looking at the downtown Boston skyline with the bluest of skies. I checked the weather online; my prescient dream had come true: it would be bright and sunny at the start. I slathered on sunscreen well before 6 AM. Odd that I have to be up so early for a 10:30 AM race start.
Packing a few snacks and hand warmers tucked in my gloves, I arrived in Boston Common, to begin the trek to the starting line. Conveniently, Patriots' Day is a school holiday in Boston, availing the B.A.A. the use of 500 school busses for this important shuttling of all of the athletes to the start in Hopkinton. Shortly after 6:30 AM, I'd boarded a bus and became part of a magnificent, slow caravan of buses filled with marathon stories of past and present. I looked down at cars, and they looked up at us. They knew why we were there. My anticipation began to build.
I stepped off the bus in Athletes Village at precisely 8:30 AM. I found my way to a large tent providing some cover from the bitter cold. It was evident this was a race favoring the wisdom of past Boston participants. The experienced (or at least well-advised) runners were sitting comfortably on plastic blankets, sleeping bags and blow up pool rafts. I huddled up on the cold wet ground, snacked on a bagel and chips and shivered bitterly.
It was announced there would be an F-15 flyover at 9:50 AM, 10 minutes before the Wave 1 start scheduled for 10 AM. I was in the second corral.. err.. I was supposed to be in the second corral for Wave 2 at 10:30, but we'll get to that in a minute :-). We heard them first, and sure enough, two F-15s zoomed over and it was worth bracing myself outside the tent for even more intense shivering for the few minutes to see them roar by. They crossed the finish line in Boston in four minutes.
I delayed my departure from Athletes Village as long as I thought practical, as I was miserably cold. I didn't want to stand unprotected in the starting corral. So, at 10:05 AM, with a 0.7 mile walk, I joined the traffic flow and headed for the starting line. I consumed my first vanilla Hammergel along the way. Although we were not moving quickly, at first I was not too concerned until I started hearing the countdown to the starting gun. The four last corrals were to the left and mine was to be the second from the front… many corrals down and to the right. Before I'd barely turned the corner I heard 30 seconds to go. I would never make it, I wasn't even close. I quickly darted into the corral on my immediate left, missing the corral seeding that I had earned. I'd had this pre-race nightmare before, my second actual dream to come true for the day. But as I'd rationalized in my dreams past, this was chip timing, so the worst that would happen is I'd have to work my way through the slower runners.
We had run for what seemed like awhile before we finally crossed the start line, and immediately I was struck by how warm it was and I was thirsty. I tossed my gloves and peeled off my arm-warmers. It was well-published that there would be water and Gatorade at every mile and at the finish. I was on the far left of the queue, having weaved through many, many slower runners and waited for the first mile mark, eager for a cool sip. I was simply parched. The first mile came and went, a steep downhill for most of it, and then our first hill. No water. The second mile came and went, again, no water. I began to panic. Then, at last up and beyond, there was water! But, of course, it was on the far right. I began to work my way over, but unlike Chicago where the tables went on forever, these tables were short and by the time I'd gotten to the right, I was past the water station. Uh-oh. I was really, really thirsty. I didn't know what to do, but I figured I was an expert on running dry, so I'd tough it out and hang in there for another two miles. Then, up ahead, there was another table. Oh, if only I'd known somehow it was going to be on both sides! I weaved to the left again, and this time got a huge cup of Gatorade.
I crossed the first 5K, and saw that my Garmin was already way ahead of the mile markers in elapsed distance. I was paying the price in distance for so much weaving. This was my own fault; for missing the start and not knowing in advance about the placement of the water stations. I'll know better next time.
The miles were clicking by easily, and I felt very good. I'd missed most of my splits, and still don't know what they were, but I'd seen a few around the low 8s, which seemed comfy and fine. Since I didn't have a pace band or any particular goal in mind (except, seemingly, break 4 hours and maybe break 3:58 if things went really, really well), I didn't really know what the elapsed time and the mile marks meant. So, I pressed on happily. I planned to do only one thing today: My Best. Whatever that was. I knew I'd "feel" what that was, even if i couldn't define it. I would carefully spend everything I had, and I wouldn't quit.
I took the second gel around the 10K mark in Framingham. That would be my last gel. (I carried three more with me, but they were never to be touched.) I was feeling fantastic. Really, ridiculously good. It was freeing to not worry about my pace and just run what felt right.
At mile 12, I could hear the beginning of the girls of Wellesley College. They delivered as promised! I kept to the left, but soaked in the energy. Majors in kissing were boasted, shrieks abounded in good fun. I saw no evidence of actual marathon-runner kissing, but this section indeed was a highlight of the course.
My half way point time was 1:48:15 I have been told, and I was still feeling really, really good--excited that the first half was behind me, and getting concerned, knowing that in a little over three miles, Newton waited.
Just before mile 15 I felt my stomach churn and cramp. The lower not-so-good kind. I looked urgently for porta-potty, saw two and took a detour. I stopped, but there were already a couple of people standing there and the toilets were occupied. Why, I do not know, but I turned back to running and hoped to find some other porta-potty. Which didn't turn up very quickly, much to my disappointment. This was going to have to be addressed. Soon.
We then began the steep descent into Newton Falls, and for the first time my quads started to hurt and really feel the downhill. As I reach the very bottom, there were four porta-potties to the left and I had no choice. I stopped. And waited. It wasn't too long, they were in a hurry to get back to running, but this whole thing definitely cost me at least two to three minutes.
The door slammed behind me and I took off running the first hill of Newton. Actual bathroom emergency or convenient excuse to rest before the Newton Hills, you decide ;-). The hill begins on a bridge, and it was here the wind really picked up. I could hear it whistling over the river and over the bridge. The gust was so strong, I felt buffeted by it, and even though I'd taken care of business, I was never quite right from here on. I was slightly nauseated, my stomach cramped off and on and I was feeling my quads. I was concerned that the wind would be with us for the rest of the race. More or less it was, but not as bad as it was on that bridge.
The next stretch was hard for me as I kept expecting to see the Fire Station and make the sharp right turn and start up the second hill. It was a longer stretch with a few teaser inclines and I was fooled more than once about the start of the second hill. As a result, with two more major hills to go, this hill was mentally the hardest for me. I took it lightly up the hill, maintaining my foot turnover, but keeping my stride light and easy. I reminded myself not to charge the hills. Many people were walking or going too slow. I passed and was passed on the hills, but my pace was steady and the effort as even as I could make it.
When I had eight miles to go I told myself I could briskly walk it in and make it to the finish in roughly two hours. This was a tempting prospect. I considered it here, and then again at four miles to go.
The third and penultimate hill in Newton was unremarkable. I was waiting for the crown jewel. I hoped my stomach wasn't going to blow. It seemed to be hanging on ok, not great. I saw a few runners off to the side throwing up or stretching out a cramp. I was happy not to be among them and hoped to keep it that way. A real case of "There but for the grace of God go I..."
Mile 20 was demoralizing. My watch read 20.3 at this point and I knew I still had 10K and Heartbreak Hill to go. I wanted to stop. Really. But I knew that wouldn't be "My Best."
And then, there it was. I crossed over Read Street and Heartbreak Hill was waiting for me. A female news reporter about a 100 yards up the hill made a move towards me with her microphone and expectantly asked, "How's it feeling out there today?" What could I say? I lied, feigning more energy than I had, flashed a smile, "It's Awesome!" What would you have said? Somehow, that actually gave me a bit of energy. It was what I needed.
There is only one way to climb Heartbreak Hill… one light running step at a time. I used a little assist from the arms. Altogether, it's really not that bad of a hill. Its location is what makes it unfortunate. I've run steeper hills. I've run longer hills. This hill is cruelly located, seemingly crafted to make it appear and feel three times its actual size. At last, this was behind me and I had not walked one step. The descent into Boston College began and I was overjoyed. I slipped in behind a male runner with a black T-Shirt declaring, "Life Is Simple." I thought, yes, at this moment, life has boiled down to its simplest. Keep going. Don't give up. Do. Your. Best.
By now, though, my quads were done. I never thought I'd actually say this… but I begged for mercy: no more downhills--I pleaded in earnest. Flat was most preferable but up actually hurt less than down at this point. Before the race was over, I'd be granted plenty of all three.
I waited and waited to see the Citgo sign. It had to be coming up soon. Every little rise and fall, I thought it would peek out somewhere. Eventually, it did and I knew it really wasn't that much farther to go.
Somewhere around this point I heard my name shouted, "Alex, Alex!" And I turned and looked. I thought, "Are they calling for me? Or some other Alex?" At last I recognized my co-worker from the Boston Office, Mike, his wife and possibly one other person. I was slightly delirious so forgive me if I don't the third person nailed! What a treat that was!
There is a little hill around the 25 mile point. I was pleased to have it behind me. From the "Mile to go" sign, I began counting backwards from 100 and was sure to spend every penny I had left in my body. I was surprised how much I really had and I poured it out. I looked down at my watch for the first time since the half way point, and it read 3:40. I was shocked. I seriously had no idea this was the kind of pace I was on. I had kissed any hope of a decent time away back in Newton Falls.
The final half mile of the marathon came after a right and left turn, and I could see the finish line and the bleachers up ahead. I remember this finishing charge more than any marathon (or race) I've ever done. My emotions overwhelmed me, as many years of cumulative training and many obstacles overcome came down to this one moment. "You've [expletive deleted] done it. You've earned it, and you've done it." I surged to the finish line, and crossed both mats before I stopped and punched my watch. My chest swelled and I fought back tears. I've heard my final official finishing time was 3:46:34. I haven't looked online yet, but I will soon! I will also post pictures as soon as they are available.
Thanks so much to everyone who has encouraged me through this journey. And if you are reading this, and thinking about trying to qualify for Boston and run it--let me tell you two things: 1) Do it. 2) It's worth it!
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