18 March 2009

First Corral

Wow. All I can say, all I can think is, wow. When I started running again four years ago I never could have dreamed it. First corral, Boston Marathon. Bummer I won’t run it, but, well, so what, and, well, wow.

I navigate a fine line in writing about my running. It’s about the experiences, the people, the joys and agonies, all the positives, mental, physical, and otherwise, that come with this odd obsession. It’s not so much about achievement, and it’s certainly not about extolling achievement, but achievement happens and can’t be denied. And when it happens, it’s part of the story. Leaving it out omits a part of the story. But talking about it can come off as pompous, the voice of a braggart.

This isn’t about being a braggart. This is about an out-of-self experience where I step aside, say, “Wow, how the heck did that happen?,” and reflect. You’ve got to imagine that Obama woke up the next day with that kind of feeling. Think of about when you accomplished something you never thought possible, or just looked back at your life and wondered how you got here. You look at yourself as if peering in from the outside, and said, “Wow, how the heck did I do that?”

Tonight the Boston Athletic Association posted bib number assignments for the 2009 Boston Marathon. Even though, knowing my qualifying time, I’ve pondered the possibility of it happening for months, the moment I saw it on the screen it was still the biggest thrill of my running life. Bib number 1899, first corral. Wow.

If you’re not familiar with the mechanics of the start of the Boston Marathon, it works like this. The 60 or so elite men and women – the ones you see on television – start up front, the women a half-hour ahead in a separate start, and the men along with the general start, but segregated from the field. These amazing individuals are awarded elite numbers as well, starting at 1 for the men and F1 for the women. Just to be in the same race with these people, even if you’re standing at the dead last end of the starting throngs, is a thrill.

Behind them come another 26,000 plus. To avoid mayhem, runners are ranked and bib numbers assigned in order of their qualifying times, with numbers starting at 1000 and rising till they can’t rise no more. The start is organized with roped corrals of 1000 runners each, lined up behind the elite starting area, admittance strictly controlled by bib number. This way, you start with runners of similar ability, a blessing you can appreciate as soon as you’ve experience joggers lining up at the front of your local 5K and getting in everyone’s way. Just before the start, they drop the ropes (for the first wave of 10 or 11 corrals, the rest go a half-hour later) and everyone moves forward, but you’re still grouped by ability and the start, while crowded, works very well.

And so it goes. First the elites, a God-like status never to be attained by mere mortals like me, then the corrals, for the rest of us cattle. For my first Boston in 2007, I qualified into the sixth corral. I was thrilled to be in Boston at all, and thrilled with the sixth corral. The weather was awful, my race didn’t go well, but I didn’t care, I’d finally run Boston after 30 years of wishing. For my second Boston last year, my 3:03 from Bay State moved me up to the third corral, which put me close enough that I could wander up and actually see the elite women’s start. It was like being in the neighborhood of the Gods (or Goddesses as it was). And now for 2009, bib 1899 grants me entry to the mythical first corral, right behind the elites.

Had you asked me four years ago if I’d even run a marathon, I would have told you I wanted to, but had no idea if I could, or would. Had you suggested I’d be in the top 1000 qualifiers for Boston, I’d have had you committed.

And so I say, “How the heck did that happen?” Am I proud? Of course, I’d be a liar to say otherwise. But again, it’s not about being a braggart. It’s about sharing the thrill of the outcome of this long strange trip we’re all on together. And a big part of this honor belongs to all those around me who support me in this crazy drive – my family, my running friends, and so on. Thank you all, really. And it’s about repeating my mantra to the world: You have no idea what you are capable of. No idea, really.

The bummer is that, post surgery, I’m in no position to run the race. I’ve yet to log even 20 miles total since resuming running ten days back. Even if I somehow restored enough condition to run it, I certainly couldn’t race it. Frankly, I don’t trust myself to even think about it, since I know my obsessed brain will push me inexorably to at least jogging it, and that’s probably not a good idea.

Even though I can defer my qualifying time to next year, there’s no guarantee that the same time will land me in the first corral for Boston 2010. For that matter, there’s no guarantee I’ll be able to run Boston 2010, or even run next week. Life is like that. But for the moment, well, wow.

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