Ed. Note: Much to my amusement, I was invited to pen a column on my experiences in the Boston Marathon for our local weeklies, the Marlborough Enterprise and the Hudson Sun. What follows is that article. You will find some repetition from my two prior Boston articles (which can be viewed below) but also some new material. Enjoy.
To all but elite runners, for whom actual victory is possible, the Boston Marathon is the biggest victory lap in the world. It’s not a relaxed jog by any means. Competitive runners race it with everything they’ve got, and charity runners dig deep to reach a goal they may not have thought possible. But just to get into Boston, whether through training and qualifying, or through the arduous altruistic work of fundraising, represents a tremendous achievement. Once in, once trained, once here, it’s time to bask in the spectacle. It’s your victory lap. You earned it.
Imagine you’re a marathon runner. Remind yourself that Boston happens only once a year, indeed for many, once in a lifetime. Remember there’s a limit on how many marathons you can run annually. Then ponder your reaction when you realize that this year, someone turned on the oven and made the party extremely uncomfortable, even dangerous for 25,000+ guests. Disappointed? Pretty much defines the word. But marathon runners don’t take disappointment well. You don’t reach the starting line of any marathon, let alone Boston, unless you’ve learned to weather disappointment. Every runner faces setbacks. Fall down, get back up, press on.
And loyal New England marathon fans don’t take disappointment well, either. The best fans in the world won’t let a setback like deadly heat interfere with our signature event. In the spirit of the best, they simply buckle down and contribute more. Millions watch the Patriots or Sox on television, but Boston Marathon fans come out live and get into the game. When the going gets tough, who better on the field than runners trained to gut it out? And who better on the sidelines than a 26-mile chain of world-class support? Add 8,000 volunteers who give every effort, and the Bake-Fest became survivable.
More than ever, this was a race of the people. The crowd pulled us through, not just with their voices but with their hugely omnipresent material support. I am humbled at the goodness a half-million souls poured upon us, in many cases, literally. I offer entirely inadequate thanks to everyone with a hose, water, ice, refreshments virtuous and otherwise, comforts of every imaginable sort, and those young ladies near Heartbreak Hill with their powerful Super Soakers which bruised my ribs but felt great just the same. We can’t thank you enough.
The race? Epic. No other word comes close. In Utica, in my native New York, there’s a race called the Boilermaker. Here, we had a Broilermaker. Few runners recall any race where the race director said not to consider it a race. They suggested we see it as an experience. They nailed it. It was an experience like no other.
How hot was it? Depends who you ask. The Weather Gods forecast 75° at the start. Some reported lower, some over eighty, I can’t say except that it was hot. Those Gods predicted 85° by 1 PM in Boston. Some reported close to ninety on the course, and most didn’t finish by one. For the four, five, six-hour runners, who inconveniently started later, their time in the heat was vastly extended. It kept getting hotter.
It wasn’t summertime oppressive. The humidity stayed below 50%. That made it possible to control your core temperature, the key to the day. Not everybody succeeded at that game.
I did survive, but nobody was immune to the heat. A string of strong races had me primed for a personal best. Along came that forecast. Toss hopes of a top performance out the window. The reality of the day was inescapable. Slow the pace, seek maximum shade, drink obscene amounts of fluid, and settle for whatever time comes up on the ticker, so long as your own ticker is still ticking and you are vertical all the way down Boylston Street.
On this day, even having the finish looming large in your sights wasn’t enough. A friend made it to Boylston Street, but not to the end. Twenty-Six-Point-One, lights out, woke up in an ice bath having had a core temperature of 105°. That’s the kind of day it was.
Early on, a friend blessed me with a glorious bag of ice. Hands turned radiators, I gripped those cubes till they vanished. Tricks like those kept me going. Ice. Water from every source, two gulps, remainder over the body. Hoses. Pictures show me utterly drenched, but it was worth it. Even the bathwater from the sunnier stations effected evaporative cooling. A complete family refueling at Lower Falls with a set of life-sustaining rocket fuel bottles. And skipping the hat, which would wick fluids uselessly off the visor, I opted for the expo-freebie headband. Geeky? You bet. Effective? Priceless.
Dropping the pace turned down the burn rate, and I hit halfway feeling pretty good. Usually I’m constantly calculating pace. This time I didn’t count, didn’t know, didn’t care how I stood relative to any goal. When scores were walking at five miles (and those were the guys up front), it just didn’t matter.
Typically I’m wondering whether my glycogen stores will hold out. This time I thought of nothing but whether my temperature would stay down. Typically I’ll never try anything I haven’t done in training. This time I had “In case of emergency, break glass” in my pocket, electrolyte capsules I’d never tried. Late in the race, I broke the glass. With calves starting to twitch, warning that electrolyte levels were dropping, it seemed a reasonable gamble.
The sum of these strategies kept me moving. Running with USA Olympic team champion Meb Keflezighi’s signature on my bib for divine protection, I halved my seeding, nabbing 742nd place (38th among 45-49 men), ironically my best Boston finish place-wise. On a day when most ran twenty, forty, even sixty minutes behind expectations, I held the lag to under ten, finishing in 3:05. Marathon #16, Boston #6, by far my most challenging weather-wise and not one to repeat, but with the help of the crowd, the volunteers, and my family, I survived.