First, allow me to replay the brief posting I added to my last blog entry stating that I and everyone I know came through Monday physically safe, if not emotionally wounded. Second, the title of this post may strike you as odd considering how the day ended, but read on, it will, I hope, make sense.
Less than six months ago, I pondered how to address the heavy subject of the Sandy-wrecked New York City Marathon and the social upheaval that followed the decisions to carry on, then not. Less than one month ago, I pondered how to address the heavy subject of the loss of my dear friend Rocket John Tanner, stolen from us tragically while doing what he loved, running and racing. And now, for the third time in such a brief period, I ponder again, this time how to address the enormously heavy subject of the world gone haywire once more, the human and social damage done by the bombing of our beloved Boston Marathon.
I set out five years ago to write this blog to celebrate the adventures, tribulations, and joys of running in my mid-life years, my second go – or “Second Lap” – at the sport, those old high school days of yore being the first. I didn’t set out to deal with these harsher aspects of life. But life doesn’t give you those choices. You take what it dishes out, and you deal with it. On Monday, life dealt us front-row seats to a terrorist incident of international importance. That’s hard to grasp, yet we had no choice but to grasp it and figure out how to move on. The harsher side of life once again intersected the running side of life, and I have no choice but to address it.
For the moment, however, I’m not going to allow the inhuman act of one or more cowards to obscure the fact that there was a Boston Marathon on Monday, at least until about two-fifty in the afternoon. So tonight, in Part One, I will celebrate the joy of the day. Shortly, in Part Two, I will relate my experience of the horror of the day. As appropriate and if so inspired, additional parts may follow. Thus tonight’s posting title, “The Joy”.
The Joy began with a picture-perfect day. The Joy progressed with a race from heaven. The Joy concluded with a marathon personal best, of course delivered the hard way, the only way the Boston course will allow, but a best in more ways than simply a newly lowered time. The Joy ended less than two hours later, the topic for next time.
You’d expect that by my seventh Boston, I’d have the logistics to this thing down pat, and for the most part I do, but somehow I never remember quite how to time the whole departure, athlete’s village, prep, and start times. I arrived in the Village with “Problem Child” Issam of the Toxic Trio in plenty of time or so it seemed, yet somehow once again I found myself mis-timing the port-o-let lines and somehow once again, I found myself in a mad rush to slather the sunscreen for that one-sided three-hour-plus baking, pack the rocket fuel belt, prep the ubiquitous trash bag, and roll out.
And never mind a warm-up. Big events like this make it notoriously hard to warm up, which as I age becomes notoriously more important. You can’t simply go from zero to six-something pace in three steps flat. The Perp Walk from the Village to the start is completely hemmed in by metal gates to protect the innocent residents. You can’t just take off and loosen up for a mile. Fortunately, a lane of like-minded joggers formed on the left of the human train, so the muscles weren’t completely cold by the time we hit the last pit stop at Colella’s Market. (Nor, I note with amusement, was the woman we met there, keeping warm in the full-length fur coat she’d picked up at Goodwill and planned to donate at the start. I in my lowly yet functional trash bag was humbled!)
Last year, it was already mid-seventies at the start. This year, in contrast, nearly perfect, high forties, never to rise above the mid-fifties, dry, and marred only by a mild headwind. Throughout the race that wind would be ever present, enough to make you think about tucking in behind someone, but never so strong as to force you to modify pace to do so. That the men’s race was won in a leisurely two-ten-something makes me wonder if there was more to the breeze than I’d assessed, or perhaps they were just doggin’ it like those elite East Africans are prone to doing (not!).
This story is typical. After all, it’s Boston, and we all know by now what happens at Boston. With the downhill start cross-bred with the wild and irrational exuberance of the festival-like start, Usain Bolt would have a hard time sticking with us over the first stretches. And so after a traffic-snarled yet aggressive first mile, I dropped it into the six-oh-somethings for the next three. Sustainable? Of course not. But after eighteen prior marathons, never once running negative splits (second half faster than the first), why start now?
But seriously, I wasn’t worried a whit about the pace, even though I recognized that the automatic text alerts sent to family and friends would raise alarms, showing a pace that I’d categorized as Call the Pope! in my viewpoint arrival spreadsheet. By Boston Number Seven, I was well aware of what that notorious course does to you. It’s a stretch to think you can come back strong on the back half, so if you’re going to attack the race, you’ve got to be aggressive from the start. I was consciously submitting myself to the meat grinder, knowing I’d back it off as needed, knowing that I’d pay in pain and agony, but banking time when I could, when it was still a breeze. And later analysis would show that the strategy paid off. Comparing Monday’s run to my previous Boston best in oh-eight, the back half splits were astoundingly identical. The difference – and the four-minute drop – was entirely attributable to that devil-may-care first half. So much for all that advice about not going out fast!
In truth, the pace early on just didn’t feel all that hard. What was hard was consciously reeling it in slowly, not letting the insanity get out of hand. Chatting it up through Framingham, sharing stories of windy misery at Manchester last fall with a runner from the next town over in New Hampshire, reacting to the annually-increasing bits of personal recognition from the crowd, three alone in one stretch through Natick (including a nice photo from church-band-mates Mark & Sandie included here), cruisin’ along… and in no time flat, along came the Scream Tunnel, just like that.
To my dismay, I wasn’t able to find the sign for Rocket John that friend Suzy had sent over for display, but I didn’t doubt it was there. There were simply too many signs to scan them all in one passing without breaking pace. But I knew that John was there to boost me along, as I had his name on a second bib on my back. This one was dedicated to him, and when things inevitably got rough, I reminded myself that he was pushing me from behind. It worked. Thanks, John.
The half clicked in on a somewhat absurd two-forty-six pace. Absurd, but freeing, because at that point, merely holding three-hour pace for the back forty would produce a personal best. I knew that wouldn’t be easy, but it wouldn’t be impossible, either. The cylinders were clicking.
This is not to imply that it was a walk in the park. By the half, turned in less than a minute over my half-marathon PR (and to be followed by a two-minute thirty-K PR, too bad I still had twelve-K to go!), things most certainly hurt. The quads were already smoldering, as was the bottom of my left foot, threatening to turn into a very large torn blister. And we can’t forget that pesky left Achilles, ever present, giving no peace. But at fifteen last fall in Manchester, I was toast. At fifteen on Monday, the bread was still reasonably fresh. Past the family Ace Support Team at Newton Lower Falls and into the hills!
I’ve had a wish that someday I’ll run a marathon where every mile split is under seven minutes. First hill out of Lower Falls, check. Second hill (the one they always incorrectly call the first) past the fire station, check again. Third, check. Heartbreak…over the top with a second and a half cushion under that seven minute split. Having licked the hills holding sub-seven for the first time in seven tries, a little jubilation set in, but as anyone who has tackled this course knows, it’s a long way from Boston College to Boylston Street, a long time to hold on and not fall apart, which would be oh so easy to do, It was time to start doing math: how many seconds in the bank below that three-hour pace in the back half, how many miles to go, and how bad can my pace get while still popping a PR? The odds were, as that bestseller liked to say, ever in my favor. I was reaching the “mail it in” mark, but mailing it in wouldn’t do, not with John at my back, pushing me on.
By Cleveland Circle, agony had set in. In most marathons, my limit has been general fitness ability – oxygen uptake and distribution, electrolyte balance, and so on. This time was different: it was the legs that seemed to be the limit, and they were screaming. All those tales I’d read of elite runners feeling themselves tearing up their muscles came back to me. I felt it. I didn’t care. Desire had set in. Perhaps tinged with stupidity.
Mile twenty-three was the designated cheering zone for our Greater Boston club. Hold your form. Put on a decent show, despite how much this hurts. Mile twenty-four, the Citgo sign in sight, and still a dime under seven. The bank had a lot of seconds in it. Mile twenty-five, over that most hated hill, the infinitesimally physically small yet infinitely mentally huge lump to pass over the Mass Pike, and the magic was broken, a dime over sevens. So that all-six-something marathon was not to be, but the bank still held a huge balance. And my body held nothing.
On another day, I would’ve taken a break. But on another day, I wasn’t minutes ahead of those three two-fifty-fours, all within eight seconds of each other, so often replicated as to become a seemingly unbreakable barrier. And on another day, I wouldn’t have been that far ahead on the tough Boston course, where my best was another two minutes shy of those all-time bests. And on another day, I wouldn’t have just turned fifty a few weeks earlier and have something to prove to myself. It wasn’t another day.
Turning from Hereford to Boylston, GBTC teammate Bill was perfectly positioned on the outside of the turn, picked me out of the crowd, and screamed my name louder than anyone I’d heard in the previous twenty-six miles. He couldn’t make me speed up. I had zero-point-zero in the tank. But his was the lift that sealed it, helping me keep it together, zombie-style, holding pace at just a hair over seven, over that line which in a couple hours would become hell, but that wasn’t yet part of reality. What was reality was the sweetest marathon yet of my nineteen, at two-fifty-two and change a good minute-forty better than my best, and four minutes better than my Boston best, on the famously tough course, and, sweetest of all, at a newly ripened older (not old!) age.
Boston: The Joy indeed.
Ah, and as for Problem Child… Issam, who vowed this would be his last marathon, achieved his goal and joined the sub-three club, dropping seven minutes to smoke a two-fifty-nine out of the Boston hills. We met up afterward for happy congratulations and continued ribbing from me that he simply cannot retire from racing marathons, or if he does, he is still obligated to train for them with me. This story, I suggest, is not over!