Read Part 1: Reality In Boston
Read Part 2: "FINISH. Just Finish And Be Happy."
People told me for months that the first half of the Boston Marathon is downhill.
“Prepare for the downhill.”
"It’s that downhill that’s going to trash your legs.”
“Dick Beardsley used to pound his quads with his fists hundreds of times just to prepare them for the beating of that downhill.”
So, naturally, the seemingly excessive hill just a few miles in gave me great pause.
“But,” I stammered to my friend Pat, still running alongside me. “OK so. I just… where’d this hill come from?”
Perplexed and disheartened, we climbed the first of many hills. Many hills. Plentiful are the Boston Marathon hills. Plentiful and large.
Turns out, over the course of many miles one can technically decline in elevation while still climbing the occasional hill. Science! Or math. I don’t know. I’m not much good at either. Nor am I good at hills.
And so the tone of the Boston Marathon had been set. The tone sounded like a whimper, felt like cold rain, and tasted like vanilla PowerGel.
There’s something to be said about the weather that day. I could be eloquent, or I could tell you it was complete miserable shit. The rain sprinkled at times, poured at others. The wind, while not terrible on the course until the later miles, did nothing for the chill in the air. The chill, while perfect for a dry, windless run, intensified with the rain and made it impossible to use my hands for anything other than clenching a fist about three hours in.
I finished that race with a deep chill I’ve never experienced in another race.
However, while the weather certainly didn’t help, and definitely dampened (quite literally) the experience, I don’t think it hindered my ability that day. Instead, the course, in all its magnificence, left me humbled.
But first it left me in awe.
There’s so much to be said about that Boylston Street finish that I forgot I’d experience 26 miles of famed history and landmarks – and spectators! When the weather forecast first soured, I worried we’d lose out on some spectator magic.
“Oh no,” I was assured. “They’ll still be there, and they’ll still be as drunk as ever.”
The crowd support never faltered. I mean, sure, I saw one assumedly drunk person fall over and others were hiding under umbrellas or in cars, but they were there, loud as ever. Though I never felt particularly awesome throughout the course of the marathon, distractions were easy to come by.
Excitement also found itself easy to come by at first. I wore my Wisconsin Badgers hat, as I tend to do on race day (superstitions and whatnot), and it elicited cheers every few minutes. I got equally excited every time, and responded with a wave or a cheer or a thumbs-up. WISCONSIN! PEOPLE KNEW IT! Hi!
Please note, though, that by mile 22, I could no longer feel my thumbs, nor could I raise my arm to wave. So I mostly looked like a soggy, miserable Tyrannosaurus Rex trying to box itself.
Surely, that was a powerful sight.
Also powerful? The cheeseburger and calamari I ate the night before. Mayhaps not the wisest choice. I found myself in the port-a-potty. Twice during mile 10. I've never had a port-a-potty break while racing a marathon before. Strike one and two. Go big or go home.
I remember hiding inside the port-a-potty – away from the cold and the wind and the rain and the raucousness of the crowd – thinking, maybe I’ll just stay in here. It’s so warm and quiet. I can be at peace. Alone. No more running. Would I ever be found? Would they miss me? Goodbye, cruel world.
Then I remembered I sat literally in a cube full of other peoples’ shit, and quickly escaped. And just like that, I started feeling better. So much better, in fact, I ran my fastest miles in the middle. My steps found pep again. I knew the Newton Hills were on the way, but dammit, I feel good. Those hills have nothing on me.
It felt like I flew through Wellesley College, full of its screaming ladies begging for kisses. I spent an entire quarter-mile high-fiving the row of them.
I was on a roll. LOOK AT ME GO.
And then the Newton Hills happened. These fabled hills come about 17 miles into the marathon and last for nearly five more. “Your legs are trashed by then,” they say. “Go easy on the uphill, power down the other side.”
I WAS SO READY.
Until literally the very first hill. It felt huge. It lasted forever. I got to the top, looked at my Garmin, and realized I still have more than four miles of that shit to go. I’m not the most powerful hill runner, and it became incredibly apparent. Each hill felt tougher than the last. I remember, prior to the race, wanting to savor Heartbreak Hill and all its beastliness. But it got to the point where I wasn’t even sure which hill was Heartbreak Hill. All of them broke me.
I reached the top of a particularly heinous hill and spotted a spectator sign – YOU’VE MADE IT TO THE TOP OF HEARTBREAK HILL. I nearly cried. At that point I knew the course would become a little more forgiving, but my legs did not forgive me.
The final 45 minutes of the Boston Marathon felt like a crawl. The cold started to seep into my limbs, and I could no longer open my gel packets with my frozen fingers. My legs burned. The clasp on my sports bra had been digging a furious hole into back. I no longer took in the scenery because my line of vision was too wet and blurred. My mind tried to simply hold onto the fact that my family would be on the course a mile from the finish.
I just had to get there.
At that point, the finish didn't matter. The fact that I’d still have a mile to go didn’t matter. I just needed to make it far enough to see my people. In fact, once I found them, could I just stop? Surely I’d fallen severely off pace from my hope, everything hurt, my face was frozen, my arms were frozen, did I even have fingers anymore? OH GOD WHY IS THIS RACE STILL HAPPENING?
I knew they’d be to my right near the famed CITGO sign, and I’m pretty sure I began scanning the crowd at least two miles too soon, desperate for their faces. I also knew I’d have to put on my best happy face once I found them because if my mom could sense my misery, she’d probably just yank me from the course.
Wait. That’s actually a good idea. Show mom your misery. MOM, SAVE ME.
But then there they were. All my loves. My mom, my dad, my sister, my Travis. Standing in the rain, under their umbrellas, waving their sign, shouting at the top of their lungs.
I didn’t have to hide my misery. For those 37 seconds, it melted. I half-cried and half-laughed and half-wanted to jump into their arms and go home. But there they were. I felt a swell of energy in that moment. I had one mile to go in the biggest race of my life.
I could do this. It would be awesome.
But then they were gone. All my loves. My mom, my dad, my sister, my Travis. I’d passed them. Their cheers were gone. All I had left was the rain and the wind and the cold.
And one more mile.
TO BE CONTINUED.
Part 4: One Mile