For five years, I’ve tried to break the four hour mark in the Boston Marathon. For five years, I’ve failed. Each time that I’ve fallen short of my goal, I’ve been upset, but I’ve tried to tell myself that in the grand scheme of things, it’s not all that bad. After all, I’ve qualified for and run the oldest and grandest marathon in the world – five times in a row! All things being equal, a four hour plus marathon at Boston is really not all that bad.
But the reality is that it’s bugged me. And bugged me. And bugged me. So, just a few weeks after the 2006 Boston Marathon – at which time, I had declared that it was time to take a year or two off from Boston, and then reconsider my goals again in the future – I decide that I need to go for it again in 2007. I figure that I’ve been carrying the four hour monkey for a long time, and I’d like to get it off my shoulders. And so the entry goes on the calendar, and my credit card gets charged, and – finally – I make my travel arrangements.
The travel arrangements almost keep me home this year. Mick has come with me to every Boston, and I’ve grown spoiled by seeing him near the 16-mile marker, not to mention having him chauffeur me to the start in Hopkinton every year. But this year, he’s deep into a political contest, and months before the race it hits me that I cannot even think about asking him to accompany me to Beantown. With no idea about where to stay there on my own, I email my Taper Madness friend Shelagh, since I know she’s going to Boston again this year. Where will you stay? Shelagh tells me that she and a couple of her running friends from Victoria are sharing an apartment on Beacon Hill, and then – to my eternal surprise and delight – invites me to stay with them. Travel problem solved, in a most delightful way.
But the travel challenge really doesn’t go away completely. Late in the game, I end up with a business trip to New Jersey the week before the marathon. At first, I think this won’t be too bad, but when I get lost leaving Newark Airport after midnight Wednesday night, I think I might have been wrong. I get lost another time or too before I finally get to my room at the Marriott in Somerset, NJ, so it’s after 2 a.m. when I start to unpack. But when I fall into the wonderful bed with fresh, fancy linens, including a down comforter, just before dozing off at the insane hour, I think that this isn’t too bad at all.
My colleagues at work warn me that the drive from Piscataway, NJ, to JFK Airport might be horrible, so I leave early Friday afternoon. As it turns out, the drive is not bad at all. My flight is delayed, but I take the chance to sleep on the plane. I find one of my roommates for the long weekend – Cindy – waiting for me at baggage claim at Boston’s Logan Airport, and we talk like old friends while we wait for Shelagh and Joan to arrive. Their flight is late, too, so my delay is not so bad.
Our little apartment on Beacon Hill is up three flights of stairs! I stare at my suitcase (I do not pack light!) and wonder how the hell I’ll get up all those stairs, but in the end, it’s not such a bad climb. It’s the Friday night before the Boston Marathon, and I have an apartment on Beacon Hill, and a bottle of red wine to share with my Canadian friends. I’m starting to think that this is not a bad way to start a weekend.
Shelagh and I stay up WAY too late and talk about our Taper Madness friends, and we laugh and giggle and tell stories into the wee hours of Saturday morning. We’re acting more like teenagers at a slumber party than 50 year old women! Still, when the phone wakes us on Saturday morning, I don’t feel too bad at all. We make our way over to the expo, and pick up race gear, and then some. What happens to the rest of Saturday and Sunday? It disappears in a flash. I’ve been worried about spending all this time with people I’ve never met before. But in just moments, strangers turn into friends, and a brunch turns into the party-of-the-century. I break training in many ways – for the first time ever, I run the day before a marathon (the Freedom Run on Sunday morning), and I have red wine both Saturday and Sunday nights. I think that if this is the way to screw up your chances of a sub-four race, I’ll take it. Having this much fun cannot be all bad.
It rains on Sunday, all day long, and it rains Sunday night, all night long. It’s one thing to wake up repeatedly the night before a marathon; it’s another thing entirely to wake up repeatedly the night before a marathon to the sounds of a raging nor’easter outside. When it finally comes time to get up on Monday morning, the weather is still raging. It’s a relief to turn on the inside lights in the apartment so that – until the sky brightens some time later – we can’t see the rainfall outside.
The walk to the buses on Monday morning is wet and miserable. The wait in line for the buses at Boston Common is interminable – almost an hour, and steadily falling rain. But we find a kind gentleman from LA who shares his umbrella, and we’ve wrapped ourselves in every bit of plastic available in the little apartment, so when we get on the bus and strip off a few wet layers, it turns out that none of us has gotten completely soaked. It’s a forty-five minute ride to Hopkinton, just the perfect amount of time to get dried out and warmed up.
At Hopkinton, we’re dispensed from our bus back into more rain, but it’s not so bad. We have gear to protect us, and the temperature is really not all that bad – low 50s, which is quite a bit warmer than the forecast. As happens every year, there is utter chaos getting out of Athlete’s Village and down to the second wave corrals in the center of town. Because we’re jogging along, it’s almost impossible to notice that the rain abates just before the gun goes off. As I discard my fleece blanket at the start line, I have a faint glimmer that maybe this race won’t be so bad.
I’ve barely made it to my corral before the gun sounds, and then we start moving. It’s chaotic and nerve-wracking, but so much better than standing around, waiting, in either heat or rain. I look down, and notice a bright copper penny, face up, in the asphalt below my feet. I bend down to pick it up, but realize that it’s embedded in the asphalt. I think it’s a good omen for all of us runners today. Not a bad way to start a run.
And now we’re running, and I know that I want this to be a good day. I’ve had too many disappointments on this course, a course that I’ve come to know just well enough, and that I love. Can I just will my legs into a good day? I instinctively head over to the right hand side of the course, where there are tons of kids standing behind the barricades (even in the rain), and I try to high-five every single one of them, even with my soggy gloves. I think about the fact that after reading last year’s race report, my friend Ellen said, “maybe if you didn’t do all of that high-fiving, you’d hit the sub-four”, and I think she might be right. But what would be the purpose of a Boston where you didn’t do this? I high-five everyone I can. It’s not raining, and it’s cloudy and cool, and it’s all glorious. How bad can this be?
It’s all Boston from here, Boston as I’ve come to know and love. Down the first mile in Hopkinton, wearing a garbage bag to keep the heat in. Watching for the mile markers on the right hand side of the road, also painted dead center in the road (ya gotta love a race course where the mile markers are permanently painted on the road surface). Fans lining the roads, as if it hadn’t rained throughout the morning, as if they didn’t have the choice of being home in nice dry, cozy homes, instead they’re handing out orange slices early in the day. Signs! Signs everywhere. Hopkinton, then Ashland, then Framingham. Along the commuter rail tracks, through the commercial districts of these little towns that wouldn’t be known at all if not for this crazy annual 26.2 mile event that brings in people from all over the world and brings out locals in all kinds of crazy weather.
I hit the split button on my watch at the first mile, and only later realize that, at 9:08, it’s the slowest first mile I’ve ever run at Boston. Maybe it’s a good thing I don’t realize this at the time. As I run, I think, “not too bad”. I know it’s the next 5 or 6 miles that will set up the day, and as I hit that same lap button every mile, I continue to think, “not too bad”. The splits get better – 8:49 and 8:51 and 8:46 - and I’m feeling okay – not stellar, as my right calf is hurting some, and my legs feel a little stiff – but all in all, I start to have hopes that today might be a pretty good day.
It starts raining again around mile 5, and continues to come down past mile 8, and then it tapers off again. My splits slow down just a tad, but I keep thinking that I don’t feel too bad. My legs are a bit stiff, but my gimpy right calf isn’t acting up too badly. I think about my marathon friend Michele as we run through her hometown of Natick. The wind hits us as we run past the lake, but it’s not too bad. The roads are wet, but there only a few potholes and very few spots of flooding. I’m amazed at all of the people out cheering us on.
I go through the ten mile mark in 1:29:59, just a second better than a 9 minute pace. I’d like to be a bit faster on this first half, but I figure that this isn’t too bad. I might just have a chance at a sub-4 today. No matter what, I’m smiling all the way.
Because the wind is howling, out of the ENE, the sound of the Wellesley women screaming reaches us a full mile before we get to that campus. It’s always a pick-me-up, and this year does not disappoint. I smile as I trot on by. Who could run through this noise tunnel and not be jazzed? I know that the tough miles are looming.
For some reason, these middle miles are always the toughest for me at Boston, and I work to keep my pace up through the halfway point. There’s a 9:12 that concerns me in mile 11, but then an 8:55 and 8:58, so I’m feeling pretty good as I pass through the half-way point in 1:58:04, just a tad over a 9 minute per mile pace.
The clouds are lifting, and it looks like we might have clear weather all the way to the finish, but it’s getting colder. The wind is picking up, and while it isn’t consistent, it either gusts in a swirl or hits us head-on in the face. I’m wearing shorts and a long-sleeve throwaway shirt over a singlet, fully expecting to ditch the shirt early in the race. But it’s been cool enough that I’ve not yet thrown away the throwaway shirt. Around mile 15, I start to feel a bit too warm, so I pull it off, and tie it around my waist. The cool wind spooks me just enough that I think I might need it again later.
Pushing through miles 15 and 16, I focus on mentally getting through the 16 mile point. Normally, this is where I see Mick, and I’ve been worried that it will feel extra empty today. But instead of spending energy scanning the crowd for his smiling face, I send him a mental kiss, and then I’m across the bridge over I-95 and starting the first serious climb of the day. Given the rain and cold and wind, I figure that Mick picked the right year to miss Boston.
I’m cold. Seems silly that I just took off that shirt, and now I’m cold. Freezing, even. A woman running near me asks, “Are you cold?” and I answer “no”. What the hell am I thinking? Macho me. Stupid me. Too stubborn to immediately put my shirt back on, I run on, thinking that I’ll generate some heat going up the hills. But it’s a weird day, and I can’t shake the cold going uphill. Even though it’s up and up, I watch my heart rate drop, precisely at a point in the course where I should be working to keep it low.
These hills are where people start to show the effects of the pounding, and today is no different. People walking, people stopping, people weaving. But on the side of the road, the faithful fans! So I do what I always do here, and run close to the left hand side of the road, and smile at people who cheer as I run by. One volunteer, a big man in rain gear, chants, “You’re making mom proud” over and over as I go by. I hope that he’s right.
Then finally, there it is: the 21 mile marker, the gold sign standing in vivid contrast against the backdrop of the huge gothic church of Boston College at the top of Heartbreak Hill. It’s my sign to turn it on. And so I do, but only after putting the long-sleeved shirt back on.
These next miles are deceptively tough, but I’m getting to know the lay of the land here well enough to know what to expect, so today it’s easier to deal with. I make it through the stretch where the T runs right next to the roadway on the left-hand side, and then down the nice downhill stretch to Cleveland Circle. I’m smiling all the time now, since I’m starting to believe that this is the day I’m going to get that 4 hour monkey off my back. The people behind the barriers see me coming with my mile-wide grin, and they all shove out their hands for high-fives. How can I not do this? Even if it might slow me down a smidge, I draw energy from each and every hand that I slap. People smile back, and I know this is why they come out – to have a role in someone’s good day.
And I finally allow myself to believe: this is going to be a good day. It’s not an easy day, not one of those effortless days where the miles just seem to fly by, but it’s definitely a good one. So I smile. And I high-five everyone along the route. And I run.
These are the fastest miles of my day – something that makes me proud: 8:40, 8:48, another 8:40, and then for mile 24, 8:34. Later I’ll figure out that this is my fastest ever mile at Boston, and I’ll be extremely pleased. Not all that fast in the grand scheme of things, but after all those mile of pounding, down and up, up and down, it’s a very good thing. Now there’s the Citgo sign, and now there’s the one mile to go sign, and now there’s the little dip under Mass Ave that was new last year, and now – finally! – that turn that I love so much, the right-hander onto Hereford. Hereford looks like a mountain today – when did they make the uphill here so steep? – but then there are people smiling at me and sticking out their hands, so I high-five yet more people, and now I’m making the last left-hander onto Boylston.
This stretch is pure joy, knowing that I have the sub-four in the bag, and yet needing to force it in, as hard as I can go. It’s pure pain, too, since you can see the finish line down there, but it seems so far away yet, and not getting any closer. The 26 mile marker is the only one that I miss all day, but it doesn’t matter, what matters is that I cross the finish line just as I hear an announcer call out my name, and I punch my watch and read 3:57:25. Four hour monkey? Back there somewhere on the course. Yee-haw!
Boston has a long finish area, where it feels like you walk for miles and miles after you’ve run for miles and miles, and this year it is no different. No different, of course, except for the fact that I’m smiling wildly and wanting to shout it out to anyone who might be within earshot. Sub-four at Boston!
It takes awhile before I start to find people I know – my Canadian friends have run close to me all day, some in front of me, some behind; although I haven’t seen a single one out on the course, I start to find them soon after picking up my warm clothes. We’ll hook up with the rest of the Canadian contingent, and then head back to our apartment for quick showers and then out for a big celebratory dinner. We’ll laugh about our three flights of stairs that don’t seem quite as bad as we had feared. We’ll talk about how the rain ended just as we started to run, making the weather not nearly as bad as we had feared. In fact, when the day is done, it will seem that – given the weather warnings and the rainy start and all of the rest of it - none of it has been all that bad. Not too bad at all.