The day before the race
Sitting in a small cafe on Boyston Street, the heart of downtown Boston was looking rather grim. Darkening clouds, drizzling rain, cold.....the pervasive greyness. Grey wet sidewalks. Grey wet buildings. Grey wet streets. Grey gloom everywhere.
Two blocks from the finish, my wife Lorraine, was sipping on a steamy cup of New England clam chowder. "It's just nasty out there," she says.
I shrugged. The lousy weather was my least concern for tomorrow's Boston Marathon. I had a miserable low-grade fever. An allergic reaction had caused the skin on my face to burn and flake off. Worse yet were the chills spiking up from my bladder, the result of drinking gallons of water and Gatorade to hydrate my body. It was horrible. But it also made you forget everything else. The cold and wet and fever and burning face and looming 26.2 miles. None of it mattered like finding the closest bathroom.
Caught a bus to Hopkington
That night, the fever left me so wasted, I skipped the nervous-anticipation part of a typical marathon and slept like a rock. At 5 a.m., I jumped out of bed feeling better. My running buddy Roy and I scarfed down a breakfast of oatmeal and bananas, then caught one of 800 busses that rolled from Boston Commons, transporting over 35,000 people to the start, 26 miles west to Hopkington. Incredible logistics. But it went smooth for us.
We came prepared for the worst weather, too. Rain, snow, sleet. We had extra running shoes to toss. Layers of extra sweats and rain gear. What we didn't expect was the day we found outside our bus, at dawn. A coolish 46 degrees. Not a wisp of clouds. The forecast for blue skies and a high of 55. You talk about ideal running weather. I was so excited, I forgot how much I had to pee.
At the Athlete’s Village, behind Hopkington High
Runners from around the world gathered under two sprawling white tents the size of football fields. Here and there, you saw scribbling on T-shirts. "Boston 96. The Runner’s Woodstock." Sure enough, it came complete with mud. The snow from the week before had melted, plus all that rain over the weekend. Straw was spread around, the qualifiers tent had Astroturf -- but everywhere was a soggy brown mess.
I packed some jumbo hefty bags which we laid over the cool mud. For several hours, we camped out -- read the morning Globe, talked to our neighbors, listened to a group Boston Soul on a bandstage, as the throng multiplied before our eyes. The 40,000 strong, lean and gaunt. Drinking Gatorade. Trying to stay warm, clean, dry, relaxed. Visiting the long rows of plastic Port-a-poddies. The runner’s Woodstock. For one day, the muddied center of the running universe.
Waiting in the starting line.
Eight helicopters whirled overhead, skywriters spelled GOOD LUCK against the bright blue sky. It’s 50 degrees. It’s dazzlingly perfect. Roy and I had been given armbands that designated us at the front of the 12,000-person Open Division and 3,000 unofficial runners. A terrific spot. Only the 26,000 Qualifiers ahead of us.
We crowded into “Corral B.” The streets were electric. Buzzing. Ahead of you is 26 miles, but you’re not thinking about the distance, not here. You just want to get going. Let loose. You’re body is humming, fully juiced and carbo-loaded. A finely-tuned engine idling at high RPMs. You feel the vibration. It’s time to see what you got -- time to let it go. Or is that vibration the overwhelming urge for one more pee. I find a bush in an empty field between houses with 50 others.
Back in the pack, we wait. No movement. Then a slow shuffle shuffle forward. Anticipation is building big time. Thousands of spectators are yelling “Good Luck” and holding up signs with names and runner’s numbers. See ya at the finish Judy #37,873. Go for it Frank #20,406.
Nineteen minutes pass before Roy and I reach the startline, across from the old white Church. Music fills the air. Spectators crowd lawns that rise from the streets, making the place feel like a packed outdoor amphitheater.
A sign reads, “It all starts here....”
Standing on the startline, you see the narrow, two-lane Route 135 to Boston drop off suddenly for a good half-mile. It’s the steepest plunge on the course. And it opens to an incredible sight. A human river of bobbing heads, thousands of them, flowing off to a bend in the road far below.
It’s really hard to describe exactly how I felt. Elation. Joy. Utter amazement. Lightness of being.
The payoff for all the hardwork was frozen in that singular moment, standing on the start. I figured anything else I discover on the way would be icing on the cake.
With that, I took my first step to Boston.
The first half.
At the bottom of the first sweeping turn, with hundreds of others, I jump off into the trees and weeds. Everyone dropping shorts. Hanging it out, free in the breeze. Pee time. Your body is so clean it looks like spring water.
The running went slow at first. We clocked 11 minutes miles, an easy jog. But it didn’t matter. This was one gigantic glacial-moving party. Live bands played roadside. The Rocky theme. Chariots of Fire. My favorite: Allman Brothers’ Whipping Post. Families barbecued on front lawns. Kids reached out for high fives. I saw Nicholas in their faces and touched off dozens of hands.
Surprisingly, around Mile 4, we began settling into a quicker 9-minute pace. Which is where I wanted to be. At that point, I figured we’d lost maybe 4-5 minutes off the pace to break 4 hours, which wasn’t bad, considering we expected to start much slower.
Roy runs faster than I do, but there was no point for him to chase a personal best. Too many people to run around. So he hung with me and enjoyed the show.
The couple just married that morning, running in tux and gown. Freaky painted runners.
The three Pumpkin People under a single orange sheet. Bandits (unofficial runners) in black masks.
The first half of the course is generally downhill, but it undulates enough to make my calves and thighs take notice that we weren’t in the Florida flats. I was especially cautious not to let my legs fly downhill, which would punish my quads and cause problems later, in the big hills.
As the miles tick off, I feel stronger and stronger, my body becoming more efficient. Roy even threw in a quicker 8-minute mile at 10, which felt okay, but I told him I didn’t want to keep that pace. Roy said his bad knee was acting up, and he wanted to see if the faster pace felt better. It didn’t. So he settled back into 9-minute miles with me. You can think what you want about the grueling nature of the marathon, but if you run conservatively in the first half, it’s mostly about enjoying your conditioning and having fun at the pace you trained at. At Boston, the 1.5 million spectators just energized the whole experience that much more.
I kept thinking, The great part about this race is that I know it’s not going to end anytime soon. In the first half, I felt like I could run forever.
Coming up to mile 12, you can hear them a half-mile away. The Wellsley College girls.
Brainy bluebloods with shrill-pitched lungs and boundless enthusiasm for the Boston Marathon. As tradition dictates, they turned out in force, forming a gauntlet that went on for a mile, yelling and cheering and gawking at the passing runners.
Roy and I veered to the curb, where we celebrated in their faces, high-fiving hundreds of tomorrow’s world leaders and corporate execs.
I remember, “Nice buns, 30707....” from a future CEO.
The halfway-point plan.
From downtown Boston, a commuter train runs parallel to much of the course. The night before, I suggested that Lorraine hop the commuter to the half-way point -- at Mile 13, the charming campus town of Wellsley Hills -- watch the leaders blow through and then wait for us. It was risky. If she missed us, or we missed her, no one would be the wiser. Even so, it seemed like a better idea than trying to stake out space at the madhouse finish.
When we hit Wellsley Hills, Roy took one side of the road, I took the other, searching through hundreds of faces for Lorraine. At first, we thought we had run by the train station and missed her. Then....
Bingo! Standing up on the curb, behind a row of people....”LORRAINE!” I yelled out and ran to her....stopped....got a big kiss....”We’re having a blast,” I hold her....Roy flew over....we took pictures....quick quick quick....a little old lady Lorraine had befriended took more pictures....Roy checked the time, 1:59, he says....on pace to break 4 hours....GOTTA GO, GOTTA GO....a whirlwind....and we were off again.
That stop, seeing Lorraine, was a huge rush. We were soaring now, running in mid-air....floating along in a river in a dream.
Coming up to Heartbreak Hill.
Playtime was almost over. The real business of the Boston Marathon loomed just ahead. The four Newton Hills, topped off by Heartbreak Hill, between Miles 16 and 21. They had to be conquered. Or perhaps, survived.
Going into Mile 16, we felt ready. Feeling up to the challenge. “Bring it on, this is why we’re here,” we said, confidently. Naively.
The first hill we cruised up single file, not breaking pace. The second hill, we began passing more and more walkers; I was working hard to keep up with Roy, who seemed stronger, but drafting him helped. The third hill, I actually lost Roy on the ascent but pulled up next to him at the top. Three down, one to go. My calves ached, but my thighs were screaming, especially on the downhills. I took smaller, quicker steps to reduce the slamming.
Then, rounding a corner at the Newton firestation, mobs of people stacked up at the curbs, cheering very loud, with signs, and a band playing. This was the official send off.
I looked up.
An impressive stretch rose as far as I could see, under a canopy of tall trees. The river of runners leaned into the hill, pushing upward. This must be da place. Heartbreak. The most famous hill in road racing in the world. And we were at the bottom.
It may not have been the steepest of the Newton Hills, nor the longest, but by the time I started up, it sure felt like it. I fell in behind Roy, who trailed some girl, cutting through the runners like butter. Maybe one-quarter or more of the field was walking. Which made running even more difficult, because you had to sidestep them. About half-way up, Roy and the girl made a quick move through some walkers, and I got boxed out and didn’t have the agility in my legs to make my own space and follow.
I let him go. I could see Roy powering up now, and I couldn’t match it, not if I wanted to finish in one piece.
At the top of Heartbreak, Roy was nowhere in sight. We’d run 21 miles together, but for the final stretch, it looked like I was on my own. Well, sort of. The river still flowed and the spectators were thickening. Just ahead -- the crowds of Boston.
I spent Mile 22 trying to recover from the Newton Hills. My thighs were burning pretty good. Supposedly, the finishing miles after Heartbreak were all downhill. But in Mile 23, I tried to surge several times and ran into gradual ascents that felt like Mount Everest. So I backed off.
By 24, I was not running comfortably. Everything hurt. I even developed a stitch in my side and cramps in my neck. The Newton Hills had taken a toll. I pressed when I could. But I was slowing to a 10-minute-plus pace, despite the effort.
By 25, I realized I’d fallen behind a 4-hour run by several minutes and had failed to factor in the extra 385 yards tacked on to the marathon. I wasn’t going to break it. That’s when I heard the voice.
It was Lorraine’s Mom, Gail. She told me to forget the stupid time, to soak up the last mile. Enjoy it, you earned it, she said. I said okay. Who argues with voices. So I relaxed. Suddenly, my narrow tunnel vision opened to a wider view of the city around me, the skyline ahead, the faces of strangers. My legs even picked up some life again.
I sailed into downtown.
Here, in the last mile, thoughts of Gail and my friend, Michael, both of whom died a year ago when I began training, filled me. Talked to me. Prodded me, to keep moving. It was an emotional stretch, running with the two of them, to the finish.
The course veered off Commonwealth Avenue to a short side street, shaded by two cavernous buildings. It was dark and cold in there. But at the end of the block, I ran out into the sunlight again -- and there, up ahead a quarter mile, was the giant bright blue-and-yellow banner stretching across Boyston Street. The FINISH line. I let out a huge “YES!” and pumped my fist as I rounded the corner.
The 100th Boston was mine.
Roy was waiting for me just over the finishline. “You get it?” I asked, first thing. But I knew he did. He grinned back, the Cheshire grin. 3:59:47 his watch read. Stole it by 13 seconds!!!!
My time: 4:05:57. It was everything I had.
We walked arm in arm up Boyston Street. Somebody shoved some potato chips, Powerbars and drinks at us. At one point, two runners collapsed into Roy. I called a Medic. It was a wild scene. We got our medals and found Lorraine. It was now around 5 o’clock -- 12 hours after jumping out of bed -- and getting cold; the temperature was dropping by the minute. Another wicked front was moving in with heavy rain and wind. But it didn’t matter anymore.
The Boston Marathon was history. And how perfect it had been. After all the miles it took to get here, we finished with the best run ever.