I have resisted turning this blog into a training log, or a simple recounting of races, but from time to time I have the pleasure of participating in a road race worthy of mention, even if it isn’t on the trails, or even in Addison County. I think the Boston Marathon is worthy of mention, as it is an aspiration for so many runners, and one which I recently had the pleasure of running for the first time in my life, deep into my middle age. The first challenge of the Boston Marathon is simply getting in. Unlike most marathons where if you pay your money on time, you are in, or some popular marathons, like New York, which have a lottery system for entry, Boston has strict qualifying times by age group and sex. While these qualifying times do not require superhuman performance, they are challenging enough that many life long runners are never quite fast enough to run the most famous race in the world. I had assumed that I was one of those.
I competed in the Clarence Demar Marathon in Keene NH in the fall of 2013, literally on the spur of the moment, as it was a nearby and inexpensive race, and accepted last minute entries. I had no delusions of grandeur for that race, as I had barely run for the month or so preceding it with a minor, but nagging injury. Much to my surprise, and aided by generous downhill portions, I had my best marathon since my early 30’s and headed home very happy with my performance. Later in that evening, I was chatting online with my nephew, also a distance runner, and he suggested that my time might be a Boston qualifying time for an old guy like me. So, I went to the web page, and discovered that I indeed had qualified for this famous race that I had always assumed was totally out of reach! I guess the moral to this story is that you don’t have to get fast – you just have to grow old gracefully.
So last fall rolled around, and I registered online, and felt like Charlie Bucket with a golden ticket when I got my notification that I was accepted to run!
Then the hard part hit – training for an early season marathon in the cold of a Vermont winter. And it was a tough one. A lot of time on the treadmill, supplemented with some cross country skiing, and the occasional run outside, which became a little bit easier when the howling cold of January and February subsided for the more typical winter weather of March.
On the day before the race, myself, Ben, a fellow Addison County trailrunner, and the patient Mrs. Trailrunner drove down to Boston, and we went into the city proper to check out the race exposition and pick up our race numbers. It seemed that most of the wares offered for free tastes were concoctions of chia seeds and stuff that looked like it came out of my chemistry lab. And tasted like it. One the funniest of these offerings was, I kid you not, pizza in a tube!
No thank you – bananas and bagels are fine, supplemented by the vile but oddly sustaining goo called “Gu“. There was also a huge poster at the entrance to the exposition for all the runners to sign, and I had to leave my trailrunner moniker.
Finally, the long anticipated day, April 20 arrived. The race itself has an uncommon course for a major city marathon. Unlike the New York and Philadelphia marathons which I have done in the past, which weave through as many neighborhoods as they can, the Boston Marathon is a straight shot into the city from the western suburb of Hopkinton. Now, to put it in perspective, Hopkinton is all the way out by Interstate 495. This is what Bostonians call “a long commute”. And we were going to run it. Arriving by bus at the runners’ village, about all I had time to do was spend the mandatory minute or so in one of the thousands of porta-potties filling the Hopkinton High School football field, before joining the throngs for the long walk to the actual start line.
The numbering system at Boston is also unique in my experience. The bib that you wore reflected the time that you submitted for qualification, so the fastest qualifiers had lower numbers, while those of us benefiting from the relaxed standards for old folks necessarily had higher numbers. At the start line, these numbers were used to ensure that you were surrounded by runners of more or less your same speed. The roughly 32,000 runners were split into four “waves” of about 8000 runners, starting 25 minutes apart, and each wave was broken down into 1000 person “corrals”. My number, in the 16,000’s put me right at the start of the race – for the third wave. As we were waiting in the slow drizzle for the race to start, I amused my fellow competitors with the observation that “We should be proud of ourselves – we are the best of the slightly below average entrants”.
When the gun went off for us, my prerace strategy of starting off slowly was dashed by the energy of the crowd behind me, as well as the fact that the first four miles were pretty relentlessly downhill. Another challenge for me is the fact that all the hydration that had been part of my life for the previous 24 hours inevitably make it so that one prerace porta-potty stop is not enough. Mid race is when this becomes more of an issue. While there are porta-potties along the course, it is an unwritten rule that men who merely need to perform “task 1″ shouldn’t use these, leaving them for the women runners. Fortunately, the early miles of the Boston Marathon have ample forests alongside the road for minimal privacy. Another curiosity about this is that nobody wants to be “the first” to turn a section of pristine forest into a giant urinal, but once one man decides that a place is appropriate for an on-the-run pit stop, the rest become emboldened. So, feeling nature’s call, I dashed into a lightly wooded section alongside the road, and found myself almost immediately accompanied by about 10 other older gentlemen who seemed relieved that I had chosen this special place for us. After uttering something about how this might make a good advertisement for Flomax, I was back on the road, needing no further stops of this sort.
As luck would have it, the early morning drizzle turned into a downright foul weather day, with intermittent downpours and headwinds. The funny thing about this was that I barely noticed it, and in fact actually welcomed the cooling rain. I was also glad I was wearing a polypro t-shirt under my race shirt. One of the next high points for the race was the run through Wellesley, MA, home of the all women’s college of the same name. The section going through town, roughly at the half way point, is nicknamed “The Scream Tunnel” due to the vociferous enthusiasm of the college students.
I had been warned that from mile 16-20 was the hilliest part of the course, culminating in Heartbreak Hill would be challenging. I found Vermont training more than sufficient to overcome the challenges of what we would call a rise in the road. Admittedly, I dropped by pace by about a minute per mile on them, but was surprised to see so many competitors walking. Finally, the last 6 miles into the city is almost entirely downhill or flat, making for a fun, fast finish. With maybe 5 miles to go at the top of a small rise, I caught my first glimpse of the Prudential Tower near the finish line! I also knew that my nephew – the same nephew who I was chatting with online when I realized I had qualified – would be looking out for me at around mile 23, and I was able to see him, and ran over and gave him a big hug before continuing to the finish line. The last two miles of the race are finally in Boston, proper, and includes a run by Fenway Park before a short zig zag up to the long straightaway and finish on Boylston St.
Of course after the elation of crossing the finish line comes the dreaded “march of the zombies” as all of the runners, now suddenly realize that they have to walk for many city blocks to actually get OUT of the race area. People keep giving you stuff. A medal over your head Bottles of water, capes to keep warm with, and funny energy food supplements. One in particular, a chocolately looking protein drink which looked curiously tasty was thrust into my hands, but I found that I was tortured by the fact that my frozen hands couldn’t actually open the bottle. Fortunately, one of the staff took care of this for me when I mumbled something which was correctly translated as “can’t open.” Noting the odd lurching walk off all of the finished competitors, I started mumbling “brains….Brains…” and a few people laughed and joined me before we all realized that talking hurt at the moment. Finally, I met up with my friend Ben, and we managed to hobble our way to a warm bus to get us out of the cold and back to Hopkinton where we could clean up and prep for the drive back to Middlebury that evening.
The only disappointment with the race? I had to go through a short tunnel at around mile 25, and my GPS watch apparently lost connection with the satellites needed, and so the last mile didn’t register on my Google Earth projection. Trust me, I did it. I don’t have any pictures taken during the race, as my hands were too cold to manipulate the camera feature on my cell phone!