You know it’s a race when...
Several runners stop on the sidelines to pee on trees. Rain is coming down steadily. Various pieces of runner trash litter the ground including hats, gloves, goo packs, and discarded shirts. A folded green rectangle attracts my attention. As it comes closer and I pass over it, I recognize President Jackson’s visage: it’s a twenty dollar bill! Pause for a second.
I am a scavenger by nature. Anything I can find I pick up. A piece of webbing, a metal meter stick, skateboard parts, a carabiner, a trailer pin, and other side-of-the-road refuse are just a few examples of items I have excitedly bent over, picked up, and carried home on my long runs. In fact I still have each of these treasures. The ultimate prize would be any form of cash. Pennies, nickels, you name it. This comes from my upbringing. The saying goes, if you find a penny heads side up all day long you'll have good luck. In my family this was considered absurd. It’s good luck to find a penny, end of story. Heads or tails or covered in mystery slime makes it no less lucky. My father would not hesitate to pull the car over at the merest glint of shining metal that might indicate a coin score.
Back to the race. Twenty dollar bill huh? Now that I have passed the bill, am I willing to stop, reverse my direction, bend over and pick it up? I would lose seconds off my time. Heck I could pull a muscle and my day could be over! Most importantly, today is all about fighting. We are fighting our aging bodies, anxious minds, and the worst weather in recorded Boston Marathon history. The only way to the finish line is to crush all obstacles in our path, including the simple distraction of a twenty dollar bill. Make it a hundred dollar bill! A thousand! It matters not. We’re not here to scavenge. I glance back and watch in amusement as the bill disappears in the distance, getting passed by countless runners. It’s as useless to us as any other wet piece of paper on the ground. That’s when you know this is different from a routine run. This is a race.
I repeatedly pop my umbrella right-side-in as the wind blasts it inside-out while I make my way to the Boston Commons and hop on the yellow school bus to the start. I am capable of imagining worse weather so at least I have that going for me. The heat is blasting on the bus. Rules are posted at the front of the bus, things like, “Keep hands, feet, objects, and negative comments to self”. As we get close to the start, an inch of snow has stuck to the ground. The bus drops us off at a high school in Hopkinton where giant tents protect us from the falling rain. I am the early bird which means I get one of the few precious seats with a backrest by leaning against a tent pole between two garbage cans. A perimeter of ice surrounds the tent where the snow has slid off the roof. It’s 7:30 and the race starts at 10. With few hours to kill, I have plenty to keep me busy. I sit there and actively try to keep my feet warm, wrapping them in a sweater, sitting on my sandals like a nest to keep them warm, and regularly squeezing out the wetness from my socks. It’s miserable. I look around, what have other people done smarter than me? Oh, nothing, everyone’s in rough shape, shivering and sad looking. Eventually we are called up to go to our corral. I’m in wave 1, corral 8.
I’m pretty unsure of what pace to shoot for, but trying to get a Boston qualifying time (under 3 hours and 15 minutes) seems like a reasonable goal. I followed a training plan this year, but due to general circumstances I skipped almost all of my key workouts. Fortunately I got in one last decent 20-mile run 3 weeks ago, which is sort of the bare minimum, but at least it gave me confidence that I could survive the marathon. I feel good and keep an average pace of 7:15. At mile 10 my legs go a little wonky (something they’ve been doing lately usually as soon as I run a little faster or longer than I’m used to). I slow down a little and my legs recover, like always. The rain is coming down steady. Occasionally we’ll crest a hill, the wind will be blasting, and the rain comes down in an absolute downpour. It’s exciting! Freezing water just drenches me. “There it is!” That’s the weather we were so afraid of. Fortunately my clothes do a decent job of keeping me reasonably comfortable. At mile 10 I’m in the zone, sort of forgetting where I am. The scream tunnel at Wellesley brings me back to the present. I run along giving high fives, the Wellesley students look like they might explode if I don’t.
As I run I am regularly reminded of how incredible everyone is. The runners, the volunteers, and the spectators. Everyone is out here together making this thing happen despite the worst imaginable conditions, transforming what could be a terrible day into a day no different than a bright sunny Patriot’s Day. This race is amazing. It’s truly an honor to be a part of it.
At mile 13, any freshness has left my legs. It’s going to be work from here on out. I break the race up into pieces. Mile 16-20 are the infamous Newton hills. I just need to cruise up to mile 16, then get through those tough 4 miles and try to leave some energy in reserve for the last 6 miles. The hills come and go. I reach mile 20 and can’t believe how easy it was! I consume a celebratory caffeinated gel pack. Heartbreak Hill was nothing! I’m feeling great so I take off at a fast pace. It’s all smooth sailing from here. As I look around I start getting the impression that something isn’t right. I look ahead. It turns out I had it wrong. The worst of the hills are at mile 20.5, which I now must face after over-exerting myself like an idiot. Oh well. I make sure to proceed up Heartbreak Hill gently. I reach the top and begin the final 6-mile stretch. By mile 22, I am struggling. My left hip is sore and tightening up, and my right knee is misbehaving. I have slowed to 8-minute miles and expect to continue to get slower from here. Unless. Is that… Caffeine kicking in?
Ok, so here are my options. I can downward spiral for the next four miles, running slower as the pain increases, thereby increasing the pain by making the run take longer. OR! How about I just pretend it’s a 5k race and run like a berserker? I *like* running fast. I *want* this to be over with as quickly as possible. Why don’t I just do that?
The next four miles go by effortlessly. I'll pay for this tomorrow but the pain melts away as I increase into a more aggressive pace. I am weaving in and out of runners like a crazy person. At mile 26 I look up to see M and J cheering me on at the sidelines. Seeing them cheering is by far the happiest moment of my race. I wave, point, and yell emphatically. I am wearing the brightest smile of my life, at least I think I am.
I’m flying. I run at a nearly 6 minute pace to the finish. I’m feeling great. I refuse a blanket and forget to pick up my finisher’s medal. Whoops! I double back and get it. Then it’s a short walk to J’s apartment. My brain isn’t functioning but I manage to find my way. I take a hot shower, restoring feeling to my toes, after which we go out for an awesome meal and drive home. Success! What a great year to run! (I can say that now that it's over).