My first time at the Boston Marathon

All of  Chapter 11: My first time at the Boston Marathon

Boston is a bit of a complicated marathon. Step one for me was to catch the bus to Runner’s Village. A portion of the fee ($130 for 2010) covers a ride in a school bus at a designated time from downtown Boston to Hopkinton for the start of the race. I was going to the start with Maria, who would be running as a bandit, and she had arranged for us to ride a bus that started closer to my hotel. Even then, we rented a car the night before and Eva drove us one mile to the bus shortly before seven a.m. on race day. That let us sleep later and conserve every ounce of energy. I had gotten up 2 hours earlier and gone through my normal pre-race routine. I ate a little hot cereal (grits!), I shaved and took a shower and I struggled to convince my digestive system to speak now or to hold its peace for the next 8 hours. I drank Gatorade and water though I, like most of the other racers, had been hydrating for days now and the sponge in my body could no longer absorb more.

The buses are not particularly comfortable or uncomfortable, but a utilitarian way to cover the distance. We pulled away from the curb only a few minutes late and there was yelling and applause. Over half of those on my bus from Cambridge were students and charity runners – most running their first marathon and undertrained. Still they had youth and exuberance and did not feel compelled to guard the supply of adrenaline so obviously rushing through their bodies. It excited me to be among them. It was a great distraction to hear their running comments and questions, their one-liner jokes and the camaraderie that they shared – many with others they knew but who frequented a different group on other days. A distraction to make the time seem shorter helped as we covered the 26.2 miles out to the start. We encountered the official buses and cars headed to the same place and yet we kept driving, eventually taking more than an hour to get there. The ride really highlighted how much distance a marathon covers and made comparisons of the speed of the elite runners and the speed of the bus seem plausible. Finally we exited a major highway for the small road leading to the school where we would wait. Of course this is a bottleneck area and police are everywhere directing the buses in and cars elsewhere. Even though we are official, it seems like even our slow progress has totally disappeared. Not that it was a problem for me, but about half of the bus (mainly males) is suffering from the effects of over-hydration and begging the bus driver to not pull over, but to just open the door & let them off. Finally he relents a few guys hop off & run for the woods. Suddenly the road opens and we start to move, leaving them behind to catch up. But once again we stop and all of those that had been lost appear back at the door and climb on for the final half-mile. How much energy they expended that would have been useful later is unknown, but they all seemed visibly happier and began to whoop it up.

All of the buses converge on a school in Hopkinton and drop off their passengers. Some of the official buses then park in order and collect the drop-bags to be claimed at the finish. When you first step off the bus, it isn’t immediately obvious where to go, but after a bit of wandering, we follow the crowd behind the buildings. There are 2 large fields there for staging and the upper field is designated for those in the first wave and the lower field for those in the second wave. I am in the first wave, but since Maria, as a bandit, is technically in the third wave, we go first to the lower field. It is a party and there are fit-looking people everywhere. I wonder if these are really the people in the first wave. Conversations are easy to start – just ask anyone where they qualified. Geography, speed and hills are the three big topics. The field is about the size of a football field and has a large tarp in the center providing cover for those rainy days. Fortunately today is looking perfect at around 40 degrees with 2 hours ’til start time. The back and left sides of the field are bounded with several hundred toilets. The lines are still manageable, though later they will lengthen.

Security police are posted on top of the buildings, upbeat music is blaring, an announcer provides briefing material and there are thousands of conversations as some people wander one way and another group heads the other. I had brought a few large garbage bags to use as ground liners to sit on and so we find a semi-vacant spot – okay, you really find a spot near other people that look as cool as you – and plop down. It isn’t particularly comfortable but I am obsessive about guarding my leg energy. The plastic bags were a tip that I read on-line and they would be a necessity on a wet ground. After an hour or so, I begin my journey to the start line. Maria hangs with some friends that she has seen and I head up to the upper field to see what is going on with the wave oners (new word?) I see some skinny and small runners with low numbers and I ask what time gets you a number like that and one responds 2:23:06. Oh. The seconds count at that level I guess and they can’t round off. It is interesting to me that with such a great time, these people really have no chance of winning today. In fact, they are so out of the competition that they have to wait outside with the rest of us rather than get the pampered treatment in a house near the start line that the elites receive. Oh well, it still blew me away as an unfathomable speed and I lavished praise on them and moved along. In fact, since my number was only 10 from the highest number in the first wave, pretty much everyone had a lower number and so I assumed that I was the slowest person in the first wave. Would I later prove that to be true?

With about 50 minutes remaining, I joined the mass movement towards the start line. I had decided to rely on a person to deliver my post-race clothes to the finish and I bypass the clothing drop-off. Like most first-timers I had no understanding of the layout and I was surprised to discover that it was a mile walk from the fields to the starting area. Oh it wasn’t hard since we were all pumped up, but the waiting and the walking violate some of the basic rules for conserving energy before the race. Just before the corrals is a parking lot on the left with several hundred toilets and people are lined up for a final visit. We are all well hydrated today.

Suddenly at Main Street there is a crowd. The corrals are mainly to the right. They are roped off areas about 2/3’s the width of the street guarded by race officials that check bib numbers before letting you enter. Apparently you can move back but not forward. It is interesting when the confusion of the crowd has been replaced by an orderly group that includes a collection of runners who have similar speeds. As always, I look around to see what other people of my ability look like. Sometimes this makes me feel attractive and other times old. Vvroooom! There is the jet flyby. Some music and the announcers are talking. I manage a few toe touches. I try to calculate how far I am from the starting line. There is a slight downward grade in the street and I can see heads and heads but it isn’t obvious where they stop and the open space begins. I am guessing a few hundred yards. How long will it take to get there? The ropes between the corrals are lifted and we all shift a little forward. This is the start before the start that always happens when we runners try to get closer so we can start sooner in a crowd.

There is a countdown and the gun fires and somewhere up there the elite men have started to put distance on me. The elite women started 30 minutes ago before I was even in the corral so I am willing to concede that I will not see them, but I will run the race with the elite men and never see them. With the race now starting, the crowd moves at a slow walk forward. I still can’t see the starting line when everyone breaks into a run. Ten feet later, we are walking again as the empty space has disappeared. But since the seeding has the faster runners up front, some natural spacing occurs almost as soon as each group starts.  I have worn some old sweatpants, an old sweatshirt and some gardening gloves on top of my shorts and singlet to the start – no one is asking for a phone number today. The pants came off during the flyover and once I see the starting line I toss the sweatshirt into one of the bins on the side. I am staying to the far left and I continue walking as most others can finally run. I am not wearing a watch and I want to cross the starting line on a whole number (minute) so that my mental math will be easier all day. And so I linger and finally join the race 10 feet from the start and my chip beeps among hundreds of others at almost exactly 6 minutes. Surprisingly I am not the last person – in fact I don’t even feel like I am near the end.

The Boston Marathon is really a downhill course and this is true at the start. It is deceiving at the start because you have so much pent-up energy, it is hard to know your pace in a crowd and you really aren’t looking that far ahead. It makes for an easy start. We are barely underway when the course passes through a thicket with no houses and few fans. It lasts for several hundred yards and the farther along we run, the more guys are darting to the bushes. Yes, Virginia, we are well-hydrated. But no one stays long and we are all swept along in the excitement. At mile one the fans are screaming and runners are celebrating. It is obvious that for many that this is an event, not a race. I am running next to 3 Japanese men that have cameras and they are taking photos with everyone, runners on the move, fans and each other. I can tell by their bib numbers that they are fast and could be much farther ahead. Another guy is accepting all offers for high fives and swerves from side to side. Others accept the offer for a taste of beer or a sip of champagne. I wonder how they will feel later in the day.

I had read a suggestion from a runner in a previous year that you should write your name on your shirt and that the crowds would cheer for you. I am not a people person but I did this, imagining that I would benefit from the support late in the marathon. I soon discovered that the law of unintended consequences worked here as well. Almost from the beginning kids, adults, females and grown men shouted, screamed and chanted my name. I acknowledged the first and then the second and the third and … then I realized that this was going to continue all day and that the frequency was increasing as the crowd thickened.  Acknowledging each person would require a huge amount of scarce energy resources over the course of 3-and-a-half hours, energy that I would definitely want in that last mile. But I had made the deal and I could be a jerk or I could embrace my part of the implicit bargain. I did. I resolved to acknowledge all cheers for me with a look or wave or nod or anything I could manage. I realized that it would cost me energy but so be it.

I had a good pace going and the congested first mile rolled around sub-eight. I was weaving through the runners and picking them off one by one even as the distance between the elites and me increased. I looked at the other runners as I passed them and they didn’t seem to be showing much exertion or to be going too fast. I usually get passed early in races and do my passing, if any, later in the final miles. But today, it just seemed like everyone was having fun and running slowly. That’s when it hit me that we had been seeded according to qualifying times and that everybody that I was passing had a faster qualifying time than me and that I was not passing newbies, but accomplished marathoners. Time to check my pace. And I did check it at the next mile marker. I was running just about right and the course had been friendly, so it really was a case of the others running more slowly than usual. Nevertheless, I gave up passing and tried to duck in with a group for a while.

I saw my first hand-painted sign with the score of the Red Sox game. The Boston Marathon happens every year on Patriot’s Day, which is the Monday closest to the anniversary of Paul Revere’s famous ride and as documented by these words in Longfellow’s poem “On the 18th of April of 75.”  The Red Sox play a home game that starts early and until 2007 let out about the time the first big wave of runners passed by Fenway Park. Patriot’s Day is a holiday for Massachusetts state, Boston municipal employees and historically many corporate employees, and the 2 events, at the advent of Spring, combine to make it a festive day. Crowd support is huge and vocal. Unlike many marathons where the viewers are there to watch and support a particular runner and may cheer on a few others, the marathon is on par with a major event like the World Series or the Super Bowl and every runner is viewed as a superstar.  Hence, the level of excitement generated when I would acknowledge a group cheering my name was as if a superstar had interacted with them. Of course, a group 30 feet farther up the road would hear the noise and the chanting immediately started again. In any case, the score of the game would be posted every few miles as the innings in the game progressed with our miles.

The atmosphere is charged for the runners but for the spectators, it is a party to enjoy. All along the route, groups have gathered. There are a lot of churches in the first few miles; some with members offering water or oranges and others trying to convert the runners on the spot. They would probably have better luck later in the day when we needed our spirits lifted or divine intervention. The sideshow is a major distraction for runners (in a positive way) and it runs parallel to the marathon even as they feed off each other. One of the early sites is a biker bar – described in this quote “Even the leather-clad Harley set gets caught up in marathon mania. This rowdy biker bar, located on the left side of the road, is the first major spectator hangout you'll pass. Prepare for at least a hundred leather-clad bikers with their Harley's, drinking beer, cheering loudly, and singing along to a tough-looking guy doing a Black Sabbath cover. Rock on!” Indeed rock on. And yes, that accurately described the scene and energized us early. How could we sustain a slow pace?

The marathon course is a point-to-point from Hopkinton to downtown Boston and it passes through a number of small towns and villages. Each has its own story and charms and crowds. The course itself is well marked, wide enough, full of volunteers and generally designed for the runners. Aid stations are located on both the right and left sides of the street so that there is less congestion and Gatorade is offered at the first set of tables and then water immediately afterwards. I found the left side a bit less frequented and I ran mainly on that side and grabbed a Gatorade almost every mile. Usually in other races, drinks are available only every 2 miles and so this seemed too often, but I dared not pass many without stopping. The area was already wet and so my shoes would always have a sticky feeling for the first hundred yards afterwards, but by then, I was nearer the next station.

Mile markers and clocks (remember to subtract 6 minutes!) were very visible and located at every mile along with markers at every 5K. There were also chip readers at the 5K markers that texted our splits to registered phone numbers. I tried to cross these with the foot without the chip first and then the chip a fraction of a second later. I thought that might make my next split a fraction of a second faster and you never know when you might need that. I still felt good and my 5K splits were not too fast and were fairly steady. This was fun. GREG, GREG, GREG. Oh, hey. Roar of the crowd.

Around 10 miles the initial buzz has subsided and I take stock of my status. I feel good. The pace has been a bit slow and today will not be a PR for me, but  I feel that barring a complete reversal, no one from the second wave will pass me. And if they do, they didn’t really belong there. Furthermore, I probably won’t notice, as there are 50 people within 20 feet of me. I am in the sweet spot of the group.

We enter the town of Wellesley around 11.5 miles. There are fans but nothing out of the ordinary. The college is located at about 12 & a half miles and the noise starts about a quarter of a mile before there. Wellesley is a women-only college with about 2,400 students. These women show up with verve, energy, creativity and passion to sustain the legend prior classes have achieved as super fans of the runners. The area is variously know as “scream tunnel,” screech tunnel” and “throngs of thongs.” They scream, yell and carry signs saying “Kiss me I’m a senior,” “Kiss me I’m Irish,” “Kiss me I’m Italian,” “ and at least one hundred other versions. And there are guys that stop and grab a kiss. What kind of serious runner would consider stopping when we know that this will add to our time. I hope that they practiced this in their training! I wonder if the Wellesley women consider a kiss a success or if it is all show. At almost 13 miles, most of the runners to be kissed are covered in sweat and not particularly attractive. Most of the heterosexual males enjoy the attention, though I have heard comments from female runners that were uncomfortable there. The energy level is off the charts and combined with a moderate descent just in front of campus, we are revved up and our pace quickens. The campus and crowd is on the right hand side and I have been running in the middle of the road. Having my name in large letters on the front of my shirt makes me an easy target to single out. “Go Greg Go! Faster, Greg!”  That’s what she screamed (collectively)! I took another step to the left and moved on through the tunnel.

The excitement of the vocal support was immediately followed by Mile marker 13 and then the marker for halfway. A cheer arose from the runners as we passed it. We smiled and waved and posed for the MarathonFoto people as they pointed and clicked relentlessly. The noise from the chip mat is a constant beep as we sweep through in unison. I have just finished calculating my time at mile 13 including last mile and average mile pace when an eighth of a mile later I face another clock and more calculations. I pass under at (subtracting my 6 minutes) 1:47:06. This is almost 9 minutes off a good half-marathon (alone) pace for me and about 4-5 minutes slower than a good first-half pace. I feel good but I know the famous hills of Newton await me and that it is unlikely that I will run a negative split. Still, this is a fun marathon and I am completely unconcerned about being a few minutes slow in finishing – as long as I am in the general range. And the Red Sox are now winning.

I’ve only run one marathon without Eva there as a spectator and I have come to rely on her presence as a morale booster and as an energy booster. It also gives me a mental break as I focus on seeing her for about a mile. We had agreed that she would take the “T” (transit/metro/subway) and be near 15-and-a-half miles on the right side. That means that, in order to not miss her (and be depressed), I start looking for her around the 15-mile marker and will plan to give up if I haven’t seen her by the 16-mile marker. Fortunately, she is there and spots me. She steps out just a little about 40 feet before I arrive and makes herself more obvious. She has no camera today so she yells “Go Greg Go!” and this time I believe it. I tell her that it is fun, that I feel good and that I need to hide my name on my shirt. There is no time for a response as she also hands me a bottle with about 6 ounces of Gatorade, which is immediately consumed, and is intended to power me through the next few miles. And then I turn the corner.

At mile 16.2, as I trail the lead men by about 50 minutes (remember the 6-minute head start!) we runners make a 90-degree right turn onto Commonwealth Avenue and those observant types see a fire station on the left side of the road that serves as the landmark for the start of the legendary hills of Newton. Those that count such things say there are 7 hills and it is a rolling area. The hills are not super steep, but the explanation of their difficulty is their location in the course and the fact that the earlier downhills mixed with speed pound the quads into hamburger meat and suck the juices out – leaving little reserve for the climbs. Most of us have not done enough research to know that there are multiple hills and not just Heartbreak. So each time we climb a hill we are wondering if this is Heartbreak. I had been running reasonably slow and I had trained on hills – both up and down – and I felt fine on the hills. In fact, I was passing people and I felt stronger as I saw others faltering on what seemed normal to me. I went full-steam and suddenly, was surprised when listening to other runners and fans, I learned that we had just summitted Heartbreak – I thought that we still had one more big hill. I wanted to turn and say – “Come on Heartbreak, is that all you got?” but I heard the chant of “Go Greg Go!” And I knew that my focus should be forward. (By the way, Heartbreak was bigger the next time I ran it –  maybe they trucked in some dirt?)

After Heartbreak, the crowds become continuous. Boston College is along the right hand side and the students – this time coed – make a good showing. Our new focus becomes the Citgo sign. We cruise through Cleveland Circle onto Beacon down into the ├╝bercool Brookline area. The crowds are thick on the sidewalks and multilayered with spectators having balcony and rooftop parties as we pass Coolidge Corner. I feel that we are finally in Boston but I don’t know this section of town. There are plenty of small ups and downs and the Citgo sign seems to be the same distance away. We have a train moving on the left and some people are staring at us as they move at about the same speed. Weird. The street has narrowed and the crowd is thick. It seems that every step I hear a shout for “Greg” and I nod and wave and acknowledge – but I am now trying to run on the opposite side or in the middle or close behind another runner to obstruct spectators’ view of my singlet. I feel fine running, but my energy level has dipped and conservation becomes a goal.

Soon, the Citgo sign has disappeared, the crowds are rowdy and I realize that we have passed Fenway and the Red Sox crowd, having seen a victory, has joined the mob scene. The 25-mile marker has been passed. Of all the mile markers 1-26, I think 25 is the one that always has the most meaning for me. The run is almost completed, but there is still just a ways to go. Running “The Last Mile” of a marathon means thinking back about the run, experiencing the present moment and anticipating the end. It can be the most painful or it can signify the nearness of relief from pain. It can require all the energy that you have, or – well it will take whatever energy is left. It can shave a few seconds off your final time or it can add minutes of agony. The crowd around has reached a feverish pitch and I want to share it with them. Still I do that mentally and steer towards the middle. Then we turn on Boylston Street and the tall buildings echo the cheering as the finish line awaits us. We all run as hard as we can at that moment until we cross the line. I can see and feel the seconds ticking away. The clock seems in hyper speed, as the seconds are much faster than me. Cameras are clicking, the crowd is roaring, fingers are on watches (timers) as four people are crossing the finish line every second and upon crossing the line, I (and others) come to an immediate halt. I have run 26.2 miles and that is it. That is what I had in me. That is why the race is not 26.3 miles because how would we ever finish it.

The Boston Marathon is meticulously planned, but with so many runners operating at similar speeds, the finish line is a jammed and they try to herd us along. There is water and food and a medal of honor, but they need for us to keep moving to make room for those now arriving. We are all tired but sharing a moment. This is an achievement and it is fresh on our minds, like our tired legs. The day has cooled noticeably and sunlight has given way to shadows and a cool breeze. Those with things on the bus head that way and then towards the crowded reunion areas. Not finding my group, I fight my way back to search out a place to hopefully cheer Maria as she comes in (she started about 40 minutes later.) I am wet and cold. I somehow find Travis after a while and steal some clothing. He finds Eva who has been stuck underground on the T for an hour (phones work great, but only above ground). I miss Maria’s finish but we find her in the chute.

I had a great run and a fantastic experience. Maria did as well. I realized that the marathon, and the Boston Marathon in particular, is not a single story, but thousands of individual stories and experiences of the runners and the fans. We all shared some thoughts and moments and others were unique to each of us. I placed my medal around Maria’s neck and congratulated her and she accepted it. She felt victorious and tired and accomplished. For her, it had been a day of hearing people say “Go Maria Go.” Rock on.

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