Right before the gun went off, the Boston veterans were giving final advice. More dread. More foreboding. A couple guys talked about trying to go under three hours and my ears perked up. They seemed nice enough and I thought about glomming on to them and running as a pack. Someone nearby said simply, "It's a nice goal, but just go and run it. It's your first. You got here. Enjoy it." Then the gun. And I was in my own head.
We did the starter shuffle up to the line, that awkward "we're walking faster, we're jogging, STOP, we're walking again." A camera swept over the crowd and we raised our arms to cheer. This was the first time I really noticed the crowd, about three deep along the course. The air was crisp, the sky wind-washed and blue, and we were off.
I felt a slight tightness in my IT band, one that seems to always be there. I settled my mind down, telling myself, "Just needs to loosen up. Just need to warm up." And soon enough, I forgot about it altogether. My next task was to, for-God-sakes-whatever-you-do-don't-go-out-too-fast. I concentrated on getting a smooth stride going and trying to find a rhythm.
Kids extended their tiny palms along the side of the course and it was impossible not to want to run by and high-five all of them, especially after they cheered as you went by. It seemed like such a thrill for them to be engaged by the runners.
Feeling smooth, I saw the first yellow banner, and thought time was going by awfully fast. The other runners around me seemed to share the sentiment. We were churning downhill but it seemed like an easy pace. Then I looked down at my watch: 4:42, 4:43, 4:44. I furrowed my brow knowing that I had never broken 5:00 let alone 4:45 for a mile. As the banner came closer, the KM became clearer and there was a collective sigh of relief. When the first mile marker did come around, I was happy to see a more cautious 7:15.
The crowd began to thin out some around mile 2 but I could feel the full effect of the sun and thought about ditching the sleeves. Trekking past mile 3 a pack of kids were huddled together but one in particular stuck out. He had on faded blue jeans, hands shoved in his pockets, a blue and black flannel shirt, and a blond crew cut. He reared back as I went by, and with as much conviction as a four-year-old can muster, he screamed, "Believe in yourselves!" I don't know why, but I could have broken down then and there and started crying and I don't know I could tell you why. "Keep it together man, we've got a long way to go," I told myself.
I checked my splits and saw 21 and change on my watch as we coasted through 5K. It was at this point that I tried to summon the long runs I've done through the training program and the various courses I ran. I thought this might bring some good karma, so my 18-miler on the Mt. Vernon trail came to mind and how, at this point, I'd be turning around to head back toward Gravelly Point on my way out to Roosevelt Island. It helped some, but I started to feel like I might be in trouble.
I did a quick mental check. This was no ordinary long run. Legs: good. IT band: good. Breathing: good. Head: so-so. I started to feel a little foggy. My pace had dropped into the 6:45 range, nothing strange about that, but from time-to-time, that quicker pace puts me off kilter a bit. I was locked into the pace, seemingly running well, but couldn't get out of my own head, couldn't find the flow I wanted, and just felt like I was battling the race so far. In hindsight, I'm wondering if the constant change in terrain, up then down, then down some more, then up again, made it difficult to find that rhythm. I wanted it to end. I wanted to be done.
At 10K, I crossed the chip reader and thought about everyone in my office, my friends, and my family who'd signed up for the athlete alerts. Hopefully they'd be sharing in my relief that everything had held through 10K. That gave me a little jolt and carried me through 10 miles.
I like to break the marathon down into two, ten mile segments, then simply gut out the last 10K. In fact, "Guts" was my mojo word for this race. Passing 10, I still felt like I was in trouble. I closed my eyes for moments at a time, trying to steal some serenity and reset things. I told myself that if I could get to the half, the tunnel of Wellesley girls would carry me at least a few more miles. So, I locked in to conquering that 5K.
It sucked! I could already feel my hips starting to hurt, but a mental weight lifted when I saw the sign that we were entering the town of Wellesley. People talk about the Wellesley girls, but the residents of the town deserve a shout out as well. They are out in full force with signs, cowbells, four deep at points, and screaming their lungs out.
Leaving the town, the course gets wooded and you can start to hear it. It's a slow, gathering roar that continues collecting, growing stronger until it's upon you: the screams of hundreds of college girls. It is ear-piercing, but most of all it's adrenaline pumping. If ever there was a way to get your mind off of being miserable, running past the girls of Wellesley will do it. Coupled with this, I knew there was a chance Rachel and her dad may have made the trip out to cheer me on here. So, I was being carried by the noise and the hope of seeing them.
What I will always remember about this part of the course is not the noise level going through it, but how long you can hear it after you've gone by. I swear I could hear them a half mile down the road.
The next big landmark was the sign for Newton. Home of the hills. Still on 2:58:00 pace, I had a renewed sense of vigor. My head was clear and my legs were churning. I looked at this section of the course for 16 weeks since the course map was posted on our fridge. Every time I wanted OJ, went to make my lunch, or add half-and-half to my coffee, I was reminded of the hills.
I felt like I glided up the first hill, though it seemed never ending. I used the downhill to catch my breath and find my stride again. I knew that if I could make it through Newton, not only would I be passed Heartbreak, but I'd be at mile 21.
We made the right turn at the fire station at mile 17 and chugged up the second of the four hills. This one took a toll on my quads but I kept driving my arms forward, keeping my eyes on the curving hill, and passing a few who had started cramping.
My pace had noticeably slowed here, but I put the sub-3:00:00 out of my mind and just focused on tackling each hill as it came.
My hips were on fire now and my IT band started to twinge just on the outside of my knee. I started to feel awful and felt the life flow out of me. I wanted to walk so badly but demanded my body continue driving forward. The mental tug of war began and I remember thinking that if my IT band burned badly enough, I'd have my built in excuse. I could walk. I could walk it in. And the pain could end.
But I crested the third hill and the pain disappeared. Mixed emotions, here.
Finally, Heartbreak Hill came. BC students screamed, cheered, belted out encouragement like only drunk college kids can do. I fought the urge to stop again, if only to get away from their shouts. I didn't want to stop in front of them, somehow I felt I'd be letting them down. The ITB burned again, and again I welcomed it because it might mean I could stop. Bill Bowerman dramatically said on one of his first jogs, "I kept going through the pain only with the hope that it might kill me."
A stoplight glowed at the top of Heartbreak and I threw a lasso around it with my eyes and let it guide me up the rest of the way. I relished the downhill that came after it even though so many have said that that's where they truly lose it, their quads giving way or hamstrings cramping. I just glided down, somewhat disembodied.
At mile 23, clouds had rolled in and chill came to the air. I was thankful I had not ditched the sleeves. And it was here you could steal glances of the Citgo sign and Prudential Center if the building gaps were just right. Still wanting to call it quits here, my hips tightening, my will dying, the sub-3:00:00 long gone, I wanted to stop, walk in if I could, desperate to be finished. I swore at myself. I didn't care anymore. A requalifying time was still within reach but what would it get me? If I didn't make it, I wouldn't have to subject myself to this again. Then I heard someone belting out my name, "Yeah Brad! Gooo Brad Gooo!" I turned and saw my friend Brent running along side me, pumping his fist and screaming like a madman. I raised my arm to him, felt the chill of adrenaline shiver through my body, and knew that I could keep going.
Finally, the Citgo sign came up beside me. One mile to go. The crowd was tremendous. We ran out of real estate and hooked a right turn onto Hereford street. "Is this it?" I thought. "Are we there? No? No, it ends on Boylston street." Up a slight hill and you could see the sign: Boylston street. The crowd was frothing now. I begged to be able to see the finish after that turn onto Boylston. Sure enough, the great blue banner was off in the distance.
My stride grew longer, the arms pumping fluidly. Yes, I was going to make it now. Off to my right, I spotted Rachel hanging over the barricade yelling for me, behind her my dad and father-in-law. That was all I needed. I took off for the finish. A brisk 400m left until the merciful end of my first Boston Marathon.
When it was over, my body from hips on down clinched. I teetered along with the rest of the walking dead, accepting water, a blanket, the medal. We passed through like ghosts in a graveyard, no one saying much. I had requalified in 3:09:25. But that was farthest from my mind. I thought about where I'd come from. Seeing my family at the end. And I thought of that kid at mile 3. I fought for control, overriding the involuntary face contortions when you're trying not to cry.
I finally made it to the family and was embraced hard by all three and that's when the tears finally came and I couldn't pinpoint why or how to stop them.
"How do you feel?" they asked.
"Awful," I said. And we all laughed.
Rachel shouldered me to the curb and I stripped off my singlet. She handed me my Boston marathon tee. I stopped to rub the stiffness out of my hips and stretch out my quads. Then, I took careful measure to slowly pull on THE jacket I had coveted for six years....
I started this blog toward the end of 2009. Named it after one sentence that caught my attention in the book "Again to Carthage." Then asked followers to come with me on my ride to the finish of my first Boston marathon.
I want to say thanks to everyone who's supported me (and put up with me) for the past two years. Thanks for all your support, kind words, and comments in this space.
Of course, the journey doesn't end here. I'll just need a new subtitle.
Back at the hotel, I got asked if I would do Boston again and my immediate answer was no.
Three hours later in the airport, sitting around, seeing all the finishers medals, the jackets, a wry smile crossed my face. I looked at Rachel and said, "I think I'll do it again."
"Everyone who finishes the Boston Marathon has their own great moment in sport - each one of us on this day has achieved greatness."
-George Sheehan, M.D.