Boston Marathon

My first marathon took me over 5 hours to complete. I worked hard, stayed focused, and slowly chipped away at my time until was consistently running sub 4 hour races. Just when I thought running was all a matter of inputs, a string of injuries slowed me down. Healthy again, I set my sights on Boston only to fight my way through a year of disappointing races that kept me only minutes shy of the 3:40 qualifying time. During my 12th marathon, I finally ran a 3:33 and solidified my “worthiness” with 2 more BQs soon thereafter, including a 3:31 PR.

Truth be told, I have enjoyed telling my running “story” up until this point. Unfortunately, it also made me wonder if I had already experienced the most gratifying part of Boston- overcoming self doubt and learning what I was capable of in qualifying alone. No offense to Chinese Proverb, but whoever said “the journey is the reward” never ran Boston…

Trey and I arrived in Boston on Sunday morning. “Marathon Monday” is held on Patriots' Day, a public holiday celebrated in Massachusetts. Since the trip was short, it was important for me to spend time with friends and visiting family. Heather, Jack, and Amanda helped make this possible by fighting the expo crowds to pick up my bib/chip/shirt/goodies the day prior. Trey and I made our first stop at their “marathon brunch”, where the three of them made me feel like an absolute celebrity.

After a great walk around Boston Common and Public Garden, Mom joined Trey and I for a pre-race dinner. I wasn’t thinking too much about the race, but must have been overly excited at some level because I could not fall asleep! Two hours after lying down and assisted by 4 Tylenol PM, I finally got some shut eye!

On race day, Trey and Mom woke up early to walk me to my 6 am bus. Some marathons, like Chicago or Marine Corps, start and end at the same place. Boston, by contrast, is a point-to-point marathon- race; organizers must get all 26,000 runners to the starting line in Hopkinton for the run into downtown Boston.

On the grounds of Hopkinton High School, bagels, water, Gatorade, coffee, and massages were available at the Athlete’s Village. Since the race did not start until 10 am, it left plenty of time to either be nervous or social. I, of course, chose the latter. "Where did you qualify?" became a common conversation starter through which I met several Marathon Maniacs and North Carolinians.

Although I snagged a position in the first wave, I was in the 12th corral and waited 9 full minutes to even cross the starting line. I knew that the first four miles dropped downhill very quickly and tried to settle into a steady pace but still ending up a bit too fast with 51:05 at the 10K mark.

I have often said I don’t need spectators during a race but part of what makes Boston so special is the tremendous crowd support that exists all along the course. Even though it runs mostly through smaller, less populated areas before ending downtown, spectators turn out in ridiculous numbers on race day. Bands played from porches, parking lots, and chalked sidewalks. Oranges, vaseline, and water were available in every other outstretched hand. Balloons and motivational signs were everywhere. Residents of Hopkinton, Ashland, and Framingham greeted us with food, drink, high fives, and even invited us to autograph shirts! Kids lined the course with their hands out, begging for high fives. Despite the good advice of a fellow Maniac to reserve energy, I left no hand untouched.

My favorite part? Spectators not only recognized the “Suz” on my arms and shirt, they used it the entire race. I’m still not sure if it was the ease of a single syllable or my thumbs up reaction, but they shouted “SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOZZZE” and “SU-SU-SU-SU-SUZ!” so often that other runners around me commented on it! I even got a few “Go Suzz” (rhymes with “fuzz”), which I acknowledged and enjoyed.

It's always encouraging to see people you know, and knowing where to look for them gives you a goal that helps break the race into more manageable segments. Seeing Amanda, Heather, and Jack at mile 10 gave me an amazing boost- they even had signs for me that “honored” our college days! High on the feeling of seeing my friends, the next couple of miles flew by.

Prior to arriving, I had read about “scream tunnel” at Wellesley College, whose students offered what was supposed to be the best support along the course with an almost deafening, high energy “wall of sound”. The skeptic in me had to wonder whether the students actually provide this kind of volume for the entire race…hearing them just before the 12 mile mark (knowing they were physically at mile 13) left no doubt that they do. By the time I reached the campus itself at the half (1:48:39), the sound was overwhelming. Other marathons have inspirational moments, but no other marathon experience comes close to this one: the noise is unreal.

The hills of Newton make Boston an especially challenging course. After pounding your quads by running downhill during the earlier miles (don't be fooled- it is hard work) you now give your hamstrings and calves a beating as you climb the long, steep hills. The hills themselves aren't Pike’s Peak or anything, but placement on the course, at about 20 miles, poses an extraordinary challenge for even the best trained runners.

The energy of the crowds gave me a much-needed boost and, despite the increased gusts of wind, I felt strong and passed quite a few runners on the first and second hill. Even better, my 30K time was 2:46:39- proof that I had run a consistent race up until this point. Unfortunately, I thought there were only 3 hills in Newton. I know, what kind of marathon runner am I? Who puts the hammer down and charges up the third Newton hill thinking, “Oh, Heartbreak isn’t so bad! “? Pick me.

Since you have to qualify in order to run Boston, the field is not a random sample. These are all determined, experienced runners who ran very competitive qualifying times within the previous months. In short, these people are in excellent physical shape. Nevertheless, Heartbreak Hill exacts its punishment, and I was not the only runner to find myself panting and groaning up the half mile to the Boston College campus. However, I must admit that even during the race I was glad to be in pain at this specific point. I never imagined feeling good at this point in the race; if I had it would have meant one of two things: I had not worked hard enough up until that point or Heartbreak Hill was a bunch of hype. It was exactly how I wanted it to be- the worst part of the race.

Because it marks the beginning of the final mile of the marathon, the Citgo Sign is one of the most welcome landmarks on the Boston course. What I did not know at this point is the final mile is when you pass the sign- not when you see it. After a mile or so of thinking my Garmin was wrong, another runner told me to stop looking at the sign and instead just wait for the Sox fans, who would just be coming out of the game. High off of a win, they were as rowdy as I had hoped for (“Go SOOOOOOOOOOZZE!”) and before I knew it I really was at the final mile.

After the final turn onto Bolyston Street, I had no problem picking out the yellow and blue finish line spanning the street. Spectators lined up several people deep to watch and encourage the finishers and I squeezed every remaining bit of energy I had to cross the finish at 3:42:13. This was my 19th marathon and state- hands down the best “reward” I have earned in my running journey.