Marathon Monday arrives in a hotel room outside Boston, and the three alarms (cell phone, alarm clock, wake-up call) are unheeded because I've been awake for an eternity. I'm surveying a few essentials for the umpteenth time – as if my Body Glide (to non-runners this is not as fun as it sounds) or cell phone magically sprouted feet and ran away. Irrational thoughts are the norm on Marathon Morning.
Nervous energy is coursing through me like a river about to overrun its banks. I record no fewer than FOUR emergency contact numbers on the back of my bib. The temps will reach 89 on the race course, and ever the planner, better to have too many people to call than not enough.
This is my fifth consecutive time at Boston, and I fully understand this event is an exercise in logistics in addition to physical exertion. Currently, the decision to pack or not pack my cell phone is stressing me out beyond belief. I have never started a marathon and questioned finishing, but Monday's race was unlike any of the previous 11 marathons I ever have run. I considered: "What if I bail, and my cell phone, my life line, is in bag drop at the finish line?"
I take a yoga breath, hold for a brief moment at the top of my inhale, exhale, say the equivalent of "what the hell," drop the phone in my bag and head for a chartered bus with about 25 other runners for a journey to Hopkinton, 26.2 miles away from Boston.
We already are one man down as one of my dearest running friends, Kent Prizer, 62 years young, veteran of 100 marathons, including 23 CONSECUTIVE Bostons, and a few sub-3 hour races, shakes his head sadly, and says two words that rattle me to my core: "I'm out." He will be one of the 400 or so runners defering to run another day. The decision, he said, more excruciating because we vowed to start the race together, share some laughs and commiserate for about four hours. I wrap him up in a huge bear hug and lower my eyes to the bottom of my Brooks Pure Flow running shoes. I feel tears damming up in my eyes about to spill over. I know how important the streak, running and finishing are to him. How he not just loves, but reveres this race. I sip some Gatorade like a shot of courage, vow to run a few miles on his behalf. The bus pulls away as he is left to wave goodbye from the hotel parking lot.
We arrive to the picturesque town of Hopkinton home to the start of the Boston Marathon, New England saltbox homes and just 2,500 people, all of whom I think come out to cheer us. People always ask why the Boston Marathon starts at 10 a.m. – a good two hours later than most marathons. Part of the reason is the logistical nightmare of bussing 25,000 runners from downtown Boston to this tiny town where the start is more quaint than glamorous as we begin our jaunt down a narrow two-lane asphalt road, actually named Main Street.
Runners ditch their drop bags on school buses, I leave my bag with previous cell phone inside and realize while Kent is out, I'm now, "All in." IN to run for the euphoria I feel when I run distance, a literal rush regardless of pace. IN to revel in a day I feel like an athletic rock star, where the throngs cheer you for simply doing what comes most naturally, running. IN to stay OUT of the medical tent. IN to run for people who are too tired, old, sick, or dead to even run a mile. IN to exemplify what it means to persevere for my son Dylan, 8. IN to survive and have war stories that will likely grow exponentially when I'm lying on a beach chatting with my running pals, drinking a Shiner Bock when I'm70.
In the starting corral, the sun is piercing me, its rays like daggers. I've donned 60 SPF sunscreen, and I feel like I'm cooking under an electric heat lamp. I'm trying to ignore sweat pours off me, and I am not yet running. I've dropped up to seven pounds of water weight on 20-mile long runs in the Texas heat. I credit fellow runner, Strider and most importantly friend Adam Barth, veteran of the "hot Chicago" in 2007 where the race was suspended due to 88-degree heat with this advice: "Run with a hat and carry your Nathan handheld water bottle." I'm clutching my water bottle like Linus with his security blanket. My hat became a house for bags of ice I would put on my head. The bottle meant I could hydrate on demand, not wait for water stops. This totally saved me.
For me, the start of the marathon allows me to finally breathe a palpable sigh of relief. If I have tapered properly, it means I've put my body on furlough for a couple of weeks, not complete unemployment, but given it rest and recovery to take me on a mighty long journey. I feel like I'm chomping at the bit to run that 8:00 pace I was hoping for, but that will equal disaster on par with the Hindenberg. Never in my life have so many people implored me to run slow.
It's a great life lesson. So many times we are concerned with getting from Point A to Point Z, we've missed all those letters in between – so this race was about 26 water stops it takes to get to the end. Or so I was told by a guy named Frank. He last ran Boston in 1988. He was turning 60 the day after the race. I insisted fellow runners raise a chorus to him and wish him an early happy birthday. He told us no, we needed to conserve our energy. Nonsense I told him. So we serenaded him somewhere along mile 15 at the top of our lungs. We celebrated his birthday and by running, we were simply celebrating life.
Among those I was honored to share the course with was Team Hoyt. I saw Dick Hoyt, who pushes his son Rick in marathons across the country in a wheelchair to say, "Yes you CAN!". I ran past a man with a steel rod for a leg and said a quick prayer of praise thanking God I was still upright on two legs. I ran past military personnel dressed in full cammo gear with backpacks and thanked them for their service.
I got to Wellesley, a place where you hear screaming girls a la "I love Justin Bieber" with signs urging runners to stop and swap some sweat. I think I somehow spied the only guy in the crowd. He toted a sign saying, "Kiss me, I'm from Texas!" I came to a dead stop. "Are you really from Texas?" He assured me he was. I gave him a quick peck and took off on my way.
I took blocks of ice when it was offered and profusely thanked volunteers who were doing lifesaving work whether they knew it or not.
I jogged and slogged up hills from miles 17-21 and hit the top of Heartbreak Hill and decided to hell with hellish conditions. Perhaps the best mile came right around mile 25, when my dear friend, fellow foodie and partner in post-beer long run shenanigans at 9:00 a.m., Rachel Hanson leapt out of the crowd and ran with me for about a mile. I almost cried at the sight of her. At first I thought she was a mirage in the desert of this marathon.
"How are you doing?" she chirps.
"Hot, just really hot," I say.
"Yeah," says Rachel, whose wit is faster than her sub-20 minute 5K. She took the bait I was too tired to know I had even offered. "Yeah, you are running sooooo sexy right now."
She asked if she should talk to me, and I said, sure. She was perfect. She told me what I needed to hear. I was doing great, running so strong, how amazing it was in the heat. We hit mile 25 and she assured me I was almost done. I dug deep enough to almost reach what felt like the tip of my soul, ran the final 1.2 miles faster than any mile of the race – at 8:16 pace. She bailed out just as I hit Boylston Street assuring me I looked fantastic, and imploring me to RUN!
And I did. I ran like hell, or in my heart I did, to the finish, hands held high, tears of joy brimming my eyes to be done with this damn race. The time, 3:58:08, won't equal the best marathon finish ever, not by the longest of long shots, but great times aren't always measured in PRs.
Two days later in the afterglow of sunburn and delayed onset muscle fatigue, I cannot wait for Boston 2013, where I might just kick butt at Heartbreak Hill. Or I might not. I don't feel I need redemption from a race where I had the time of my life.