Trails of Glory
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Tuesday, April 29, 2014
MY FIRST BOSTON MARATHON EXPERIENCE - 2014
The 2014 trip to Boston would be my first. I had never been to New England or run the famous Boston Marathon. I have completed over 50 marathons and ran Boston qualifying times in almost everyone of them. I had been continually asked over the years by fellow runners, family, and co-workers, "Are you going to run Boston?"
"No...why would I?" The travel costs and logistics of finding a place to stay, and the horror stories of standing around in corralled waiting areas for hours prior to the start of the race; none of this sounded fun to me. Another major factor against running Boston for me and my Guard team running compatriots is the fact that the National Guard trials marathon is only two weeks after the Boston race. Who would run Boston and expect to run a fast enough time 13 days later at Lincoln, risking not making the team for the upcoming year?
Well, after the tragedy of the Boston Marathon finish line 2013, I and every other marathoner that could qualify wanted to be in Boston April 21, 2014 to help support the event and community by displaying our presence in defiance of terrible acts of wrongdoing. I ran a minus 20 minute Boston qualifier and was reasonably certain I could attain a spot in this year's expanded field of 36,000 runners. The Guard team was also eager to represent so I traveled with a small contingent of the team. I showed up for the first time in 24 years of running marathon races.
Trish and I flew out of Phoenix on Saturday two days before the Monday race. We found a non-stop 5 plus hour flight into Logan Airport. As soon as we boarded the plane I recognized Shalane Flanagan sitting in the first row of first class. She is currently the best female marathoner in the U.S. and was heading to Boston to run her own amazing race (7th place and 3-minute PR in 2:22). The flight was filled with runners all making their own pilgrimage to the running Mecca of Beantown. The entire flight experienced abnormal turbulence. The flight attendants had their hands full trying to keep a hundred hydrating runners in their seats and out of the aisles standing in bathroom lines.
We stayed at the Constitution Inn in Charlestown, northeast of downtown Boston. The Freedom Trail right outside our door led us past the USS Constitution and the Bunker Hill Monument. Saturday evening we walked over to Warren Tavern and enjoyed a pint of Harpoon IPA. The tavern dates back to 1780 and is known for George Washington's visits for "refreshments."
On Sunday I went over to the race expo to get my race number and packet. Luckily this was the third day of the expo and many runners had already been there. It was still very busy and was abuzz with excitement and energy. Later that afternoon we stopped for lunch at a brewpub downtown next to TD Garden where the Bruins and Celtics play. There happened to be a hockey playoff game that afternoon and downtown was filled with fans wearing jerseys and pre-lubing for the game.
Finally the day of the race arrived. Boston Marathon starts unusually late in the morning compared to other races. This year they developed a 4-wave start, each 25 minutes apart with the first wave starting at 10am. Each wave was separated into 9 corrals all according to your qualifying time. I was in wave 1, corral 7, number 6433. We got dropped off by our support people at the final bus transport to Hopkinton Village. At 9am the first wave was allowed to leave for the .7 mile stretch to the start line. I spent a long time waiting in line at the port-o-johns and eventually jogged to the start around 9:30. Plans were made the previous week to meet my friend Tim Vandervlugt at the start so we could run together. He had the same wave and corral as me and with only 1,000 people in each corral I didn't think it would be that hard to find him. We agreed to meet one-third of the way back on the left hand side. I got there and looked around until less than one minute before the start when he showed up.
The weather turned out to be perfect. It was a sunny day in the low 50s with a light tailwind and a predicted high of 65 degrees. There were already hundreds of people outside of the corrals cheering for runners and offering last minute support in the form of Vaseline, band-aids, and water. There was even a group of college students offering beer, cigarettes, and donuts. A vibration of excitement filled the air as the Star Spangled Banner was sung followed by a 4-ship Blackhawk helicopter flyover. The start-gun went off and we began to walk toward the start line. It would take 5 minutes to reach the actual start before we clicked on our watches and the chip on our race bibs gave proof we had crossed the line.
My plan was to run 7:15 mile pace with Tim for 13-16 miles. Tim expressed that from there he wanted to pick-up the pace and see what he could do. I knew that I needed to purposely slow the pace after the halfway mark in order to save some energy for Lincoln in two weeks. We started out easily amongst a throng of screaming spectators. Shortly the course was lined in trees instead of people and many runners peeled off to relieve themselves after standing in line too long holding their water. This looked like a good idea and was the perfect time to take care of business. With the pit stop our first mile clocked 7:41.
Our pace quickly settled in around 7 minutes as the first part of the race course is slightly downhill. The pack did not thin out as we ran elbow to elbow and had to keep an eye out not to step on heels. The spectators along the course were like nothing I had ever witnessed. The entire route was lined with cheering and screaming fans. They were shouting, "U..S..A.., U..S..A..," and singing "Sweet Caroline," by Neil Diamond. The runners joined in on the chants and sang along with the chorus. It was incredible! I have never experienced this before, it was spiritual and motivational.
After 8 miles the pack had still not thinned out very much. My right ankle was aching a bit probably from wearing lightweight trainers instead of the Hokas I had been training in. Occasionally it seemed that the temperature was getting warmer and it might become hot but then we ran through a shady stretch and a light breeze cooled us off again. Tim and I decided to keep up the 7 minute pace until after the famous Wellesley College section of screaming female fanatics at mile 13. Around mile 12 I could hear the girls from a half-mile away. Many of them were holding signs describing their ethnicity or special talents that could be transferred to a runner by giving them a kiss. I watched many male runners zip over to the side and get a smooch. I ran by low-fiving their outstretched hands and grinning ear to ear as the high pitch of frenzied excitement continued for almost 2 miles.
After Wellesley Tim kept up the pace and I slowed to 7:30 miles. My feet and ankles were feeling the effect of pavement pounding so I lessened my pace to that of a comfortable long run. This would last until Heartbreak Hill. Never running the course before and hearing stories I could only visualize Heartbreak Hill on an elevation map. It didn't look like much but then again you have to run 20 miles to get to it. There was a hill right after the 19-mile marker that I thought was Heartbreak but it was too short. Shortly after the 20-mile marker I experienced the Heartbreak. Due to the hill it turned out to be my slowest mile split of the race at 7:50. I managed to run every step and not give into the temptation to take a walk break. At this point in the race there were dozens of people walking on the sides of the street. Whenever the desire to slow down to a walk occurred I moved over to the right side of the road and slapped hands with the multitudes of children waving their hands out for high-fives. The influx of energy and emotion from the crowd kept me moving.
With 10K to the finish my legs were tired and I searched for each mile marker. The crowds lining the course were three to five rows deep and the cheering was deafening. There were people standing on mailboxes and milk crates. At mile 24 it began to sink in that my journey on the historic Boston Marathon course would be over in 15 minutes. Part of me didn't want the race to end but physically I was aching to cross the finish line and stop and find my wife Trish.
I passed the "1K to go" marker which is just over half of a mile and then shortly after that made a left turn onto Boylston Street where last year's tragic events unfolded in the form of a terrorist bomb. Last year's horrific human-caused tragedy resulting in hundreds of injuries and three deaths would be transformed this year into a determined celebration of life. At this time the thoughts and scenes from last year did not surface as I went by mile 26 and surged for 2 tenths of a mile in order to cross the finish line amidst a screaming mob of cheers. Shortly after I stopped and walked a couple hundred feet on painful feet, ankles, and knees I collected my finisher's medal. I finally found and captured the elusive unicorn.
My finish time of 3:11:51 hopefully would prove that I saved a little for the trials in two weeks. At the 13.1 mark I was at 1:33 so my second half was 8 minutes slower than the first half. This is typical but the closer the gap is for the better. It indicates a more even paced race throughout. When the difference is over 10 minutes it usually means that you crashed and burned somewhere after 16 miles and much suffering took place. This wasn't the case for me as I managed to run every step of the way. Every finisher was provided with a lightweight poncho to keep warm and then walked through a gamut of food and drink giveaways.
The pain of running 26.2 miles slowly dissipated as I found Trish and other friends who had already finished their race. It turned out to be a beautiful afternoon in Boston on Victory Day. As we walked the 2 miles back to our hotel we noticed all of the pubs and restaurants were filled with people watching the marathon on television and enjoying libations. For the Boston Marathon, community, spectators, and runners around the world, they got their city and their marathon back. This is one day that I will never forget.