Why my most awful marathon experience is also my proudest

Last November, I learned a lesson: don’t be stupid. While I knew that lesson would be important for my first Boston Marathon, I had no idea it would be a matter of my health and well-being.

I waved off the hellish weather predictions for Marathon Monday, saying, “Forecasts are always wrong,” and, “New England weather changes every five minutes.” When the Boston Athletic Association sent their many heat-related warnings, some encouraging runners to bow out and defer, the HR professional in me said, “Eh, that’s for liability.” I prepared for abnormal heat, but it’s a freaking marathon– I was getting solid sleep, drowning myself in water, and increasing my sodium intake anyway.

It wasn’t until Sunday afternoon, when I was standing outside after a delicious RVRR brunch at The Beehive, that I finally understood. I was sweating. In the shade. And it was twelve degrees cooler than what was predicted for raceday. My plans for a personal best were absolutely, 100-percent out the window, and I began adjusting my goal.

Early Monday morning I met the RVRR crew on the corner of Tremont and Boyleston to take a team picture and board a bus to Hopkinton Middle School. The bus ride was the first memorable part of that day, as our driver got lost, asked a tollbooth worker how to get to 495 South, and later disregarded signs directing marathon buses to exit 21A, getting us lost a second time. When we finally arrived in Athlete’s Village, we spread our blankets under a tent and chilled, applying obscene amounts of Body Glide and sunblock, decorating our arms with permanent marker, and joking about how we had already planned on running easy to save ourselves for our upcoming London Olympic Marathon. (Hey, we can dream!)

Relaxing under one of the many, many, MANY tents in Athlete's Village.

Relaxing under one of the many tents in Athlete's Village.

Twenty minutes after the first wave of marathoners were called, wave two mobilized, and my teammate Lesley and I trekked in the sun to the start, located .7 miles away from the middle school. Lesley is a wonderful friend, an indescribably inspiring teammate, and a fellow summer girl, and I am so thankful we could share our first Boston together. At the line, Lesley and I gave each other a quick hug, jumped into our corrals, and before I knew it, we were off. I spent the first mile alternatively tearing up (starting my dehydration extra early- headsmack) and smiling like an idiot. And that’s why I clocked a 7.14 first mile.

Oops.

Pulled myself together, reeled in the pace, and started my on-course hydrating. The marathon had decently frequent water stations manned by excellent volunteers, but the spectators made the number of official hydration stops seem miniscule. The entire course was lined with families, Sox fans (gaaah!!), and students offering wet towels, ice cubes, water, Gatorade, popsicles, beers, pretzels, sprinklers, and even a sludgy, yet appealing, kiddie pool at mile 20 (that I unfortunately missed). It was incredible. The Boston Marathon spectators are seasoned spectating veterans. These people should be professionals. This is not to say that the official Boston Marathon volunteers weren’t aid-bearing angels sent from Heaven, but the unexpected community support was just astounding.

After a few miles in the sun, every marathoner went from being a TAPER MADNESS-plagued germaphobe to a total slob, reaching sweaty hands deep into communal buckets of ice, grabbing cups of water from children and drunk frat boys, and passing sketchy hand towels around before dunking them back into trash cans of water filled from someone’s garden hose. Quarter mile after quarter mile, after quarter mile. It didn’t matter. Every drop of cool liquid was MIRACULOUS.

I ate half a banana by mile eight, and saw my family at mile ten. I was a hideous, but ecstatic, wet mess, feeling good but really feeling the heat. My mom, Aunt Kathy, and Uncle Willem gave me hugs (“It’s just water, I swear!!”) and high fives, and my uncle yelled, “You’re too fast! You’re too fast,” as I ran off. I knew he was right, but I gave myself two more miles to decide my next move.

What's even better than seeing your friends during a marathon? Seeing your family.

It was around mile twelve that runners started showing their exhaustion. Countless runners stopped and stretched, or threw their hands on their head and walked. Having walked in my last marathon, this disturbed me. Every walker left me feeling more and more unsettled. In an effort not to repeat the Great Philadelphia Marathon Disaster of 2011, I made the decision at mile twelve to slow down to a comfortable pace and cruise, at least until I passed Newton. The constant fluid intake and innumerable ice cubes shoved into my sports bra only did so much in terms of damage control, and I was determined to cross the finish line with a satisfied smile on my face.

Lesley caught up to me before the half, looking strong and smiling. We ran through the Scream Tunnel of Wellesley together, which was fantastic. We heard the dull roar of the infamous Wellesley girls at least a half mile away, and the volume of the cheers as we ran by was astronomical. The mile through Wellesley was the only one I remember having shade, but cruelly, it was on the same side as the girls, who were attracting all types of runners to suddenly dart over for a kiss, startling other runners in their way. Les and I opted to take the sun rather than get cut off by men looking for a smooch, or get accosted by the girls. This was a wise decision. (Though I almost hugged the girl whose sign read, “Kiss me, I’m from Jersey,” and laughed out loud at the, “Kiss me, I love beards” sign, which I knew my friend Dave would appreciate.)

Les took off after the half, running a solid pace and looking good going into Newton. I buckled back into my comfortable pace, and swooped through some downhills before seeing the “Entering Newton” sign. The hills started almost immediately, with the first being the most hideous in my mind. It was earlier than I had expected, and about a half-mile long. I thought back to my normal hilly club runs and most recent beatdown of the Indian Trails 15k, and dug in.

Newton flew by. The hills were pretty miserable, but the heat felt worse. I wasn’t actually aware that I was running Heartbreak Hill until I saw bright pink, chalk-drawn “broken heart” on the pavement. Score! I looked at the euphoric faces of the best marathon spectators in the world, as they told me exactly what I needed to hear. “Run smart!” “Dig, dig, dig!” “You can do this!” “Ice cold beer!”

Wait.

BEER!! COLD beer!!! I looked up Heartbreak and saw the most glorious red sign on the left side of the road: Boston Hash House Harriers. I mustered up a hearty, “ON ON,” and grabbed a small cup of the lightest beer I’d had in a long time. It was delicious. That beer, and the accomplishment of beating the Newton hills, kept my spirit way up through Boston College and the downhills that come as a cruel reward for the huge climbs.

I caught a glance of the renowned Citgo sign after mile 24, which really got me going. I had heard that the Citgo sign was “basically the finish.” I knew I had at least a mile and a half, according to the mile markers, but it looked so close! I wish I could say that was so inspired that I threw myself into gear and charged toward Boston, but I actually got distracted by a child offering a towel soaked in ice water (JACKPOT!) and then grudgingly forced myself to go a little quicker.

As I approached the Citgo sign I saw that not only was it NOT the finish, it was also at the top of another hill. This hill, just before mile 25, was my personal Heartbreak. I had read about Heartbreak Hill being a real soul-crusher, the one that will take your spirit and pound it into submission. Not so. This short, yet horribly-placed, overpass on the Mass Pike was the only point of the race where I thought, “I am going to punch the person who made this course.” The overpass was completely unprotected and the crosswinds no longer felt good. There were only a handful of spectators, who, understandably, seemed too hot and miserable to cheer. At the crest of Heartbreak Jr, I looked to the right and had a great view of Fenway Park, which currently housed thousands of Sox fans (and probably a few unwise Tampa Bay fans), and celebrated it’s 100 year anniversary only a few days after the marathon. (and lost to the Yankees on that anniversary. Ha!)

We reached Kenmore Square and the fans lining the street looked to be at least eight-deep. I had hoped the buildings in Boston would provide some shade, but they didn’t. Fortunately the spectators were so loud here that I couldn’t help but pick up the pace. Someone yelled, “You’re almost there,” and it was the first time in a race that I didn’t respond with eye-rolling. I really was!!! I spotted shade at the bottom of a steep downhill that cuts under Mass Ave, and nearly lost my legs running toward it. The pain of that downhill took me by surprise, and climbing out hurt like heck, but man, that shade was heavenly.

Right on Hereford, left on Boyleston, and there it was: the finish! At this point, my brain went a little wacky. “I’m done!!!!! Wait, is that the finish!??!? Didn’t I just pass mile 25 not long ago?? Shoot, it’s got to be another of those damn race photos. That’s so mean. I’m going to write them a really angry letter. But isn’t that the Boston Public Library?? Hmm…” And then I passed the 26-mile mark. Oh. “WOOHOOO!”

Crossing the finish line, I knew I couldn’t have had a better experience that day. As my new friend Angela said, ” I think I’m a bit spoiled for having run Boston and experiencing a 26.2 mile wall of people.” The support from spectators and volunteers may never be topped in any of my future marathons, but that’s okay. While I hope every single one of them comes out for my next Boston, I hope I never need them as badly as I did this year.

My memories of my first Boston will always be both awful and awesome. I saw more defeated runners than I could ever have imagined, and the thought of those runners still puts a knot in my stomach… but I also saw the greatest outpouring of support I have ever witnessed, and was coherent enough to enjoy and appreciate every second of it. Although I finished fifteen minutes off my original goal, I finished the race in hellish conditions and finished with a smile on my face. Mission accomplished.

Thank you to my family and friends near and far, and my courageous and unstoppable teammates, who kept me sane from Hopkinton Middle School to the post-race family meeting area. Because of the wonderful people in my life, I will run Boston again, and I will go into it without dread or fear.

Unless I ever decide to wear a Yankees jersey. I better be fearful if I ever get that crazy.

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9 thoughts on “Why my most awful marathon experience is also my proudest

  1. Nice report and congrats to your first Boston finish! I suspected the same about those BAA advisories, but boy was I wrong! Hopefully, Boston will offer a better running condition next year.

  2. SOOOO good, this post is making me late for work!! Nice job, Runner Girl!!
    Those Boston people, say what you will about their baseball team, really know how to throw a marathon and support the entrants. From the people on the streets to the staff at the hotel, honestly, no one could have topped these Beantown folk. Kudos, Boston! We thank you!

  3. awesome, awesome, awesome post! i felt the same way about the overpass by Fenway, it’s very cruel. thanks for sharing your experience (and for the shoutout!!!)!

  4. I told you that Boston was amazing! Congratulations on running in such CRAZY conditions with a pretty smile on your face. I’m proud of you!

  5. Pingback: I’m blaming it on nature. « Run like a girl

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