1 Lucky runner
May 31, 2016: A long and winding road
2016 Boston Marathon -----April 18, 2016
Most runners know about the Boston Marathon, and come to know the history of the thing as well as the distance, location and significance. Non-runner not so much, that is, unless they have a runner in their lives, well they probably get the location part. Me, I’m a little different on this one. Boston has been significant to me since I was 12. My 6th grade teacher, Ray Wood, was a runner who ran Boston a number of times and like any runner he talked about his running. Even without his talking about running, the fact that he would run to and from work (for him), school for me brought it to the attention of his students.
He was a tall, thin angular man who could often be seen running around town, wearing a green wind shirt with a yellow horizontal stripe across his chest. It was almost like some sort of uniform for him. I remember him taking aspirin on a regular basis because of tendonitis (we kids had no idea what that was) and washing the aspirin down with coke. He told stories of long runs where his wife would set out milk jugs filled with water at regular intervals. He told us of Rosie Ruiz who had cheated at Boston 2 years earlier, of wearing nylons under his socks and glopping on Vaseline to avoid blisters. (Thank goodness for polyester socks and body glide.) He even told us about Pheidippides and his fateful run from Marathon to Athens to announce “Victory” over the Persians, only to fall over dead after delivering his message.
I marveled at the idea of running 26.2 miles. Cripes, that’s farther than from I. Falls to Little Fork. Which is 20 miles, the only comparable distance my 12 year old mind could wrap itself around. A drive that seemed to take an eternity when we went there to visit the Oien branch of the family. Mr. Wood ran that far, I was amazed. I had some idea of distance as I had a bike with a speedometer and a paper route that was about 4 miles in length. Every day I would think of Mr. Wood running 6 and ½ times my paper route and wonder how anybody could possibly do such a thing. It boggled my mind.
I understood the Boston Marathon to be an annual thing for him, but am not certain. At the time I thought Boston was the only marathon. Today, that seems silly, but one must remember how different the world was back then. Social media was done via a face to face visit, a speaker to ones ear, microphone close to the mouth and a wire connected to the wall, or through the post office. I know, I know, how did we survive in such a savage time?
Beginning in 1982 I wanted to be a runner, I really did, but it just wasn’t in the cards for me, not then anyway. I was a chubby little bastard who ran, if you could call it that, quite awkwardly. My feet swung out and around to come forward, my heels hit first and my forefoot would slap down. It was awful. When I would do anything like sprinting I pictured myself looking like a mess of flailing appendages much like Scooby or Shaggy. If I jogged it felt less obscene and I seemed to be able to jog quite a distance. As a matter of fact I would jog most of my paper route some days. I never understood (even though Mr. Wood tried to explain) that I could turn that jogging into running with a little consistent work. Mr. Wood knew I wanted to emulate him in his hobby and was very encouraging, but it just didn’t take.
Five years later I joined the Army and had to run. My legs didn’t swing as radically, but I still “flapped” a good bit. My D.I.s, in their infinite wisdom, made me a crossing guard during P.T. runs. I would run at the front of the company and stand at intersections, legs apart, right arm out with the palm up to stop oncoming traffic until the whole company passed the intersection. I would then have to sprint to the front of the company before we got to another intersection. Today I would call this a good training session of hard fartlecking. After the Army I quit running, but Boston was always there.
In 2001 I finally took up running as a winter fitness maintenance activity, but would go back to my bike in the summer as I really didn’t enjoy running. I even ran the only local race I knew of in 2003 and 04. A 10k. By the spring of 04 I knew one had to qualify to get into Boston. To that end I began training for Grandma’s Marathon as it is a qualifying race and just down in Duluth. It was not to be as my marathon dreams died one Sunday morning when I ran 8 miles. It wasn’t an exceptionally hard run, physically, but I was SOOOO BOOOOOORED. I counted mailboxes, timed myself between well-known landmarks and did so much math, so much math, so, very, much, math in an effort to distract myself. None of it helped, so I got on my bike and quit running for the summer. This was pretty much my pattern until 2009.
In 2009 I signed up for and got into the Gary Bjorklund ½ marathon. I trained for and “ran” this race. It turned out to be quite hot compared to what I had come across in training and basically I just melted. No way was I ever gonna run a marathon, let alone get to Boston.
On to 2010 and I signed up for Grandma’s Marathon. This ended up being pretty much the same as the previous year’s half marathon, just longer. Somehow I convinced myself that since I died running 13 miles I could double the distance and do it well. Me smart.
For 2011 I came up with a better plan, was executing it rather well, but the long runs were wearing on me. My marriage was failing and the long runs just gave me too much time to think about all that was wrong. On an April Saturday morning I was scheduled to run 18 miles I awoke to 3 inches of wet, slushy snow and sub-freezing temps. I remember looking out the window at that shit and saying, "Screw it. This ain’t fun anymore.” I scrapped my marathon plans.
2012 brought about my return to Grandma’s and another abysmal run. The only highlight was actually beating Bob, but even that rang hollow as I just had the less bad day of the two of us. After this one I actually thought about not running anymore as it was just too frustrating to not achieve a goal over and over and over. A couple friends talked me into signing up with a training group to see if it would change my attitude. I ended up running the Whistle Stop Marathon that October and finally achieved my goal of running every step. It cost me dearly, as I ended up crawling up and sliding down the stairs of my house for 3 or 4 days after but I had made my goal. My time was way slow for a Boston qualifier, but I had made progress.
2013 Grandma’s should have been a good run, but it just seemed to fall apart, and though I could see it happening I couldn’t seem to do anything about it. I was training for triathlons and the marathon and I think I was just over trained, broke down and tired. No Boston.
In 2014 I ran a lot of races and had a lot of fun, but none were going to get me to Boston and I got burnt out. I got to a point where I loved the races, but performed poorly because I wasn’t training. It’s funny how much fitness you maintain with a little training. But general fitness and racing fitness are not the same thing.
To this point my best marathon was 20 minutes slower than my Boston qualifying standard. It was this realization that caused me to decide that I just wasn’t fast enough to get there. I’d never get to run the race that my revered teacher had told me about so many years ago.
I completely changed my plan going into Bjorklund ½ in 2015. Things were going so well that on May 30th I switched races from the ½ to the full marathon. When my training runs pointed to a possible BQ nobody was more surprised than I. With the help of one of my training partners, Tom, I not only qualified but managed to get in. No small feat in this, the second running boom.
So here I am, lying in the grass of the athlete’s village. A cordoned off, secured area set up on the football field of the Hopkinton School. I’ve been here for almost 2 hours and have one more to go. It’s beautiful day, clear blue sky, big yellow sun, sniper spotters on the school roof, and two helos flying standard observation/interception patterns overhead. Ahhhhhhh, what a wonderful world. Oh and one other thing, a recently divorced American woman and an Aussey flirting, but not quite saying what they want to say, until he finally gets the nerve to ask her what she’s doing after the race. REALLY!? I guess maybe it could work, but before she even began her response I could hear guitar chords from his countrymen being struck as he was shot down in flames. He was resilient and asked about the next night and her response was so whithery he got the hint and let up.
Shortly after this little bit of amusement I decided to head to the starting corrals as I was in need of using the portalet. As it turns out my timing was perfect. By the time I worked my way around, over and along the mass of people to the area that would allow me to access the road down to the starting line and porta potties the p.a. announced that my wave should be staging to head down to the starting corrals.
They’ve been having this race for long time now, 120 years as a matter of fact, so they have the system pretty dialed in. They gave us wave and corral assignments AND even had corrals. I worked my way over to my corral and struck up a bit of a conversation with one fellow who had run Boston three times previously. He gave me a bunch of advice in such a rapid fire succession I would have had to record it to be able to follow his directions. After somewhere between 10 and 200 hundred bits of information he stopped, looked at me and said, “You qualified to get here so I suppose you know how to do this.” I smiled, shrugged and replied, “Let’s hope so.” While thinking, “I’m already hot, so it’s likely to be a shit show, no matter what I do.” We talked a little more until we had to separate and go to our respective corrals.
Once in my corral I began to look in earnest for Tom and Allison. I was really wishing we had coordinated a little so we could at least do some “good lucking”. I really was hoping to talk them into running together in hopes of pushing each other a little. When the announcement came to start heading to the start line I gave up on finding them.
It’s about ¾ of a mile from the staging area to the start line. We walked down a small town street, looking at the local residents who in turn were looking at us. It felt a little like a science exhibit, but I wasn’t sure who was on display for whom.
As we entered the town proper the houses came to an abrupt halt and the port a johns came into view to our left. One glance at the lines and then my watch told me I didn’t have time for a pit stop. Then I noticed that a lot of people were stepping behind the port a potties and doing their business in the wilds, which was really just a vacant lot that was grown over with vines and grass, no real cover to speak of. I usually don’t do so well in a crowd, but this was an emergency so I found a place in the trough, so to speak, and tried to imagine myself alone, in a secluded clearing, deep in the forest. Not easy to do when people are bumping into you as they slide between you and the back side of the port a johns. I managed to get a flow going and for some reason I still can’t figure out I looked up and made eye contact with a woman who was squatting about 20 feet away from me. Miracle of miracles my bladder didn’t shut down. I REALLY had to go.
With that business done I headed to my corral and got there with about a minute to spare. I was standing there just long enough to notice that the woman next to me had a pace band for a 3:20:00 marathon. That just happened to be my goal so I made note of her hat and shirt and hoped to keep her in sight. I’d love to be able to tell you there was some dramatic event, like a shotgun blast, a trumpet blare or some such, maybe there was, but I didn’t hear it. The people in front of me started moving so I, like the good calf that I am, followed along with just a soft, “moooo” and a chuckle. We walked a few yards, began to jog as the start line came into view and almost immediately went back to a walk as we bunched up. A few steps later and we started jogging and built into a run as we stretched back out. Ahhhh, the old fast march accordion. Even 30 years after boot camp I remember you well if not fondly.
The race starts at on a hill and you run downhill for the better part of the first six miles. On any straight stretch my view was exactly the same, a sea of people 30 feet wide by whatever the distance to the next curve was. Only two places I’ve ever been compare, the main street at the MN State Fair and Times Square after dark, and they were faint comparisons at best. If we had been trying to go in different directions like the people at the other two sites I guarantee you we would have locked up tighter than an overheated engine in a desert drag race.
It took me no time at all to realize I’d be long on distance on this run. There was absolutely no way to run the tangents on the curves. If I had tried I would have had to run farther and change speed every few steps as I dodged other runners, so I decided to just run down the center line until I saw aid stations and then take the path of least resistance to whichever side it led. I would become water. I’m so zen. ;)
One thing about this race is that you are seeded by your qualifying time so in theory are starting with people who run your pace. I have to tell you it was a little slice of heaven to not have to dance and dodge past people who pushed their way to the front only to find that, “Yep, I really should have started with the 5:00:00 pace group.” And thank goodness this was not happening because I’m pretty sure it would have led to injuries galore.
Anyway, I had figured a way to set my garmin up to hopefully do for me what Tom did at Grandma’s Marathon last year… remind me to cool my jets and not run too fast too soon. I set it to buzz me if I was 8 seconds/mile faster than my goal pace or 7 seconds/miles slower. It worked perfectly. In the first few miles my garmin kept me mindful to not let the ease of descent carry me away. It seemed like even though it was hotter than I would have liked things might just work out.
There was a lot of downhill running in the first 5 or 6 miles and although I did a fair amount of hill running in training it just started to wear on me. I started to notice my right IT band (outside of the thigh from hip to knee) would give a little ache on impact, but I was able to ignore it, for a while anyway.
At this point I was still running in a sea of people, but had about a dozen that I recognized from the start corral within sight. One being the gal with the pace band, she was just a few steps ahead and running on the right side of the road. In hindsight this was probably a good move as she was in the shade more often than I. Boy, the sun was bright and I was starting to wish for just an occasional cloud. “A cloud, a cloud, my kingdom for a cloud!”
I had fashioned two water bottles with duct tape strapping so I could carry them without having to hold onto them. I figured between them and the aid stations there was no way I’d get dehydrated and I think my plan worked pretty well. I could carry them most comfortably with the bottles inside my grasp and the strap going over my knuckles and when I needed to use my hands I would put the bottles on the outside like some kind of Polish brass knuckles. Doing this allowed me to get a gel, a salt tablet or grab Gatorade at an aid station.
A number of things factored in to my eventual demise and missing my goal. I think the temperature was the biggest, because it affected more than making me hot. At the third aid station I got a cup of Gatorade that was so strong it almost hurt my teeth when it hit them. I should have spit it out, but that seemed rude so I took it in. Within 100 yards that sweetness combined with the heat caused a bit of nausea. Definitely not the worst I’ve had during a run, but it wasn’t pleasant.
10 miles in and So far I was maintaining my goal pace and keeping silent company with a dozen or so of my cohorts from the beginning of the race, although it was taking more effort than I would have liked and I hadn’t had either of the gels I was supposed to take because of an ongoing nausea issue from the heat and the Gatorade. I was drinking water and taking salt so at least there was that.
I couldn’t believe how many the spectators there were. There were so many, there never seemed to be a gap in them and they were so enthusiastic. I wish I could remember any of the signs they had made, because I remember laughing out loud a number of times. There were the ones that I consider old standards, “You’re doing great! Perfect stranger”, “Worst Parade Ever”, and the like, but there were some that I hadn’t seen before or they fit the situation so well and for some reason I appear to have blocked them out.
Soon, I came to Wellesley College and the famed students of this fine educational institution. This school is known for turning out some great legal minds, creative thinkers, philosophers and the like. Oh, who am I kidding, it’s known for the student body (which happens to be solely female) enthusiastically turning out for the race and offering kisses to passing runners. I had joked (ok, half joked) that if I was off my goal pace by the time I hit Wellesley I would likely not get past there.
It was sooooo loud running by that school. I would guess it was close to the equivalent of being at an outdoor rock concert and I can tell you that my pace picked up, that is until my garmin buzzed me and brought me back to reality. Luckily this happened before I got too far and missed my opportunity. One nice young lady was holding a sign, screaming and pointing at me (probably past me, but…), so I ran straight at her, and when I got there she threw her arms around my neck, pulled me and gave me a nice peck on the cheek. I’ll take it. PP
By time I got to Wellesley I had pretty much decided my day was over. I was hot, my stomach was a little upset from the Gatorade and heat and I was picking up aches and pains at an alarming rate. The most troublesome of these being my IT band, which hurt with each impact and was getting worse. I thought about what I had coming up, the 4 days of touring New England and my running/hiking vacation of the desert southwest in two weeks.
I had to decide if I wanted to race this out, which would likely not include making my time goal, but would include a lot of pain during the race and for the next few days. It would also include making my future vacation a lot less enjoyable.
By mile fifteen something quite amazing happened, I quit. I didn’t quit the run and walk off the course, but I quit the race and decided to save myself for a later date. I don’t think I’ve ever done that before. The amazing part was that I was ok with it, maybe even a little happy about it.
The first time I walked was a downhill just after mile 15. I had backed off the pace a little a while before, but each impact, even at this pace, caused my right leg to, if not scream, at least squeal a little. So I said, “Screw it” and walked. I even laughed a little at the idea of walking when gravity would have been doing the work for me. From there on I ran, well probably jogged, between aid stations and walked through the aid stations, sometimes allowing myself to walk about 50 yards if my leg was being worrisome.
I would love to be able to give vivid descriptions of the race, but all I remember is a lot of rolling hills, more spectators than I ever would have expected, that I never felt I had room to move around on the course because there were so many runners and that the students of Boston College did their level best to out scream the girls at Wellesley. Oh, and at about mile 21 there were a bunch of women giving out single roses to whomever would take them. I was tempted, but: a. I didn’t know what the significance was and 2. I figured it would be destroyed by the time I finished.
As I walked out of the mile 23 aid station I came abreast of a guy who looked to be about my age. I asked how his day was going, to which he replied, “My goal is shot so I’m just kind of taking it in.” I said that I was in the same boat and that my day had gotten better for it. We both expanded on the subject a little as we started back to running. As we did this I looked at my garmin and noted that we had 5 k to go. I informed him of this and asked, “How about we set new 5k PRs?” he laughed and shook his head, saying, “Not me.” We ran together for a few minutes, chatting, but he was just slightly slower than I so I ended up pulling away from him.
Shortly after separating from my new 5k partner somebody bumped into my right elbow. I made a “quick” (using that term very loosely) juke to my left while looking to my right to apologize. I was surprised and thrilled by what I saw, so much so that it took a minute for my brain to register that Allison was running next to me. She said, “Hi Paul.” I returned the sentiment and said something I don’t recall and she seemed to not understand so we just ran together for a while.
I remember saying, “Let’s go kid.” and speeding up a bit. I was hoping we could use each other a bit and cut a little time off the last bit of this run. Allison gave a two handed wave of “no” so I backed off. Shortly thereafter I felt myself pulling away from her and thought about the futility of that so tried to slow down. I managed to do so for little bit, but soon we were separating so I just tried to maintain my pace and hoped she would stay with me.
As I passed the mile 25 aid station I began to look for Kate as she had planned to be waiting for me at about 25.5 miles. Just before getting to her location we ran under a cross street and then climbed a small hill. I was expecting her to be on left as I crested the hill. I remembered wrong, in case I haven’t explained it yet, I was pretty fried by now. As I ran past her she let out a scream that probably startled all the cops and security within a mile into action. My head snapped to my right, where she was, so quickly it threw me a little off balance. It took me a couple of steps for me to get squared away and to make sure I could loop around to her without screwing up any other runners. When I could, I did and when I got to her I grabbed her and gave her a big dramatic kiss. I would have dipped her if not for the corral panel between us.
I used the adrenaline rush from seeing Kate to push me through the last ½ mile. When I made the left onto Boylston Street and could see the finish line I decided to burn out whatever I had left. It wasn’t much, but that turned out to be a blessing as I was able to look at and really soak in the idea that I was about to cross the finish line at The Boston Marathon. The. Boston. Marathon.
Now, I don’t normally care about the professional finish line photos, but I wanted this one and I wanted it to be a good one. That was not to be as there was a runner having some sort of distress right in the middle of the finish line, right in front of the street level, still photographers. Really? I just hoped there were more photogs I wasn’t noticing.
I crossed the finish line and cleared the chute. Once I was out of the way I began to look for Allison. When I saw her I started to walk toward her, but a volunteer stopped me and said that I needed to keep going forward. She was right, I was just caught up in the moment. I started moving, but slowly. Allison and I collected our medals, heat sheets and finisher food together and chatted about how the race had gone. I was so happy that she was there, but to be honest spent some time thinking that Nate really needed to be there. That would have made it feel just about perfect.
Ally was having a little bit of trouble due to what I would guess was mild dehydration. After we picked up my drop bag she needed to sit down, but being Allison she didn’t want help. I did manage to get her a water while we rested next to a volunteer tent and after about 20 minutes we decided to go meet with our respective “families”, gave congrats to each other and said our goodbyes.
Life is funny. As you move through it you make adjustments, people come and go. Some of each of these have little effect and some have great effect. In the case of this entry I’d like to say that making the attitude adjustment in 2014 of accepting that I would never get to run Boston made the happening all the sweeter and that I made the atypical (for me) adjustment of accepting my fate during the race made the result not matter nearly as much as the journey.
To say that I feel a man I haven’t seen in 30 years affects me to this day would do him a disservice. I don’t run because of Ray Wood, but I definitely run with him. It’s a rare run that I don’t think of him and I’m more proud to have run Boston because he encouraged me than because I managed to have the run of my life to get there.
One last mention. A tip of the hat to a fellow that has a pretty good grip on reality and what’s important. I got texts of congrats after the race, but my favorite follows. It is put more succinctly than I wrote but is exactly what I brought myself around to during the race as things were falling apart.
Tony S.---Boston isn’t really about racing fast, it’s about the honor of being there and the celebration of your accomplishments.