I don't want to come across as selling the Boston experience too hard, I suppose for some people it's just another race. But for many it's a milestone of achievement. Not only is it historic, it's damn hard to get into, to qualify for. It's a sign that you don't suck as an athlete. That means something. But it's more than that, it's a gathering of like minded people and spirits. Everybody there that qualified is a good runner and they all love the sport.
So I want to write about Boston, but I can't write about it in one post. I can't write about my poor athletic race in the same post as I write about the experience of Boston because the two thoughts don't belong together. In a couple of days I'll break down how my training went in hindsight, how I performed at the race and what I've learned for my next marathon. But for now I'm just going to post for those that want to know just what it's like to participate in this race. What the Boston Experience really is.
Immediately upon walking through Hanover Street in North Boston on my first morning there I fell in love with the city. People were milling about getting ready for their business days, opening cafe's, hauling produce, cleaning sidewalks. Firemen hung out in front of their halls, police milled about on street corners and not far away was the Boston Public Market where they set up this huge produce bazaar on the road. The brick buildings, statues, churches and cobbled streets oozed history in the stubborn sort of way that ignores modern touches. You don't see chain restaurants and stores until you get further into downtown, but even there old world Boston persists in ancient towers, dusty bookstores and eateries. The city has a vibe that is both welcoming and closed off, fresh and stubborn. I guess I can't explain it. But the marathon is huge in that city. Everything positively oozes marathon weekend. Beyond that Boston seems to be a working man's city that is ironically full of highly educated young students. As locals say "welcome to Boston, we are wicked smart."
I went to two games at Fenway Park the weekend before the race and explored as much as I could without walking too much as I wanted to save my legs. If you happen to mention to anyone that you are there to run the marathon they instantly become conversational and cheery. I had an usher at Fenway and a number of fans rush to give me well wishes and positive thoughts on my race, this despite me wearing the Blue Jays clothing of their rival team. It seems like it would be easy to overstate how into the marathon the people of Boston are, but I really can't. They love that race. If you run it I advise arriving to the city a few days ahead and enjoying the atmosphere.
The Saturday before race day I went to watch a friend run the 5K race starting in Boston Common. This is the biggest 5K race I've ever seen (10,000 runners). Just seeing it and knowing the marathon would be a bigger deal I was awed. I decided right there that should I come back to Boston to watch my wife race the marathon (she is going to attempt a BQ) I would run that 5K.
One event I wish I'd skipped was the pre-race pasta dinner on the Sunday before the race. I knew I wouldn't eat too much as there was only one vegan option but that suited me as I prefer a large lunch before a race and a small dinner. But the event is what you typically find at pasta dinners before any race, buffet pasta in sad tomato sauce and folding tables full of people chowing down on lifeless food. I was hoping for speeches, presentations or maybe meet and greets with some former elite runners but there wasn't much. For some reason conversation wasn't spilling around the plaza either, possibly it was the abundance of nerves in racers.
Once on a school bus (there are hundreds of them) you settle in for a 45 minute drive to Hopkinton where they drop you off a school sports field. I was hoping for some chatter with whoever I sat with on the bus but my random seat mate promptly fell asleep during the ride. Half the bus was full of nervous/excited chatter and the other half dead silence. I felt surprisingly calm, sat there eating a banana and wondering what to expect.
Upon arriving at the waiting field you go through security again and find space on the grass in one of two large soccer play fields. There are tents and several hundred porta potties as well as water and food. Most runners either queued for the bathroom or sat in the sun waiting. I had forgotten to fill my medical information on my bib so I went to the med tent and grabbed a pen to do that (and some sunscreen) and then found myself a bathroom line figuring I'd reach it about the same time I'd have to leave for the race start. My timing was pretty close.
Once your wave is called you leave the field and walk about a kilometre to the start line. They have some final bathrooms there for you to use and you step into your corral and wait. I was in corral one of wave two which was good, I knew I wouldn't have to duck and weave through runners as I went along. Up to this point I thought I'd have been chatting up a storm with other runners, but I'm not sure if it was just who I happened to be by or if it was me but most runners were rather silent. I never felt nervous but I admit to being somewhat in awe. As you walk to the start line people are out on their front lawns cheering you on and the start line is full of spectators. The TV crews, police, helicopters and race volunteers surrounding you ensure you know just how big this event really is. There is no questioning this isn't your local country marathon. Time elapsed from leaving my hotel to the actual start of the race? 4.5 hours.
That may have been a good thing as the first 15km of the race went by like a metronome. I was hitting my pace and feeling great while casually observing my fellow runners and the fans on the side of the road. I saw the buzz of the day, but it didn't overwhelm me. But at 15km my foot starting shooting pain announcing that my plantar fasciitis had truly not healed during the taper and my tape job on it wasn't holding up. I decided in a split second to discard any disappointment and to slow down and try to enjoy what I was doing. I had a sense of fear/shame about having to face others I knew were following my race and them seeing me under-perform. I briefly grieved my own failure to perform after months of training. And then I let it go.
Once I did the race came into a new focus. I took the time to stop and walk occasionally and then it occurred to me that if I was going to do that I might as well do it beside other runners that were doing the same thing. I tried to encourage others that were suffering. I talked with a runner wearing a No Meat Athlete singlet that was run/walking due to his own injury. I made sure to thank volunteers and I stopped to high five several fans with Canadian flags.
At Wellesley College I stopped and kissed three young women on the cheek and high-fived several dozen of them. At one point during the race when I stopped to walk again a small boy stepped out and gave me a handful of jelly beans. I couldn't eat them as my mouth felt like sandpaper but I thanked him and smiled. A few minutes later I looked at my hands and they were all yellow and red from the melting beans.
So many fans and fellow runners encouraged me. At this point I had what I think was an obvious limp as I favoured my left foot. Later my right calf would start to cramp probably because I was running funny. But runners would pat me on the back as they passed and fans would yell encouragement. There aren't really many spaces during this race where you don't see people. Even where the fans are light there are police, soldiers and volunteers everywhere. You don't have a moment of solitude.
Several runners that were victims of the 2013 bombings started the race early and some of the most special moments come when you pass them on the course. I found myself getting emotional seeing them work and struggle. I reminded myself that no matter how much I hurt at this moment others were in infinitely more pain.
I noticed landmarks like the Citgo sign as I ran but missed others like Fenway Park in some sort of mental fog. Some kilometres seemed to last forever and others went by in a blink. As I finally turned the last corner on Boylston Street and saw the finish line I expected I'd have a surge of energy but it never came. I was emotionally and physically spent. That was the longest 800m of my life. I did choke up a little. But I was too drained to really understand what was happening to me. I had some feelings of accomplishment mixed with a return of my inner competitor that was horrified and embarrassed by my finish time. I had fallen back a half hour behind my expected finish time.
But along the way I'd passed hundreds of runners struggling more than me, many seeded much higher than myself. I saw runners defeated in medical tents and others lying on the pavement grasping burned out legs. I realized as I stepped over the painted finish line that this wasn't my day to compete. It was my day to run the Boston Marathon. It was a graduation where I could stop trying to change myself and finally understand that I am changed. There is no need to worry about regression, after you run Boston you are a runner, always will be.
Once you gather your medal and gear and walk through Boston with your post race glow every stranger you see will congratulate you. You'll be inundated with well wishes and even after you make your way to your hotel to shower and seek food, if you wear your Boston Race Jacket people will greet you with kindness and congratulations. Other runners finally seemed eager to talk, to share their race stories whether good or bad. The pre-race nerves were gone and we were all in the same boat walking along doing the marathon shuffle on tired legs with the feeling of having done something special.
I made my way to Fenway Park for the post race party. This is an event I highly recommend attending. People were eager to talk and we all shared war stories as we watched the presentation of the days elite winners, drank beer, ate and laughed. It was my first beer in 6 months having avoided it during training and it tasted amazing. As a special icing on the cake they allow runners to walk on the warning track on the field. For me, a rather big baseball fan that was amazing. I snagged some dirt from the field to spread in my backyard back home.
I can't really over-sell Boston. You hear about it and how amazing it is and wonder if it will live up to your expectations. I can say it exceeds them. You can't describe the event and the grandness of it, the meaning of it to anyone. You have to experience it. I hope you get your chance to stand at the start line in Hopkinton.