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Keeping pace … my journey to the finish

Published Aug. 15, 2013
I had the honor of running in the 117th Boston Marathon this year. During my 26-mile, 385-yard race I had the pleasure of witnessing how incredible people can be as well as the displeasure of seeing how despicably low people are capable of becoming.

Up until this point, I had never run in a race of more than about 3,300 people. Yes, that’s a lot, but Boston had over 27,000 runners this year!

My idea of a race is showing up an hour prior, prepping my gear, getting back in my vehicle to warm back up, and then hopping out about 5-10 minutes prior to the start so I can get my blood flowing. By contrast, on April 15, I woke up at 5:15 a.m. so I could start my coffee and oatmeal. At 6:00 a.m. I walked out the door headed for the Boston Commons and the transport buses.

After waiting in line for about 20 minutes, I got on a bus and chatted with a guy from New York for the next 45 minutes, arriving at the Athletes’ Village in Hopkinton around 7:20 am.

Two hours and 45 minutes until race start, what to do? After grabbing a couple Gatorade samples and a banana I quickly realized that I needed to get in the longest line around - the McDonald’s coffee line. Next I collected Power Bars, Adidas shoelaces and Body Glide, and another banana. Now time to get in line for the porta-jon. One round complete and it was still only 7:55 a.m.

I repeated this routine three more times, finally dropped off my gear bag, and started trudging the 0.8 miles to my starting corral at 9:40 a.m. After a last minute porta-jon stop near the start line I hopped into the back of Wave 1 Corral 6 and waited for the horn to sound the start.

After watching a verbal dispute between the corral organizer and a woman who was trying to rearrange the fences we finally started ... walking. I crossed the start line at about 10:04 a.m. and finally started to jog. Apparently a lot of guys got to the starting line early because the road was lined with last minute potty-break runners. Glad my timing was spot on, even if I had to slide into the very back of my corral. However, this meant that now I needed to pass at least a couple thousand runners since I should have positioned myself closer to the front of Corral 6. This would play out continuously as I passed more than five thousand other runners throughout the day.

Since we started at a walk, it took 3-4 miles to get on my target pace and then another five miles to bring my overall average back down to my target of 6:52 minutes per mile. Not too hard since it was a lovely 50 degrees or so with little wind and mostly flat to slightly downhill. I was starting to feel better about my time at this point, I even ventured toward the right shoulder of the road to slap some high-fiving kids and college students. No one is in school on Patriot’s Day in Massachusetts!

I stayed on the right side of the road, realizing after a time that even though the road was wide open, the commuter in me just wouldn’t let me veer too far left of the double yellow center line. Not too much camber, so I gave up alternating at this point. Besides, strafing back and forth every mile was just a pain since 27,000+ runners is a lot of people and passing was easier for me on the right.

High fiving became a real motivation at this point and looking down at my watch while high fiving my way through the scream tunnel, I quickly realized that my pace wasn’t diminished at all. In fact, the inspiration motivated me onward at a 6:30 minute mile!

Next feature of the run, Heather was supposed to meet me at mile 16.8, the last subway stop. At mile 16.5 I started scanning vigorously and by mile 16.9 I was dismayed that I had missed her. Then I heard someone call my name. Looking to my right I saw Heather and I charged over for a good luck kiss, showing all the young single guys that their scream tunnel trysts weren’t the only passionate kisses that were going to happen during this race!

At about 17 miles into the race I spotted my first real hill climb. Not too horrible from a trail running perspective, but a hill nonetheless. I got my rhythm and attacked the hill, passing more runners as I went. Then my shoelace came untied at mile 17.6. Bummer. The real question now, do I stop to tie it or forge ahead? The elastic strap in my right Brooks PureDrift seemed to be holding nicely, so I ignored the slapping shoelace and kept on moving.

Another small hill and then I was off to Boston’s notorious Heart Break Hill, an 88-foot vertical climb over 0.4 miles. Looking back in retrospect, Wilmar Drive in Manhattan, Kansas, prepared me for this. With 168 feet of vertical rise in less than a quarter of mile, it has four times the grade. However, Heart Break gets a lot of publicity and so I went into it with some trepidation. Realizing halfway up the hill that it wasn’t going to be a deal breaker, I plowed onward toward the crest and cheerfully informed the local supporters that I had thoroughly enjoyed their hill.

My shoelace still flopped lazily about and I was borderline on my target of breaking three hours, so I had to make a decision: to tie my shoe or not to tie my shoe. As I passed another runner, he looked down at my right shoe and said, “Hey, your shoelace is untied.” Glancing back over my shoulder I replied, “Yep, been like that for three miles!” Now it was a badge of sorts, perhaps a badge of luck, but at any rate I knew that as long as it wasn’t bothering me too much I couldn’t spare the few seconds it would take to re-tie it.

The final descent into Boston started to wear on my knees, so I popped my second ibuprofen of the day. There was no way I was going to let a little pain slow me down now. Pain is only temporary, three hours is forever - particularly when you’re in pain! I pounded down the hills and started ticking off the final mile marker signs. Mile 23, only a 5k to go. I ratcheted it down to a 6:40 pace.

The massive crowd was screaming for us to go faster and my eardrums went to static. Awesome! Mile 24 - not quite an Army physical fitness test. Keep it below 6:45. Mile 25, make the turn, pass through the tunnels, stay below a 6:50 pace. Home stretch, go sub 6:40 and pick off a few more runners. Slow down and stop!

So I guess I was in ultra mode because for some foolish reason I wanted to keep going. There were runners depositing their Gatorade and gel on the sides of Boylston, flopping on the ground, limping along. Maybe I should have been going a little harder the last five miles. On the other hand, my new minimalist shoes were taking their toll on my calves. I walked along, shaking hands with other runners as we congratulated each other. After a fifth of a mile we exited the procession and parted ways to get to our race bags. Shortly after finding my bag, I ran into a Vietnam Vet selling roses. Bonus! I bought a nice red one for Heather and, sneaking around the side of a building, I surprised her with a sweaty hug and kiss.

After taking some pictures and congratulating other runners, we eventually moved down a side street, headed towards the Old North Church. After about 3/4 of a mile of walking, limping, and occasionally stopping to stretch, we heard a loud thud and police sirens commenced. The events that unfolded were both tragic and altogether damning of humans as flawed beings. Regardless, the Boston Marathon is a spectacular event that will survive and we will be back to run another year and sample the very best that Boston has to offer.