I love The Boston Marathon.
Having run it five times, people ask me for advice, for secrets, for strategy. The details, the nuances, and the brutal, historic humanity make it the oldest and best marathon in America.
It’s captured my heart,
With its history —since 1897 men, and eventually women, have tested themselves annually on these same narrow New England roads.
With its selectivity — the amateur marathoner’s day to shine. You don’t get here without effort — people dream and train for a BQ for years — and the collective passion swells on Patriot’s Day. More so than any other marathon, runners at Boston come ready to roll.
With its fickle nature — if Chicago or Berlin are a fastball, hard to hit but straight at you, Boston is a change-up, simply difficult to get hold of, leaving many a talented athlete puzzled at what went wrong.
And its collective fandom — passing through a series of small towns, each increasing in size and excitement. From small suburbs, to rocking college campuses, to throngs of fans hanging over the fences downtown. The Bay State was born to propel marathoners forward.
When I can’t sleep at night my mind drifts off to Hopkinton, feet resting on the grass in the Athlete’s Village, waiting to embark on the journey to Boston.
Walking up to the airport gate to Boston my eyes immediately scan the crowd for fellow qualifiers. You can spot them by their scuffed running shoes, nerdy apparel and classic Boston 3-stripe jackets.
“Running the race?” We greet one another.
“Yeah, me too, good luck!” Boarding calmly, each with our own plan to stay hydrated and rested for the long flight ahead.
Touching down in Beantown I’m on the hunt for the sign.
There it is.
CITGO — flashing, scrolling and blinking in the evening sunlight. For 364 days a year it’s just a sign. So peaceful. So calm and clear.
But on Patriot’s Day it’s a symbol of violent conflict and struggle. Marking a mile to the finish, it’s visible from seemingly forever away. It stands as a crescendo of ambition, pain and effort.
“I’ll see you again soon, friend.”
Marathon Monday is more than a regional holiday, it’s a point of local pride. I make an effort to engage cab drivers, baristas and doormen in conversation about the upcoming celebration. Like a disciple, I’m one of thousands who’ve come to pay respect to their civic treasure.
Finding my room I try to settle in, to feel at home.
Raceday post-Bombing requires two outfits: for traveling and racing. Picking the correct singlet is assumed, but finding the right clothing to wear on Monday morning has become a bit its own celebration. There are no checked bags at the start, so whatever you bring on the bus to Hopkinton you must be prepared to leave behind. I prefer a set of old sweats, but runners have been known to arrive in Hawaiian shirts, jumpsuits, even old suit coats and slacks. Find whatever will put your mind at ease as your heart wants to thump out of your chest.
See Boston — carefully
The Expo. The pop-up shops. The friends in town from around the world. The weekend is so special, almost too much so. It can overtake your energy before the race begins. One final shake out. A few strides. Making sure to eat and hydrate well, it’s about finding some element of your typical routine away from home.
At times I’ve over indulged in chatting with fellow athletes. Engaging with others about their upcoming race can induce a shock of emotion and concern. Everyone comes to race day with their own hopes, fears…and potential excuses. In the final day I attempt to turn inwards. To protect the emotions and mental confidence necessary to run my race regardless of whatever happens on Monday.
The beauty of Boston is its uncertainty. The weather is fickle, the wind can be a friend or foe. The hills both help and hurt you.
Above it all it’s a race. Unlike a flat course, Boston is filled with surprises. The inconsistency fits my personality. Allowing me to let go of split expectations and just compete, I’ve often performed beyond prediction.
Settling in early to attempt to sleep on Sunday evening I text final thank yous to friends who’ve sent their regards. I know they mean it. They really want me to succeed. I hold their aspirations for me tightly, they will be useful as I’m grasping desperately for fumes of inspiration the final miles the next day.
Head to the buses!
Up early, honestly it’s a relief, here we go!
Riding the train to the Boston Common, runners of all ages and sizes descend on the city in attire worthy of donation. Old sweatshirts, odd colored hats and mittens. We look a mess. Far from the highly trained and peaked athletes we will attempt to prove we are in a few hours.
Sharing a yellow school bus bench out to the start with a random new acquaintance is part of the tradition. I’ve sat with a school teacher from Colorado. A college kid from Ohio. Each with their own mix of aspiration and fear for the day ahead. We make small talk and sip electrolytes, careful not to over consume since there aren’t bathrooms on these school buses.
After seemingly forever we begin to pull into Athlete’s Village and everyone groans, “Are you sure we have to run that entire way back?!”
Finding a spot on the shady grass, I try my hardest to appreciate the beautiful New England spring day. My phone packet away back in Boston, no more weather apps to fret about or social media to check. We are here. We’re where everyone else wants to be.
The Walk up
Finally our time to go.
The final mile to the start, a mix of ambling, stretching and short bursts of sprint, mixed with yawning, a side effect of nervous energy.
The first of many race bib checks by officials. They take their jobs seriously.
Post-bombing arrival at the start feels like a pop-up military base. Choppers overhead, snipers on rooftops. The weight of security is appreciated and daunting. We’re here on the historic grassy common, next to the famous white church, to participate in something that’s been done just like this for over a century. For just a few hours we can block out the typical stresses of daily life and focus on intense stress of enduring this distance.
Military fly over. National Anthem. All the decoration deserving of a national sporting event, except in this case instead of a tall beer and a Fenway frank, we’re the athletes taking the international stage.
Attack the course! Carefully…
These 26.2 miles can be attacked in different ways, each is different and essentially the same.
The Classic: 16–10
Controlled for sixteen miles, attacking for ten. This is a great way to approach Boston since hardly anyone says, “Oh man I wish I ran harder that first sixteen miles! Those last ten weren’t even a challenge!”
Saving something, anything, till ten miles out leaves you more well positioned than most. Runners who do are easy to spot because they’re the ones passing the slowing masses over the hills, through BC and by Fenway to the finish.
The Complex: 5–10–1,2–1,2–1,2-kick!
How I prefer to approach the course:
5 miles downhill — don’t waste these seconds, but don’t blow your legs.
10 miles flat — find your line and walk it carefully. Along here are beautiful small towns and the renowned “Scream Tunnel” through Wellesley. Hitting a half-marathon split that’s always a bit surprising, all the while trying to keep the heart rate low and the emotions calm.
3 times (1mile, 2mile)— Like a marathon workout: three times 1 mile easy, 2 miles hard. Miles 16, 19 and 22 are downhill, each followed by 2 difficult miles. I try to attack these in pieces, hitting the downs, maintaining control going up.
The race really begins at Mile 16. You’d better be ready to run or it’s gonna be a long afternoon.
17&18: 2 miles up, but not too hard.
19: Flat, a chance to catch your breath
20&21: The vaunted Newton Hills — They’re not that steep, but they are that hard. Find your gear here and you’ll fly by racers shattering from the pressure of expectation. And the crowds, oh the crowds. Look into their eyes and feel how much they want you to succeed! Push here and they will reward you with waves of admiration.
22: Downhill through Boston College — Look for the party cups and laugh at the inebriated scene. Like a party at the peak of fun, racers and fans, we’re all raging, intoxicated on our chosen cocktail, hoping the fun never ends…
23: The Pain Train begins — The map says this mile is downhill, but it always feels horrible to me.
24: Where Meb Won — The second fastest mile of the race. It’s never been so hard to go downhill. Everything hurts and it doesn’t matter.
25&26.2: Let it all out — I could write for hours about how hard you’ll need to fight those final 4,000 meters and I’d still be tempted to give in when they arrive. Do not permit excuses. Reviewing splits afterwards I’ve often sheepishly admitted that I’d given in, I’d let off. When the dam is breaking it takes tremendous focus to keep the damage to a few seconds, not a few minutes or more.
Citgo Sign — Kick!
Under Mass Ave — Go!
Right on Hereford, left on Boylston — drive for home with every ounce of passion and hunger you can muster!
Easing across the line of the Boston Marathon finish leaves an indelible mark on me every time. I can recall each distinctly, as if a piece of pottery, an attempt at perfection filled with hundreds of hours of effort and marked by unique spots of imperfection.
I’ve laughed. I’ve sighed. Mostly I’ve cried.
In 2005 — my 1st Boston — I sat against the cold stone base of a building and just whimpered in relief, physically tired, but mentally empty.
In 2014 a camera woman approached me and asked simply, “What does today mean to you?” Tears welling in my eyes I couldn’t see her lens, I babbled incoherently about the running community.
In 2016 I surpassed all my expectations and just stood screaming my lungs out, voice bouncing against the tall Boston skyscrapers. People looked over in shock and fear, only to find an exhausted runner dancing in the sunshine gleefully.
Sadly, many marathons end marked with disappointment and regret. A never-ending string of what-ifs and maybes.
But as Shalane Flanagan showed us all in New York City, if done correctly, the finish of a marathon is a deadly simple realization that you’ve done it. You’ve blocked out all the doubts, held all the errant impulses at bay, and simply executed your race.
It’s a culmination of years of your life into a moment that’s too hard and too long and too much to handle.
Done correctly, years of aspiration, determination and effort converge into an instant that’s overwhelming and unforgettable.
As Marathoners, these are the small handful of diamonds we forge through a lifetime of pressure.
The lifestyle is the gift, these finish lines are the reward.
This is why we do this. This is why we love this. This is who we are.