Posts Tagged ‘Boston Strong’

The “Marathon” race from Ashland to this city, held under the auspices of the Boston athletic association yesterday… proved a great success and is an assurance of an annual fixture of the same kind.
The Boston Globe, 20 April 1897

Boston Marathon finish line

I’d made it to Mecca.

Not the Holy Land to which devout Muslims make their annual pilgrimage, but the one to which devout runners make theirs. I’d made it to Boston.

Ok, so technically that wasn’t true — not yet. As Katie’s childhood buddy Paul and I meandered through the Athlete’s Village awaiting the start of the world’s most prestigious marathon, the truth was that I’d made it to Hopkinton, a town conveniently located 26.2 miles west of the finish line in Boston. Now that the hardest part — the months of high-mileage weeks, long training runs and marathon-pace workouts required to get here — was over, the long-anticipated last step in my journey to Boston Marathoner was about to begin.

As sacred as Mecca is to Muslims, I’m not sure many would eagerly run the last 26.2 miles to get there.

Boston Marathon course elevation profile

But eager was just one of the raw emotions crackling like unseen currents of electricity through the Athletes’ Village — unseen yet unmistakable, like the metallic scent of ozone before an electrical storm. And all of us good conductors. Eager. Nervous. Cheerful. Stoic. Adrenalized. Ready. In some corners, a dash of nauseous and a smidgen of scared. Some runners chatted as they waited in line for the porta-potties; others splayed out on the shaded grass under the tents, conserving energy; still others sat absentmindedly reading the ingredients on their race-day packets of yummy GU.

Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and first on the bus. — Benjamin Franklin, philosopher, politician, Boston Marathoner
Katie’s and my iPhone alarms had chimed simultaneously at 5:45am, nearly two hours after I’d first bolted awake, my mind instantly alert to the fact it was Marathon Monday. Feeling cold, I’d realized I was drenched in sweat thanks to our hotel room’s faulty thermostat. Bad omen #1 on a day when my hydration needed to be dialed in.

I’d dressed & packed quickly, donning the Goodwill hoodie & pants I’d brought in anticipation of a comfortably cool wait in Hopkinton. Unfortunately the weather had other ideas, and like an excitable runner on the first downhill, it too had started too fast. By the time Paul and I deboarded at the Athletes’ Village after the easy 45-minute bus ride from the Boston Common, sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-60s greeted us. Ideal weather for watching the Boston Marathon, not so much for running it. Coming from SoCal though, where I regularly train in 70+ degree temps, I wasn’t overly concerned. Maybe we’d still get lucky as in 2011, when an epic tailwind propelled Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya to a course record 2:03:02 and Ryan Hall to an American record 2:04:58.

Mike Sohaskey & Paul Ishimine at Boston Marathon Athletes Village

Paul & I kill time at the Athletes’ Village in Hopkinton

Though teeming with runners, the smartly laid-out Athletes’ Village offered plenty of elbow room compared with the crush & sensory overload of the pre-race expo, which was the most jam-packed expo I’ve ever attended (with Berlin a close second). Though conveniently located adjacent to the finish line on Boylston, the Hynes Convention Center is a smaller space than either McCormick Place in Chicago or the Javits Convention Center in New York. Definitely not a place for claustrophobics. Luckily bib pickup was in a separate & much less crowded hall than the exhibitor booths, leaving each runner to decide whether & for how long they’d brave the expo itself.

This year’s race would be unusual in its dearth of big names on the American side. Rather than competing at Boston, our country’s best marathoners will instead be representing the U.S. at the Summer Olympics in Rio. For that reason, sightings of Meb, Shalane, Desi & Amy were limited to weekend expo appearances and — for those of us who’d planned ahead and snagged tickets — throwing out the first pitch before Saturday’s Red Sox game at Fenway Park.

Fenway Park panoramic view

Welcome to historic Fenway Park, only 16 years younger than the Boston Marathon

U.S. elites (Shalane, Meb, Desi & Amy) throwing out first pitch at Fenway

Shalane, Meb, Desi & Amy prepare to throw out the first pitch(es) (photo: Shalane Flanagan)

Group carbo-loading at Mike's Pastry in Boston's North End

The all-important Sunday night group carbo-loading session (L to R: Paul, me, Sandy, Katie, Jenny)

Adding to the festive atmosphere of the race, the B.A.A. would be celebrating 50 years of women running the Boston Marathon — 50 years since Bobbi Gibb (this year’s Grand Marshal) made history in 1966 by banditing the race, six years before women were officially allowed to run. This year’s women’s winner, Atsede Baysa of Ethiopia, would later recognize this landmark occasion by presenting Gibb with her trophy after the race — a classy microcosm of the entire weekend.

50 Years of Women logo at Boston Marathon

Showtime! The PA in the Athletes’ Village called on all runners in Wave 2 (our wave) to line up for the stroll to the start line. Dormant butterflies in uneasy stomachs fluttered to life. Our qualifying times — which this year needed to be 2 minutes, 28 seconds faster than the official B.A.A. standards for acceptance — placed Paul and me squarely in Wave 2, though in different corrals. So after exchanging “good luck”s, we joined our respective corrals for the 0.7-mile trek to the start, me chatting all the while with a 3x Boston finisher from Cincinnati who’d qualified this time around at the Indy Monumental Marathon.

Volunteers were handing out cups of water near the start, and with the sun now high in the sky I was already sweating as I approached Corral 5. Bad omen #2.

Heading to Boston Marathon start corrals

The anticipation builds during the 10-minute walk to the start line

As I stretched my calves, I took a moment to reassess my time goals. On a warm day and on a rolling course like Boston which I’d never seen much less run, sub-3:30 would be a jog well done. More than anything, though, I wanted to seize the day as much as possible — who knew if or when I’d make it back. Which was one reason I’d chosen to carry my iPhone to take pictures, the other reason being the handy Share My Run app I’d be using so Katie and my sister Sandy (in her first visit to Boston) could follow my progress in real-time.

Before my excitement had time to crescendo, the 120th running of the world’s oldest continuous marathon had begun. Carried inexorably across the start line in a parade of brightly clad bodies, I settled in with the other 27,486 runners bound for Boston, bracing myself for the opening salvo I’d heard so much about — the fast downhill out of Hopkinton.

Boston Marathon start in Hopkinton

The streets of Hopkinton were hoppin’ on Patriots Day

Rarely do I Garmin-gaze like I did during those first three miles. Based on past experience and the warnings I’d heard all weekend, I was determined to stay in my shoes and not start too fast. I’d noted on a wristband my desired pace-per-mile — 7:54, 7:49, 7:25 — so when my Garmin chimed in with a 7:52 followed by a 7:49 followed by a 7:33, I was feeling good.

Except I wasn’t. By mile 3 in Ashland, I could already tell my breathing was labored and my heart rate elevated — on a largely downhill stretch. And I’d yet to find the easy rhythm I typically fall into by mile 3. Too much of my attention was focused, not on the cheering spectators already lining both sides of the course, but on checking my pace and not stepping on/elbowing others in this 26.2-mile caravan. On the narrow suburban streets, running a straight line proved impossible as other runners frequently cut in front of me trying to find personal space or access the aid stations.

Boston Marathon finish line sign

(Left) Go fo(u)rth & conquer: Boston was also World Marathon Major #4; (Right) Fellow Antarctica finisher & French RaceRaves evangelist Didier notched his 5th WMM in Boston

I have not yet begun to fight. — John Paul Jones, naval war hero & runner
Despite my own issues, the locals lining the course did everything they could to verbally propel us forward, with their unflagging cheers and personal touches that make Boston the one-of-a-kind event it is. I heard no fewer than half a dozen cheers for RaceRaves (the shirt I was wearing) throughout the day, and though I neither saw nor met her I know I was running near Molly for the better part of a mile.

Several groups were clearly out to make a day of it, with smoke billowing from their grills and sprinklers set up to help cool overheated runners. Both kids and adults cheered while simultaneously bouncing on mini-trampolines. And the musical highlight of the course was Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” — embraced & adopted by Red Sox fans for their 8th-inning singalong — twice in the first seven miles, making me wonder just how many times we’d be hearing it in the span of 26.2. Luckily, twice would be enough.

Most of the course is distinctly and charmingly suburban New England. Granted, Hopkinton looks like Ashland looks like Framingham looks like Natick — but running Boston isn’t about the scenery, and I scarcely noticed the unchanging backdrop of white picket fences and calligraphic trees still in search of spring’s first kiss.

Somewhere along the way I caught up with the unmistakable duo of Team Hoyt. After Rick Hoyt was born with cerebral palsy, he and his father Dick began racing in 1977 and completed every Boston Marathon together — with Dick pushing Rick in his wheelchair the full 26.2 miles — until Dick hung up his racing shoes for good following the 2014 race. Team Hoyt member Bryan Lyons accepted the mantle from Dick and now continues the tradition of pushing Rick in his wheelchair. I applauded and cheered them on as I passed, feeling distinctly humbled to be running alongside such inspiring & beloved icons.

Team Hoyt in Newton at mile 16 of Boston Marathon

Team Hoyt rolls through Newton

As my pace slowed gradually over the next several miles and I realized sub-3:30 would be an epic struggle, I exchanged more high-fives with spectators, including one tiny fellow whose dad called out a “Thank you” to me for my detour. Spectators, supporters and volunteers thanking me for running their marathon — this was a theme repeated all weekend and one that gave me goosebumps pretty much every time I heard it.

Tom Grilk, Executive Director of the Boston Athletic Association, said it best in the title of his 2014 TEDx talkIn Boston, everyone owns the marathon.

As I neared the 13.1-mile mark in Wellesley, I found myself solidly wishing I’d qualified for the Boston Half Marathon. Though I wasn’t hungry or thirsty, my breathing was ragged and my energy levels were fading fast. So Wellesley College couldn’t have come at a better time.

The Wellesley Scream Tunnel, which lines the right side of the course in mile 13, is the hands-down highlight of the Boston Marathon. As vociferous as the rest of the course is, Wellesley makes the other 26 miles feel almost monastic. Donald Trump and Captain America could have been exchanging punches on the left side of the road and I doubt anyone would have noticed. Awesomely and profanely raucous, if anything could make you forget you’re running a marathon, it’s the women of Wellesley. Where else in the world can you ever get free kisses from strangers you might actually want to kiss??

I opted to stay left of the double-yellow line to soak up the scene and avoid any overexuberant runners dive-bombing into the screaming throngs of coeds. I wasn’t disappointed — not only by the volume, but by the signage. Like Ulysses to the song of the Sirens, I nearly found myself drawn irresistibly to two signs that read “KISS ME I’M GAY” and “KISS ME OR I’LL VOTE FOR TRUMP”. Not to mention the handful of signs — “CHECK THAT ASS AS YOU PASS” may have been the tamest — suggesting that someone’s parents weren’t running this year’s marathon.

“BOSTON STRONG” and “RUN WICKED FAST” signs filled the rest of the course, complemented by the occasional other memorable sign like “DO EPIC SHIT” and “RUN! THE KENYANS ARE DRINKING YOUR BEER!”

Sandy Pitcher & Mike Sohaskey at Boston Marathon finish

Ironically, the missing sibling is our 2x Boston Marathoner brother

These are the times that try men’s souls. — Thomas Paine, statesman & marathoner
After Wellesley every mile became a struggle. So I was much relieved to reach Sandy, Katie and our friend Albion waiting at mile 16 in Newton, at the bottom of the steep downhill that empties into Newton Lower Falls. There they waited less than ¼ mile from my Dad’s boyhood home. I checked in briefly, stretched my legs and pushed onward, warning Katie it would be a while before I rejoined them at the finish.

Mike Sohaskey at Mile 16 in Newton at Boston Marathon

Looking better than I felt in Newton Lower Falls

Even the psychological lift of counting down single-digit miles from 16 provided little (if any) physical boost. I wasn’t hungry, having eaten my usual meal before the race — plus I’d run plenty of 16+ mile training runs at marathon pace with minimal nutrition. I wasn’t thirsty, having made frequent use of the aid stations. And my quads & hip flexors weren’t hurting, still feeling strong without any apparent tightness. I simply had… no… energy. And a body that didn’t want to cooperate.

I tried to take solace in the fact that, since Boston doesn’t have pacers, at least I didn’t have to watch each successive pace group pass me.

Trying to draw inspiration from the tireless crowds, I shuffled up each of the four Newton Hills, which culminate at mile 20 in the most infamous hill in all of road racing, Heartbreak Hill. An increasingly stiff headwind greeted us as we climbed, though luckily the mercury had progressively dipped since Hopkinton.

(If you don’t know the story of how Heartbreak Hill got its name, turns out it had nothing to do with the hill’s steepness — read all about it HERE.)

The Boston course includes only five turns along its entire 26.2 miles, and here we made the first of these, a sharp right turn by the firehouse in mile 18 just before the second of the Newton Hills.

View from Boston Marriott Cambridge

View across the Charles River from our hotel room at the Boston Marriott Cambridge

On any other day I would have been bent but not broken by this 5-mile stretch, with four successive inclines of moderate but not intimidating steepness (most trail runners would scoff at the use of the term “hills” to describe them). Unfortunately, this wasn’t any other day. Even with the sheer wall of spectator noise pushing runners up Heartbreak, by the time I reached the mile 21 marker I was moving so slowly that the wheels were in danger of falling off if I didn’t take a walk break. And suddenly, the thought of running the Big Sur International Marathon (as part of the Boston 2 Big Sur Challenge) in six days left me queasy. One race at a time, one step at a time…

It was like an out-of-body experience, and I felt like a first-timer in this my 20th marathon. In fact, Boston was the first time since Crazy Horse 2011 — my second marathon — that I’d stopped to walk during a road race, that’s how bizarre this day was. I hadn’t even stopped to walk after twisting my ankle at mile 17 of the E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon. By the time I crested Heartbreak Hill, though, I had no choice. So for the next few miles, as the course followed a downhill-yet-still-rolling trajectory — past the screaming Eagles of Boston College, through Brookline and into Boston at last — I walked briefly at each mile marker, high-fiving spectators and regaining my momentum in short bursts.

Through all the misery of those last ten miles, I kept flexing the one set of muscles I could still control — I refused to stop smiling, even as I passed an increasing number of cramped-up runners trying desperately to stretch out their failing calves & locked-up quads. And was it just me, or was the number of medical tents increasing as well?

Citgo sign at mile 25 of Boston Marathon

The Citgo sign high in the sky signals you don’t have much fahthah to go

The finish is coming! The finish is coming! — Paul Revere, patriot & Boston Marathon finisher
At mile 25, with the beckoning Citgo sign now dominating the skyline and the roars from the onlookers intensifying, both mind & body sensed the finish line within reach. The “ONE MILE TO GO” marker painted on the ground in Kenmore Square provided one last shot of adrenaline, and I glanced up to see the familiar green outer walls and light towers of historic Fenway Park off to our right.

Mike Sohaskey with one mile to go at Boston Marathon

One mile to go in Kenmore Square!

Even in my exhausted state, I recognized the moment when it arrived. I’ve never wanted a tattoo, but if I ever get one I know exactly what it will say — right on Hereford, left on Boylston. The final two directions every Boston runner hears, and the six celebrated words that tell you, I am this close to finishing the freaking Boston Marathon.

As I made the left turn onto Boylston, I glanced off to my right to see my buddy Neil from Minnesota, whose wife Jody had run a great race, cheering me on. I gave him a euphoric thumbs-up and turned my attention directly ahead of me, to the blue & gold pearly gates finish line arch 300 yards in the distance. Ironically, this home stretch was the only time all day when I legitimately wanted to slow down, and I took the time to bask in the moment and to soak up every last cheer from the thunderous walls of human sound urging us toward the finish. And I seriously would have high-fived every person on Boylston if I could have.

Mike Sohaskey at mile 26 of Boston Marathon

Feelin’ the magic of Boylston Street (photo: Neil Hetherington)

Eventually I ran out of room and had to cross the finish line into Copley Square, finishing my first Boston Marathon and my best worst marathon ever in 3:48:36. Even as competitive as I am, I can live with that result — because Boston (especially the first time) is all about the experience, and luckily I hadn’t set my sights on requalifying this year.

Clearly I still owe the course my best shot — though not immediately, as I’d like to step back and let the magic of this year’s experience sink in before I chase another BQ. And I have other racing goals to pursue in the meantime. But boy, it’s easy to understand how chasing (and re-chasing) the high of that qualifier year after year could easily become a full-fledged addiction. Heroin ain’t got nothin’ on the Boston Marathon.

Boston Marathon finish line shot

Mission accomplished — looking back on Boylston from under the finish arch

Turns out even the elite times were slower than usual, with no men breaking the 2:12 mark and only one woman cracking 2:30. And I heard more than a few horror stories of runners ending up in the medical tents with cramps or worse. Clearly I wasn’t the only one who’d misplaced my running mojo this year.

And yet I’m still puzzled by the fact that my day went south so quickly, and with so little help from the course itself. I would say it’s something I need to figure out and correct pronto, but then again I may never know exactly what went wrong on Marathon Monday. After all the solid training, preparation & tapering that preceded Boston, how could I have begun the day with an elevated heart rate? I have my suspicions — maybe filling every waking moment in the two days before the race wasn’t a great idea. Or maybe waking up in a cold sweat on race day was an even worse omen than I knew.

Boston Common post-Boston Marathon

The Boston Common after a very uncommon day

In any case, Boston reinforced the lesson I continue to learn time and time again: the marathon is the ultimate “tough love” teacher, and the lessons it teaches are humility, adaptability and don’t you dare give up-ity. Anyone can finish a race when they’re feeling good & running strong — but if you have a weakness the marathon will find it, exploit it and beat on it until you’re ready to throw in the towel. And then kick you in the gut a couple more times, just for good measure. It’s like a bully who turns you upside-down, shakes all the money out of your pockets and then takes your clothes just because, leaving you out in the middle of nowhere naked in the dead of winter. Laughing all the way.

As I shuffled triumphantly through the finish chute, Dad’s smiling voice — Boston born & bred — filled my head: Can’t do any bettah than that. And I could feel his hand on my shoulder, proudly confirming what my depleted body already knew and what I’d worked so hard to hear.

At Boston Marathon Expo

Post-race drinks are on me! — Samuel Adams, brewer & patriot
Sheer exhaustion was probably all that prevented me from tearing up as yet another smiling B.A.A. volunteer hung the coveted unicorn medal around my neck. I’d honestly never given much thought to the unicorn as the universally recognized symbol of the Boston Marathon, but it’s perfect — wild & ferocious, forever elusive yet endlessly pursued by man for its mythical power, beauty and ability to heal sickness.

Paul had run an excellent race (3:18:07), and he and his wife Jenny were already headed back to their hotel when I texted them, in between posing for the MarathonFoto minions. Reveling in the slow, deliberate stroll out of the finisher’s area, where volunteers continued to thank us for running Boston, I eventually reached the perimeter of the Boston Common where Sandy and Katie were waiting.

Boston Marathon finish line family hug
En route I was greeted by a group of four college-age fellows in Red Sox and Patriots gear, one of whom embraced me while another proclaimed loudly how totally awesome I was. Much as I would have loved to respond with a rapid & witty retort, all my fatigue & surprise would allow was a weak “No, YOU guys are awesome.” Anyone else, anywhere else, on any other day and I would’ve assumed I was the victim of a practical joke or hazing stunt. But on Marathon Monday in Copley Square, these guys were 100% sincere — and I was 200% appreciative.

Mike Sohaskey & Paul Ishimine at Mile 27 sign

Tapering for Big Sur

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho with Red Sox World Series trophies

Still plenty of room on that table for a 4th (and 5th) World Series trophy

The post-race party that night at Fenway Park (sponsored by Samuel Adams, of course) was the perfect nightcap to a Patriots Day that I wish I could bottle and share with every runner & non-runner I meet. Feeling down? Stressed? Overwhelmed? Overworked? Insecure? Crack open a bottle of Marathon Monday, breathe deeply and let one of life’s most amazing experiences wash away all negativity.

Hear the cheers. See the high-fives. Feel the gratitude. Everyone, from the most hardcore runner to the most sedentary bystander, coming together with a common purpose — to celebrate, support and inspire everyone else. A common humanity you have to feel & see to believe, shaped by 120 years of history and two bombs that showed the world — with all eyes watching — what it means to be Boston Strong. In this town, everyone takes this day to heart.

Because in Boston, everyone owns the marathon.

Mike Sohaskey with Boston Marathon medal 2016

Tips & Tricks for Boston Marathon weekend:

  • You can score a discount on Adidas official Boston Marathon gear by signing up for their email list as a first-timer, and they’ll probably send you another coupon with your first order (e.g. $30 off $100 or more). I signed up for their email list back in January and have yet to receive a marketing email from them.
  • If you can, wait until Sunday late morning/early afternoon to hit the expo — it’s SO much easier & more time-efficient than braving the Saturday madness (I can’t vouch for Friday).
  • No matter when you hit the expo, take a few minutes to watch the street-view video of the course with elevation profile and expert analysis from elites, past champions, and others.
  • At least 100 additional porta-potties with minimal wait times await you in the corrals at the start line, so if you can wait I’d think twice before standing in the long, slow lines at the Athletes’ Village.
  • The Marathon Sports retail store on Boylston typically offers free medal engraving the day after the race (this year the time slot was 10:30am – 2:30pm).
  • For more helpful tips from a 12-time Boston finisher, check out Scott Dunlap’s post, “Running The Boston Marathon? Here Are Some Tips and Things To Do”.
8 towns of the Boston Marathon

Click on image for a larger version, sun streaks and all (source: Adidas RunBase, Boston)

BOTTOM LINE: Boston is a pretty cool race. And Tyrannosaurus rex was a pretty cool lizard. I’m flattered and appreciative that you’re reading this, but if you’re scanning blog posts & reviews to decide whether or not to run the Boston Marathon, we need to talk. Boston is hands-down (and it’s not close) the coolest race in the country, if not the world. Chicago has a similar feel in terms of race magnitude, community support/civic pride and an historic sports venue in Wrigley Field, but Boston is without rival. And unfortunately, the Cubs’ season typically ends well before race day in early October (oh no he di’int!).

So if you’re fast enough to run Boston, do it — early & often. If you’re on the cusp of being fast enough to qualify, train your butt off now before they tighten the qualifying standards again. And if you’re simply counting on attrition to qualify when you’re 80, hit up some family/friends/unguarded piggy banks and raise the $5,000 minimum needed to enter as a charity runner. No matter how you get to Boston (short of cheating the system and calling attention to yourself on Facebook), you won’t regret the effort.

Not surprisingly, Race Director Dave McGillivray said it best when asked what he does for a living: “I help raise the level of self-esteem and self-confidence of tens of thousands of people across America every year.” Now there’s an elevator pitch.

Boston Marathon finish line selfie
PRODUCTION:
Spot-on flawless, from start to finish. Every race of any size could learn a lot simply by standing on the sidelines observing Boston Marathon weekend. McGillivray and his team are master choreographers, and it’s almost laughable (& unfair) to compare any other marathon to Boston. The genius of the production is that it’s airtight and yet never in your face to spoil the experience. And unlike Berlin, the porta-potties in Boston had toilet paper! The only potential downside to race weekend was the overcrowded expo… but even that can be avoided by waiting until Sunday afternoon to attend. Four thumbs up (I’m borrowing Katie’s) on a job masterfully done.

SWAG: No finisher’s medal outside the Olympics is more coveted or more instantly recognizable than the unicorn earned by Boston Marathon finishers. I was awestruck as the friendly B.A.A. volunteer hung the blue-&-gold ribbon around my neck, and that was when the reality of my achievement really hit home.

In addition, the official Adidas long-sleeve race shirt isn’t your typical wear-once-and-donate race tee, but like the medal itself a classic blue & gold that fits well and which I can imagine wearing until the sleeves fall off. Everything about this marathon screams “attention to detail”, even if Adidas has (for better or worse) boldly steered away from the classic color scheme and gotten a bit sassier with the colors of its celebration jackets in recent years. I definitely didn’t envy the women their teal-&-pink jacket this year (look it up if you don’t believe me).

2016 Boston Marathon medal, finisher's shirt & bib

RaceRaves rating:RaceRaves-rating
FINAL STATS:

April 18, 2016 (start time 10:25am)
26.41 miles from Hopkinton to Boston, MA (state 11 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:48:36 (first time running the Boston Marathon), 8:39/mile
Finish place: 13,459 overall, 1693/2504 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 26,639 (14,471 men, 12,168 women)
Race weather: warm & sunny at the start (temp 69°F), cool & sunny at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 539 ft ascent, 983 ft descent

Boston-splits_BCH

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The race has become my theater for heroism, and of all the races, there is no better stage for heroism than a marathon.
– George Sheehan

Runner's World July 2013 cover

(photo credit Runner’s World)

I can’t believe it’s been a year.

It’s no exaggeration to say next week’s 118th Boston Marathon will be the most significant marathon in American history.  From an historical, cultural and psychological perspective, Monday will stand alone.  That’s a mind-boggling thought for the world’s oldest annual marathon, and one that’s witnessed its share of memorable moments through the years including:

  • 1966, when Bobbi Gibb became the first woman to complete the Boston Marathon.
  • 1967, when Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to race (and finish) with a bib number.
  • 1996, the Marathon’s Centennial celebration; with a field of 38,708 entrants it was the largest marathon ever at the time, and remains the largest Boston field to date.
  • 2011, the Year of the Great Tailwind (15-20 mph), when Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya set the current (unofficial) marathon world record in 2:03:02, with Ryan Hall setting the American record in 2:04:58.

Last year, of course, changed everything.  If you doubt this for a second, do a Google Images search for “Boston Marathon” and – if you can stomach the results – count how many of the first 100 photos show the race itself.

I still pause whenever I hear someone refer to those “affected” by the bombings, because I don’t know a single runner who wasn’t affected.  Physically I sat a continent removed from Boston, and yet I felt an indelible nexus with every person in Copley Square that day.  I knew several people who ran the race – some finished, some didn’t, though luckily all escaped physical injury.  And in the immediate aftermath, as reality gradually superseded surreality, I couldn’t help feeling as though I passed through all seven stages of grief, my brain periodically regressing to step one to start the process all over again.

So then as all eyes again turn toward the Mecca (check that, Mecc-er) of marathoning, you can bet I’m looking forward to next week’s Boston Marathon for a whole lot of reasons:

I look forward to what may be the most patriotic Patriots’ Day since the Battles of Lexington and Concord.  Boston is a proud city on a normal day, and a 26.2-mile urban party on a “typical” Patriots’ Day.  So I can only imagine the cathartic high that awaits the city on Monday.  As Spinal Tap lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel proudly described his amp’s unconventional volume knobs, “These go to 11.”  On Monday, I expect Boston to go to 11.

I look forward to the suffocating media coverage.  As much as I’d love to be sporting a Boston Athletic Association bib number on Monday, I’ll instead enjoy chasing the unicorn in spirit, and in solidarity with each of the nearly 36,000 runners who earned their coveted spot.

At the same time, I’ll stand ready here in California to join in on the national anthem, or the city’s adopted civic anthem (“I’m Shipping Up to Boston” by Dropkick Murphys), or wherever my vocal stylings may be needed.  Or more importantly not needed, as during the pre-race moment of silence to honor the victims and survivors of April 15.

I look forward to reading first-hand accounts of the day – at least those that don’t succumb to the writing equivalent of hyperventilation before the race even begins (OMG OMG OMG, BOSTON!!!!!!  Here are ten selfies in my blue and yellow gear I bought at the expo!!!).  I can’t wait to ride the day’s whirlwind of emotions, on social media and through the eyes of my fellow bloggers – from charged anticipation, to irrepressible anxiety, to overwhelming love and respect for the bent-but-not-broken resolve of a city and running community that so easily and eagerly embrace each other.

I look forward to tales from seasoned runners – Boston veterans among them – who find themselves faced with legitimate pre-race butterflies for the first time in years.  And I look forward to feeling my own vicarious shot of race-day adrenaline and sharing their start-line goosebumps from 3,000 miles away.

I look forward to mentally wallpapering over the smoke-filled chaos and carnage of 2013, in favor of scenes from the real Marathon – the adrenaline-fueled stampede out of Hopkinton; the unconditional support of raucous and oft-inebriated spectators; the deafening screams of the Wellesley College Scream Tunnel; the quiet confidence of medical personnel treating nothing more than muscle cramps and exhaustion; the exquisite triumph of mylar-wrapped finishers embracing friends and family.  Boston 2014 promises to be everything that Boston 2013 could not.

Of course I look forward to the actual race.  Although the men’s field reads like a “who’s who” of American distance running (including all-time great Meb Keflezighi), I have no delusions that an American will win on either the men’s or women’s side.  Still, I’ll be watching:

  • as Jason Hartmann and Shalane Flanagan strive for the podium after each finishing fourth last year (for Hartmann his second consecutive fourth-place finish);
  • as Dennis Kimetto of Kenya, who ran a course-record 2:03:45 in Chicago last year, chases Geoffrey Mutai’s Boston record of 2:03:02 (weather and tailwind willing)
  • as Ryan Hall – who holds the American marathon record (2:04:58) but who hasn’t raced competitively since DNF’ing at the 2012 London Olympics due to injury – runs to regain his status as America’s premier marathoner, and to prove his days as a sponsor-savvy “golden boy” aren’t behind him.

Meanwhile, over at Fenway Park and with the marathon as their traditional backdrop, I look forward to the World Series Champs channeling the emotions of the day into a hometown drubbing of the Baltimore Orioles.

I look forward to Race Director Dave McGillivray renewing his personal tradition of being the very last finisher in his own race.  McGillivray has run every Boston Marathon since 1973, and this year he’ll be running to raise funds for the Martin W. Richard Charitable Foundation.

And I look forward to the last official runner – the one just before RD McGillivray – crossing the freshly painted finish line on Boylston that welcomes each Boston Qualifier into the hallowed ranks of Boston Finisher.  As newly anointed finishers sport their BAA swag, flaunt their unicorn medals and raise their pints of Sam Adams Boston 26.2 Brew, that {whoosh} you hear will be an entire nation letting out its collective breath – relief tinged with sadness steeped in defiance.  From sea to shining sea.

I doubt I’ve read more on any single topic in the past year than on the bombings.  Even so, and despite the flood of media attention being rightly directed toward Monday, I’m admittedly looking beyond.

Under the glare of the world’s spotlight, and with cameras documenting the city’s every breath, Monday will be all about moving – moving tributes, moving reminders, moving mountains and of course, moving 26.2 miles.  Tuesday, though, is about moving on.  For many Bostonians and many others “affected” by the all-too-real nightmare of April 15, Tuesday is about closure.

For the families and loved ones of Krystle Campbell, Martin Richard, Lu Lingzi and Sean Collier, closure will always be that distant point on the horizon that, no matter how far and how fast they run toward it, never seems to get any closer.  For others, the notion of closure won’t change a future of constant pain and mounting medical bills.  And no matter what happens in that Massachusetts court room in November, closure will never reprise the heroic role of first responder to those who lost limbs, or innocence, or something far less reparable in Copley Square that day.  The truth is, time doesn’t heal all wounds.

For many others, though, closure means a much-needed shot at normalcy, a chance to restart lives and press play on a documentary that’s been stuck in slow-motion – or worse, on pause – for a year.  A chance to trade in the tears for weak smiles, the weak smiles for guarded laughter, and to move forward with renewed confidence knowing the world is filled with heroes we just haven’t met yet.

For the city itself, it means showing the world that “Boston Strong” isn’t a catchy mantra for a difficult time – it’s a way of life.  For runners everywhere, it means doubling down on the blood-, sweat- and tear-soaked training regimens required to qualify for the greatest foot race in the world.  For Red Sox and Yankees fans, it means getting back to the knuckleheaded comfort of hating each other, in the sporting-est sense of the word.  And for ESPN, it means getting back to the business of barely acknowledging Boston (or any marathon for that matter), since how much of a sport can it really be if America doesn’t dominate its biggest stages?

So even more than the tremendous emotional release that awaits on Monday, I look forward to Tuesday.  And the day after that, and the week after that, and the month after that.  I look forward to looking back, to remind ourselves not how much we’ve lost, but how far we’ve come.

Most of all, I look forward to looking forward.

For a compelling first-hand account of the 2013 Boston Marathon from someone who was there (and who ran a PR of 2:44:35 before the day fell apart), check out Scott Dunlap’s post on A Trail Runner’s Blog.

For more thoughts on the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, see my posts “Boston on my Mind” and “Boston F@&#ing Strong”.

This is our fucking city.  And nobody is going to dictate our freedom.  Stay strong.
– David “Big Papi” Ortiz, Boston Red Sox designated hitter

And with that, standing 15 miles and 238 years removed from the original, David Ortiz fired his own shot heard ’round the world.

Ortiz and his Red Sox teammates are icons of Boston sports culture.  But in his pregame address before the team took the field against Kansas City on Saturday, Ortiz was talking to a far wider audience than the 35,152 battle-tested fans in attendance at Fenway Park.

Because this past week, Boston truly was our city.  Boston was San Francisco’s city.  Boston was Chicago’s city.  Boston was Denver’s city, Miami’s city and New Orleans’ city.  Boston was even New York City’s city, as proclaimed by the “United We Stand” banner sporting dual Yankees and Red Sox logos that hung outside Yankee Stadium on Tuesday.

Over the course of a 102-hour period from Monday afternoon to Friday evening, we were barraged by thousands of graphic images of real-time chaos, tragedy and implausible strength.  We were warned to avert our eyes from some images, while being asked to look very carefully at others.  Thousands of pictures worth millions of words, as news agencies – including CNN with its bumbling, stumbling impression of a rabid dog chasing its tail – hustled to force-feed us those words and many more.  Meanwhile, those of us in the running community struggled to make sense of and assign words to our own swirling emotions.

Yet two words quickly rose above the turmoil: Boston Strong.  Two words worth a thousand pictures.  Two words to drive home the point that, as we approach our 237th birthday, each new terrorist threat to these States of America only serves to reaffirm and reinforce the fact that the U. remains an inextricable partner of the S.A.

With that in mind, and before this blog moves in a different direction, I wanted to share 10 unforgettable images and stories from a week that, to me, showcased and immortalized what it means to be Boston Strong:

Four we won’t forget
Krystle Campbell (29), Martin Richard (8) and Lu Lingzi (23) were killed in Monday’s bombings.  MIT campus patrol officer Sean Collier (26) was shot and killed in the line of duty by the Tsarnaev brothers on Thursday.  Donations can be made to the Krystle M. Campbell Memorial Fund, the Richard Family Fund, the Lu Lingzi Scholarship Fund at Boston University, and under Officer Collier’s name to The Jimmy Fund:

KrystleCampbell_MartinRichard_LingziLu_SeanCollier

In addition, The One Fund Boston, Inc. has been established by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Tom Menino to provide financial support for all those directly affected by the week’s tragic events.

Bill Iffrig and the bombing of Boylston Street (Monday)
Bill Iffrig (circled at top, and in orange tanktop at bottom) was seconds from finishing his third Boston Marathon when shock waves from the first explosion knocked him to the ground.  After being helped to his feet by a race official, the 78-year-old Washington resident finished the marathon under his own power.  Iffrig’s story has come to symbolize the city of Boston’s endurance and resolve in the aftermath of Monday’s madness:

Finish line_MS

© 2013 The New York Times Company

Bill Iffrig-Boston Globe

(AP Photo/The Boston Globe, John Tlumacki)

Jeff Bauman, hero (Monday)
Jeff Bauman was standing at the marathon finish line to cheer on his girlfriend when Tamerlan Tsarnaev dropped a backpack containing a bomb at his feet.  Despite losing both legs in the explosion and waking up in the hospital heavily drugged, Bauman (shown here being rushed from the scene by a paramedic and two volunteers, including Carlos Arredondo in the cowboy hat) immediately asked for a pen and paper on which he wrote, “bag, saw the guy, looked right at me.”  His subsequent identification of Tsarnaev was the breakthrough FBI investigators needed to finger Tsarnaev and his brother Dzhokhar as prime suspects:

Jeff Bauman

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Man comforts bombing victim (Monday)
I don’t know whether they knew each other before Monday or whether this is their first meeting, but without question this is one of the most poignant images to emerge from the day’s harsh surreality:

Comforted

Détente in the Bronx (Tuesday)
As much as I hate to admit it, the New York Yankees are a classy organization.  New York’s show of solidarity with its normally bitter rival was on full display on the outer facade of Yankee Stadium before Tuesday’s game against the Arizona Diamondbacks.  The team recognized a moment of silence for the bombing victims, and the stadium’s PA system played Fenway favorite “Sweet Caroline” as fans sang along at the end of the third inning:

NYY07_BASEBALL

Four days later, the two cities set aside their similarities for 48 minutes as the Knicks defeated the Celtics in game one of their NBA playoffs series.  Don’t get cocky New York, it’s only one game.

Manhunt in the streets of Boston (Friday)
Boston residents were ordered to “shelter-in-place” as authorities pursued bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  The lockdown left the streets of Boston and its surrounding suburbs eerily empty and quiet, as exemplified by this photo of Kenmore Square tweeted by Andrew Golden:

BIOajDVCYAETXOg

The Boston Police Department: “CAPTURED!!!” (Friday)
This tweet, time-stamped 8:58pm EDT on Friday April 19, says it all:

CAPTURED

It’s his f@&#ing city, too
He’s David Ortiz’s kind of kid: I’ve had this picture on my hard drive for several years now, and usually call on it to harass my friends once the baseball playoffs begin.  Before I get called out for my naïvete, yes I realize he’s a promiscuous kid and can be found online wearing pretty much any team’s jersey.  But to me the sentiment is so perfect and so… Boston, particular now, that this list wouldn’t feel right without him:

Red Sox fan

Boston Bruins fans sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” (Wednesday)
In the first professional sporting event in Boston since the bombings, Boston Bruins’ fans joined in and then overwhelmed Rene Rancourt as he sang the national anthem.  If this doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, or at least a gaggle of goosebumps to your skin, I can only assume you just awoke from a 102-hour slumber:

And I leave you with one final image, a collective sentiment that will continue to resonate with runners everywhere long after the debris on Boylston has been cleared away… after all, Boston is our fucking city:

o-RUN-FOR-BOSTON-570

The One Fund Boston, Inc. was established “to help the people most affected by the tragic events that occurred in Boston on April 15, 2013.”  Please give generously.