Posts Tagged ‘Fenway Park’

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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When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around.  But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.
– Mark Twain

Dad & Mom (1958)


Clark Gable and Carole Lombard? Nope, it’s Dad and Mom in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico (1958)

Today would have been Dad’s 82nd birthday.

Dad was never a runner per se, though that’s hardly surprising – he grew up in an era when few people identified themselves as “runners”.  Running was a means to an end – how else to steal a base, score a touchdown or start a fast break? – rather than an end in itself.  For most of society running was a fringe activity, certainly not a legitimate sport and something that really only happened (much less mattered) once every four years under the auspices of the International Olympic Committee.

So Dad didn’t run.  But he was definitely athletic.  At different stages in his life he tackled baseball, racquetball, handball and golf.  His two (or was it three?) career holes-in-one testified to his skill and comfort with a 7-iron, and though he might feign modesty, he’d be happy to share the details if you asked.  Likewise he married Mom and tackled the rugged terrain of fatherhood, that most contact of all sports.  In this arena his three children – an older daughter and two younger sons – testified to his skill, if not always his comfort, with being a father.  Here too, though, he’d gladly share the details when asked.

Even after 20 years in the U.S. Air Force and another 3+ decades in suburban Texas, Dad’s distinctive accent remained as thick as New England clam chowder.  Service to his country may have taken the boy out of Boston, but no one was taking Boston out of the boy.  Accordingly, Dad was a firm adherent to what we wannabe linguists termed the “Law of Conservation of R’s” – any “r” that vanished inexplicably from the end of one word would soon reappear at the tail of another.  We rarely passed up an opportunity to offer up our best Dad impression, parading around the house wondering out loud where we’d pahked the cah or asking Mom whether she’d be making tuner fish casserole for dinnah.

Needless to say we cracked ourselves up.  Even better, Dad never understood what was so funny – we sounded perfectly normal to his New England-trained ear.

We teased Dad too for being (in his own words) a “cheapskate.”  Granted his post-military career as an auditor for the Department of Defense, together with a mortgage and three kids, wasn’t the most lucrative lifestyle.  But he took great pride in his cheapskatedness, regularly extolling the virtues of Sam’s Club and purchasing most of his wardrobe from the Air Force Exchange Service, the headquarters for which was conveniently located in nearby Dallas.  And true to form, when faced with a nerve-wracking diagnosis of prostate cancer, Dad scheduled his surgery at the military base hospital to take advantage of the veterans discount.

Despite his 20 years in the military, Dad wasn’t much of a disciplinarian.  Any vestige of draconian rule had been vanquished by my older siblings by the time I entered the picture, 8½ years after Chuck and nearly 10 years after Sandy.  Though neither parent ruled with an iron fist, hearing the words “Wait until your father gets home” was enough to scare me straight for a couple of hours.  At the top of their parenting game, he and Mom made a formidable tag team.

Dad_golf champ


I suspect Dad (left) may have joined the Air Force just to win golf tournaments

In school I was the kid who always looked forward to bringing home his report card… to unfolding it noisily in front of the parents, laying it out with great pomp and circumstance on the kitchen table, and hearing Dad say – after several seconds spent appraising its value as a jeweler would a diamond – “Can’t do any bettah than that.”  More often than not he was right.  Though never a stickler for details anyway (Santa’s handwriting, for example, always looked so familiar), Dad recognized early on that any external motivation on his part wouldn’t compare to the pressure I put on myself.

My early success at reading, writing and arithmetic evolved into high school success evolved into graduating summa cum laude from Rice University evolved into earning my PhD in Cancer Biology from Stanford University.  Each step of the way, even if he wasn’t always sure what I was studying or why I was studying it, Dad would smile and offer up his own fatherly appraisal: “Can’t do any bettah than that.”

There were times when Dad could live up to his name and be brutally Frank.  When I’d say or do something that didn’t pass muster, he’d counter by taking the name of my alma mater in vain – “For someone who went to Rice, you sure are dumb.”  After I finished my PhD, that jab evolved to incorporate Stanford as well.  Though not so much in the moment, eventually I grew to appreciate his willingness to call me out, and his honest assessment still echoes in my brain whenever – well, let’s just say I hear it a lot.

But Dad could also be incredibly generous.  With the launch of every holiday season he and Sandy would head straight to the shopping mall, where they’d buy Christmas presents for underprivileged children whose names adorned the Salvation Army Angel Tree.  Some years, undoubtedly, they were the only gifts those kids received, and hearing him talk about his young charges (whom he never actually met) was a far better start to the holidays than Black Friday.  He took his annual responsibility to the Angel Tree very seriously.  Mom and Sandy still do.

Sometimes it seemed those kids were the only residents of the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex Dad didn’t know.  In a family of textbook introverts – including a younger son who was perfectly happy reading his comic books, or practicing the guitar, or shooting baskets in an empty gym – Dad stood out like a zebra with spots.  One summer evening, en route to a little league baseball game I was scheduled to umpire, we found ourselves lost in an unfamiliar neighborhood.  Pulling over to ask a random pedestrian for directions, Dad leaned out the window and called to her, “Excuse me, could you tell me how to get to – hey, Linder!  How ya been?  Haven’t seen you in a while!”  By the time he and long-lost Linda concluded their chat, we barely made it to the baseball field in time for first pitch.

Me & Dad (1971)


Dad worked the night shift while I held down the morning shift in our home veterinary clinic (1971)

Dad and I enjoyed several father-son road trips/vacations over the years – my first visit to Boston and Fenway Pahk in 1987; New Orleans for the 1984 Louisiana World’s Fair; Washington D.C. the summer before that; and an early 80s road trip from Dallas to Orlando FL, over 1,000 miles of driving in each direction and all in the name of – what else? – Mickey Mouse.  We got around, me and Dad.

But father-son (or in this case father-sons) bonding was nevah bettah than in 1998.  That April, Dad flew the three of us out to the East Coast to watch Chuck run in the Boston Marathon.  At that point I was still a basketball player for whom “off-court running” generally meant sprinting through airports.  And the only races I had under my belt wing were a couple of turkey trots in which I’d taken the “trot” label to heart, and where I’d functioned mainly as a human drop bag for Chuck’s street clothes while he ran.

But whether you’re running, trotting, walking or crawling, the ‘wow’ factor of Boston on Patriots Day can’t be denied.  Dad himself seemed stunned by the sheer magnitude of an event he hadn’t witnessed in nearly 50 years, this formerly provincial footrace of fewer than 200 runners that passed within a strong snowball’s throw of his childhood home in Newton Lower Falls.

He and I jockeyed for position with the hordes of fervent spectators near mile 12, until I hopped in to join Chuck for the next five miles.  My timing was no coincidence.  Those five miles were without question the LOUDEST stretch I’ve ever run, courtesy of Wellesley’s tireless spectators and especially the celebrated Wellesley College Scream Tunnel (though I left the hard-earned kisses to the real runners).  Even without a medal to show for my effort, those remain five of the most memorable miles of my running life.  So technically I have run in the Boston Marathon, all thanks to Dad the non-runner.  And to Chuck for being fast enough to qualify in the first place.

Dad also used that weekend to don his tour guide hat.  As if in homage to his city’s iconic Dunkin’ Donuts, Dad’s childhood memories of Boston were dipped in nostalgia and sprinkled with absurdity.  He shared (tall?) tales of sneaking over the chain-link fence around Fenway Park to watch Ted Williams play.  He introduced us the house where he, together with his Polish immigrant parents, sister and four brothers, hunkered down to escape the ruthless Northeast winters.  And he showed us the spot near his home where he and his reckless buddies would dive into the Charles River: “Jimmy cracked his head open down theah” he said matter-of-factly, indicating the concrete embankment sloping down to the river.  Seeing the horrified looks on our faces, he followed up with a dismissive wave and an assurance of “Ah, he was fine.”  Hazarding one last downward glance to check for faded blood spatter, I wondered whether Jimmy would be so quick to agree.

Dad on the golf course


Dad’s sense of humor could rise to the occasion… that’s him hitting balls into an apparent construction site

As I transitioned into adulthood, chinks appeared in his impenetrable Dad armor.  Successful prostate cancer surgery was followed by in situ carcinoma of the bladder, and by the usual spectrum of age-related maladies.  Not that he’d ever complain, at least not in front of us kids – he was solidly of the “Rub some dirt on it” era.  In fact, Chuck and I later learned that during our visits home to Texas, Dad would sneak off to the oncologist’s office for radiation therapy without a word to either of us.  Why bother your own kids with something as trivial as cancer treatments?  Never mind that one of those kids had his graduate degree in Cancer Biology.

But as tough as a man must be to endure 20 Boston winters, 20 years in the military and two cancer diagnoses, Father Time will always be tougher.  As the years accelerated, so too did the aging process.  Not that he’d ever complain, at least not in front of us kids.

But frailty and weakness are never so jarring as when they appear somewhere you’ve never seen them.  Most striking was the weight loss, which he would dismiss in typical Dad fashion – I began to feel like an NFL linebacker standing next to him.  Then came more time spent “resting his eyes” in front of the television and, when we’d walk together, increasingly frequent respites to catch his breath.  Finally and most alarmingly, he stopped playing golf altogether, although that decision he attributed more to the arthritis that had robbed his knee of its flexibility.  After he retired in 1993, Dad eschewing a round of golf would have been like a Kardashian eschewing the spotlight.  It just didn’t happen.  So his sudden lack of interest in the sport was troubling.  And telling.

In October 2009 came the phone call I’d been dreading silently for years: Dad had suffered a heart attack and been rushed to the hospital.  Fortunately Sandy had been with him at the time – nobody took better care of Dad than Sandy, and nobody took better care of Sandy than Dad.  But this second “episode” (doctor’s words) in seven months had been more severe than the first.  And over the next three months, as doctors fought to prove otherwise, his heart made it gut-wrenchingly clear it was no longer in the game.  With Dad in the hospital and Katie, Chuck and I staggering our trips home to help Mom and Sandy as much as possible, 2009 quickly became a very un-merry Christmas.

Dad with Katie's parents


Breaking bread with Katie’s parents at our wedding rehearsal dinner in Kaua’i (2004)

One month after his 78th birthday, in January 2010, Dad passed away from congestive heart failure.  He’d been married to Mom for 51 years, served his country for 20 more, fathered three (by my estimate) beautiful kids, and tallied two (or was it three?) aces on the golf course.  He’d outlived the Great Depression, a World War, five siblings, two bouts with cancer and – unlike many of his contemporaries – 86 years of Red Sox futility.  By all accounts, for a self-professed “knucklehead” from Newton, it had been one hell of a ride.

Admittedly I’ve forgotten the exact date he left us… who wants to remember the worst day of their life?  I’d rather remember today, and the decades worth of todays our family celebrated together.  In reading other blogs, I see jubilant finish-line photos of runners posing with their own dads; my favorite photos show both generations sporting a bib number and running shoes.  I don’t write this blog to dish out advice, but my advice to other runners would be to snap that photo, whenever you can.

And though I know it’s not really him, I do still make it a point when I’m home to visit Dad at the Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery, where he is appropriately honored alongside his fellow veterans.  Why I visit him there, I’m not quite sure – maybe to assure him we’re all taking good care of Mom (though we don’t have the 51 years of practice he had).  Or to share the news that whereas the Celtics now suck, the Red Sox have suddenly become a baseball dynasty. Or maybe, in a regrettably selfish moment, to chastise him for not listening to others and taking better care of himself.  Death is such a high price to pay for living.

Then again, standing in respectful silence among the granite and marble headstones, I realize exactly why I visit – to let him know he’s not alone.  To let him know I still hear him, I’m still listening, and that his legacy is in part my own determination to take care of those close to me, and those who can’t take care of themselves.  He is, after all, the reason I donate every year on this day to The American Association of Free and Charitable Clinics (NAFC), whose mission is to broaden access to affordable health care for the nation’s medically underserved.

I’ve yet to qualify for the Boston Marathon.  But one Patriots Day soon, when I’m lining up among the compression-clad masses in Hopkinton, or maybe when I’m struggling through the hills in his hometown Newton late in the race, I’ll hear Dad’s voice slice loud and clear through the controlled chaos all around me.  Not for its volume, or its intensity, or even its strict adherence to the law of conservation of R’s… but for its simple and well-timed message, a six-word anthem from father to son:

Can’t do any bettah than that.

Happy birthday, Dad.

Dad_headstone