Boston Marathon 2017 – Love and Heartbreak

I started running in September of 2009, and, like many other runners, my first foray was less than impressive. Struggling to run for 60 seconds in row is a memory I’ll never lose. Nine weeks later, I ran my first 5K, and, for the first time, I actually enjoyed the run. 6 weeks after that, I ran my first 10K and I knew I was hooked and would never turn back. Fast forward a couple years (fall of 2011) to the Marine Corps Marathon. A friend of mine was attempting to run the entire marathon with an average pace under 8:00/mile. Honestly, to me, that seemed completely out of reach. He might as well have said, “I’m running to the moon.” That seemed just as likely. But, it put a bug in my ear that I wanted to start a new phase of running, where I’m not only finishing marathons, but actually trying to improve, so I hired a coach. That next spring (2012), with the help of my coach, a structured plan, and far more knowledge about why I was doing certain workout types, I ran the Glass City Marathon in just under 3:30:00.

That was the turning point for me. That’s when I knew I wanted to attempt to qualify for Boston, but more than that, believed I could do it.

2012 was five years ago, and after many failed attempts, I finally did it. I put together a great training cycle, went into the marathon completely healthy, and beat my qualification standard by more than 6 minutes. This weekend would be the culmination of all of those efforts. Finally running the Boston Marathon.

For the first time since they surprised me by showing up to my first marathon in Chicago, my whole family was there to cheer me on. My parents and younger sister came from Cleveland, my older sister flew all the way from Beijing, China, and my wife and two boys were with me as well. What a feeling to be doing something you worked so hard to get and have your family be there to share in it.

pre-erin-kelli-me
Erin, Kelli and I, together again

We had a gorgeous weekend in Boston. Bright, sunny skies made getting around to the Expo, the finish line area and everything else a joy.

pre-finish-line
The finish line filled with selfie-takers

And it truly feels like the whole city is filled with runners. Everywhere you looked you saw people in the famous Boston Marathon jackets. At one point I turned to my wife and said, “This is my tribe.” What a buzz.

The expo was amazing. I really enjoy the spectacle of big city marathon expos, and, of course, Boston did not disappoint. When I actually got the bag with my bib, I got really emotional and just had to take a minute to regain my composure. The bib made it real. A real, physical thing that said, “You made it.”

expo-bib

With the must-haves complete, we turned our attention to all of the fun stuff, including: the Boston Marathon jacket.

expo-jacket
The jacket

And, we decided to get the ceremonial pre-race picture of me with my boys since they wouldn’t be out in Hopkinton with me.

expo-sam-matthew
Pre-race picture with my boys

I spent the rest of the day relaxing while my family got together, went to dinner, and just enjoyed everyone being together.

After a fitful night’s sleep, marathon Monday was upon me. I got some hugs and kisses and off I went into the morning to jump on the buses that take runners from Boston Commons (a handful of blocks from the finish line) to Athlete’s Village in Hopkinton (the start). The site in Boston Commons of buses as far as you can see is really something. But they have the whole process just nailed and everything was smooth.

IMG_0007

Once we got to Athlete’s Village, I made a point of finding a nice shaded area to sit and relax. The forecast for the day included lots of sun and the temperatures were climbing higher than originally forecast, so keeping cool while I waited was a priority. I think I spent about an hour or so in Athlete’s Village, took care of ‘business’, then finally heard the call for my wave (2) to walk to the start line area, which is about ¾ mile from the village. Now the nerves and excitement really started to build. I did some dynamic stretching along the way, then just tried to soak up the atmosphere while waiting for the gun for our wave. I kept reminding myself to go out easy …

And then I didn’t. The gun went off and the pent-up excitement got the best of me and I went out quickly. Not kamikaze quickly, but too fast for sure. The first 4+ miles are mostly downhill, so it’s easy to get out over your skis. And I did. And it was hot. Not just warm, but actual hot and I wasn’t prepared for it. I noticed I was sweating much more than I usually do at the pace I was running, but I ignored it and kept going. Somewhere around mile 7 (or 8?) I saw my two sisters for the first time, but, unfortunately, they were on the opposite side of the road from me, so I yelled their name and we waved.

Right around mile 9, my body started to rebel. It was a feeling I had felt before in a marathon, and in that one, I ended up in an ambulance having collapsed on the course. This time, I was at least smart enough to recognize the symptoms: my vision started to narrow, I started feeling a buzz in my head, and everything I heard sounded like I was under water. Everything felt very far away. So I slowed down a bunch, and thought, maybe I’m just low on sugar and electrolytes, so I took the Gu I had planned to have at the 10 mile mark and got more water as well. By this time, I had slowed to a walk while I tried to clear my head, so I started to jog again, then move a little quicker. That’s when the muscle cramps started. Soon after that, the Gu and water came back up, making this a vicious dehydration cycle.

Suffice it say, I knew the day I had pictured in my head was over. No triumphant run past the finish line, arms raised, having requalified for 2018. But, I did have work to do, so I put my head down and did what I could. The entire second half of the race was a repeated pattern of walking when I need to and running when I could. Ironically, it was right after Heartbreak Hill (about mile 20) when I was finally able to keep some water and Gu down. That helped me rally just a tiny bit. Very slow running, but at least I didn’t have to walk as much. I’ll admit this: I considered stopping at every single medical tent I passed. I’m not sure how, but each time I convinced myself to go just one more mile, and they started to add up. I read after the fact that ~2800 runners ended up in the medical tents, and most of them from the heat. That’s nearly 10% of the field.

mid-end-pain
Somewhere deep in the pain cave
mid-walking
Walking.  Ughhhh.

When finally made it to Boylston Street, even though I was almost a full hour later than I expected, I did have a sense a relief. Somewhere way down deep I felt an inkling of pride for having seen it through. I crossed the finish line, got my medal, smiled at the photographer, then started walking to reunite with my family. I remember finding them, but I’m not sure how. I was completely out of it.

post-medal
A smile at the finish

So, lot’s of heartbreak from the race.

post-heartbreak
Heartbreak

But, I’ll tell you this. This was still my favorite marathon experience. I loved everything about it, with the exception of my performance. Even a terrible performance can’t erase the overwhelmingly positive experience I had that weekend.

  • I had my entire family with me. Being surrounded by the people you love and who love you is priceless. That they would make the trip to watch me run is just amazing.
  • The entire spectacle of the marathon. Boston becomes the marathon during that weekend. Everywhere you turn, you’re seeing an experience made for the runners. The expo, the finish line area, hell, even the airport was dressed up for the marathon.
  • My tribe. Surrounded by runners for a whole weekend.
  • Really, it isn’t the marathon itself that is so meaningful. It’s what it took to get there. Miles and miles of training. Early bedtimes, early morning alarms. Ice storms in the winter, heat and humidity in the summer. The sacrifices my family makes for me on a daily basis to allow me to train. It’s having the spark of an idea, the idea turns into a goal, and the goal is only achieved if you have the wherewithal to see it through every single day.

I will say this. I want to go back. I want all of those great things AND a solid performance.

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