Right on Hereford, left on Boylston…
From the corner, I could see the finish line and the long long stretch of pavement still to cover. Less than a mile. Just a few more minutes. But it was taking forever. The crowds were the thickest here. And the loudest. Their cheers echoed off the surrounding buildings. Yet I felt I was finishing all alone.
I had left the start line in Hopkinton three hours earlier, bobbing along in a sea of runners, buoyed on by the shouts of the crowds and the shrieks of my co-workers. It was incredibly thick at the start. I weaved around my fellow runners, trying to find an early rhythm, nervous about going out too slow. I would never see clear road in front of me the entire race.
It took the first 4 miles to find a rhythm. I had memorized my split times. I had written them on my arm in case I forgot. I was on target. So far. I tried to stay relaxed. Run smoothly. Run with calm. It was still cool. Even with the bright sun and clear skies. But the temperatures were expected to climb throughout the day.
In Ashland, the crowds were already thick along the side of the road. On the first hill, they shouted “Go Romeo!” as I passed by and I started to choke up.
I had a long ways to go.
I focused on my heart rate, running steady in the low 160’s. This was comfortable. A little high, but reasonable considering the heat and my nerves. At least I felt like I was saving something for later. And the pace — 4:07/km — was right on. I was eating and drinking on schedule, alternating between Gatorade and water.
I hit the 10km split in Framingham at 41:07. People filled the roadsides, crowded up against the barriers. Children held out their hands for hi-5’s or offered cups of water to the passing runners . Thick smoke carried the smell of grilled food across the course and my stomach turned a little.
I was 1:02 at 15km. I barely recognized Natick center. The town square was jammed with people, standing three and four deep, piled onto bleachers and blocking the main intersection. It was incredible how everything had stopped for the marathon. Even more incredible were the people that lined the course on both sides.
I could hear the Wellesley Scream Tunnel before I saw it. I had been forewarned. And still I wasn’t prepared for all these young college women leaning over the barriers, their chests heaving from screaming, waving signs that said, “Kiss me and you’ll PR.” It was tempting but I did a quick cost-benefit calculation and decided against it.
A short distance later, I reached the Half in Wellesley center at 1:27:43. My legs were starting to feel tired, but everything was holding together. None of the nagging little pain points in my hips, back and shins that had plagued me throughout the buildup. Time to start picking up the pace a bit.
I knew the course quite well from here. It was part of my standard training route. So, I also knew what lay ahead and that the most difficult parts were still to come.
On the long, gradual descent towards the Charles River, I caught up a runner wearing a Dartmouth ski team singlet with “Torin” in the snowflake. I ran alongside him for a few minutes. “I was there when he died ,” I told him. “And I’m thinking of him, too.”
We were approaching mile 16. I focused back on my race and readied myself for the first hill of consequence as we crossed into Newton. It was a relief to be running uphill and working my muscles a little differently. I surged a bit, let my heart rate climb to the low 170’s, but kept it in check. I carried my speed past Newton-Wellesley Hospital. I thought about my boy who was supposed to have been born there 9 years ago. All the grief I had carried with me, how crippling it had been at times. I was expecting to find despair at this point but I only found strength.
I made the left turn onto Commonwealth Ave and the roar of the crowd hit me like a wall.
“Here’s where I need your wings, Romeo,” I said out loud.
I settled into the hill. I knew this hill so well. From running. From rollerski intervals and specific strength workouts. It was only a few minutes long. I was passing other runners now. I punched it over the top, just like I had been told, and carried the speed onto the flats.
I saw my family at mile 19, on the left side of the road, ringing cowbells and screaming. My son Eros was there, wearing a matching Romeo jersey. We slapped hands. I pushed up the hill. I hit my high heart rate of the race — 181 bpm — cresting that small hill.
There was just Heartbreak Hill to go from there. It was a cacophony. A sea of humanity. Overwhelming.
I chewed up the hill. Runners were hitting the wall. They were stopped, cramped up on the side of the road. Some were sitting down. Others walked slowly in the middle of the road, forcing other runners to divert around them.
On the backside of Heartbreak, heading down toward Boston College, I knew I was in trouble.
My quads had started to lose their resilience. I could feel the change. The suppleness was gone. The fatigue had set in. I tried to carry as much momentum as I could down that hill, run as smoothly as I could and avoid any self-arrest. But by the bottom, I had nothing left.
I had targeted to run close to 2:50, which meant I had to run a pace of 3:57/km for the second half of the race. I hadn’t been able to lower my pace over the Newton hills, but I was still on track to come in under 3 hours, if I could just keep a steady pace from here for the next 4 point 2 miles.
I negotiated the trolley tracks by Cleaveland Circle, now afraid that I would misstep and find myself on the ground. I made the sweeping turn by the Reservoir onto Beacon Street. The crowds were the loudest thus far. I kept going. I knew I looked rough.
“Go, Romeo! I will be your Juliet!” I heard several times.
So I kept going. I wanted so badly to stop. To walk even just a few paces. But I knew if I stopped, I would never get started again. So I promised myself to keep running. The time no longer mattered, as long as I kept running.
I was feeling the heat. I took of my cap. I was thirsty and dehydrated. It was too late to drink at this point. Chills crept up from the base of my skull.
I was being passed now by runners who looked fresh by comparison. I must have been passed by a thousand runners in those last few miles. I was suffering but I kept trying to push the pace, hoping to suffer for a little less time, even a few seconds less. But each time I pressed, by hamstrings would start to cramp, so I pushed a little less hard. But I kept going.
The last two miles were an eternity. Those final turns were never coming. But I kept going all the same.
Then I was on Boylston and it was all moving in slow motion.
As I approached the finish line, I pointed to my jersey, to the name “Romeo”, then pointed to the sky, then blew him a kiss. I swear the crowd got even louder at that point.
I wasn’t alone after all.
I finished with a time of 3:03:09, slower than I had targeted, but good enough. I had crumbled in the last few miles and the pain didn’t stop after the finish.
But I felt relieved.
I had fulfilled a promise made 9 years earlier.
And I had been part of the recovery after last year’s events. I could feel it along the entirety of the course. It had drawn out the crowds — more than a million spectators by estimates. The Marathon had brought out the best of everybody who participated in it and supported it, and continued the healing.
It’s a slow recovery. Mine is taking years. Running a marathon doesn’t fix it. It won’t bring back the dead. Not even Boston.
But the run is my own measure of progress.
A mile at a time. 26.2 further along.