Last year was my first Boston Marathon. As I shuffled across the finish line on Boylston — my quads seized up since mile 22 — I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be coming back.
But that feeling didn’t last long. I had re-qualified with my time that year, so I signed up in the fall — just in case I changed my mind come spring. I skied most of the winter, stacking most of my runs the day after the longer ski races. I didn’t stress about running through the coldest and snowiest winter on record. I added miles as the snow melted and the ski season ended. A little less than 3 weeks before the Marathon, I made my final decision to run it.
I would do it without a taper, on that very fine line between fitness and exhaustion. I had been running injury free all winter — not counting the ribs I had separated while skiing in January that took until March to heal — but strains were developing in my hip, shins and knee.
The long-range weather forecast promised ideal conditions: overcast, in the 50’s. Not like last year’s suddenly sunny and warm day that left me sunburned and dehydrated. But the forecast deteriorated as race day approached and by start time, I was confronting what would prove to be a long, cold, wet, and windy day.
My strategy this year was simple: run very conservatively the first 16-17 miles, stay comfortable over the Newton hills, and use whatever I had left for the finale. I wanted to avoid repeating the agony of last year’s last few miles. I would gladly accept whatever time that gave me at the end. With a stiff headwind, that seemed the right plan.
I was a nervous mess before the race. In a way I had never been. So much of the day was hinging on the weather. The rain started to sprinkle but the heavy stuff was holding off. For now. I committed to wearing limited clothing rather than risk running in wet, heavy kit. Instead, I went back to my bike racing playbook and greased myself up with Bag Balm and hot cream.
Once I was running my warm up, the nerves settled.
At 10 AM, they fired the gun. The elites took off. It took me, all the way back in corral 6, three and half minutes to cross the start line. And then, I just ran. I ran comfortably. I was breathing through my nose, like I had done on the long training runs. I was waiting for the heat to build, but it never came. I didn’t look at my watch for pace or heart rate, even though it buzzed every kilometer, automatically marking the split time.
The buzzes came with a reassuring frequency. The mile markers passed by, too, and I didn’t look at my watch or the clock. Anytime I found myself breathing through my mouth, I backed off, eased up and settled back to a slower pace. The rain was picking up, but still just intermittent showers. My legs felt stiff and junky. The cold was creeping into the muscles. My right hip and IT band were getting tight. My left toe was already starting to hurt. I felt tired.
At 10 miles, I wasn’t sure if I was going to last.
At 11 miles, I ducked into the woods for a piss.
At 12 miles, in the thick of the Wellesley College Scream Tunnel, I stopped and kissed a dark-haired, pale-skinned co-ed.
At 13.1 miles, the rain was falling for real. My split was 1:31. My legs weren’t feeling any better. My family was waiting for me at mile 19. I knew I could stop there and climb into a warm car. If I could make it that far.
I was starting to get hungry. I had already eaten the two gels I had stuffed into my shorts. I was starting to question my plan of eating less than the year before. There was a feed at 17 miles. If I could make it that far.
On the long downhill to Newton Lower Falls, I kept myself in check. No overdriving the legs this year. On the climb up and over the interstate, my legs felt wobbly from the sudden shift from mostly downhill to suddenly uphill.
Past Newton-Wellesley Hospital, I thought about my boy, Romeo, who was supposed to have been born there, on Marathon Monday, 10 years earlier. But he came 3 months early. And left us far too soon. And that’s why I was running Boston. Again.
At the feed, I ate 2 gels right away, and grabbed a third.
Onto the Newton hills — I know these hills so well. Unconsciously, I picked up the pace. I was still running comfortably, but my legs still felt heavy and dead. I started to breath through my mouth now, but it made my head spin so I went back to just breathing through my nose. I sucked down another gel. I was starting to feel warm. Starting to feel some energy.
My wife and son were waiting for me at mile 19, on the uphill after Walnut Street. I stopped when I saw them. I took a drink. I grabbed another gel. I stretched my legs. I said simply, “I’m tired.” Hugs and kisses all around. Then I started running again.
On Heartbreak, I passed by slower runners. I was pulling in oxygen through my mouth now, feeling my lungs balloon out. I was floating up the hill, unbroken. My legs felt smooth and warm. Over the top, I picked up the pace. I checked myself on the long downhill past Boston College. Last year, my legs seized up on the way down and I was waiting for it to happen again. But then I was at mile 21 and my quads were still intact.
So I turned on the afterburners.
And I ran like hell.
The rain was coming down. The crowds were screaming. I was overtaking runners like one of those dreams were everybody else is moving in slow motion. My feet were slapping the wet pavement. I was breathing like a race horse. There was no pain. Just a reassuring strength in my legs, and the slightest nagging feeling that somehow the bottom would fall out.
I knew the route well from there. I had been running it once a week into work for the last 6 weeks. I knew every rise and run, every intersection and traffic stop that had slowed me down when training that I now blazed through. I kept thinking how fucking awesome my legs felt, surprised by how much I had left, and trying like mad to empty all of it out before the finish.
At the 40km mark, I realized I could finish in under 3 hrs.
I accelerated, unfettered, slowed only by the masses of runners I had to navigate, trying to find the fastest line through Kenmore, through the tunnel, sweeping onto Hereford, and then, at last, Boylston. And then the long long stretch to the finish line, the finish that couldn’t come quickly enough last year and seemed to take forever. The finish that, this year, I sped toward, full gas, leaving all I could on the pavement behind me.
And I did it. Only barely. But at 2:59:35, I was under 3 hours. And I was more than pleased to take it.
I had rarely ever felt so good in the finale of a race, much less something as brutal as a marathon. What I had expected to be a disaster had turned into my best ever time. The weather only added emphasis to the accomplishment.
In the end, it was true what the Wellesley women promised. Kiss one — and you’ll PR.