Sunday, April 21, 2013

A Marathon Day like no other....

For the last 6 years I’ve used this post-marathon blog to give insights to what race day in Boston is like and how I did personally in attempting to achieve the finish line. This one will be different.

When I sat down to write this blog I found myself just staring at the screen. Even days later I’m at a loss to organize and express the range of emotions of the day and days that followed. So I’ll ask your forgiveness in advance if you find this blog a bit unorganized, over emotional at times and lacking the usual humor. I hope it is easier to read than it was to write.

Nervous excitement is the best description I can give for the emotional state of the runners at the staging area in Hopkinton. As I’ve mentioned before, it looks like a mini-Woodstock with runners spread out over the fields and just about every available dry space around the school. Because they close the roads into town at 7:30 most runners have to wait outside for 2-3 hours before the start of the race. That’s a lot of pent-up nervous energy.

I rode out from Boston to the start in Hopkinton with a couple of busloads of charity runners who are part of the Charity Teams group. These are some of the runners who agree to raise $5000 for a race-sponsored charity in order to get an official race number. On my bus most of the runners were first time Boston Marathoners and many were first time marathoners. Susan Hurley is the angel that runs Charity Teams, which trains these runners to be able to complete the run and at the same time helps them with the challenges of fund raising. In the most elite marathon in the world these runners will measure their achievement not by their race times but by the funds that they raised to help others and making it to the finish line.

The weather was perfect and by all accounts this should have been a day of great pride, accomplishment and joy accompanied by runner stories about battling aches and pains, Herculean efforts to conquer Heartbreak Hill, wading through a sea of cups at water stops and humorous costumes and T-shirts. Instead the stories are about the disappointment of being stopped less than a mile from the finish, the fear of not knowing what happened to family members and friends, and the horror of discovering a relative or friend has been injured.

From a running perspective I had a good day. I ran the second half of the race a bit faster than the first half. Tired, sore and happy to have requalified for next year, I shuffled through the post finish line gauntlet where the volunteers hand you water, wrap you in a mylar blanket, give you a bag of post race food and put a medal over your head. All this takes about 15+ minutes and then you enter a section a few hundred yards beyond the finish where you pick up your clothes that you checked in at the starting line. I was standing at that point changing into warm clothes when the explosions went off, the plumes of smoke shot into the air, and the world turned to crap.

My view towards finish line 10 min after the explosions

 From where we were we couldn’t see beyond  the finish line to determine what had happened. I started moving back towards the finish line but the stream of hundreds of incoming runners funneling down the street prevented any movement in that direction. Shortly after, the stream of runners just stopped and first responders had cordoned off the road to keep people out and allow room for emergency vehicles to get in.

Runners stopped less than a mile from finish.

Out on the course, the runners had been stopped or redirected to a safe area with little or no information about what was happening. Social media took over and runners with phones began filling in others on what was happening. The cell phone network went to hell as runners tried to call family to let them know they were safe, family members called runners to check on them and runners still on the course tried to arrange logistics to get into Boston or get home. I was waiting at the finish for a friend who I offered a ride home. He was safe over a mile out but it took me almost 30 minutes of dialing and trying to text him to finally get through.

My story was tame compared to some of my friends and acquaintances. A family that until recently lived across the street had a son who graduated high school with my son Nick. He was running and his parents were standing near the finish waiting for him. Both parents are still in the hospital with numerous shrapnel wounds. One of the charity runners from our bus had his wife and kids in the Forum restaurant waiting for him when the bomb went off outside. They were blown off their seats as a hail of glass blew into the restaurant. The mom of another runner from our bus is still in the hospital and was operated on yesterday. The boyfriend of another of the charity runners from the bus lost both his legs.

In the midst of all this tragedy were tremendous examples of selflessness and heroism. Volunteers and spectators around the finish line jumped in to help first responders deal with the wounded without concern there might be a third or fourth bomb. A spectator near the finish jumped the fence and saved the life of one of the injured spectators by putting a tourniquet on his leg and comforting him until first responders could get him to the hospital. It was the boyfriend I mentioned earlier who lost both his legs.  
Forum Restaurant
When the bomb went off outside the Forum Restaurant, the family I mentioned earlier were helped out the back of the restaurant by bystanders so the children wouldn’t have to face the carnage out front, and then given shelter at a nearby condo. At the same time a number of the men waiting for charity runners rushed out through the broken glass and into the street to help the victims. They are the faces you see in the pictures carrying victims and pushing wheelchairs. When I crossed the finish line I was near a marine who had just finished in full gear with a heavy pack on his back. He was headed to the medical tent for blisters. I later heard he was in the middle of getting help when the bombs went off. He jumped up, put on his boots, blisters and all, and rushed out to help. From all over I heard stories of people sharing phones with runners so they could call their family, spectators giving stranded runners clothes literally off their backs and money to get home or to their hotels, restaurants providing free food, and people opening their homes to runners and family members who were stranded for the night. And then there are the race volunteers, first responders and law enforcement who responded quickly to help the injured, the racers on the course and the families who were worried and waiting at the finish line. While I would like to believe all this would happen in any city in the US, I couldn’t be prouder to be a Bostonian.

So where do we go from here? I’ll make a few predictions. I believe that this will not materially change the format of the Boston Marathon. If that was the goal of the bombers they picked the wrong city and unquestionably the wrong event. We are marathoners;
dedicated, stubborn, passionately addicted to our freedom on the roads and undeniably a little crazy. Not the kind of people that scare off easy.  
I believe
that this will not reduce either the number of runners or the number of spectators next year. In fact, I expect this will be the best attended marathon in the history of the race.   My daughter wrote this assessment from a spectators view .   It eloquently sums up what I heard from many others.   I believe that some of the injured spectators will ultimately run the Boston Marathon. On that day I hope to be running along side them to see it.

Finally, thanks to all who reached out to me to make sure I was OK. It was heartwarming to receive all your messages at a really difficult time. Some of you asked if I will be back next year? Absolutely! I’m a runner and when faced with pain and tragedy running is what we do.

Please add your thoughts and comments, they are greatly appreciated, especially after this week.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

And then there was ONE ….

Boston Marathon Start
One day until THE race. THE Boston Marathon. The Holy Grail of Marathons, the marathon of all marathons. At least that's the way most marathon runners think about Boston.

There was a lot of proof of that on display yesterday when I went into Boston to pick up my number (15780) for the race (I’ll be starting around the middle of the 27,000 runners). While we waited in line I spoke to a number of runners who had made the pilgrimage to Boston to run it the first time. No question it is one of the oldest and most elite marathons in the world (outside of the Olympics) with qualifying times that will eliminate most casual runners (is there such a thing as a casual marathoner?). As the popularity of running marathons has increased they have even lowered the qualifying times in the last few years. Did I mention you need to re-qualify every year? So to earn a number to be at the starting line did not mean just a commitment to finishing, it was a commitment to racing.

The excitement around the number pickup area was contagious. Runners having pictures taken in front of maps of the course holding their numbers in front of them, trying on the bright yellow Boston Marathon running shirt they just received, going through their bag of "goodies" that come with their number, or registering to have their progress on the course sent to their family’s cell phones. Think graduation day, with the runners receiving their numbers like the graduates getting their diploma. For a short time the excitement and reality of reaching this point replaces the nervousness of the upcoming race.

There is also a runner’s expo where you can sample and buy almost anything that has to do with running. It is amazing to me that I was ever able to finish a marathon 30 years ago without the help of all the new shoe, sock, compression shorts, hat and clothes technology that I’m now told is a "must" for success. Not to mention the energy drinks, power cookies, energy bars, yogurt drinks, gels, candies, grains and mixes I need to be taking before, during and for days after the race. They have catchy names like Reboot, Bioplasma, and Chia Shots that will deliver the necessary proteins, Omega 3, fiber, electrolytes, carbohydrates, fluids and antioxidants. Silly me, I thought I just needed to eat a lot of pasta and drink a lot of water. If I listen to the marketing pitches on what I need to do to survive I should already be dead.


Back to the first time runners standing in line. The stories from those qualified Boston Rookies were as varied as the places they came from. The young guy from the mid-west who ran his first marathon and he said it was a fluke that he ran fast enough to qualify for Boston. He felt he needed to do Boston at least once in his life and felt this might be his only chance. The mom from California who started running 5K’s (3.1 miles) to teach her children about health and exercise and found it has changed her life as well. It was her children who encouraged her to come to Boston and they are there to cheer her on. The older gentleman (had to be in his 70’s) who didn’t start running till late in his life and had this on his bucket list. He and his wife shared a passion for outdoor activities and she will be there to cheer him on. It will be her last chance as she is terminally ill.

But despite the high bar for qualifying, for several thousand dedicated runners, a ticket to the starting line is within reach if they are willing to take on the added burden of not only months of training but also months of fund raising. The BAA and John Hancock (race sponsor) provide charities with access to a limited number of race numbers if the runner is willing to raise $4-5000 for the charity. A friend of mine, Susan Hurley, coaches several hundred of the charity team runners and helps them with their fund raising. Almost all would never qualify and many have never run a marathon before (the equivalent of getting to ride in the Kentucky Derby as your first horse race). I’ve had the privilege of running with a number of these runners and all have stories for why they are doing it and amazingly almost all of them are centered on helping someone else and frequently in memory of someone they have lost.

It all comes together as we stand on the starting line Monday. For every runner, getting to the starting line was a journey and every journey has a story. For some it will be about the competition and the glory but for many others it will be about making their life, the lives of the people around them, and the lives of the families in the charities they support, a bit better. It’s amazing to me the positive ripple affect this one race will have touching so many lives. Now if we could only bottle that and give it away at every expo….

One more day….