Can’t sleep, more nervous than usual. It’s 4 AM and I’m lying in bed mentally walking through the day ahead. I’ve been doing this for the last half hour and will continue until it’s time to get up at 4:30. Have I got everything I need for the race? Don’t forget your race number or the pins to put it on. No number, no race. Is the weather really going to be that hot? What’s the right amount of clothes to bring and wear today to stay warm in the 4 hours before the race and cool during the race? Do I go out at a fast pace for as long as I can and then struggle in or do I go out slow and hope I’ll feel well enough to maintain a the pace all the way?
Getting the logistics right is a challenge these days and adds to the nervousness The real issue in the back of the minds of most of the runners however….Will I feel good today or will it be a painful death march to the finish? Any thought that you might not make it to the finish would put a crack in your commitment that would only grow wider as the day wears on. There’s no room for self-doubt….but it’s there anyway.
At 4:30 it’s rise and shine time (rise and stumble around in the dark is more appropriate). The race for me won’t start till 11:15 but I have to drive into Boston, find a parking garage walking distance from the finish, and catch a bus to the starting line over an hour drive away. Because of security and logistics of handling 40,000 or so runners and spectators the roads into the Hopkinton (a relatively small town) shut down around 7AM. Fortunately I’m staying with my sister and brother in law Marena and Ron only a half hour drive into Boston.
After the 2013 bombing the security got tighter and there were a number of changes that make it logistically more challenging. For example, most runners end up hanging around in the staging area near the start for several hours. It’s outside so they need clothes, water, food, etc. (and of course, with the current generation, their phones) while they wait. You use to be able to bring a bag to the start with all your extra “stuff” and then just before the start you could put it on a bus that would be waiting for you at the finish. With the changes there is no bag drop off at the start so you are pretty much limited to the clothes on your back and a small transparent bag of food/water. It may be obvious but this means if you wear extra clothes to stay warm while waiting for the race to start you either are stuck with carrying the clothes to the finish or throwing them away before the start. It leads to some pretty humorous and creative pre-race outfits (I was wearing head to toe painter’s coveralls…very stylish).
So you might ask what runners do when they finish 3-6 hours later if they can’t ship their clothes back to the finish. Turns out there is a place you can drop a bag of clothes the morning of the race about a half mile from the finish line. I love that they call this “a short distance from the finish”. When I’m done running a marathon, my idea of a short distance is measured in inches, and it better not have any stairs. The challenge with this set up is that it assumes you go into Boston drop your bag and then take the Boston Athletic Association cattle car school buses out to the start. If you have another way to get to the start (like I do), then the bag drop is not helpful.
Long story short, when you leave for the start you better have everything with you that you need for the race and better be willing to dump it if you don’t want to carry it 26 miles. Also, if you don’t want to freeze at the finish you better figure out how to have some clothes/survival gear waiting for you. For me, I leave my clothes/phone etc. in my car in Boston about 6 blocks from the finish line. Even 6 blocks seems like light years after the race. When I leave Boston I have the clothes I’m wearing (or discarding), my number, safety pins, a bottle of water and my car keys. Whatever you do, don’t lose the car keys (at least one runner I know of dropped/lost his/her keys this year).
As I’ve mentioned in the past, the staging area for the start is outside in the fields surrounding the local high school. With the new security measures this area is surrounded by fences, metal detectors and security personnel. Inside the secure area are tents with food and drink, music blasting over a site wide PA system and enough port-a-potties (1000 give or take a few) to service 30,000 water filled, nervous runners. Since most runners will be discarding the outer clothes worn before the race, it has become a bit of a tradition to go into your closet and find those old outfits that you swore you would never be caught dead in and wear them to the start. Between the outside venue, the music and the eclectic/bizarre collection of outfits the staging area could be mistaken for a modern day Woodstock (without the drugs and naked people).
One major difference this year was the number of runners who were wearing their phones. While the more elite runners were taping injuries, rubbing on Vaseline, and strategically placing Band-Aids, there was a large number of you runners talking about their play list, what headphones they were wearing and whether to carry a portal battery charger for their phone. I guess I’m just an old school purest, no phone or headphones. This does leave me open to having one song stuck in my head for 26 miles.
Given the volume of runners there are now 4 starts (called waves) each including approximately 7500 runners. The waves go off about 25 minutes apart. It’s handled pretty much like a cattle call, with announcements at the staging area for the runners from a particular wave to head down to the starting area. Did I mention that the starting area is a half to ¾ of a mile away? Waves are seeded by your qualifying time in the last year and since they don’t give credit for the laps I did in the hospital last year, I got put in the last wave. As you head down to the starting line the streets are lined with volunteers collecting the discard clothes. Imagine an entire street packed with half-dressed runners as far as the eye can see and with all sorts of discarded clothes flying through the air. I wish I could do the picture justice. The bags of clothes are donated to the salvation army. The quantity is now measured in thousands of pounds.
Whew…we made it, we are finally at the start. Or at least standing in a corral (yup… that is what they call it and it actually is a good description) some distance from the start. Turns out when you fill a road with 7500 runners the crowd, packed heel to toe, can extend back over a quarter mile. So to manage the crowd they break us up into corrals. I’m about half way back in the crowd. When the gun goes off it takes a while to get to the start. For me it was about 5 minutes of doing this crazy dance where you take a couple steps, start to jog and then the whole crowd just stops. Kind of like rush hour on the highway.
Once across the starting line it tends to open up a bit. Just a bit. It’s downhill at the start so the crowd tends to pick up speed but once it flattens out the pace slows down. Everyone around you is supposed to be running at your pace but given the nature of wave 4 (a lot of first timers) and the fact that some people choose to go out faster or slower than their pace, the first couple of miles can be a tedious game of jockeying and weaving. It was a slow first 2 miles, over a half a minute slower than the pace I was expecting to run.
The weather was beautiful although very warm for the runners by the time my wave started. The sun was out and the temp went up into the 70’s but with a nice tail wind. Over the course of the day over 20 runners will have to be put in ice baths due to lower their body heat. One runner had a temp of 108 degrees. I ran in just a singlet and shorts and I saw a number of runners who ran topless (no woman that I was aware of). There was a guy called the caveman who ran in a loin cloth and barefoot. He beat me.
As usual the crowds were awesome. The closer you get to Boston the louder and more enthusiastic they get. Could have something to do with the number of university students and alcoholic intake. I was offered a couple of beers along the way but I refrained from partaking. It’s really hard to throw up and run at the same time and it really makes a mess of your shoes. At times, it can feel like you’re running through a food court with people offering you all kinds of food. Oranges, bananas, hot dogs, sausage sandwiches, popsicles, juice, the aforementioned beer, chips and jelly beans to name a few.
My legs never really felt great from the start. I felt a bit sluggish and the legs were stiff. There are water/Gatorade stations at every mile and my strategy given the heat was to alternate between the two every other mile. By the time I was half way the legs were cramping off and on and I had switched to drinking both at each station hoping the electrolytes would help. Water stations are a real joy. Picture a 4 lane highway full of cars approaching an exit ramp and suddenly all 4 lanes of traffic swerve to get of the exit. If you are lucky enough to find an opening without stopping the next trick is to grab the cup on the fly without spilling it. I drink on the run which for the most part works assuming you are willing to live with spilling about half. Works fine for water on a warm day but not so much with Gatorade. Who knew Gatorade stings when you get it in your eyes.
About mile 16 I met my family cheering section. Pam, my daughter Tiff and her three boys (the twins have only missed one marathon in their life), my sister Terry and two of her sons, Marena, Ron and their son Drew, and my sister in law Candy. I feel a bit like the pony express as I come cruising through with a few high fives, grab a water bottle and some jelly beans and move on up the hills. Seeing them gave me a second wind.
Mile 16 marks the beginning of a series of hills. Five miles of them to be exact. Heartbreak Hill marks the last of the significant up hills and is aptly named. If you crest that then you face a thigh and knee beating downhill that feels like someone is pummeling you with a baseball bat….with a nail in it.
I won’t bore you with the mental exercises you go through to keep yourself going after 18 miles. On a good day it’s a struggle and on a bad day….it’s just that. This year was kind of a middle of the road. I had started out slow enough that I had the strength but my legs were stiff and clearly there was some impact from my reduced red blood cell count in trying to get enough oxygen. But I ran a pretty consistent pace and kept the cardinal rule marathoning, run so the second half is faster than the first. While I didn’t run fast enough to requalify for next year (although if I was a year older I would have) I did finish in the top 42% of my age group. Given where I was 8 months ago I’ll take it.
So where do we go from here? Well it turns out the news from the last biopsy was not so good. Two weeks before the race we found out the protein level in my cells that cause the Leukemia is increasing. My Dr. is recommending we start planning for a Stem Cell Transplant. We will know more on the plans after the next biopsy in May and I will post something then.
In the interim it’s party time. All that ice cream and beer that I avoided while training is calling my name. I would hate to disappoint them.