To borrow a local colloquialism – it was a “wicked pissah” yesterday. The 26.2 mile test that is the marathon can be a humbling experience. It tests you mentally as well as physically. It is challenging, exhilarating, can be crushing at times - but more than anything to me it is revealing. I love it because it gives you an opportunity to look deep inside yourself and really see what’s in there. What you are made of. It doesn’t build character as much as it reveals it.
As of this morning, I know more about myself than I did 24 hours ago – and that is a pretty remarkable thing at age 42.
The race experience at Boston is something that I will never forget. In a word it was incredible. I woke at our hotel in Copley plaza a full five hours before the starter’s gun went off in Hopkinton at 10:00 a.m. After dressing in my race gear as well as all of my “keep me warm clothes” I made my way to the school buses lined up to transfer more than 20,000 runners out to the Athlete’s Village.
Standing in line with thousands of runners around me a man I had never met before asked, “are you Joe?”
As it turns out it was my friend from Daily Mile Winston who I had traded messages, encouragement and training tips and strategy for more than four months. We ended up riding the same bus to Hopkinton chatting about what was to unfold. What an amazing coincidence and a bit of fate. It was nice to ride with Winston as when our eyes met, he knew why I was there and who I was running for. I’ll remember our conversation forever.
At the Athletes village – which I will have some great photos of when I get my disposable camera processed – there were literally 25,000 runners sitting, laying and walking around the local High-School playing fields. Large white circus tents were set up serving runners breakfast, water, powerbars with constant announcements of the time to the starting gun and instructions for the day. It was like a Woodstock for runners, I caught myself quite a few times wondering what in the world I was doing there with all of these great runners. Was I good enough? Did I belong?
I had my breakfast of a plain bagel and a banana at 7:00 a.m., my final hydration of bottled water at 8:00 a.m. and made my final pit-stop to one of the 407 runner port-a-potties at 9:15. All according to schedule that had allowed me to run my previous marathons without any “pit-stops” along the way.
Walking from the athlete’s village to the starting line is about 7/10 of a mile. Along the way you drop off your race bag with your bib number affixed to the side back onto one of the school buses used earlier to transport runners to the start. My bag would be taken by one of the thousands of volunteers I would see that day, to be retrieved after the race in less than 1 minute. Amazing organization from the Boston Athletic Association - I can’t do justice in this space just how great a job they do putting on a perfectly organized event.
As I made my way to the 7th starting corral and started to discard my outer sweats, the temperature was a near-perfect 46 degrees, a bit windy, with a beautiful blue sun splashed sky. I had forgotten sunscreen in my race bag, which was the first error of the day. There would be more.
An US Air Force Fly over came directly overhead at the end of the Star Spangled Banner and the starter’s Gun went off at precisely 10:00 a.m. It took me a little under 6:00 minutes to make it across the start line, as I punched Start on my GPS – I glanced down at the Blue, Yellow and White painted logo on the street, thought of my boy Dom in the hospital at Pittsburgh and took my first strides toward Boston.
Runners will tell you that some days “you have it” and some days “you don’t”. It is the reason that you can run a 10-mile course one day at 7:00 pace and the following week run it at 7:30. It is the same 10 miles, the same runner, same nutrition, same abilities, but a different result. Running is very repetitive and it doesn’t take long for a distance runner to know what kind of day they are going to have. For me I have been blessed to always “have it” on race day.
From the first confident strides I have known it was my day. I had no reason to believe Monday would be any different. It was perhaps my best training period, I was healthy, I was confident, I had a race plan and I had a lot of people in my corner. I was in the Boston Marathon – something that less than 5 years ago was not only unlikely – it in fact had seemed ridiculous.
But as I left Hopkinton and crossed the first mile marker – something was wrong. Running downhill from the start I should have coasted to an easy first mile. My legs felt heavy, my knees wouldn’t come up like I wanted them to and I couldn’t find my groove. I posted a 7:22 first mile which was frankly the exact time I was hoping for, down to the very second. I muttered a “perfect” to myself as I looked at my watch – but even then – I knew.
The first 5 miles were run at splits of: 7:22, 7:12, 7:13, 7:06 and 7:22. I fell into an even cadence and would post very consistent, even mile times over miles 6-10 that were exactly on pace. I was executing my plan, I was not going out too fast only to pay the price on the Newton Hills – but I was working “too hard” at this point to hold such an easy pace over the downhill sections of the course – and I knew it. At mile 6 I noticed that my left hamstring was tightening but we pressed on with splits of: 7:14, 7:14, 7:16, 7:13 and 7:18.
The crowds to this point had been simply phenomenal. 4,5,6 people deep yelling encouragement, names and bib numbers at the runners - I had traveled from Hopkinton to Ashland to Framingham to Natick. Next up would be Wellesley and the Wellesley College girls. The half-way point of the Boston Marathon. I was holding out hope that I would find my groove and this early feeling of “funkiness” would pass.
The legend of Wellesley did not come close to the experience as a runner. A beautiful stretch of road leading up to the all-girls College where with classes cancelled for the day the students line the right side of the marathon course holding signs, screaming non-stop and giving out kisses to the runners.
Several runners would actually come to a dead stop and give the girls what they asked for. The sound even with my ear-buds in was deafening. Knowing for sure that I would somehow be caught on film for all posterity kissing a co-ed I settled for running by them and high-fiving several dozen on my way by. I hit the 13.1 Mile timing matt – the half way point at 1:35:45.
On pace for a 3:11:30 marathon – something that realistically would reflect a 3:16:00 – 3:17:00 according to my race plan given the Newton Hills now just 3 miles off. But even then I knew it wasn’t in the cards. I was working way too hard to keep my pace and it was going to be a battle from here on out. Miles 11-15 produced splits of: 7:21, 7:14, 7:21, 7:28, 7:42.
As I reached the 16 mile mark I was greeted by the Welcome to Newton Sign on my left and the four famous “Newton Hills” to conquer over miles 16-21. It was at this point that I again thought of Dom back in Pittsburgh as I knew he would following along electronically. It was time to dig deep and give whatever I had left from this point to Boston – I just hoped it would be enough.
The first hill is a solid incline as the road approaches and crosses over the 95/128 freeway. The spectators begin to narrow the road to see the runners until there is a small gap to run through as you cross the bridge. I looked left and right and saw slowed cars as far as I could see in both directions watching the Boston Marathoners cross the overpass. It was the first real test of the race – and it came 2 hours of tough running into my day.
Dawn and our friends Ralph and Michele had told me that they were hoping to make it out to Wellesley to see me. I had scanned the crowds, but could not see them back near campus. Little did I know that they actually had made their way to mile 17 and caught me as I crested the first Newton Hill and was trying to get myself together for the sharp right turn at the Newton Fire Station that would take me up the second hill. I never saw them, but they caught a glimpse of me as I ran past – Dawn was able to snap this picture as I crawled along.
Mile 17 - First Newton Hill in the books
The Newton Fire Station hill is approximately 3/8 of a mile long – as I made the climb I felt my pace really falling off. I knew that I just had to keep chugging and hopefully when my body made the full transition from my glycogen stores over to fat burning I would feel better. I popped three Clif Bloks in my mouth, washed them down with water and pressed on. The next two hills would be the tough ones.
The next hill hits at the 19.25 mile mark – not particularly steep but it stretches on and on and on. This was the first point where I noticed runners who were walking. Some were hobbling to the side of the road and off the course. One was limping badly on their right ankle. I tried to encourage him as I passed but quickly realized I had my own problems. I was blowing up in a big way and was going to have to dig deep to get through this hill and then up and over heartbreak hill.
As I crossed the 20-mile mark and again hit my water bottle the crowds nearing Boston College were simply off the hook. 10-12 people deep, drums beating, screaming encouragement non-stop. It is really something to experience struggling so badly, but having total strangers encouraging you and pushing you forward.
Heartbreak Hill. Hallowed ground. I was there, and I was determined not to let it beat me. I had never walked a single step on a marathon course and no matter how badly I felt, no matter how tight my hamstring was or how much my quads were burning we were going to the top.
As you take the first steps up Heartbreak there is a gentle turn in the road and then an incline that disappears into the tops of the trees ahead. You cannot see the top of it. I put my head down, focused on the double yellow line in the middle of the road and pushed on. 4/10 of a mile long it was the most difficult stretch of road I have ever raced. When you get near the top it is hard to miss. Literally a clearing seems to open up and you can begin to see daylight.
After a small dip in the road there is another incline and then you are there. You’ve made it and are now on the backside of the course. My splits had fallen off badly – some of the slowest miles I had run in more than 4 years. They were also without question the most difficult. Splits from mile 16-21: 7:36, 7:59, 8:00, 8:02, 8:17, 8:30.
5 miles to go and if I was going to re-qualify for next-year’s Boston Marathon I would need to get it together. I needed a time of 3:20:59 to make it and it was going to be pretty difficult to get there. My fatigued mind told me I needed to run some 8:15′s to get there. My mind said yes, but my body said no.
I rallied a bit running a 7:58 over mile 22, but that would be the last sub-8:00 mile of my day. Over the next 4 miles I was really just trying to keep it together. From miles 23-25 I posted times of: 8:17, 8:24, 8:26. As I hit the 25-mile mark I passed the CITGO Sign high atop Fenway Park. Painted on the street in yellow letters spelled out 1-mile to go.
I was toast and I knew it. In the past I had always been able to rally and push over the final mile, but my legs just weren’t there for me. As my requalification time slipped through my fingers over mile 23 and 24 my thoughts shifted to just pushing forward to Hereford Street, making the right turn up the hill that would lead to Boylston Street, the final left turn and 4/10 of a mile to the finish.
The crowds were amazing at this point - literally thousands packed onto the narrow Boston Streets. My mind must have wandered off for a bit as Hereford Street seemed to appear out of nowhere. I made the final push up the hill onto Boylston and could see the finish line banners in the distance.
Like marathons past I had a mixture of emotions going through me. There was a sense of accomplishment of course, but I must admit – quite a bit of disappointment in my performance. My final time of 3:22:46 brought me in at 7:44 pace. A scant 107 seconds away from a re-qualifying time.
Having that finisher’s medal placed around my neck however really lifted my spirits. I was a Boston Finisher. Something once again that seemed as likely as being a moon-walker just 5 years ago. After retrieving my race bag, scarfing down a Bagel, Banana, Gatorade, Bottle of Water, Cookie and Power Bar all within 5 minutes I started to make my way over to the Family Reunion Area. I congratulated runners, commiserated with some and then saw Ralph, Michele and Dawn.
Hugs all around and a few tears frankly. It was a long day, a full 8 1/2 hours since I woke to make my way to the buses at Boston Common. I had earned my way into the 114th Boston Marathon with the 7,929th best qualifying time. I would leave with finishing 5,038th. Not quite a top 5,000 finish – but close enough.
Tough Day, Tough Course.
12 days from today I’ll get a chance to do this all again – running for my good friend Dom and all of our Run for Dom supporters. I’ll do my best – of that I promise.
Clear Eyes, Full Heart, Can’t Lose.