Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Running the Boston Marathon: Days Like These Are a Great Gift

For someone who began running in the 1970s, the Boston Marathon is the pinnacle of sport. It has been run since 1897, and was the only marathon of consequence until the NYC Marathon came of age in the late 1970s. And so every runner dreams of running the Boston Marathon once. But the qualifying standards are high, and for most runners it remains but a dream. However, when the race began to offer spots for runners who raise money for designated charities, I jumped at the chance, joining the Habitat for Humanity team.

The weather was ideal, in the 40s and cloudy. As my brother Matt drove me to the start in Hopkinton, I was more full of anticipation than I have ever been for a race. I met up with my Habitat teammates, who are as fine a group of people as you will ever meet, and shared mutual encouragement and then went to the starting line.

I ran with Brett Holey, director of NBC Nightly News. He is a veteran marathoner who has run some remarkable times, but his training was slowed by injuries. He was thrilled to have recovered enough to run, and was merely looking to finish. We ran a 21 mile practice run together 3 weeks earlier, and I mentioned my hope of running under 4 hours, which would be 18 minutes better than my previous record and nearly an hour faster than my best NYC Marathon 18 months ago. At dinner the night before the race, Brett offered to be my "rabbit," keeping me on pace to break 4:00, regardless of the effect it would have on his race. You don't meet many people like Brett.

We started at the rear, and it was extremely crowded for 3 miles. We hoped to run 8:20 for these downhill miles, but ran closer to 9:20. Brett's "zen like state" calmed me, where if I were alone I may have fought the situation, burning a lot of energy for little gain. The road finally opened up, and we picked up the pace. As congestion eased further and our legs loosened, I felt like a bird who had escaped the cage, and we accelerated from miles 6 to 11. I was running faster than I imagined I would, but the miles went by easy, so much so that I missed some of the mile markers.

After mile 12, we began to hear the thunderous roar of the Wellesley College "scream tunnel." It reminded me of approaching Niagara Falls; it was stunning to hear how loud it was from so far away. We hit the half on target, at 1:54, and I began to think a 3:55 finish was assured. Brett said I should feel no obligation to stay with him, and at mile 16 I told him I was going to take the downhill hard, and he fell a little behind me (happily, I later learned he finished very well). I sailed past Mile 17 and up the 2nd biggest hill on the course. I got to the top in good shape, and my confidence soared. But as I hit the next two smaller hills, they took far more out of me than I had expected. I realized that in fifth marathon, I had begun to take it for granted and had not carefully thought through my food and fluid intake. Adding in my zeal to overcome the slow start, I had not hydrated enough, had eaten nothing, and had very suddenly become weak, nauseous, dizzy and was cramping badly in my left leg. And this was at the bottom of Heartbreak Hill ! I had hit The Wall before, but never so suddenly, where in a half mile stretch I went from thinking a 3:55 finish was assured to wondering if I could even finish the last 6.2 miles.

Realizing I had no other means of transport, I walked quickly up the hill, inhaling every orange slice, pretzel, gummy bear and cup of water offered by the angels of mercy in the crowd. This strengthened me some, and the task ahead seemed easier at the top of the hill than it had at the bottom. I realized I could still break 4:00 if I could maintain a 9:35 pace, and this seemed achievable, given that I had run faster than 9:00 for 18 miles in a row. I gave it all I had for the next mile, but ran it in 10:00; I pressed even harder to mile 23, but again hit the marker in 10:00. I realized the cramping in my left leg and the resultant lack of fluidity was slowing me measurably. I realized that even if I could maintain the 10:00 pace, I would finish in 4:02, which would cause me to spend months analyzing how I could have gone 2 minutes faster. So I went into "safe mode," running moderately from mile marker to mile marker and walking through the water stations. Around the 24.5 mile mark, I suddenly felt compelled to stop. I walked a few yards trying to figure out what was wrong and finally concluded, like Forrest Gump eventually did, that I simply didn't want to run any more. But I had 1.7 miles to go, and put one foot in front of the other and repeated, and staggered to the finish line. My time was 4:04:58, disappointing considering how great I felt at Mile 19. And yet it was 13 minutes faster than prior best last November, and a lot better than I feared as I stood weak, dizzy and nauseous at Mile 20.

And then they hung around my neck a blue and gold medal that signified I had completed the Boston Marathon, which I had been dreaming about for 30 years. I realized that days like these are a great gift that should be cherished, with no energy squandered on rethinking what went wrong and slowed you for a few minutes.

And a smile came across my face that hasn't left since.

Well, except for when I walk down stairs.

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