Sunday, April 27, 2014

Boston: The common person's Olympics

Race Report from LPTRunner Steve Hartman Keiser...

We knew we were into something special walking down the middle of Boylston Street toward the packet pickup on a sunny Saturday afternoon. People were everywhere, taking pictures at the finish line, bright orange official marathon jackets dotting the crowd. There was little sign of last year’s tragedy. Perhaps intentionally. Everyone seemed to want to move on and honor the past by making this year’s marathon the best ever. 

The Boston Athletic Association runs an amazingly complex and efficient event. Every step of the 118th edition has been planned and communicated to us runners via email and snail mail updates for the past several months, so I knew where to go and what to expect. Every stop along the way had plenty of super friendly volunteers, so there was no wait to pick up the race packet or to leave the drop bag or to board the buses. They’ll do just about anything except maybe stand in line for you at the port-o-potties.

And it is not just the official volunteers who take such pride and joy in the Boston Marathon—it’s the entire city.

From the bus driver early Monday morning who waved me on so I didn’t have to pay (“Hey, he’s a runner!” she said) to the random Bostonian at the bus stop on our way home later that day who congratulated me and wanted to hear all about my race. It is clear that the entire city loves this day, the marathon, and all of us runners who come to run it.

The phrase “Boston Strong” was everywhere on shirts, signs, posters, and on lips. Overused? Sure. A cliché? Never.

The most special sign of the deep connection between the people and the race was the scarf. Mary (see her story below) got hers at the Old South Church, “the church of the finish line” which initiated the Scarf Project to wrap runners in love, hope, and peace. I got mine—and a hug—directly from a friend of a friend who had missed the deadline to send it in, and for that reason she said I was meant to have it. After the horror and fear that all Boston lived through in the days after the bombings last year, this scarf is healing and hope for her, the city, the marathon, and now for me. I was deeply touched. 

I could have used the scarf at 6 a.m. Monday waiting for that first bus. But the sun was warming things up 45 minutes later as I walked out of the subway at Boston Common and found Rich, Pete, and Jose, all runners from Milwaukee. We walked past a quarter mile of double-parked buses filled with runners before finding an empty one.

That was a looooong bus ride: almost an hour. Like probably half the people on the bus I was thinking, “Man, I’ve got to run all this way to get back to Boston!” The other half was thinking, “I’ve gotta pee now!” So when we got out at the athlete’s village in Hopkinton it was straight to the end of the line for a port-o-potty. Turns out that even 790 port-o-potties is not enough.

The half-mile walk to the starting line is down a residential street. The neighbors were standing outside cheering. For us! The race hadn’t even started yet, and they were cheering us! Several had set up stands offering water and sunscreen (that one was really popular). Then there the guys handing out donuts, beer, and cigarettes. Really.

I find corral 5, show my bib to the race attendant, and squeeze in with 1000 very fit people. Everyone around me has run a marathon in 3 hours or less. It’s sunny and getting warmer, so I finally shed my Goodwill sweats and shirt. There are volunteers collecting all the left behind clothing to donate to benefit Big Brothers/Sisters.

I line up next to Meb. Okay, I’m actually lined up about a quarter mile behind the elites. When the gun goes off I hardly hear it, but we shuffle ahead and 3 minutes later we’re passing by news cameras and across the start line. We are underway. Downhill past crowds of people. A little girl and boy are holding out their hands, and I reach over for my first high-fives of the race.

Someone has said that the Boston Marathon is the common persons’ Olympics. I couldn’t agree more. For miles upon miles there are people lining the course. Some places in the early miles there are just a few standing by their driveways, but soon it is the driveways and the yards and the spaces between yards. The cheering is nonstop. Kids are handing out oranges, water, twizzlers. And we are just the first wave. The first 9000. There are over 20,000 more runners coming behind us over the next hour or more.

I find myself smiling. There are a pack of Harley Hogs standing next to their bikes outside a bar and raising their beers to us as we run by. There’s a dozen senior citizens all wearing cow hats (as in Holstein cows, not cowboy hats) for no apparent reason. There’s a Willie Nelson cover band singing “On the Road Again”. There’s lots of Boston Strong signs. And always always there are lines of children holding out their hands for high fives. I’m smiling again.

As we get into towns, the crowds are deep on both sides. They cheer anyone with a name on their shirt. I happened to be running by Rob and Henk and a guy from Australia, because I heard those names a lot. If you wave to the crowd, they go nuts and cheer louder.

I know it’s 11 o’clock, because some guy has a sign out giving updates of the score of the Red Sox game (it’s 0-0 in the 1st inning).

Wellesley College at mile 12 is famous for the screaming coeds and their signs. “Kiss me I’m kosher”, “Kiss me I’m from Iowa”, “Never been kissed!”, and scores of others on the theme of kissing. But my favorite sign had a Lord of the Rings theme: “Fly you fools!” Loved it! I might have kissed someone, but I was too busy smiling, and everyone knows you can’t kiss when you’re smiling!

I guess I haven’t said much about the running. I was in fact running. Pretty steadily at just under 7 minutes per mile. But those first miles didn’t feel nearly as easy as they did in Indianapolis in November. This was going to be a tough race. And it was getting hot. Thank goodness for the makeshift water stations—I grabbed water from kids a couple times when I needed it between the official aid stations. 

The family was going to be on the course in the last part of Wellesley, so I kept to the left side of the road and kept looking, past mile 14…15…and then right at the mile 16 marker someone started waving wildly—Lydia! And there they all were! I stopped smiling long enough to give Lori a salty kiss. High-fived some big kids for a change, and then kept going. 

Miles 17-21 include the Newton Hills, the last of which is the infamous Heartbreak Hill. And as the road goes uphill, things start going downhill for my race. It’s not dramatic. In fact, I handled Heartbreak pretty well actually, passing a number of people.

But it was getting harder to smile even though the crowds were thicker and louder than ever. There was an awesome fifty-person drum circle banging away halfway up the hill! Then it’s downhill again past screaming Boston College students.

Here’s where I hoped to kick into an extra gear to speed toward the finish, but there was nothing left in my tank except to try and maintain a 7:30/mi pace over the last 5 miles.

And then I was at the final landmarks. The gigantic Citgo sign at 1 mile to go. The underpass. The right on to Hereford. The left on to Boylston. The roar.

The roar! It’s about 5 blocks from Hereford to the finish line. 1/3 mile. About 2 ½ minutes at my pace. And the entire length of this canyon-like street is packed with people roaring. For me. For us. I’m just a guy from Wisconsin who likes to run long distances. I crossed the finish line with a 56-year-old Dominican guy from New York. And the crowds were roaring for all of us.

If I felt like a champion just for finishing, I was quickly humbled by the looooong walk back to Boston Common. It took a couple blocks just to get to the water, then bags of food. I was thirsty and my legs were very very weary. But every step of the way there were volunteers congratulating us, asking if we were okay (yes, I’m just really thirsty and tired). 

It took me a half-hour to cover the mile to the family gathering area in Boston Common. That last 30 minutes was almost as hard as the last few miles of the race! Lori and the kids weren’t there when I arrived, so I lay down on the grass in the sun and listened to the chatter of the runners around me.

An elderly Sikh gentleman came up and awkwardly hugged his son who was sitting on the ground. A chorus of “ohhhhs” burst out when one guy took off his shoes to reveal bloody socks. I drank 3 bottles of water and a protein shake and started to feel better.

Then the family arrived. They were having so much fun out on the course that Lori couldn’t get them to leave! Hugs! And hot dogs. Then the subway home. And along the way nods of respect and words of congratulations from perfect strangers. The guy at the bus stop who wanted to hear all about it.

My time? I had a good time, an unforgettable time really. Oh, you want a chronological time? A number? At the Boston Marathon that kind of time doesn’t seem to matter so much. Look it up on the BAA website. I’m bib number 4333. One of those ordinary runners who for one day felt like an Olympian.

Thanks Boston.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014


Race Report from LPTRunner Mary Gorski...

Screaming, tears…

They sure are a lot better to hear when they are based in joy rather than in shock and terror.

Coming into the last miles of the Boston Marathon this year I could barely hear my own thoughts over the screaming cheers of marathon fans along the course. I was in the third wave – many of the spectators had been cheering their lungs out for a couple of hours before I got there.

It was incredible.

And then there were the tears. Making the final turn I saw the finish, the backdrop to last year’s bombs; the stage for horrific videos and photos of pain and suffering; screaming, tears.

Remembering what was, and celebrating what is… my eyes weren’t the only ones welling up with tears in the final stretch on Boylston Street.

Last year was my first at the Boston Marathon. A bucket list item, it was a 50th birthday gift. The plan was to enjoy the experience and then mark it off the list.

The bombs changed all that. “You have to come back!” In the two days after the race Dave and I heard it from Bostonians everywhere we went: the bellhop at our hotel, the servers at meals, the store clerks and streetside hawkers. Even the security officials at the airport genuinely wanted to know “Were you able to finish?” “Will you come back?”

How could I not?

And what a delight it was, starting with Dave’s own race on Saturday: the Boston 5K. After losing most of a foot last summer to a nasty infection, the race would be his first attempt at getting back into sports. Slow and steady, he walked the course, coming in after the official finishers. But organizers still had a finisher’s medal waiting for him when he came across the line, cheered by friends.

It was a good start to the weekend. A birthday gift for him this year, just a few days before the date itself.

Saturday evening we were at a dinner with others who had contributed to a book that running guru and legend Hal Higdon wrote about last year’s marathon: “4:09:43.” I was apprehensive going, expecting sad rehashes of the day, but instead it was a fun evening of laughter, food and a couple of Sam Adams beers. It was good to put names and faces together and share our individual stories of the experience.

Sunday: Easter Sunday. Last year Dave and I went to the early service at the Old South Church, a UCC congregation. In 2013 the 9 a.m. service was a small, intimate gathering in the side chapel of the church. We experienced a wonderfully welcoming community, good music and a great sense of worship. When we realized that the marathon this year would coincide with Easter weekend there was no doubt that we would go back to the Old South Church to celebrate it.

Easter is a busy day at any church, but at Old South, it was record-breaking. Located just past the finish line, it spent several days behind crime scene tape after last year’s bombing.

Because of its location, the church has a special connection to runners. One of the ways the church reached out to them this year was through the Marathon Scarf Project. The“Old South Knitters,” a group of about 30 knitters, chrocheters and weavers, got busy making scarves to, “wrap each runner of this year’s race in love, hope and prayer,” said the church’s pastor.

With an anticipated 36,000 runners coming to Boston, they were going to have to do a lot of knitting so they invited anyone to join them in their efforts. Knitters sent their donated efforts from all over Massachusetts, and a few states beyond. Each scarf had the name of the knitter attached to it.

Mine was from Cynthia in Beverly, MA.

During the Easter service, runners were asked to stand for a blessing. Members of the UCC congregation came through with the scarves. However, they did not simply had them out. Runners had the scarves placed on them by another. Funny how a bunch of knotted yarn brought so many to tears.

But again, tears of joy. Tears of happiness.

Race morning. Time to finally lace up the shoes and go. No bags would be allowed at the start area, so runners dressed in their hobo best to keep warm. Whatever clothing you left behind would be donated to charity. Though I think that my 25-year-old saggy tights and Helly Hansen polypro shirt with the permanent stink of 25 years’ of running probably (hopefully) was donated to the trash.

I wondered how chaotic it would be to travel in a herd of 36,000 runners. Surprisingly, it wasn’t bad. Race organizers did a great job with logistics, moving us to our starting areas like expert cattle ranchers.

And then the start, and the screaming began. Screams of joy from the runners; screams of encouragement and solidarity from the volunteers and spectators. There were a few spots on the course that weren’t too crowded, but not many. Each town welcomed you as if they were waiting just for YOU.

“Boston Strong, Boston Strong!!!” You saw it on shirts, on banners, in windows and you heard it from every direction.

I wore my race shirt from 2013 (a long-sleeved shirt, it wasn’t necessarily the best choice for the quickly warming weather). People saw it and yelled “Welcome back to Boston! We’re glad you came back!! Boston Strong!”

And every mile or two I heard that wonderful Boston accent letting me know that “waTAH is just ahead.” BAHston volunteers always serve up waTAH, not water.

The Boston course is a tease. It starts with gentle downhills, giving runners a false sense of confidence.  But then,  just as the temperatures were getting toasty, the hills made their appearance. I  forgot that there was more than just Heartbreak Hill. “Is this it?” I thought, but then there would be another. “Is this Heartbreak?” said a woman next to me, but "no," she was told by a veteran, “this one is just a ‘regular’ hill, it doesn’t have a name.”

Finally, after 20 miles we came to Heartbreak. I’d run all the other hills, might as well run this one too. I put my head down and went up the middle, never looking ahead, figuring that my huffing and puffing would let me know when the hill was over.

At the top my legs were toast. But again, the cheers, the screaming from spectators urging runners to keep moving, to keep running to Boylston. To finish strong, Boston Strong.

And so I did. Even came in a few minutes faster than last year. 

Weather had been warm for running, but wonderful for lounging around post-race in Boston Commons. But eventually all good things come to an end. The Li’l Mister and I headed to the subway for the ride back to the hotel. Time for a shower and dinner.

And then there was one more treat. A subway worker pulled me away from the ticket machines and led me to an open gate.

“Congratulations on your finish! Thanks for being here. The ride is on us!”

The cherry on top of the sundae.

Boston, I'm glad that I came back. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Northern Kettle 50k

At the start...
Race Report from LPTRunner Marcel Uttech...

I had almost forgotten the familiar feeling…the anxiety before, the rush leading up to the start, the headlamps bobbing into the dark...the laughter and cursing excitement shared by all as they ran through the woods, leaving it all out there.

This was my first ultra after an intensely busy school year. I had decided sometime after the season had pretty much wrapped up last summer that I needed to start training again, running long again. In fact, since architecture school was SO intense, I needed it more than ever. Running kept me grounded, and I was really just not myself without those long afternoons in the woods. So after training all winter on the trails of the Milwaukee River and the Southern Kettle I had decided to of course sign on for Chippewa, one of my all-time favorite races and the course where I ran my first one in 2010. Then there was talk about another 50k, perfectly positioned 4 weeks before Chippewa…sold! The race fee was a donation toward the RACC (Racers Against Childhood Cancer) which Amanda K. put together with Nic Giebler. Pain has never been so cheap!

The last few weeks leading up to the NK50K Jodie Taylor and I began running the trails in the Northern Kettle to get more time on the hills and to learn the trails better. Deep snow, quiet woods and abundant ice was free for anyone who wanted a helping. In fact, if you didn’t get enough of the ice then, you got plenty on race day since the trail was about 70% covered in the stuff.  During the first half it was pretty decent, cold enough to not have the water slick sitting on top. Still some pretty slick spots anywhere the pines were blocking out the sun, and I got a REAL good look on my back of one of those, thankfully no harm done.

The race started at 6:00 sharp, which was pretty amazing since Nic and a few others shuttled everyone from the southern tip to the northern. After a couple of group shots they gave the go ahead and everyone set out. I was glad to be able to run with Robert and Logan for the first few miles or so and catch up a bit with them. Until Robert dropped me I was able to average 10 minute miles for the first 20 miles which I was extremely happy about with the ice everywhere. Only real bumps along the way were some leg cramps that came on about that time reminding me that I really didn’t get enough speed training in to sustain those speeds/effort for that long. Ran into Nic at Mauthe Lake and he had EVERYTHING you could need in his truck! Couple of S-caps later and I felt better. He informed my Logan was about a minute ahead but I never caught up to him. In fact pretty sure he lied Figured he could smell the barn and was stretching it out a little in the home stretch. Came in at 5:50, plenty tired and just glad it was over thrilled to get a race in finally!

The people organizing the race were great, it was low key and helluva lot of fun. In all honesty, I had a great time out there.

 Next year the tentative date is the first Saturday in April. Although there was plenty of LPTR’s up there this time around, this is too close to pass up and is a perfect peak run/race/excuse/whatever before Chippewa…just putting it out there.

It’s been a few days now, I’m sore and finally feel like myself again…looking forward to Chippewa 50k!