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.
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.