The 2018 Boston Marathon was supposed to be my redemption run. To understand this, I need to take you back to the 2015 Boston Marathon. That day dawned cold, wet, and windy. Lori, Barb and I all started out together and the weather didn’t set me back one bit. Until Mile 14. When it set me back quite a bit. I’m not a real doctor, but I’m pretty sure I got hypothermia. All I know is the last two miles took approximately 40 minutes to finish and I don’t remember much. I never saw the famed Citgo sign. I don’t recall turning “right on Hereford, left on Boylston”. My main recollection from those final miles is a kind of out-of-body experience where I could see a kindly police officer looking at me with pity in his eyes, and I could hear him telling me “come on, you’ve got this” and I’m thinking “wow, whoever he’s talking to must be in bad shape – is that me??” I eventually cross the line for a disappointing 4:22:50 finish time, immediately drop into a wheelchair and am taken to the medical tent where I am mostly ignored. And even in my weakened state I understood this to be a good sign. When you are in a medical facility surrounded by smart and competent people ignoring you, that is an unmistakable signal that you are going to be just fine. I rested, drank warm chicken broth and eventually flagged down a medic with my most pressing concern: I needed a medal. He got me my medal and then I hobbled away happy (sort of) to have finished but mainly despondent over my poor showing. I had gone out too fast and under dressed for the conditions. This was on me, not the weather and now I needed to return to Boston for a better finish.
Which brings us to the 2015 Philly Marathon. And my training was going great and then I got a cold one week out. I took to bed, pampered myself as much as possible and started that race thinking I would finish it and hoping I’d qualify. But something was wrong, and I quit that race at Mile 13. And took myself into a porta potty for a pity party. I’ve never quit a race in my life. Quitting is not what marathoners do. What marathoners do is endure. Through a gazillion miles of training. Through crappy weather. Through solo runs and group runs and runs in other cities when traveling and runs on treadmills when absolutely necessary and through week after week after week of training. Yet here I was weeping because I quit a race. This was not a real problem. Real problems involve losing your job or your health or worse. I know this.
Still, two weeks later I dusted myself off and ran the 2015 Rehoboth Marathon. I had a great race right up until Mile 19 when it felt like a door literally slammed shut in my face. I finished that race and I qualified for Boston but only by a mere 45 seconds, not enough to actually get in to Boston. A week after that race was the Pacemaker 3-mile holiday run and I had to walk back because I couldn’t finish it. And a week after that my older son Garrett asked me if I was dying. It wakes you right up when your child asks you something like that. So, I took myself to a physician and was misdiagnosed with bronchitis and put on antibiotics and then I took myself to my GP and was misdiagnosed with something else and put on steroids and then I went back to my GP and she sent me to Hopkins for a CT scan. And the technician promised we’d be in and out in a jiffy. But after the scan they asked me to wait around for a bit. Said they were getting another physician to look over the results. And even in my weakened state I understood this to be a bad sign. When you are in a medical facility surrounded by smart and competent people and they are bringing in other smart and competent people to look at your results, that is an unmistakable signal that something is awry. Then followed 10 days in the hospital where 4 liters of fluid were drained from my left lung and 200 tests were run that all came back negative. Tests that started out looking for the typical/curable things that cause a collapsed lung (pneumonia), then for the atypical/curable things (Lyme’s disease), then for progressively less curable causes, one of which actually had the word “fatal” in its name. And for a brief period none of us knew if I was dying and it turned out I was not and a few weeks later one of the world’s top lung doctors skipped into the exam room with the welcome news that my lung was completely cleared up. I was cured. So I started training (slowly, tentatively, appreciatively) for my next marathon.
Which brings us to the 2016 Philly Marathon. I figured I could kill two birds with one stone, by having a redemption run (that I finish) and by requalifying. And the race day dawns bright and dry. But windy. And I have a great race. I start out with the 4:00 pace group but they are moving too slow and after leaving them I put in some really fast miles early on with that wind behind me. “This is so great! I am so fast!” Then I make the hairpin turn under that one bridge at about Mile 16, and now it’s a headwind and I last about two more miles and the bottom drops out at Mile 18 and I eventually drag my sorry self across the finish line and once again I’ve qualified but not by much and definitely not by enough to actually get into Boston. Moreover, this does not feel one bit like redemption, even if I did finish. And my family is there and my younger son Emmett sees the medal around my neck and asks me if I’ve won and I heroically hold back yet more tears of self-pity and say no. And we hobble back to the hotel where I take a hot bath and every few moments I yell ARGH!!!!!!
Which startles the boys and they call out to see if I’m ok and I have to explain what “psychic pain” is – which is pain caused by training through a gazillion miles, through crappy weather, through solo runs and group runs and runs in other cities when traveling and runs on treadmills when absolutely necessary and still not qualifying for that fucking race by enough seconds to actually get in and now I have to keep training for a Spring marathon when all I want to do is take a break but Barb and Helen and Linell and Bonnie are all going to Boston 2018 and so I need to get off my lazy ass and try again.
Which brings us to the 2017 New Jersey Marathon. And my training has not been great. My heart wasn’t in it. I didn’t really follow a training schedule. I didn’t put in the miles. My brother Stephen is running the half and I very nearly switch to that race. But Josh says just run the damn thing, and so I stick with the full marathon. The night before a bunch of us meet at an Italian restaurant that is one of Mark’s old haunts. And I have a beer, which is a clear signal that I’m not taking this marathon seriously. I just want to finish. I have no hope of qualifying. And the race day dawns bright and dry and still. It is, in fact, a perfect day for a race. And Stephen and I make our way to our various starts. And I spy the 3:55 pace group and decide I’ll run just behind them until I can no longer hold that pace. I figure I’ll last 10 miles, maybe 13 at the most. And we get to Mile 10 and then Mile 13 and the bottom does not drop out. “Huh.” “Interesting.” And each mile I think “I’ll just try to hold this pace for one more mile.” And I do. And then I’m on the boardwalk and then I’m crossing the finish line and my time is nearly 5 full minutes under my qualifying time and is definitely going to get me into Boston and Stephen is there and he knows what this means and and I hobble to someone’s front stoop and sit down on their steps and call Barb to let her know we’re going to Boston together.
I don’t run a Fall 2017 marathon. I take it easy over the summer and then Barb and I start training for Boston and we are serious about this. We do hill repeats and speed work and long runs during which one is supposed to keep a certain pace. We do this all through the winter and it is hard, but not that hard and it goes really well. Barb and Bonnie are out there ahead of me on every long run but that’s fine. I don’t need to beat them. I just need to beat 3:55. And Linell and Helen are doing great. And everyone stays healthy. And there are no running injuries (well, Linell's knee) or serious illnesses or anything that derails any of us.
Which brings us to the 2018 Boston Marathon. I bet you thought we’d never get here. But you needed that back story to understand what it took to get here and what I was hoping to accomplish. My goals were modest:
3. Be able to recall those last two miles
4. Stay under 4 hours
5. Finish at or under 3:55
That’s all. That is all I wanted to do. I did not expect to PR. I wasn’t asking for some miracle. I just wanted to requalify for Boston at Boston. And I was confident enough that I left off from this mental list the two most primary, most fundamental goals, which are to
1. Finish the race
2. Stay out of the medical tent.
The 2018 Boston Marathon dawned cold, wet, and windy. Colder, wetter, and windier than the 2015 Boston Marathon. The rain was relentless and not infrequently horizontal. We saw it coming weeks out and we packed oodles of clothing including throw-away gear and wet-weather gear and Linell got everyone latex gloves (but they were made out of oatmeal, somehow) to wear under our cotton gloves that got soaked two minutes after we walked outside. And these turned out to be a very good idea. And Barb loaned me tights because I’d only brought shorts because I have previously donned tights at the forecasted temperature only to overheat and so to avoid making that same dumb mistake twice I intentionally left my own tights behind but I hadn’t factored in the wind chill or the fact that the weather might actually be colder than forecasted, which it was. So I wear Linell’s oatmeal gloves and Barb’s tights and on my head I have 3 protective layers including a skull cap and windbreaker hood and billed running cap because by god I am not going to get hypothermia again. And we all met for dinner the night before and I did not drink and indeed had not had a drink in two weeks because I was serious about having a good race.
And the next morning we wore all our gear out to the buses and took that long ride up to athlete’s village which was a one enormous mud bath. And Bonnie and Barb and I started out together and the weather didn’t set me back one bit. I don’t know how many windy races I will have to run before I learn to start out slow in a headwind…to adjust my expectations in a headwind. But apparently it’ll be at least one more. So I stupidly run my 8:50 pace which is going to get me my 3:55 finish for the first 10 miles and I think “Huh. This really isn’t so bad”. I think “Maybe the 30,000 other people are blocking that wind for me.” Boston is a point-to-point race and so (unlike Philly) there was never a tailwind. There was a headwind for 26.2 miles that was not blocked just for me. Accompanied by buckets of rain. At least I knew what was happening, and why, when the bottom dropped out at Mile 11. I immediately changed my goals to:
1. Finish this race.
2. Stay out of the medical tent.
3. Be able to recall the last two miles.
I slowed way down. I asked volunteers to help me get the gu’s out of my pockets. I walked when I needed to walk. And, eventually, I saw the Citgo sign. It is SO BIG!!! And my friend Ryan calls out my name and later says I was looking pretty good! And I saw the sign for that right turn on Hereford. I made that turn, which takes me over 30,000 rain ponchos that people discarded before turning left on Boylston so their pictures would not be marred by their flimsy outwear. And I crossed the finish line for a 4:22:15 finish and this is, technically, faster than my 2015 Boston time but it did not feel one bit like redemption.
I finished. I stayed out of the medical tent. I have well formed, retrievable memories of those last two miles. These are real wins for that particular race. Still. I need to return to Boston for a better finish. This is what marathoners do.