The cannonballs that have taken up residence where my thighs once resided still roll and stab with each forward step. Curbs look like waist-high cement walls to my post-marathon bod. It is in this state of repair that I pen this tale of my trip from Hopkinton to Boston for the running of the 115th Boston Marathon.
As marathons go, I am pretty much a noobie. At least that’s what my son calls rookie Xbox players who get trampled by his “supreme awesomeness.” As I approached the age of 55 the summer of 2009, I decided it was now or never to run 26.2. I picked the Tucson Marathon in December because it was downhill and well, it was Tucson in December. Think of the scenery. And even the mountains.
I needed a time goal and since a 55-year-old male needed to run 3:45 to BQ (Boston Qualify), that was what I decided I’d run. I ran 3:45 at Tucson and figured my marathon days were done. But qualifying for the Boston Marathon is kind of a revered goal for many distance runners who never make it to Hopkinton. My friends reminded me of this often enough to make me change my mind and put Boston on my Bucket List.
The problem was Boston was full for 2010 and I would have to wait to register for the 2011 race – 16 months into the future. Long story shortened to a few words here – I kept in shape, ran Chicago in 3:31 last October and got extremely lucky in that my online Boston registration avoided all the technical glitches when the 115th running filled up in an unheard of eight hours.
So Monday morning, April 18th, 2011, my wife dropped me off in Hopkinton, Mass., around 6:30 AM – a full four hours before my start time. Instead of taking one of the hundreds of shuttle buses from the finish at Copley Square in downtown Boston, my pretty wife drove me to the start through the light Patriot’s Day traffic. The roads into Hopkinton close to all traffic at 7:30 AM so we needed to get there early.
There was not another runner in sight as I stood on the street corner in Hopkinton and watched my wife drive off. A small block-square city park sits adjacent to the starting line and here a number of vendors had set up tents to hawk everything from running apparel to “Fine Italian Sausages.” I’m pretty sure the two were not soliciting the same audience on this morn.
The cutting spring breeze made the 42-degree early-morning temp feel more like 32. Standing in my shorts with my official large, bright-green plastic Adidas Boston Marathon runner’s bag slung over my shoulder, I looked for refuge. A uniform row of porta potties sat on the far side of the park, parallel to the starting line but far enough away to not offend. It was here I sought respite from the cold and wind.
I do not know what the record is for a single stay by an individual in a porta potty. But suffice it to say that if I didn’t break it there in Hopkinton on April 18, 2011, I severely dented that sucker. I had four hours to kill before race time and I wasn’t about to freeze my 56-year-old short-wearing ass off outside. I attempted to pass myself off as a dignitary to gain entry into the heat-controlled big-shots’ tent but that ruse was sniffed out immediately since none of the security people were blind. So I set up office in porta potty #3 from the left.
These were not the new-fangled bright blue molded plastic Johnny-on-the-Spot crappers we see so often here in the Midwest at road races and events. Like almost everything in and around Boston, these johns carried some deep history within their walls and metal hinges. While I sat on my plastic throne, I read emails, sent out tweets and wasted copious amounts of time surfing the web. It was pretty much a typical day at the office.
Unlike newer johns, my fortress had no indicator on the front to alert others that it was occupied. This made for some violent attempts by intruders to invade my office cubical. I swear a few gorillas may have tried to gain entrance by the ferocity they exerted in grabbing and ripping away at that rusty handle. But porta potty #3 proved a stalwart under pressure and beat back the charge of the aggressors much like I’m sure it withstood the British back in the 1700s.
I didn’t leave that ancient moon until about 8:30 AM. I was surprised to see that the activity in the once empty park was now humming with life. I was not as surprised to discover a line of less-than-happy bladders in need of porta potty #3.
I sauntered over to the starting line area to snap some phone photos and take in the atmosphere of the historic race. Bill Rodgers, four-time winner of Boston, served as the Grand Marshal for the 115th and he was no more than five feet from me as he talked with television reporters.
If you see any photos of the start, they are most likely taken from the raised, wooden photographers’ platform just in front of and to the right of the starting line. It is on this wooden platform I parked my porta potty-worn cheeks to take in the early festivities.
The crowd to view the start in Hopkinton swelled with each growing minute. The wheelchair athletes got everything started at 9:00 AM, followed by the elite women runners at 9:30. The elite men went off at 10:00 and were followed closely by the red-bibbed (or first) wave of 9,000 runners. I was wearing a white bib which placed me in the second wave at 10:20. The third (blue) wave was scheduled to start at 10:40. I had plenty of time to sit there on the photog platform and absorb the most storied marathon in the history of man.
One large TV camera was placed in the middle of this 10×10 foot platform on the corner of Ash and East Main. The guy working the TV camera was very cool. I was at first hesitant to sit on the platform, fearing the typical verbal reprimand and ass-kick that usually comes with this type of civilian invasive behavior. Instead, the TV guy and the still photog could not have been friendlier. We chatted about the weather, the race, and the elite runners and had a wicked good time. The still photog had just flown in from London the night before where he shot the London Marathon. Talk about a couple of tough road games!
As the wheelchairs and then the elite women took off, I checked my watch and saw 9:43 AM. It was time for me to drop off my bright green Adidas bag in the designated runners’ bag drop bus and get into my starting corral. I had spotted my corral earlier and was happy to see my station was only a half block or so from the actual starting line. I had checked with one of the 9,000 green-jacketed race volunteers earlier and asked where the buses for the bag drop were located. “Back there at the end of the corrals,” she said. “You can’t miss them.”
The corrals ran down the length of the block, not too far a walk from the small city park. As I made my way past the runners who were already stationed in their corrals, I marveled at the depth of road-running talent standing here in Hopkinton on this sun-drenched morning.
Boston is a different race. While some buy their way in or get special dispensation from the Boston Marathon Pope Squad, almost all 27,000 participants have to qualify. The BQ (Boston Qualifier) is the time most marathoners across the globe chase until they catch it or get too old and beat up to try.
Your bib number at Boston is roughly your seed in the race. Mine was 12534. I was expected to beat about half the field. The runners in the corrals I was now passing on my way to the drop-off buses wore red bibs in the 1,000s and 2,000s. And these guys (and even a few gals) all looked it.
While good distance runners come in many shapes and sizes, great ones are far more uniform. Most of these civilian sleek distance machines were young, thin, short and focused. With their race start less than 15 minutes away, not one of them spoke to or bothered to acknowledge me as I snapped their picture.
I checked my watch again and noticed I better get to the end of the corrals to drop off my bag to give myself some time to get loose. Walking down the hill to the end of the block was becoming more and more difficult as hordes of runners were heading to the start and only I was going toward the buses. Weaving in and out of the flood of runners was made even more difficult because the streets in Hopkinton are just ordinary small-town two-lane city paved roads.
The race corrals are four-foot-high white metal barriers bound together with sturdy plastic ties. These corrals take up 80% of the width of the road, leaving little, or none in some cases, for non-runners, spectators and those (like me) who wish to head in the opposite direction. As I finally reached the bottom of the hill, I thought to myself how surprised I was that 27,000 runners took up so little street.
“So where are these buses?” I asked a cute girl in a blue Nike racing top. “They’re way back there,” she pointed to her right. “Back at the end of the corrals.” I turned to follow the path of her right digit and saw that the corrals didn’t end at the bottom of the hill. They simply turned. As I looked up the street and beyond where I could comfortably focus, I saw thousands and thousands and thousands of runners facing toward me, waiting their start.
My heart started beating right there, well before any starter’s gun ignited it. How was I going to get past this ocean of people packed shoulder-to-shoulder inside this endless snake of corrals, drop off my green bag and then return to my favored #4-seed corral which sat so attractively near the starting line? I started to jog against the masses. Then I went wishbone with feints and darts, working every encounter as if they were a defensive end trying to drop me. I was making very poor progress. Two girls beside me hugged their loaded green bags and fought the current with me. “I told you this is the worst part of the race,” one told the other. “Those buses are so far away!”
I was now in DefCon 4 panic mode. With no buses in sight, I broke my first sweat of the day. I now had verbal intelligence from an experienced source that these buses were not just a block or two away. I looked at the solid sea of humanity in shorts facing me, the likes Hopkinton has rarely hosted. I looked for options.
A tall, sandy-haired man in sweats was walking outside the corrals with a green runner’s bag. “Are you running?” I asked with more than a hint of desperation in my tone. “Yes,” was his depressing reply. I was hoping he was taking the bag to the buses for his wife or a friend and I too might borrow his pack-mule services to rescue me from my plight. I now had less than 15 minutes to get to the buses, find my exact bus, drop off my bag and then somehow make it back to my corral.
I resigned to think for the first time since I began this trip to the buses that I would be starting here in the back of the pack. There was almost no way I could get there and back before my start time. Inside my bag I had my phone and other essentials that I simply couldn’t just ditch. I had to get them to the bus so that the bag would be there when I finished. I was screwed. I was also pissed at myself. After working, training and planning this race for 16 months and running daily through a ridiculously cold Kansas City winter – I had pretty much screwed up all chances of a decent start and most likely jeopardized the quality and experience of my maiden voyage at Boston.
“Do you want me to take your bag to the bus for you?” asked the tall guy outside the barriers.
“But you’re running too,” I bleated. “You’re in the same boat as I.”
“Hey, I’m going to be one of the last ones to finish today,” he said. “It’ll take me five hours to run it so I’m in no hurry. I can take your bag to the buses for you if you want.”
Somewhere in my Catholic upbringing it was ingrained in me to spurn help from others. I don’t know if this is common with white Midwestern kids who grow up poor but I believe it to be. My 14 brothers and sisters all share this odd trait. We would much rather dispense help rather than receive it.
I shook free of these German-Irish shackles my forefathers had dealt me and smiled back at the sandy-haired giant. “Thanks,” I croaked with emotion. “Thanks. I could really use the help.” I whipped off my cotton shorts revealing my black racers, complete with energy pack pockets. I tore off my heavy Army-green hoodie and jammed these items into my bag. I hurriedly grabbed five packets of Gu from my bag before handing it over the corral fence.
“What’s your name,” I asked as I stuck my bag out with my left hand and extended my right for a handshake.
“Steve,” answered the tall angel.
“Where are you from,” I asked as I hastily jammed the Gu packets into my shorts.
“I’m from New York,” he answered. Steve looked down at the name tag on my bag and added, “I’m happy to take care of it for you, Greg from Kansas City.”
I never saw Steve again and very likely never will. After the race, as I stiff-legged it toward the buses parked in the far back of the recovery area, I never doubted my bag and all its contents would be there. It was. We often think the worst of people – especially strangers. But I believe there are far more Steves from New York in this world than we know or care to acknowledge. I am damn glad Steve happened to be there at that time. It changed everything for me.
Freed from the bonds of my green bag, I turned back in the direction of the start. I was now moving with the flow rather than against it. I glanced at my watch and read 9:59. I started to run. I was not alone in racing past the thousands who were patiently waiting their start time. A small village of porta potties had arisen to the west and red-bibbed runners were pouring from this area in an attempt to get to their start corrals.
A pre-race pee is one of the most coveted things any runner can experience. The closer you can time your urination to the start, the more gratifying. These runners to my right and left heading in the same direction as I had obviously cut their pee time too close.
The loud pop from the starter’s gun echoed blocks away. I and the other late-to-the-dance runners struggled to traverse the crowd separating us from our designated corrals. I knew my start wasn’t until 10:20 but I wanted to get into my corral to be sure I was in place and not stuck behind this massive mob.
Once I reached the corner at the bottom of the hill (where I originally thought the corrals ended), the area alongside the corrals opened up and I could sprint toward corral #4. I sped past corrals 8, 7, 6 and 5. As I neared #4 I saw that they had closed all access to the corrals. Where once an open gate allowed runners to freely enter, plastic ties now secured the iron fence line.
A few green-jacketed race officials stood next to the corral as I used the momentum of my sprint to leap over the top of one of the secure corrals. My chest rolled onto the top rail and then off as I landed almost daintily on the runner’s side of Corral #4. The two female race officials gasped at my brazenness.
“You can’t do that!” shouted one.
“It’s alright. I’m supposed to be here,” I replied with confidence.
The two women shrugged in unison and made no more attempts to dissuade me. I shed my last bit of extra clothing, a navy long-sleeved Wal-Mart $5 cotton tee, as I jangled my legs to make sure I was loose. I could not believe my good fortune. Five minutes ago I was screwed beyond comprehension as I trudged uphill toward a cadre of unseen buses. But now I stood four rows back from Corral #4’s front line. The other runners in the corral barely blinked at my somewhat violent entrance. All were facing forward and focused on the 26.2 miles of pavement ahead.
I relaxed and began a self inventory to make sure I had not forgotten anything in my haste. I had 15 minutes or so before my wave began so I could finally breathe deep and begin my pre-race routine. Then the runners in front, beside and behind me began to move. It was a shuffle at first but we were all definitely moving forward toward the official starting line.
I thought little of it at first. I determined the reason we were moving forward was to queue up for our 10:20 start since the elites and first-wave runners were now off and headed to Boston. But as we approached the small city park on my right where I had spent much of my morning in porta potty #3 and atop the photog’s platform, the race mob I had just joined began to pick up speed. This was not a shuffle-to-get-in-place kind of pace. This was a let’s-get-it-on, rock-and-roll kind of tempo. My left foot hit the bright royal blue chip-sensor mat with the official 115th John Hancock Boston Marathon logo emblazoned in beautiful white script with the word START dominating the strip in shiny bold gold paint.
I was thrilled to be off and moving northeast to Boston but confused. I started my digital watch as I passed the start and caught sight of the official clock. It read 2:38. How could my wave be starting almost 18 minutes early? Was the 10:20 time just an estimate? Had the race organizers vastly overestimated the time it would take for Corral #4 to reach the start? My wife was really going to be surprised to see me at Heartbreak Hill 20 minutes early!
I parked my concerns in my rear lobe and smiled as I glided downhill past the camera platform where I sat amongst the spectators only 20 minutes before. The road out of Hopkinton immediately moves through a wooded area where deciduous trees remain barren from winter wear. Few spectators are visible a quarter mile into the race because there is no shoulder to house them. Trees, shrubs and creeks make up the audience for much of the first mile.
Six men in various stages of completeness are spotted a few feet into the leafless woods urinating with their back to the river of runners. These men are all wearing shorts, singlets and an official Boston Marathon racing bib. Who has to pee two minutes into a marathon? Apparently a lot of guys. A dozen more men are assuming the same hunched-shoulders position just up the road. Four, five and six more head off the road in search of bladder relief after the next turn. I saw at least 30 men taking a leak within the first quarter mile. Not one was a woman. I guess they simply suffer in silence or are far better at time management.
Not one runner who passed these desperate men, hooted or even acknowledged the pissing participants. We all know how uncomfortable it feels to not quite get that final squirt out before a race. I and the other mobile journeymen and women were simply grateful to not be in their shoes. Literally. The Boston Marathon has Heartbreak Hill, the girls at Wellesley College, Three-Mile Island and many other iconic spots along its historic route. I would like to add the Pee Tree Woods in Hopkinton to that storied list.
I glanced at my watch as we cruised past the one-mile marker and saw 7:28. Quick. Way, way, way too quick for a 56-year-old Kansas City guy who was thinking breaking 3:45 would be a nice goal here at Boston. But the marathon to me is a race to run not think. Thinking screws up a lot of really good times in life. Planning, coaching, scheming can all help achieve maximum success in a distance race. They can also cripple an effort by overburdening you with splits, fluid intake, your competition’s splits, yada, yada, yada.
At the age of 56, my racing PRs are so far in my rear view mirror I couldn’t find them with Doc Brown, a load of plutonium, a flux capacitor and a DeLorean. So why do I want to think too much while running the most famous marathon in the world? I don’t. If I crash, I crash. I turned away from the watch on my left wrist and smiled as the scent of new magnolias tickled my nostrils.
Settling into a comfortable pace, I began to take more notice of those runners around me. Almost all were men. No, not almost. All. While I am an accomplished runner for my age, I am not accustomed to running with young, willowy men who look like sub-three-hour marathoners.
A gnawing thought was beckoning from somewhere inside me. Something was amiss. My brain focused on my start and why I was off so much earlier than expected. I went over the particulars in my head. I saw the placards that showed the bib numbers in red, white and blue and their corresponding number range. My prerace postcard had designated me for Corral #4, just as the sign above that space announced.
That’s when it hit me. Somewhere between mile one and two, I realized that the corrals were set up to house the three waves of color-coded runners AT DIFFERENT TIMES. How simple! How could I have misunderstood this easy premise? My white-bibbed wave was still waiting back in Corral #4 for their 10:20 starting gun!
I slowly and somewhat stealthily shifted my eyes toward my left shoulder and peeked behind me. A red bib stared back. Next to him, another. Three more to his left. I looked down at the runner directly to my left. A red bib winked at me. I was surrounded by red bibs! I sheepishly looked down at my powder-blue Nike singlet. The glare (and shame) from my snow-white bib made my face wince. I was a wildebeest running with the gazelles.
For a brief moment I felt panic. I saw myself being chased down by Boston Marathon race officials and unceremoniously drug from the race, much like Katherine Switzer was in 1967 for illegally running the race as a woman. But I recalled my mantra from just a mile before when I saw my first-mile split. “Turn your mind off and just run,” I silently told myself. And so I did.
GregHall24@yahoo.com and Twitter / greghall24