Part II / Click on this link for Part I
The start of the Boston Marathon is not only thrilling but emotional. My eyes misted as I flew down that first hill out of Hopkinton, realizing my feet were moving forward toward Boston in the oldest, grandest, most-storied marathon in the world. I know I was not alone as tears also fell from the eyes of my fellow runners.
No one laying out a marathon today would choose the path the Boston Marathon serpentines from Hopkinton to downtown Boston. Runners visit eight towns on their march northeast. Some of the roads were originally plowed to allow for the passage of a single horse and carriage. It appeared to me some have yet to be widened. It is this history though, that draws runners from every continent to challenge this unique course’s ancient and odd quirks.
Runners bond almost immediately during a race. Sure, you occasionally come across the asshole who thinks his space is far more important than your space or someone yelling, ‘On your left!” as they hurry past in their effort to qualify for the Olympics. But for the most part, anyone who isn’t running for the prize money is out there to compete against their PR and enjoy the experience. Boston is kind of a reward for all the work you have done to get there. You would like to post a nice time but I think most runners are simply there to enjoy the experience and even share it with whomever they happen to be running beside or around.
By staggering the start to allow for three waves separated by 20-minute intervals, the organizers have attempted to lessen the burden 27,000 runners put on roads no more than 22 feet wide. But it hardly makes the race roomy.
Runners rub shoulders for much of the trip through Hopkinton. I watched a young guy in his late 20s (who looked remarkably like a guy named Marvin from my office) ahead of me playfully slap the hands of every child positioned on the narrow right shoulder. Marvin laughed and talked loudly with another runner – I assumed they were running together but it is hard to discern who knew who before the race.
Slapping the outstretched hands of spectators standing on the curb is a tradition in marathons – especially those with big crowds. My first experience with this was at the Chicago Marathon in October. The crowd is so close and so amped, you want to high-five everyone who offers their palm. I sure did in Chicago. I was slapping five with spectators from downtown Chicago all the way out to Chinatown.
You learn to conserve your energy in the marathon because even the effort of a high five takes its toll in the later miles. I saw the playful Marvin again about the 25-mile mark. He was in worse shape than me, teetering back and forth ahead as I jogged up on him and passed. He was in no shape to high five anything except maybe the pavement – and Marvin wasn’t the only one by that point in the race.
But in the first few miles, Marvin, his running buddy and I wanted to shake hands with every Bostonian this side of the Atlantic! People climbed atop the corral gates near the start and leaned over to reach their hands out toward the wave of runners. I chose to slap hands with mostly the little kids – any kid that looked about six-years-old or younger. Their hands are the perfect height to match my hand without me having to exert any energy raising my palm above my waist. It sounds goofy to think this matters, but not to marathoners – who might be the goofiest of the human species. I know runners are all nodding their heads as they read this.
As we hit the first mile marker I saw something I have never seen in another race. Some runners in front of me were jumping out of the race to use their cell phone to take a photograph of the clock displaying our one-mile split time. Again, these were young, lithe burners who I guess wanted a commemorative photo of the actual clock at mile one in Hopkinton. I saw other runners do this at different mile markers on the course. One young guy in the middle of the street raised both arms above his head and extended his cell/camera as high as he could and snapped away at the mass of runners ahead of him. I’ll bet Boston greats Clarence DeMar, John Kelley and Bill Rodgers never envisioned the day when runners of Boston would be carrying their phone/camera with them to record the event and even tweet updates along the way.
While I was amazed that some runners had chosen to carry their phones and its added weight, I had forgotten a few things in my haste to drop off my bag and dive into the wrong start corral. One was Advil. I usually down three Advil before a marathon to hopefully dull the pain to come. Another was Band-Aids for my nipples. I mentioned this to some non-running buddies the other day and they thought I was joking. “What do you have, like the world’s longest male nipples or something?” one chuckled. “Didn’t I see you in National Geographic in 1973?”
My nips are pretty average if you must ask, but the marathon has a way of making even average nips a problem. I wore an extremely lightweight Nike singlet that cost me $50. I bought a $25 singlet to wear at Boston first, but that singlet caused my nipples to bleed while running Kansas City’s Rock the Parkway half-marathon only two weeks before. The constant motion of the fabric over your nipples actually wears away a portion of the tip of the nip. So back I went to Dick’s Sporting Goods to pop for the good stuff. I thought a more lightweight fabric would help. It didn’t matter. I had nipple issues at Boston as well. I really wished I would have remembered those Band-Aids but that tale is for later in this story.
Leaving Hopkinton the race seamlessly moves into the burg of Ashland. Immediately upon entering the town a man standing on the left side of the road said in a proud, calm, loud, welcoming voice, “Welcome to Ashland!”
The same thing happened as we entered many of the other eight towns along the way to Boston. “Welcome to Framingham!” greeted an older gentleman. “Welcome to Natick!” said a middle-aged man as we entered the town neither my wife nor I were sure how to pronounce. I made a mental note upon hearing his pronunciation to tell Donna, “It’s NA-tick, not na-TICK,” as we Midwesterners were saying it.
What I liked about these front-door greeters at each town was that they were not barkers or dressed as a turnip. They were just people who lived in that town and were damn proud of it. One thing I wish I could bottle and take back with me to Kansas City (besides the incredible clam chowder in the North End at Boston’s Sail Loft Tavern) is the pride the people of Boston and that area have for their home. They love their towns, their cities and their state. And they REALLY love the Celtics, Bruins and Red Sox! To a Bostonian, nobody on the planet lives in a better place or has it better “den ‘dem.” They have that Texas attitude but instead of driving pick-up trucks they drive Honda Accords – really, really recklessly.
Almost everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, I came in contact with during my Boston Marathon experience was incredibly helpful, friendly and just plain nice. I know this flies in the face of what many think of the people back East but time after time I was presented with a situation where a local could have blown me off or walked by and every time they stopped to help or answer my question. Maybe you just have to be there during “Marathon Season,” as our trolley car tour guide called it. She pointed out to us that one of the telltale signs that it was marathon season in Boston was when you see people decorating their window flower boxes with old running shoes. We saw this in some of the upscale row houses downtown.
When I went to pick up my bib number on Boylston Street on Saturday, I was told I brought the wrong confirmation card to Boston. It was stressed repeatedly in prior documentation to all participants that you MUST have the correct card and a photo ID. Bibs would not be handed out to anyone except the official entrant. I handed my card to the gentleman behind the 12,000 to 12,500 bib numbers and he immediately said, “Well, everything looks great except this is the wrong card.”
My heart sunk. Wrong card? Now what? The panic on my face must have shown because the guy immediately smiled and said, “No worries.” He then pointed behind me. “Just take this card over to that room and they’ll fix you right up with a copy of the correct card. Then come back here and see me.”
No scowl. No kick in the ass. No, “Sorry we can’t help you.” The lady in the other room was even nicer than the first guy. She looked at my ID and laughed at my tanned, bald head in the photo. “Have a great race!” she said as she handed me the new card.
The spectators along the road to Boston were just as friendly and welcoming. Well, most anyway. A few feet in front of me about the five-mile mark, a runner made the poor decision to wear a New York Yankees hat. The cheers quickly turned to a chorus of hoots and boos directed toward him when he ran past. I heard one guy closest to the curb yell, “Yankees suck!”
As we cruised through Natick and the crowds swelled at the larger intersections, the noise and excitement from the spectators became palpable. A young fellow in his 20s, just behind and to my left, threw both of his arms out to his side with both palms facing up as he greeted the mob. “THIS IS FREAKING AWESOME,” he screamed back at the boisterous crowd. I smiled huge as his comment was greeted with even louder screams. It was, “FREAKING AWESOME!” Sometimes the simplest sentence is the best sentence.
At the seven-mile mark a fire truck siren blared ahead. I spotted a big old-fashioned fire truck and an ambulance at the top of a gentle hill splitting the runners in front of me like Moses. Somewhere nearby someone needed emergency assistance and the runners were asked to accommodate the truck and ambulance despite the narrow road. While the vehicles were slowed somewhat because of the hoard of runners, it was impressive to see how quickly the bobbing human sea adapted and allowed the trucks to pass and be gone.
As the miles melted away, I had the strange thought the race was going by too quickly. I wanted to savor this spectacular experience but instead I was already at mile nine and breezing along. My splits were insanely fast for me. I laughed each time my foot hit the electronic checkpoint pads during the early miles as I thought about my family, friends and co-workers following my progress online. Along with your current pace, the website also projects your finish time. After my first 10K my finish was projected at 3:13. I was hoping to break 3:45.I knew I was going way faster than I should but I thought I would see how far I could push it before the marathon came back to claim its price in flesh…and nipple.
Dick and Rick Hoyt, Massachusetts natives who are a father/son wheelchair team, have run Boston so often they are as much an institution as Boston Billy. Rick, the son, suffers from cerebral palsy which he has had since birth. I saw them take off together at 9:00 AM while I was watching the start from the photographer’s platform. I saw them again about the nine-mile mark in Natick when I passed them on the right. Dick is now 70 and despite his powerful build, it is obvious the grueling toll of the marathon was already settling inside his limbs. He struggled as he pushed his son up a small rise in the road. They eventually finished Boston in just over seven hours. I cannot even imagine the pain that man went through that day. I have no doubt he and Rick will again be in Hopkinton next April.
At the 11-mile mark a lady on the other side of the road was holding a hand-written sign that read “Kansas City” in large bold letters. There were too many runners between us for me to get across to her so I just turned and yelled at her over my left shoulder.
“Hey, KANSAS CITY,” I screamed. She smiled at me and waved her sign like the Royals just won the pennant. It is so fun to see anything or anyone that is even remotely from home. My wife was supposed to be somewhere near Heartbreak Hill at the 20- or 21-mile mark. I kept that thought buried in my head to use when needed. Kind of like waiting to open the best present last.
Another present I was looking forward to opening was Wellesley College. The run past this all-girls’ college is as well-known on the Boston course as Heartbreak Hill and far more anticipated. Wellesley marks the halfway point of the race. The college is just before you hit the quaint, upscale shops in their pretty and pristine downtown area.
A huge 100-foot by 100-foot bright blue fabric sign welcomes the runners to town. In large white printed font it simply states, “Wellesley With Screams.” For over 100 years the coeds from Wellesley have lined the road outside their stone buildings to scream with such passion that some runners have had to cover their ears. Other runners have enjoyed the noise and hysteria from the girls so much they have circled around to run past the girls a second time. After experiencing this part of the race live, I have no idea why anyone would cover their ears from that beautiful sound and those crazy coeds.
The stretch of road where the girls stand is not more than three blocks or so. Corral gates separate the girls from the runners. But these girls do everything they can to be as close as they can to the runners. Some have climbed atop the barriers and are reaching out so far a second girl is needed to anchor them to the college side of the fence line.
Signs are everywhere. “Kiss me I’m Jewish,” immediately caught my eye. Are Jewish girls especially good kissers I thought? Or was this coed simply angling for the Jewish faction of the race? One of Boston’s great traditions is to kiss a Wellesley girl at the halfway point. It was evident that this was a well-known tradition to both the runners and the girls. “Kiss me! You never looked better!” read another sign.
I have to say I was tempted. Guys were peeling off left, right and center to dive atop the barrier and plant one on a Wellesley girl. 25 years ago I would have kissed a dozen of them. Hell, I might have run the gauntlet three times to make sure I didn’t miss any. But at 56, I was grandpa to most of these girls and I just didn’t think it would be too cool to get a sweaty smack from gramps.
Instead, I stayed in my lane and watched the merriment. The scenery was excellent. I had always thought that an all-girls’ school would be sparse when it came to talent. Not so at Wellesley. These girls were cute, curvy and dressed for a day in the sun with lots of guys around. I wish I had a photo of my face as we ran past those screaming female future business leaders. I nearly split my face with the width and duration of my grin. Thank you women of Wellesley College for showing me your best, your brightest and your décolletage.
I eat and drink a lot during a marathon. A marathon like Boston offers you more menu items than you can possibly consume in 26 miles. The water stations all offer both water and Gatorade on both sides of the street. They stagger the water stops so that if you miss one on the right, a few strides down the road you can grab one on the left. This also lessens the congestion in the narrow streets of the course.
How narrow is the course? I ran elbow to elbow for probably 75% of the race. That may have been because I made the mistake of jumping into the fastest wave and a lot of those runners were coming up behind me. But there is simply no place to hide at Boston. Between the narrow roads, the spectators jamming the curbs and the river of runners coursing northeast, you either run or get trampled.
Back to the food. People set up all along the course to hand out food items they think the runners need and enjoy. The most prevalent food item by far was orange slices. I must have eaten three or four oranges – one narrow slice at a time. I always think eating early in the marathon is good so my digestive system has some time to allow the fuel to do me some good. I have no idea if this premise is sound but I try to trick my mind into believing it to be so.
I also consumed red licorice strips, pretzels, green seedless grapes and five packets of Gu. Gu is a protein gel that tastes like the bottom of your shoe – no matter what flavor it comes in. I sure as hell hope those Gu gels are doing their job because I slam those down like I did peas and carrots as a kid – one huge gulp followed by a sour face.
Kids were also passing out those frozen slider popsicle things, with the tops sliced off for quick access. I saw a number of grape and orange ones smashed on the road just a few steps from where they were being handed out. I do not think they were a hit with the runners. I passed on these and the lady who was handing out Peppermint Patties. I like Peppermint Patties and on the right day, I could have done serious damage to that Costco-sized box she was toting. But chocolate and mint just didn’t sound like a good combo on this sunny day.
The weather for our five-day stay in and around Boston was late-November-like for all but race day. The howling northeast wind and ship-gray skies cleared for Patriot’s Day. The race conditions could not have been more perfect. A 15-18 mph tailwind carried us into Boston. The record times set that day by the elite runners had to, at least partially, be due to almost ideal conditions.
If I could have changed anything about the weather it would have been the sun. Six hours in the sun, even an April Boston sun, is tough on a hatless balding 56-year-old. My scalp and face peeled like a cobra once I got back to Kansas City. Add sunscreen to your what-to-bring-to-the-Boston-Marathon list. Some spectators offered tissues, paper towels and wet sponges to the runners to help with the warm temps. It was odd to see the spectators bundled up in blankets and coats against the 50-degree temps while sweat poured down the runners’ torsos.
After the halfway point I started using one glass of water every few miles to dump over the back of my neck. This caused a bit of a problem with my nipples. A cold stream of water shooting across your spinal column is like a wake-up call to the pecs. Combine that with the weight of a now soaked singlet and the constant chafing motion of the shirt against the nips over 15 miles and you get bloody nipples. Or at least I did. Damn I wish I would have remembered those Band-Aids!
I wasn’t aware that my singlet was now blood soaked until I crested a hill around the 17-mile mark where a loan spectator on my left stood and slowly applauded. “Looking good, bloody nipple guy,” he drawled in his rich Boston accent. I looked down at my singlet and saw what he saw. A pink patch of coloration in roughly the shape of Africa had formed below my left nip. Australia was forming to the right. I tried not to think about my eroding nips since I still had nine miles to go.
I am always curious about those runners who choose to dress-up for a marathon like it’s Halloween. The race is tough enough without the added baggage of a gorilla suit. A runner who ran near me for much of the final eight miles was dressed as a Nerd. He had on a beanie (complete with propeller), checkered Bermuda shorts, a striped short-sleeve dress shirt complete with a tie and a pocket protector and black-rimmed Nerd glasses. The word NERD in all caps was written above his left-breast pocket. The crowd LOVED this guy.
Chants of, “Nerd! Nerd! Nerd! Nerd,” followed this stocky lad into the picturesque town of Newton and beyond. He wore a red bib which meant he was no casual runner. I fed off of his fan base. When the crowd is cheering, it is easy to pretend the noise is directed at you. Nerd boy was whipping them into a frenzy and I was not above scraping off some of the cream for my own ego. A marathoner will do desperate things as he starts to feel the pain of his journey.
I like to spend my time observing during the marathon. Some runners are obsessed with their splits, I choose to take in my surroundings. I saw the hairiest individual I have ever seen anywhere running in front of me somewhere in Newton. I am talking a 1970’s era shag rug in Nikes. This guy was Teen Wolf in beast mode wearing a singlet. He had so much hair on his back and shoulders there was no flesh showing – only fur. All I could think of while I watched this moving hair ball a few paces ahead of me is what in the world does the female sex see in us guys?
Newton is a gorgeous little town. It is everything you think of when you conjure up an Ivy League educated populace and their environs. Perfectly landscaped homes sit on meticulously groomed parkways. Think Brookside in Kansas City but with an additional 200 years of charm. The marathon takes us through the main drag and past the large crowds onto the famous red-brick Newton Fire Station at the bottom of the hill. The Newton Fire Station is where many believe the Boston marathon begins.
Newton is known for one thing to the Boston Marathon participants – the Newton Hills. The course to this point has been fairly moderate. Easy is the wrong word. I started to feel the attrition of the early downhills and the speed I had run the first half of the marathon around mile 16. I clocked 1:40 at the half and that is a decent time for me in an open half marathon, let alone the halfway point at Boston.
“If you feel bad at 10 miles, you’re in trouble,” Frank Shorter, the great American distance runner, is quoted saying. “If you feel bad at 20 miles, you’re normal.” I felt downright feisty at 10 but I was feeling every bit my age as I made the hard right turn at the Newton Fire Station from Washington Street to Commonwealth Avenue, approaching the 19-mile mark.
I had read all about the course prior to arriving in Boston and even driven a good portion of it the day before. This being my rookie run at Boston though, I was very concerned about the Newton Hills. These hills consisted of a series of three hills and culminates with Heartbreak Hill just before the 21-mile mark.
The truth is these hills aren’t all that daunting to a runner who trains in and around Kansas City. The Hospital Hill course is far steeper and foreboding than the Newton Hills. Nobody likes running uphill 20 miles into a marathon but I found the Newton Hills spaced far enough apart with plenty of flats between to make them tolerable. It was even a bit of a relief on my quads to use a different muscle group as I climbed these hills.
Do not get the idea I thought Boston was an easy marathon course. It is not only difficult, it is one of the more difficult courses over the last few miles of any race I have ever attempted. I am not alone in this thinking. Frank Shorter scoffed at the reputation of the downhill course in Boston being difficult. When he finally did run Boston he finished 18th. He never ran it again. Frank may be smarter than I thought.
I looked for my wife in Newton but never saw her. She was there, somewhere near the top of Heartbreak about the 21-mile mark. The crowd there was huge but she was able to spot me from across the street. She even shot a short video of me struggling forward on soon to be all-but-frozen thighs.
She was very concerned about driving around Boston the day of the marathon and how she was going to see me and get downtown for the finish. We had devised a plan to have her drive to Newton, park the rental car on a side street, grab a spot there to see me and then take the train into Copley Square. It sounds easy but it didn’t quite work as well as we planned.
Just as you crest Heartbreak you are greeted by the raucous and very well lubricated men of Boston College. As one runner was heard to say as I shuffled my way to the buses in the recovery area after the race, “Those guys at Boston College are vastly underrated!”
While the Wellesley girls are separated from the runners by metal corral gates, nothing is holding back the men of BC. They are everywhere. They are on the sidewalks. They are in the parkway. They are yelling, pointing, fist-pumping, high-fiving and drinking. Much, much drinking. I was really starting to hurt as I came into this cacophony of youth, alcohol and celebration. I could not have looked good. But these guys made me feel like I was Ryan Hall instead of Greg Hall.
One shade-wearing lad motioned for me to give him five. A high five. Somehow I found the energy to get my right palm up in the air to meet his. It was thrilling to be the focal point of their attention. They were there for us and man, did we need it. Thank you Boston College. You forever will hold a place in my heart. When I see your football team on the tube, I will forever root for the BC Eagles.
The BC kids went berserk over the Nerd. While Nerd ran much of the time oblivious to the crowd’s reactions, even he was seen gesturing and smiling as the BC kids bellowed the, “Nerd! Nerd! Nerd!” chant from both sides of the street.
A runner who I ran with and alongside much of the final four or five miles carried an American flag. Not the little stick-in-the-dirt-by-the-curb-sized American flags. I’m talking full-blown 5’x8’ American flag with a five-foot metal pole. I had seen him much earlier and wondered if he was going to hand off the flag to maybe another runner. Nope. He carried that flag and ran just as fast I did with no flag. A marine came up on us and asked the flag bearer what branch of service he represented. “Army,” came his one-word reply. The marine ripped off a clipped salute to the man and our flag and then turned east toward Boston.
The crowd loved the Nerd but they absolutely adored the guy with the American flag. I felt like I was skating for the 1980 Olympic team in Lake Placid as we rolled into Boston on Commonwealth Avenue to deafening chants of, “USA! USA! USA! USA!” If you want to ignite a crowd of Americans, wave Old Glory in their face and then get out of their way.
I grabbed onto the momentum the crowd was providing to urge my aching thighs forward. You play tricks with your mind and try to distract it from what you are doing to your body to complete this journey. The crowds now two miles from the finish are massive. The city had opened its doors and flooded its downtown streets to urge the runners these last couple of miles.
Spectators plead with you to look up, slap their hands and allow them to share in your race. But the marathon has taken its toll by this point. There is no playfulness left in your limbs or eyes. Stopping becomes your goal. Get to that finish line and rejoice in the simple act of stopping.
A huge CITGO gas sign sits at the top of a short hill at mile 25. It’s not really at the top of the hill but it appears to float above the horizon as you slowly and shakily climb this last bump before the final mile. This sign is an officially registered landmark in the Boston landscape. It calls all runners home. It is the welcome mat to a job well done – but not yet complete.
Somewhere in this last mile I spotted Marvin weaving in and out of conciseness. The playfulness he displayed in Hopkinton had been scorched by the sun, hills and pain of Boston. I passed him just as we dipped into the tunnel of quiet, a half-mile from the finish.
One of the only places on the last 13 miles of the marathon route that is devoid of spectators and noise is the short Mass Avenue Tunnel. The tunnel passes under Mass Avenue and it is a dark respite from the crowds, sun and screams that wait on Boylston Street. As I ran through the tunnel, two runners were desperately working their bodies to unfreeze cramps. So close to the finish and yet their bodies were refusing to go on. One man pushed hard against the cement walls of the tunnel to unlock his calves. The other stood precariously with his right foot on the curb, attempting to stretch out his hamstring. I ran past these two casualties of the marathon and out into the light.
The turn onto Boylston Street is a left. The finish is immediately visible. It looks miles away. If you have a kick in you, now would be too soon to start but not by much. I focused on the top of the bunting and ran toward it as best I could. Runners on all sides of me were pushing themselves to close on the finish. A woman with more left than I passed me on the right. I had nothing left to return her challenge.
200 yards from the finish line a 30-something man in front of me screamed in pain and bolted straight upright as he froze and grabbed his right hamstring. He was done. With the finish line in smelling distance he blew out his hammy. I passed him without uttering a word, content in knowing blown hammies are not contagious.
I hit the finish mat and clicked off my watch one second slower than my official time of 3:33:47. Not the sub 3:30 I was dreaming about at the halfway point but far better than I had planned to run. After telling myself I would stop as soon as I hit the finish I did not. I slowed now to a walk as medical assistance personnel watched each finisher for signs they were in need of emergency assistance.
Bloody nipples aside, I must not have looked too bad. No one seemed too concerned about my well-being at any rate. I passed this screening process and proceeded to where I was wrapped in one of those silver paper blankets and given a bag of post-race treats. My finisher medal was draped around my neck and I was sent off to find my green bag that Steve from New York had so generously dropped into my corresponding bus.
I looked into the bag of goodies and tossed most of it into the first trash can I saw. Even the bag seemed too heavy to be burdened with after the race from Hopkinton. A bottle of purple Gatorade handed to me might as well have been an anvil. I took one swig and chucked it in the trash can as well.
My cell phone rang as I searched for my wife. My brother Geoff was calling me 15 minutes after I finished. He had run Boston the year before, when it was me calling him for a post-race report.
“So, you going to run it again next year?” he asked with a chuckle.
I smiled, knowing he knew the pain that stabbed at my thighs. No one I know wants to run another marathon while still sweating from the last one.
“I’m done,” I told him. I thought of all the long winter training runs and those painful last four miles of Boston. “This course kicked my ass. No more marathons for me.”
I found my wife not a block from where I picked up my bag. She smiled at me and hugged my sweaty and beaten bod.
“So, how are we going to do this next year?” she said. “Do you think we should just stay downtown and not rent a car?”
GregHall24@yahoo.com and Twitter / greghall24