I have been looking forward to this for such a long time! As soon as I surprise-BQ'd in Pocatello in September of last year, I went through the motions of debating with myself whether I should or should not do it. That was really kind of a waste of time because, come on, OF COURSE I was going to do it! It's Boston! I'd qualified twice in 35 marathons. I would do it or live with the regret afterwards.
After having finished the Boston Marathon, still basking in the glow of being a Boston Marathon finisher again, still wearing my medal around town, I can say that no matter what, it's worth it. It's hugely expensive, a logistical pain in the ass, no help in my pursuit of 50 states, but still totally worth it. It's worth every sacrifice, it's worth giving up beer or desserts or whatever is keeping those extra 10 pounds on and keeping you those three or four minutes from getting the qualifying time you need, it's worth charging up your credit card, it's worth putting a strain on your relationship by being unavailable on the weekends because of hard training, it's worth pretty much whatever it takes to get you to the starting line in Hopkinton. That is my conclusion after running my second Boston.
We had decided to drive to Boston and then swing back home through New York, stopping at three different guide dog schools along the way. We stayed in a hotel in Framingham, which is one of the eight towns along the marathon course, kind of in the middle between Hopkinton and Boston. A lot of people stay right in the city and pay $400 a night for hotels but that is one place I'm definitely willing to compromise. I like having a car there and paying 1/4 of what a Boston hotel would cost. We drove from Michigan on Saturday and got into Hopkinton right around sunset, just in time to take pictures at the start line sign. There were quite a few other people doing the same thing, and suddenly it all became real, with the barricades set up and the cop stopping traffic so people could run out in the road and take their pictures on the start line. Hopkinton is a small, cute town that is probably really quiet 364 days out of the year, but the world spotlight is turned on it for that one day.
Up until the moment we got to Hopkinton, I hadn't really remembered much of what the start line or the course looked like. All I really remembered was cold, cold, cold, miserable cold. Clearly that was not going to be the case this year. The weather forecast was for sun. Actual temperature predictions were all over the place, from mid-50's to low 70's. I am a hot-weather runner but totally not acclimated to the heat at all due to the shitty spring the Midwest and Northeast have dealt with. For the past six weeks it's pretty much been 30's, rain, and grey skies. No heat and no sun whatsoever. Still, just knowing that I like the heat and do pretty well in it was a psychological boost. I was still prepared for a cold start with throwaway pants, sweatshirt, and gloves, but hopeful I wouldn't need them.
Sunday was the expo. We did a dry run for our travel plans the next day. We planned to park at one of the T stations with the most available parking on the Red Line, which is the one that runs the furthest south. We figured that made sense since we would be heading south to New York after the marathon. That actually worked well. We had no trouble with parking at the station, and it was an easy 1/2-hour ride into Boston.
Once we got into Boston, we joined the river of runners heading to the expo. This would be a good time to say that I have never seen such top-notch logistics at such a huge race (almost 30,000 runners). Bib pickup was smooth as can be. Long-sleeved blue tech shirt is beautiful. (I still cherish my yellow shirt from 2011 and wear it pretty regularly, pretty sure I will do the same with this one.) Expo is huge, lots of free food. I know I can't be the only one really excited about those Clif bars with a layer of nut butter in them! The good thing about a super-crowded expo is that you can go around several times and get tons of free samples and the people handing them out will never recognize you and be like, "Hey, you've taken 6 mini Builder Bars already! Get out of here!"
Oh yeah, the jacket. The Boston jacket is just okay as a jacket goes. Pockets are small, it's not waterproof, no hood, pretty flimsy, but still, I couldn't wait to buy the 2011 one five years ago; in fact, I've been wearing it this whole trip. (Even though I hardly ever wear it anywhere else, because it's only suitable for like a 5-degree temperature range, maybe 50-55, and I never wear it running because it doesn't breathe.) I wasn't crazy about the colors of this year's jacket (teal with white and salmon stripes), but neither did I think they were as hideous as most people seemed to think they were. I pretty much assumed I would buy it even though it's $110 because HOW ELSE WOULD OTHER RUNNERS KNOW I'M AN "ELITE AMATEUR"?!?! As soon as I got into the expo I went straight to the jackets and put one on and... meh. I was not excited at all about it. I realized at that moment that I had never really cared for the 2011 one as a jacket. I only loved it as a symbol of something that I had thought was unattainable. Now that I have qualified three times in the last year, and get a new age group this year and five more minutes of cushion added to my qualifying time, the jacket doesn't have the same symbolic value. I realized all this while standing there wearing it, and decided that I did not need it. Instead I bought two extra short-sleeved Boston shirts which I love for half the price of the jacket. I'm not saying I will never buy another jacket -- if next year's colors are spectacular, maybe I will -- but I have no regrets about passing on this one.
After the expo, we hung out in Boston Common for a while and then I met up with Joe P. from Tucson. It was so great to see him! I have been in Michigan for over three years now and it doesn't look like life is going to let me leave any time soon, but I still consider myself a Tucson runner and probably always will. I went back into the expo for round two of snacks. Joe bought the jacket and it looked way better on him than it did on me.
After that we headed back to the hotel for an early night. I was still up in the air about tomorrow's logistics: should I drive to Quincy Adams station with Will, take the train into Boston, and then take the official marathon bus to the start line (thereby spending an extra two hours of time getting from the hotel into Boston, and from Boston back to the start line, which was not that far from the hotel)? Or should I have Will drop me off at the start line? All race materials discourage the start line dropoff. It is preferred that all runners take the official bus from Boston. But finally I decided that if Hopkinton dropoff was offered as an option, that was totally the smarter thing to do. Even though I had nightmare visions in my head of that miles-long freeway backup at the Lehigh Valley Marathon a few years ago, which resulted in me getting to the start line after the marathon had already started, I decided that I was going to trust the marathon organizers and the total absence of any Internet discussion of transportation-to-the-start-line problems and just do it that way. And, of course, it worked fine. There was no problem getting to the runner drop-off point and plenty of people directing traffic so that everything flowed smoothly, just like every single other part of this whole event.
Will dropped me off in a parking lot and I got on a runners' shuttle for the start line. I sat next to a young guy from Costa Rica who told me that there were 40 or so runners there from Costa Rica and he hoped to get the second-fastest time of the 40 because there was one guy he knew was much faster than him. It was just another reminder that this marathon is a REALLY BIG DEAL! I got chills over and over again thinking of how big a deal it was and how lucky I was to participate in it while the bus made its way to the start line.
Finally we arrived at Hopkinton High School, which transforms into Athletes Village on Marathon Monday. You get off the bus and go with the crowd past security and down a hill into the Village. There's a guy up on a tower with a microphone repeating a loop of "Welcome to Athletes Village! Food, drinks, and bathrooms to the left and right! This is your big day! No one has to get up early next Saturday to run 18 miles! Your friends and family back home are all proud of you! They're all telling people they know someone running the Boston Marathon! Every runner wants to be here and you guys made it!" Et cetera, et cetera. There's a Jumbo Tron, there are news and police helicopters circling overhead, there are military guys in uniform standing in rows on top of all the buildings looking down at the crowds, there's unlimited bagels and bananas and Clif bars and coffee and Gatorade, and there are almost 30,000 runners spread out over two fields stretching, napping, eating, or standing in bathroom lines.
Let me just say that running in general keeps people humble. No matter how well you are capable of doing in isolated races, there are always more times when you get dropped from your pace group or your stomach betrays you or you can't get rid of the cramp or you walk in the last four miles of a scheduled 18-miler because you're cranky and sick of the snow flurries and headwind and would rather be back in bed. But Boston Marathon day is the day that everyone, and I mean absolutely every runner, is treated like a rock star or like an elite athlete, and gets their egos not just stroked but super-charged by the treatment. It's the one day where you can bask in the glow of your accomplishment and remind yourself that it really does still mean something to qualify for Boston. (Well, that's what happens in Athletes Village, anyway. BEFORE the heat and the hills.)
My Athletes Village experience was totally different than my first Athletes Village experience in 2011. For one thing, I wasn't nervous. Boston in 2011 was my 18th marathon and Boston in 2016 was my 41st marathon, so nerves at the start line of marathons, even Boston, pretty much don't happen anymore. For another, I wasn't putting any pressure on myself. In my dream world, I could qualify for Boston IN Boston. Since I just had that really good race on a really tough course in Atlanta, I knew that was a possibility. But if I couldn't do that, my second goal would be to be under four hours. I really thought I should be able to do that since in my last six marathons, I've only been over four hours once and that was in Harrisburg where I was a pacer, so it didn't really count. If I couldn't do that, I wanted to beat my time from 2011, which was 4:12. And if I couldn't do that, if I had a really bad day, I didn't really care; I would just take it as a victory lap and go slow, which is a lot of people's strategy from the start anyway. Finally, I wasn't freezing! Quite the opposite. It was downright hot in Athletes Village, with sun beating down and no real breeze. I had layers of throwaway clothes on but I dumped all of them in the first half hour. (Including, sadly, the sleeves that I thought I might need. Those sleeves have served me well in the past, but, oh well. I can buy new sleeves.) It's never a great feeling to be totally comfortable at the start line. You always want to be a little bit cold. Standing in the bathroom line, in full sun, I got warm enough that it occurred to me that I may want to put sunscreen on. I'm not in the habit of doing that -- I live in Michigan, where we don't have sun -- but when I could actually feel myself sizzling in the bathroom line, I decided it might be a good idea. So I went to the medical tent and lathered up with the free sunscreen.
The Boston Marathon has a wave start, with four waves each divided into eight corrals, all based on qualifying times. The wave start times are half an hour apart. Each one was called separately: "If you are wearing a RED number, it's time for you to leave Athletes Village! If you are not wearing a red number, it's not your turn yet!" From the bathroom line I watched the red numbers, the fastest of the fast, marching out of Athletes Village and out onto the street for the .7 mile walk to the start line. Once I was out of the bathroom, the white numbers were leaving. I was in the third wave and had a blue number, 19438. That means, I think, that 19,437 people had run a faster qualifying time than I did and that just under 10,000 had run a slower qualifying time than I did. When my wave was called, I joined all the other blue numbers heading down the residential street to the start line. All the residents were out on their front lawns cheering as we walked by. I was glad to be healthy, uninjured, and not so cold I couldn't enjoy every glorious second of the walk. We were being showered with attention, and not yet having to do anything to actually earn that attention, like run.
Once I got to my corral, the fourth out of eight in the third wave, I still had twenty minutes left to wait until the official start. The fun briefly ended there because it was WARM. There were hundreds of people in my corral all pressed together, and there was no shade and no breeze. I was sweating a little, but some people were pouring sweat and looking like they were going to succumb to heat stroke right there. I thought again how lucky it was that I was a hot weather runner. I love the heat; I feel like a machine running in high temps, I love to sweat, I love the salt crust, I love all of it. I knew I wasn't acclimated, but just the knowledge that I did well in the heat was a psychological boost. I felt really sorry for these people standing around me starting to look very desperate and like they might keel over right there.
Finally the gun went off. The first corral was released, then the second, then the third, then mine. We took off down the steep downhill that I remembered. Last time I remember feeling like every single person in my corral was faster than me and I had to race to keep up with all of them. This time I was in a much more appropriate group of runners, pace-wise, and everyone pretty much stayed together for the first few miles until the road widened enough for us to spread out. It has been a long, long time since I did a truly big urban marathon and I am not used to having to be careful about where I spit. There really was nowhere I could safely spit so I just spit into my shirt or else into the bandana I had wrapped around my hand.
The Boston Marathon course goes through eight towns on its way to Boylston Street: Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Newton, Brookline, and Boston. There are big banners at each town line with the town name on them, and huge crowds of spectators waiting to welcome runners to the next town. The towns are spaced anywhere from two to five miles apart, which is a nice distance because it allows you to feel like you're always pretty close to getting to another one. My favorite aside from Boston is, of course, Wellesley, because that's where Wellesley College and the Scream Tunnel are. The Scream Tunnel is a quarter-mile or so stretch of Wellesley girls standing alongside the road and screaming. You can hear them from probably a half-mile away and it is LOUD. So loud I could hear it even over the music from my iPhone. I took my ear buds out because I wanted the full experience of the Scream Tunnel. Most of the girls hold signs saying "Kiss me..." along with the reason why you should kiss her. For example, "Kiss me, I'm from Texas." "Kiss me, I'm still a virgin." "Kiss me, I'm still drunk from last night." "Kiss me, I'm bicoastal." "Kiss me, I'm GAY!" (In big rainbow letters.) And my favorite: "Kiss me, then come inside with me and you can end this race right now." This would be a good time for me to say that I had made up my mind well in advance of coming to Boston that I was going to kiss one of the Wellesley girls. There are always plenty of girls out there who are willing to kiss girls and say so on their signs. I'm mostly straight, but I was totally willing to bend a little for the sake of having a very good Boston Marathon story. But as I came into the Scream Tunnel, I glanced at my watch and saw that I was on pace for a 1:45 half marathon time. That was the exact same time as I had at the half in Atlanta, which was surprising because I wasn't feeling nearly as good as I had been in Atlanta. Nevertheless, a half time of 1:45 would be a full time of 3:30, which meant that I could lose almost 15 minutes in the second half and still BQ. Regretfully, I decided that it was not worth losing the chance to BQ and I could always shove my tongue down a Wellesley girl's throat during some other Boston when my chance to BQ was long gone and I just needed a boost. (I did see guys taking full advantage of the offered kisses, though, grabbing one girl's face after another and giving all of them big smackers.)
The half-marathon timing mat was right past Wellesley. Sure enough, 1:45 on the dot. Exactly like Atlanta. The worst hills in the Boston Marathon are in the second half, but that was true for Atlanta too. A few miles after the half, we got to Newton, home of the infamous Newton Hills, of which I think there are four -- well, four major ones -- and Heartbreak Hill is the fourth. None of the hills are that bad on their own; they are bad because they come so late in the race and because a lot of people have trashed their legs by racing the downhills and are now finding themselves unable to power up the up hills. I was determined to run all of them. It helped that right before the first one, I saw Will! He had taken the T to Newton (along with practically every other spectator in Boston, according to him) and was standing there screaming my name and waving cowbells, and somehow I heard him over my music and over the general din of the crowd. I turned and waved and then I was already past, not slowing down. I never really slowed down the whole race -- I was afraid that if I did, I wouldn't be able to start again.
I ran all of the hills. They were bad but not terrible. I had slowed down some but not that much. I was warm and crusted with salt, but the closer I got to Boston, the cooler the breeze got, so cool that I didn't mind that it was a headwind. I was in much better shape than many of the runners I passed, who were starting to look like the walking dead. There were lots of people bent over on the side of the course; whether they were puking or stretching out cramps, I did not linger to see. I also saw more than one person down, as in so down that medical attention and stretchers were needed. I was passing a lot of white numbers and even a few red numbers -- people whose races definitely hadn't gone as planned. I am a terrible person, and seeing people suffering gives me more energy. Once I got up to the top of Heartbreak Hill, I knew the rest of the course was mostly either downhill or flat. Still, it's not like I was just cruising effortlessly. I was aware that it was warm (and very grateful for the people who stood outside with hoses and sprinklers for us to run through), and my legs and feet were sore because I was running on shoes that were totally dead. But I wasn't nauseous or cramping, and I had over an hour to do six miles when I got to the 20-mile mark.
The crowds got bigger as I got closer to Boston. Then, in the distance, like a mirage hanging up on the left side of the sky, I saw the giant Citgo sign. That sign means there's one mile to the finish. (Well, when you pass under it there's one mile to go, not when you first see it.) It takes forever to get to it and then suddenly I was under it and past it and it all got real... I WAS ABOUT TO FINISH THE BOSTON MARATHON!
There was nothing but screaming crowds for the whole last mile; if I had needed to puke, I would have had no choice but to do it in the street in front of a thousand people. I ran my last mile in just over 8:00 pace. Plenty of people were walking it in but not me, I was still running. I made my left turn on Boylston Street and saw the finish line tiny in the distance. Okay, only 3/10 of a mile away, but it felt so far! Still, I wanted to slow down time so that I could enjoy every sign, every screaming spectator, every feeling of this ultimate runner's high. (And at the same time I wanted to speed it up, because I wanted that medal and some food and to stop running, damnit!) I didn't have any cramping in my legs at all and was able to finish strong, for once.
I couldn't stop smiling as I wandered down Boylston Street with all the other runners once I had crossed the mat and stopped my Garmin. Everyone was smiling and congratulating each other (except for those poor people who were keeling over or puking). Me personally, I was hungry. I got my medal and my heat sheet and my food bag and then sucked down a huge bottle of chocolate milk, a banana, some chips, and a fruit cup. I so do not miss the days when I spent the first half-hour post-race trying not to puke! My finish time was 3:37:23, a minute and a half slower than Atlanta, but when I looked at the splits I saw that I had run 26.5, not 26.2, and my actual pace was the exact same as Atlanta -- 8:12. Not bad for me. I was in pretty good shape afterwards though definitely tired and sore. I met Will in our pre-arranged meeting spot and gimped across Boston Common to the T station, where I got to feel like a hero all over again wearing my medal and my heat sheet. After that was a half-hour T ride and then a 4-hour drive to Long Island, where we were spending the night. That part -- stiffening up in the car -- wasn't fun, but the part where I was standing in the hotel lobby and some guy asked if he could take a picture of my medal was fun!
I had been wondering in the days leading up to the marathon if I would do it again. It was hugely expensive, and takes place during the time of year when there are at least two other marathons that I really want to do, and is a tough course with notoriously iffy weather, but to be honest, my decision was made as soon as I walked to the starting line to take a picture on Saturday night. OF COURSE I will do it again, every year, as long as I'm able to qualify. Boston is totally unique among marathons. Chicago and New York are awesome too (and it's probably time I do those two again, some time soon; it's been 11 years this fall), but they are not the same as Boston. So I will be planning for a 2017 Boston and am glad I already qualified.