The start of the Boston Marathon is like none other I have seen. Squeezing over 25,000 runners onto the narrow streets of Hopkington is a feat in itself. At the start of my wave - the second wave - the sun broke through and shined on a sea of bobbing hats cresting the top of the hill and the Dough Boy monument marking the starting line.
My pace was deliberately slow in the predominately downhill but undulating first five kilometers. I crossed the timing mat at 30 minutes, 18 seconds. Much slower than my 5k personal best time of 21 minutes, 51 seconds of last year. As if that really matters. After all it's a marathon but I was looking to run even splits of ten minutes per mile and I was right on track. Then again, it was just the start.
Boston is like the other large marathons and bike rallies I've done. At the start the athletes are bunched together. Everyone is chatting and smiling. Then near the end, when everyone is strung out and tired, we're silent and frowns abound.
At the ten kilometer mark I was right on my pace with a time of 1 hour, and 1 minute. All was good. At the 15k mark trouble began.
My left knee - the one that's been injured since late February - began to hurt. My stride shortened causing my lower back to tire. I slowed below my goal pace, crossing the 15k mat in 1 hour, 35 minutes.
Despite the ominous signs of trouble there were welcome signs ahead. I was getting close to Wellseley College. As the course nears the all-women's school the road and the course becomes bucolic. Towering trees line both sides of the road with massive branches providing an archway of bright green, budding leaves. This is, by far, the most scenic part of the course. I crossed the 20k mat in 1 hour, 20 minutes. Yeah, things were slowing. But I was smiling.
You can hear them long before you can see them. I've never heard screaming banshees and don't think I want to - you know, all of that Scottish portending of death by fallen angels outside my window stuff would be a wee bit disturbing - but if a couple of thousand cheering young ladies had a name I think it would something like that. OK, not just like that because these gals are all happy and stuff. Anyway... before the analogy gets tired... let me say the noise they make is loud, encouraging, and did I say it was LOUD? They line both sides of two lane road behind barricades. Some wave hand-made signs and some ring cowbells vigorously. I kept to the center of the road and waved in appreciation while a few runners gathered high-fives and a kisses.
The whole Wellesley College thing lasts only as fast as you can run 300 meters. (For me at that, point, it took a few minutes due to my ever slowing pace.) Just as eerily the cheers begin before you see them it all ends as quickly. The relative silence grabbed my attention and I felt a deflated and chilled. But not for long.
After passing the college, and near the city limits of Wellesley, on the left side of the road, stood fellow tri-blooger, Six Two Three. She contated me a couple of days before the race and told me where she would be standing. Once past the banshees I moved to the left side of the road and focused on a group of spectators just up the road. She was on the curb and waving a "Go TriBoomer" sign. As I approached her she and those she was standing with cheered and waved excitedly. I stopped running and gave Six Two Three a friendly hug and then put out my hand.
"Hi, I'm Brian," I said.
"I'm Amelia," she replied with a smile.
"Who are your friends?" I asked while looking at their beaming faces.
"Oh, I just met them and was telling them all about you."
"Well," I said apologetically, "I'm sorry it took me so long. I got here as fast as I could. Really, really, thank you for waiting."
"Good luck, Brian!," they all said and I trotted off. For the next mile I felt re-energized and my knee didn't hurt. Amazing how just a few kind words can lift my spirits.
By the time I hit the 25k mark I was feeling beyond warm... I was hot and feeling queasy in my stomach. My legs and lower back were cramping and both knees ached. All of this just in time for the hardest part of the course. Three hills, over 10k, starting in Newton. I had now been running for 2 hours and 48 minutes. That's about where the walking began.
At the 30k mat I looked at the port-a-johns on the right side of the street. There is where last year I passed out after bending over to tie my shoe. Never would I have thought running past a little blue hut would be a victory. But on this day it was. I ran past it with confidence. It hurt but felt good at the same time. My time was now 3 hours, 33 minutes.
The hills... what can I say about the hills other than they just plain sucked. My stomach churned and quads cramped every time I tried to run. I was brought to a walk and I wasn't alone. There were plenty of others walking with me. At this point the athletes are spread wide apart and the spectators could easily read my individual bib number and "TriBoomer" printed on my shirt. Their calling my name helped get me over Heartbreak Hill.
I crossed the 35k mark in 4 hours, 17 minutes. I realized then that finishing in under 4 1/2 hours wasn't going to happen but... but... if I could run... I mean REALLY run... I might be able to finish in under five hours. However, my stomach protested. Despite my efforts to remain hydrated and nourished while running the benefits weren't reaching my legs. My cramps became worse and as I came to the block party that was Boston College I had to stop. Both hamstrings ached and I bent over in pain. A student came up to me and said,
"Hey Ironman, (I was wearing a M-Dot visor) are you OK?"
"Yeah, it's just not my day," I replied.
"You can do it. You're an IRONMAN," he said while taking a drink from his bottle of beer.
"Yeah... I sure can." I hobbled off determined to get to the finish in under five hours.
The last 7 kilometers seemed like an eternity. Everything hurt. I was lonely knowing the nothingness that awaited me after the finish. At that point the only thing that mattered was crossing the line.
The big left hand turn onto Boylston is when I gritted my teeth and ran. With only 600 meters to go my legs found life and for the first time in several miles I passed others.
I raised my hands and gave the gave the sign of my heart's home to be seen.
It was done in 5 hours, and 12 minutes. That's an improvement of 45 minutes over last year. That was different and a cause for a smile. But the smile didn't last because like last year when the cheering was done, when the medal was put around my neck, and the blanket was over my shoulders I was alone. Alone with a hard pavement walk back to the hotel.
The victory snack and wine was equally as good. But it was only my memories of the weekend and race to keep me company.
Boston 2009 is circled on my calendar.