These days it’s difficult to imagine a reason to wake up at 6 a.m.
That’s the time my alarm sounded on April 16th, 2018. Two years ago, I woke up to a peanut butter sandwich, three layers of folded clothes, and a bib to run the Boston Marathon.
Those emotional sports moments feel so distant now, over one month since quarantine started. I feel for runners who could not run this week as they planned. Two years ago, I watched Desi Linden’s historic finish hours before my own; this April, one runner I knew ran the twenty-six miles on her own anyway. Many will adjust for a September 14th race date despite Marty Walsh sternly warned against running the route, but it won’t be the same.
It reminded me how fortunate I was to raise nearly $10,000 for Beth Israel after eight months of training through a Syracuse winter pay off after my dad’s death in 2016 that initially inspired the run (Beth Israel needs more help now, on the front line of the fight against COVID-19). I never wrote about it since.
A painful half marathon that November taught me to bring energy squeezes and bars for the ride. A Boston Globe article that morning wondered what I had all week: would this be the worst weather ever for a Boston Marathon?
My car was rarely on campus. I was living on South Campus as a sophomore, so I hopped on a flight that Saturday at 5 a.m. That meant more time battling the security line full of those who booked the best deal — the earliest — than the 45-minute ascent and immediate descent into Boston.
Sunday brought Game 1 between the Celtics and Bucks, Terry Rozier’s killer crossover on Drew Bledsoe, Khris Middleton’s game-tying shot, and then Terry Rozier’s late heroics and a full carton of white rice. With a Celtics win in hand and carbs in stomach, I prepared the next day’s outfit.
I wore my roommate Obas’ long compression pants, white Nike shorts with sweatpants over them, my orange shoes, and a pair of Celtics socks. On top, a hoodie, the long-sleeve blue marathon shirt, Beth Israel’s jersey, the coincidentally orange-toned 2018 marathon jacket and a windbreaker I loved from Costco that would become a casualty to the rain. I added my dad’s old MBTA reflective vest at the last minute. My mom cleverly suggested adding a trash bag in the morning.
The first thing I noticed in Hopkinton when we arrived was the unorganized, chaotic mess. On our hour-long bus ride from the Public Garden where I shut off my phone after some well-wishing texts and tweets, I remained calm. I was thankfully unaware of the impending sight.
The surgeon who I sat with on the ride joined me searching for the library. BI’s organizers told us we could get inside to avoid the rain while waiting to start. Once we got separated from our group, we asked an officer where that building was. He didn’t know. It might as well have not existed.
I dumped my umbrella as the rain drizzled overhead. Bullhorns called for wave #3. Those runners filled the sidewalk leading from the neverending rows of school buses toward the starting line. We found a sponsor tent that provided temporary escape. The only space in-between was a field surrounded by port-o-potties. It was pure mud, not the kind of mud you step on and dirty the bottom of your shoes, the one that you sink into instantly and regret immediately.
If I didn’t wear other shoes, the race probably wasn’t happening. We slid into the tent that fit about seven people and I tied on my new Sauconys. The others sharing the tent spurred me into stretching and amazingly my stomach felt fine considering the circumstances. I cued up my playlist: Malibu, I Decided, Donuts, Bucket List Project, 4eva is a Mighty Long Time, Free TC, The Autobiography and Yes Lawd! Unable to run without music, I was desperately betting on my phone’s battery in the cold for five hours of entertainment.
Around 10:30, the bullhorns aired instructions from a man with a scratchy voice from years of yelling at runners. “Wave #4!” The surgeon and I marched shoulder-to-shoulder through the fairgrounds as everyone broke into a light jog. The start line wasn’t around the corner, it was nearly one mile away, only adding to the 26.2 ahead of me.
The forecast predicted the worst rain in the afternoon and it was right. Still, it steadily poured overhead all day. The trash bag I cut a hole in for my head saved precious weight early. As I looked around, pants, sweatshirts, and ponchos lined the front of houses. I knew at some point that I would need to shed some weight.
Everything looked unfamiliar. We piled into a backside restaurant parking lot. More waiting. More stretching. At 11 a.m. we lined into a street I recognized. In March, Heartbreak Hill Running Company led us through the course for a 13.1-mile test run. They helped us envision the staggered rows, set positions, the starting gun, and that famous crowd flowing across the start line.
As we walked toward that position the bullhorn sounded one last time. JUST GO.
So we went without the normal starting procedure. It felt like one of those JV races in track when the official just lines fifty kids up on six lanes and gave up trying to get his starting gun to work.
The first three or four miles are downhill, so Dan, our coach, made sure we lightened our strides. As much as the hills later in the race kill runners, so will excessively crushing your calves downward early.
Slow the heck down.
We own the street, unlike months prior of avoiding cars on the road, and the strange start provided abnormal space for this early in the marathon. It allowed me to set a pace between 9-11 minutes I could comfortably carry.
My tweaked knee, a worry for weeks, didn’t bother me at all. Despite the horrific conditions, lines of people still crowded the sidewalks. As nerve-racking as the preparation was, the day of energized me. It felt as close to running out of the TD Garden tunnel for a playoff game as I’ll ever get.
The Ashland and Framingham signs pass and five miles are gone like nothing. The small town opened up into more college students, barriers, and businesses with curves I recognized from the trial run. I peeked into the crowds to find some friends who said they’d be at this point. I never saw them, but the unknown cheers and energy provided such a burst nonetheless. As hard as the Boston Marathon is, the enthusiastic support from strangers and the grandeur of the day fuel you.
Hills roll through Natick followed by ponds emerge on both sides, the arrival of the 10-mile sign, and the two looming churches. Whoever built the course provided immediate satisfaction necessary for later.
Some of the first uphill stretches rise before Wellesley College. Normally a scream tunnel, it wasn’t quite on that scale with the weather, but enough signs and intoxicated students waved their arms to push me forward. One high five meant as much as the intermediate stations that handed out energy chews and water.
Halfway through I saw Gavin Liddel, a classmate at Syracuse, sprinting through the rain and crowds with his camera. I knew he would be there documenting my run for a project.
All I could imagine was how good it would feel to finish. How I would celebrate. The satisfaction, pride it would bring my mom, and grandness of this achievement. Numerous elite runners backed out due to the 40-degree conditions. I was there doing it.
Beyond the 13 miles we practiced, the track became unfamiliar and the hills approached. The sky opened up and rain poured harder as we crossed at a highway overpass. By this point, the trash bag was long gone, my windbreaker scrapped, and sweatpants bound for charity. The hills snuck up gradually. If you’ve ever been to Syracuse University, the absurdity of the hills there rivals Heartbreak, which grades upward like turning a treadmill’s height to the max.
Three hills strike one after another. That marks 20 miles. I’d never run that distance in training and a mass of signs announced the worst was over. Heartbreak Hill didn’t register as an immense challenge until rolling down the other side.
Six miles remained. It might as well have been another 20. My legs were gone.
Seeing Heartbreak Running Company, the church signaling Boston College on the right, and green line tracks provided some hope, but my energy was waning fast. It’s here where runners have lost leads, as the path weaves and the tiniest inclines feel like Heartbreak on repeat.
The track largely levels out at that point. Head into Brookline, there’s no stopping — well, quitting, there’s quite a few stops — after coming so far. I imagined Kenmore, Fenway (despite the obvious rainout) and the bridge with the Boston Strong sign on the horizon. It became mile-by-mile at that point. The rice I ate during the Celtics game was long gone as part of the 2,000+ calorie burn.
All my gas was gone by the time I hit a Gatorade station before the 25th mile. Then the CITGO sign finally emerged in the distance. As the bridge into Kenmore passed underneath, the most intense rain of the day dropped like a waterfall. About 2,500 runners received treatment that day, many for hypothermia and somehow, I still had legs to run on. My clothes and shoes were completely soaked. My body was drained.
One final dip under a bridge before the turn onto Boylston Street finally knocked me out. I had to stand still for about two minutes, luckily in a spot nobody could see.
I turned the corner, made sure one of my favorite songs, “Another Time,” was blasting and sprinted toward the clock overhead that read 4:59:00. I didn’t have a time goal aside from finishing, but to beat the five-hour mark felt great.
I swung my fist and asked a fellow runner to take my picture on the other side, looked toward the crowd and — somehow — there was my friend Gavin 13 miles later to greet me.
Quarantine, the absence of basketball, and entering a new stage of life post-graduation inspired me to share my story. It was long overdue and reminded me the fruitfulness of following ambitions and seeing them through while we all can. The thought of losing the marathon after putting in all the work as so many did this week broke my heart. It’ll take time to recover, heal, and build on this trying time. This is a marathon we’re running now and it will take an incredible amount of patience to get through it. It starts with a mindset, an idea, now.