April 28, 2014

Boston Marathon 2014: the long version

Two seconds. That’s how far off I was from my Boston qualifying time on my first real concentrated effort to make the cutoff. Two lousy seconds. This was November of 2012. In February 2013, I had another highly annoying miss – 15 seconds. Who knew that something so irritating could happen in that few seconds? (Other than those awkward remarks made by your great aunt Frieda.) Finally, and with a lot of effort and the help of my pacer brother, I made the cutoff with a five-minute cushion at Mercedes Marathon 2013, putting me in line to register for Boston 2014. But just two months later when word of the bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon began to spread, friends and family immediately starting emailing and calling me to ask if I was OK and if I was there.

No, I wasn’t there in person, but knowing that I was going to try and go the next year, my mind and heart was already there that day. As I watched the news, I was in complete shock at what was happening, and I, like many of you, thought about what if that had been me. What if I was standing there by the explosions? What if that had been my little boy? I was sad -- for the individuals hurt, for the police searching for the bombers, and for the entire city that was scared and shaken.

But along with that immediate sadness was an immediate determination to prove that evil would not outdo good. That sentiment wasn’t just a Bostonian one. Runners around the world joined them in their quest to prove that you can’t keep our kind (the kind who eat hill repeats for breakfast) down. So when my friends and family asked if I was still going to go to Boston after the bombings, there was never a hesitation for me. Yes, if they would have me, I would be there, a thousand times again yes.

Being my first time at the Boston Marathon, I wasn't sure what to expect, other than that I was pretty positive that I would love it. Big cities are my jam, and Boston fits that criteria. 

Flying over big city jams.

Headbands also make good light blockers for plane naps.

Yes, Amory, we are stopping every five steps to take a picture.

Huge fan of public transportation.

We arrived in Boston on Sunday afternoon to pick up my packet for the Monday race. By the time I got there, they were out of the shirt size I ordered at the pick-up table and gave me a medium to take to the exchange area in a nearby room. Luckily, they had the size I ordered there. Small panic attack avoided.

Packet pick-up alley.

Ripping into the goods.


The race expo was row after row after row and cool gadget after cool gadget after cool gadget to purchase. Pretty overwhelming if you are trying to cram it into an hour like we were. Of course, I was in search of Boston gear. Because of the expense, this is not a trip that I'm going to repeat often, so I gave myself the OK to buy all the things. The official merchandise from Adidas was very picked over by that final expo day so no luck there, but I found a couple of shirts from City Sports and New Balance, a hooded rain jacket from Saucony, a commemorative glass, and a car magnet, all with Boston themes of some sort. I still didn't purchase the official race jacket because in the end I decided that I wouldn't wear it enough to be worth the price, and my attitude was still meh about the design. Plus they ran out of size small in the first minute of the expo. Seemed to be a theme there. If you wear a women's size small, get there early. 

Checking out the rundie selection while eating a yogurt sample. #expomultitasking

There was even some life skills training going down at the expo, like CPR training.


My favorite part was the message wall as you entered the expo, with thousands of hand-written messages from people from all over the world. 




After we left the expo, we meandered over to the finish line. It was surreal to be standing on the spot of so much horror just a year before. As we approached the finish line, we saw a small memorial was still set up at the first bombing site. Even amidst the excitement, crowds, and noise of impending race day and the hustle and bustle to get everything ready, this was still a very somber and quiet place to stand. This was the point of my first of many tears over the next 24 hours. 



These were just a few of the messages posted from from local businesses: strength lives here, humanity lives here. 


And that was the feeling entering the corral on race morning. Luckily, I made a bus buddy on the way over who had been there the year before. She filled me in on what was about to happen. First, exit the bus and go wait in giant fields of people. There were people lying all over the ground, resting and waiting on trash bags, surrounded by half eaten bananas and Power Bars. 


Bag check before heading to the bus.

Waiting for the bus at Boston Commons.

On the bus to Hopkinton.

I followed the bus instructions that told me to be there by 8 a.m. for my 11 a.m. start time, wave 3 corral 1. Once I arrived at the athletes' village after what felt like an endless bus ride, I had plenty of time to wait in line for the port-o-potty, grab a couple more snacks, take a million pictures, and borrow a sharpie from someone to write my name on my legs. Looking back, I should have gone with the name on the arms, much easier to read as someone zooms (or slowly trots) by. 




My bus buddy!
Magazine in port-o-potty = someone planning to be there a while.

Being a mid-morning start, I wasn't really sure how to eat. I went with the plan to eat a light breakfast and pack a million snacks in my bra pocket just in case I would need them along the way. While this is a spectacular race for cheering sections and inspirational moments, the nutrition on the course was just OK. There was only one gel station on the course. The hydration was plentiful though, with aid stations on the right and left side at each stop, making it easy to pick your side and stick with it. 

By the time they called us to our corral, of course I had to pee again. Thinking that someone's occupied yard or that very narrow tree seemed like a good choice, I was relieved to see another port-o-potty section right before the start line. So smart, Boston!

Piling up our throw-away clothes before heading to the start line.

In most races, there's time when you feel alone on the path to the finish line. A time when you have to dig deep and make peace with pain and suffering all on your own. The Boston Marathon is not one of those races. Sure, there will still be the pain of effort, but you will never feel alone on the path to the finish. At least I didn't this year.

Five dollars to the person who can guess how many times it says Boston Strong in the pictures from this race recap.


















"Think this is hard? Try growing out bangs."

Basically, the only way to not see Boston Strong every second of the race was to run with your eyes shut. People wore Boston Strong shirts, made Boston Strong banners, spelled out Boston Strong on their store signs, and sharpied Boston Strong on their arms. Their message to the world was loud and clear. We ah Boston Strong!

Not only did the community offer tremendous, and tremendously loud (special thanks to the drunk people hanging from trees near Hopkinton), support, there were just some cool sites along the path. One of those was the Easter bunny guy who ran around me the entire race. I liked running in his shadow because kids, and adults, were going crazy for this dude. Shouts of EASTER BUNNY!! rolled through the crowd like waves as he ran by them. 


Also, if you are into running by popular people who can hype a crowd, I recommend finding someone with MIT written on their shirt. People go crazy nuts over that in Boston as well. 


There were tons of other fun sites like a Santa Claus, a drum circle, a row of 25 trampolines, a guy with a fake mullet, a biker gang, an Elvis impersonator and running bros with matching mohawks.








And if you're patient enough, you might even find someone you know in the throng of 36,000 runners. It helps if they wear Trak Shak shirts so that you can identify Birmingham-ites from behind. 


Sorry to the world for this up-the-nose selfie, but Mary looks adorbs!

On top of the wild fun and Boston Strong-ness, there was just a whole plain lot of inspiration floating around. I saw more than one tandem Team with a Vision pair. This is where vision impaired runners are paired with someone to help them navigate the race. The team I saw used a tether between two runners and had a third run lead out in front of the pair that would help get water at aid stations and clear the path for them. 

Team with a Vision. 

Going into the race, I had read that Team Hoyt was making this their final race together. If you haven't read about them, look them up. The son has cerebral palsy, and the father has been pushing him in a wheelchair through races since 1977. It was an honor to be in the same zone as them and hear everyone cheering them on by name. 


About halfway through my race, we started asking the people on the sidelines who won the race, and they shouted back, "The American! The American won!" My mind was so focused on Shalane and her race, that I had no clue until the finish line that they were talking about Meb. 

Meb with a giant lead when my husband snapped this shot.

Here's a repeat of me running in Meb's footsteps, just slightly slower. 

Point where my family thought I saw them, and they took this pic of me.
Nope, family, just coincidently completely overexcited at the same time as I am passing you.

Because it had taken so much work for me to get to Boston, I saw the race itself as my time to relax and enjoy the ride, which definitely happened. My only performance goal of the day was to finish and to not walk on Heartbreak Hill. The course overall had a lot more dips and upturns than I thought it would, but I'm happy to report that Heartbreak Hill did not break me, although my right calf did cramp on the hill right before it. Even with that severe calf cramp, I just ran it out with some janky my-leg-is-now-paralyzed cramp form (you know it if you've seen it or done it) because I just was not going to stop running because of some Boston hill. My Alabama Oak-Mountain-yellow-white-connector pride would not allow it. For those not from here, the yellow-white connector at Oak Mountain is the beastliest hill around these parts.

Heartbreak Hill.

Sponges to help us up the hills.

At some point I expected the runners to also thin out, especially considering how many people passed me in the first six miles, but that never really happened. The streets were as full as the sidelines.





Another cool part of Boston Marathon spectators is their interactions with the runners. If you raised your hands for support, they would give it right back. I ran with my phone the whole time, and anytime, I aimed it at them for a pic, they would work it for the camera. 

Normal cheering crowd.

Crowd that now realizes I'm taking their picture.

And now that girl is in on it too.

And what that looks like from their perspective. BTW, these cracked me up.

If I had to vote for best crowd support, it would easily be Boston College. Other places on the sidelines could easily get you up to 10 or 20 high fives going in a row. But if you go in for a high five at Boston College, be prepared to ride that wave for a half mile. Hand after sweaty hand. 

Boston College is ready to high five.

Don't these kids look fun?

As you near the end, you start seeing the signs that you are almost there. Even if you're not well acquainted with Boston, you know the Citgo sign, and you've heard of Beacon, Hereford, and Boylston. Once you reach that point in the race, the noise from the crowds is deafening. If headphones weren't already pointless in this race (they are -- that is coming from a music lover!), this would be the time to drop them. 





Taking a right on Hereford.

About to take a left on Bolyston.

This was the one part of the race that I almost wished that I had walked, although I think that the crowd would not have allowed it. It was just so overwhelming to take in the emotions, the crowds, the history, and what that specific day meant to the people of Boston and to runners around the world.

Over the last year, I followed the recovery of those hurt in the bombings. Seeing their pictures and hearing their stories of recovery, sadness, and, again, determination was always, always an inspiration. But seeing those same people sitting on the sidelines right across from the site of the bombings the previous year was something I will never ever forget. As I ran by I realized that the people I saw sitting there weren't just anonymous faces, they were the faces of people I had read about and prayed for. I can't even write this without tearing up again. To suffer the kind of trauma they suffered and to come back one year later and sit on the site where you almost died takes a brave heart.

Corcoran mom and daughter on the bottom right.

Running past the site of the first bomb.

And that's what makes Boston. It isn't the beautiful course or the chance to PR, it's the people. They stand proud for what this race, the oldest of its kind, and this city represents, and they should. 

Thankfully, this was a peaceful year at Boston, but without knowing what the outcome of the day would be, the people there did not hide away. Lining the streets of the city, they stood their ground and showed me and the world that they won't cower in fear -- that they are all the definition of Boston Strong. 

__________________________________


Once the race was over, it was a .5-mile walk to gear check.

Before I realize how far I have to walk.

On the way there, you could pick up your medal and an assortment of food, like protein drinks, chips, bananas, rolls, and water. After every marathon I feel sick and have no desire to eat, and this was no exception. Even with a finish of 4:11, a supposedly easy pace, this race still had its tough moments, and I was definitely sore and ready to sit for a bit at the finish.


After the finish line.

And score one for Boston for the fanciest post-race foil wrap I have ever seen. It was on par with the Snuggy for coverage and arm holes. It also velcroed in the front and had a hood. Boston does not play. 


My husband, nieces, and brother-in-law all came out to cheer us on.

My phone actually died about ten steps after the finish, but AT&T had set up a call center near the gear check so that people could call their families. Thank goodness they had that. So smart! I might still be wandering the streets of Boston.

Where to stay: We stayed at a La Quinta up the orange line of the metro. It was cheaper and offered free parking for when we originally thought we would drive up, but we got to use it when our relatives drove down from Maine to go to the race. They parked at our hotel and headed over with my husband on the metro. Obviously, it's not as convenient as staying in Boston Commons, but they had a regular shuttle to the metro and made special breakfast arrangements for the runners on race morning as well. It was a little more work to get to the race, but it was extremely easy to navigate the metro. (Except that one time we rode in the wrong direction, and a Bostonian tapped us on the shoulder to point out our mistake. Good thing we were loud talking about our plans.) We made our hotel reservations on Priceline the day I got accepted into the race, but I could have made them earlier and canceled. Just make sure your hotel allows cancellations because a lot of them didn't. This one did up to 48 hours before. All of the varying cancellation policies were clearly stated on Priceline.

Overall: If you like big races with lots of spectators, this is the race for you. If you don't want to try and qualify, you can enter the race by signing up to raise money for a charity. The course was hillier than I thought it would be, but it didn't have too many turns, although I ran a lot of overage mileage by zig-zagging around for high fives. In general, they are well organized, and this year the security was amped up, especially in the final miles of the race. The excitement of the town and the race is something that I was so thrilled to experience. It was about as perfect of a marathon day as you can get. Do not go if you like quiet solitude or peaceful venues.