Somewhere between my 2008 breast cancer diagnosis, my failed Boston qualifying attempt in 2014, and being wheeled into the medical tent after running 3:58:50 at the 2015 NYC marathon, I decided that Boston would make a fitting last marathon.
And while I’m reserving myself a little wiggle room to maybe possibly consider another go at the distance after my next significant birthday, it feels good to say “I’m done.” It’s not just that Boston was a bucket list experience (though it was); it’s also that my race fell into a hard-to-reach sweet spot. Had I run much faster, and suffered less at the end, I might be tempted to rethink my retirement. Had I run much slower, or failed to finish, or finished staggering, delirious and amnesiac, I might feel I needed redemption.
This race was perfectly, gloriously middling.
Here’s my report.
Goals? What goals?
After resisting the very notion of setting goals, I formalized a few around the same time I was packing my suitcase for the train ride to Boston:
A – Break 4 hours.
B – Beat Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s infamous 4:01:25 (the race he remembered, with his typical honesty and careful attention to facts, as “under three, high twos”).
C – Come within an hour of my 3:15:32 personal best at the 2006 NYC marathon.
But these were throwaway goals, decided at the last minute, not goals that really drove my training. (Although I treated 9:10 as “marathon pace” for the purpose of tempo runs, it always felt arbitrary and, as is my wont, I honored it mostly in the breach.)
Just have fun, I told myself. Smile for your race photos. Soak it all in. Don’t tempt fate (which, in this context, means “use the port-a-johns as early and often as needed”). And for heaven’s sake, stay out of the medical tent.
The thing I loved most about Boston is that, although it’s a massive, international event, it retains a homespun feel. That’s especially true of the start, from the fleet of yellow school buses that ferry runners from the Boston Common to Hopkinton, to the Athletes Village behind the local public high school, to the wood frame homes and small town businesses (a CVS, a realtor, a gas station) you pass on the way to the starting line.
And the starting line itself . . . I learned too late that the “It All Starts Here” sign I presumably passed somewhere along the way is iconic and I should have taken note of it (I remember it only vaguely). Instead, what struck me was how very modest the start was. Being in the fourth and final wave, lining up more than an hour and a half after the start of the elite women’s race (and more than an hour after the first wave of the general race), may have had something to do with this, but it reminded me of the start of a community 5K. I mean this in a good way. Pine warblers trilled, chickadees chick-a-deed. A race official said a few words and then introduced the local World War II vet who’d be firing the starting gun. There was the modest “pop” of the gun.
And we were off.
Such a contrast with the New York City marathon: there was no cannon blast, no blaring music, no fire boats shooting jets of water into the air. (There was a fighter jet flyover for the first wave.) There was just a bunch of runners on a narrow country road on a brilliantly sunny spring day.
Did I just say “brilliantly sunny?” Brutally, mercilessly sunny is more like it. I had been watching the weather forecast with concern as the projected high temperatures crept up – from the low 60s to the mid-60s to the upper 60s – and the cloud cover went from “mostly” to “partly” to, simply, “sunny.” While I can’t say there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, I can say that any clouds were strictly ornamental. Their only role was to accentuate the brightness of the day.
On the plus side, one of the great things about Boston is the way the age-graded qualifying times interact with the wave and corral system to group masters runners together. How often does one have an opportunity to line up with hundreds of 50+ runners, slower now than in their youth, but rich in experience and running smarts? I felt comfortable and confident falling into step with them, my running peers. Surely, the 75-year-old woman in front of me would keep the pace easy.
First mile: 8:50. Too fast. Better let the 75-year-old go.
In recent races of 10 miles and up, I’ve taken to carrying a throw-away water bottle with me. It gives me the option of skipping the first few water stations, focusing instead on establishing a comfortable rhythm. Back in the Athletes Village, I’d filled an old sport-cap Poland Springs bottle with a mixture of water and Gatorade.
As I ran, the pumping motion of my arms shook the liquid into a milky, pale green froth – while the sunscreen I’d slathered on every exposed part of my body mixed with sweat to coat my hands, and through them the bottle, with slime. Carrying a bottle no longer seemed like such a good idea. But how to get rid of it? The course was so darn bucolic, wooded areas interspersed with farmhouses. Only a jerk would toss a slimy bottle filled with toxic-looking mystery liquid into someone’s front yard.
I finally spotted a man in some sort of uniform standing next to a neat pile of empty plastic bottles. “Can I leave this here?” I asked – and then left it there without waiting for a response.
Second mile: 8:36, leading me to conclude that I am the stupidest marathoner who ever lived.
And so it went – it took me until mile 5, when the course flattens out, to settle into a marathon pace that might, on a much cooler day, be vaguely realistic. And while I loved the early miles – Ashland was loud and proud, the “6 mile moment” through downtown Framingham positively rocked (and I got a surprise cheer from a PPTC teammate – thanks, Missy!), the tailgaters were having fun, the roadside barbecue smelled delicious, the auto repair shops and convenience stores and steepled churches made you want to wave an American flag and blast John Mellencamp songs, the Wellesley girls with their “Kiss Me” signs (“Kiss me and kick Mike Pence in the nuts”) were super-kissable – the heat was getting to me. “I can’t do this,” I kept telling myself. “I need to slow down.”
And yet, I kept right on doing it, rolling out 8:50 and 9:00 miles. (Mile 13 was a little slow, on account of kissing two Wellesley girls.)
I was 1:57:07 at the halfway point, but I knew – with total clarity and the kind of certainty I can rarely muster for anything in this world – there was no way this was going to end in under 4 hours.
I lost a couple of minutes to a bathroom break in Mile 14 and started walking through the fluid stations after that, just to make sure I got enough down, which slowed my pace to the 9:20-9:30 range. Then, in Mile 17, the famous Newton hills began.
That’s also when the odd, tingling, spasm-y feeling in my lower right calf became more pronounced. I’ve only felt that sensation once before, toward the end of the 2014 NYC marathon. In that race, it presaged a more serious problem with my foot, which splayed outward (or felt as though it were splaying outward) and threatened to trip me.
Wait, what’s that? Is something going on with my right foot? Is it happening again?
All I knew was that I felt, again, as though I might trip over my own recalcitrant foot. Was it something physiological? The power of suggestion? A transparent excuse to take more walking breaks just as the course got tougher?
Damned if I know. Let’s just say that from Mile 17 on, I walked . . . a lot. As I walked, I did the desperate mental math of the defeated. “Ten miles to go. If I walk from here, let’s say 15 minutes per mile, that’s, what, two hours and something? Two and a half? Or what if I walk until mile 25 and run the last 1.2, what would that make it? How many miles can I walk and still finish under 4:30?”
In fact, even as I did and redid these calculations (my mind was not exactly sharp at this point), most of my miles were closer to 10 minutes than to 15. I’d walk part of the uphill, then run the rest when my own embarrassment and the urging of spectators (“You can do it, Linda!” – why the fuck did I write my name on my bib?) became stronger than my pain and weariness.”Run until that sign up ahead,” I’d tell myself. “Then if your foot is still doing weird things, you can walk a little. But otherwise, you have to keep running.”
Keep running, at least until the next hill: the big one coming up after Mile 20.
When I ran with a fast crowd in Michigan, the rule was, never, ever walk. Especially not up a hill. If someone violated that rule, they paid a price – the hill would bear their name forevermore (or until someone else walked it).
By that rule, Heartbreak Hill is the Hill of Many Names. Of the people around me – my fellow Wave 4 starters and a few individuals from earlier waves who were having a truly rough day – more were walking than running, it seemed.
We were in Mile 22 now. Clouds had rolled in, giving us a little relief. Another mile, another recalculation of my finishing time under various scenarios (walk, walk a lot and run a little, walk a little and run a lot, run the whole thing, albeit slowly). I discovered that while my chance of breaking 4 hours was roughly zero, give or take 0.01%, I had an excellent shot at breaking 4:15. Ten minute miles, if my math was right. Ten motherfucking minutes per mile.
I started to run more, walk less.
In Brookline, the course became more urban, lined with stores and restaurants and throngs of spectators even this late in the day. Run. Run. Don’t trip. Run. Okay, walk, but just a little. Run.
Eric had told me to look for him between Mile 23 and 24, and in my eagerness to see him, I threw down a mighty 9:41 in Mile 23 (my fastest mile since back in Wellesley). I couldn’t remember the street he’d told me to look for – not that it mattered, since I couldn’t read street signs anyway – just that there was an odd-looking white building on the corner, a ballet school, and a restaurant called the Shawarma King. These would be on the right, he would be on the left.
I don’t think he fully grasped how complicated looking for landmarks on the right and him on the left would be in the latter stages of a marathon, but somehow, I managed to spot him. A quick kiss (in past races I’d only waved, but this was my last marathon, and besides, if I was going to kiss girls in Wellesley I should probably kiss him, too) and a race photo.
Eric headed for the Green Line train back to the finish area, and I plodded on, only marginally aware of my surroundings. When I finally raised my eyes up and saw the giant CITGO sign, my first thought was:
“Oh. That’s the giant CITGO sign.”
And my second thought was:
“Why is it so goddamn fucking far away?”
Despair washed over me, because what was the point? I started walking again.
But wait, was that the Mile 25 marker? Even before the sign? Am I going to finish this marathon running strong like a woman, or trudging like a whiny little brat?
Strong woman, whiny brat – who cares, my calves said: walk!
But it turns out the rest of me cared very much. There’d be no walking (or whining) until the finish, I told my legs, and we managed to stick with that. I ran past the CITGO sign (one mile to go!), down Commonwealth Avenue, right on Hereford, left on Boylston, and yes, there was the finish, and it was farther than I remembered, definitely farther than I wanted, but just imagine a lap around the track, 26 miles, and the crowd was roaring, and I was almost there, focus on form, lift those knees, and . . .
Official finish time, 4:13:40.
Unofficial time for that last mile, 9:17.
After the finish
Someone hung a medal around my neck. Someone gave me a heat sheet and taped it closed (within a minute I was braised in my own body heat, seasoned with my own sweat). Someone gave me water. Someone gave me Gatorade. Someone gave me a banana. Someone gave me a plastic bag full of food. Compared to the long march out of Central Park after the NYC Marathon, it was a surprisingly short walk to the gear check, where I grabbed another plastic bag with dry clothes, flip flops and my phone and walked the block and a half to the appropriate alphabetical meet-up area to find Eric.
Who wasn’t there, because the Green Line was jammed with marathon spectators and trains were stop and go. Other waiting runners were sitting on the curb, and I decided to join them.
That was a mistake.
The cramps didn’t start immediately, but they started soon enough, and they were bad. I whimpered. I gasped. I swore. I cried out. I watched my left calf change shape before my eyes, a ball forming and bulging and retracting as it tried to find an escape route from the skin that contained it. What would happen if it succeeded, and burst through?
Another runner, seeing my agony, offered some of the anti-cramp tablets that had been included with the other promotional junk in our pre-race kits (mine were back at the hotel, of course). “Put it under your tongue and let it dissolve,” he instructed me, which I did, to no discernible effect. But at least the chalky taste briefly distracted me from the alien beings trapped inside my calves. As far as anti-cramping meds go, I preferred sucking the salt off the Terra chips that were packed in our post-race recovery bags.
Eric arrived at last, full of train stories, glad to see me, and eager to head back to the hotel. Problem: I couldn’t get up, not even with assistance. When I clasped his hand and tried to pull myself to a standing position, the aliens laughed their evil laugh. “Oh no, you don’t,” they chortled, with a twist and a jab.
“I can’t,” I wailed.
So it went for five or ten minutes, until I finally suggested to Eric that I might need medical assistance – a wheelchair, a gurney, a shot of morphine, whatever. He headed off to the medical tent, and I waited. And waited. And waited some more.
Finally, in disgust, I gave this standing up thing another try – and did it.
So I was standing there, feeling peeved and foolish, when Eric and two medical volunteers with a wheelchair raced around the corner.
“I’m okay,” I told them. Really. So sorry to bother you.
To Eric: “Let’s go.”
We walked all the way to the Red Line at Park Street. I was chilled by now, and conscious of the friction of my shoe against the inside of my left foot, but there was no place to change (there’d been a women’s changing tent by the gear check area – a thoughtful gesture – but it was packed full of sweaty female bodies), and I feared that if I bent over to take off my shoes and put on my flip flops, things would not end well.
Back at the hotel, I took inventory of my body. No chafing to speak of, other than a few abrasions in the small of my back, where my gel packets had jostled me. One hot spot on my foot that might or might not turn into a blister. And I’d been ultra-conscientious with the sunscreen, so that wasn’t a problem.
Or it wasn’t until the next morning, when I discovered (a) the exact outline of my singlet when viewed from behind and (b) the limit of my over-the-back reach, which is not as far as I thought it was.
Otherwise, in terms of physical damage, this was my best marathon ever.
. . .
So, what’s next for me, now that I’ve run my last (and slowest) marathon?
I’ll keep racing, of course (next up: the Brooklyn Half in mid-May), and running for fun. There are other neighborhoods to explore, new foods to try. More birds are heading up the Atlantic flyway each day now. Eric and I plan to travel some (we’re thinking Iceland this summer, and Mexico City sometime soon). I’m looking to improve my Spanish.
And, of course, there’s the Resistance.
I’m hoping to take on some new projects this year, which I’ll blog about in good time. (And if anyone out there knows of potential freelance writing gigs, pass ’em along!)