Boston Reflection

April 22, 2008 at 3:37 pm 3 comments

Hopkinton, It all starts here

Qualifying for the Boston Marathon was my finish line. Running the Boston Marathon… This is my victory lap.

And a slow victory lap, at that. More on the actual race in a bit. But first…

In it’s entirety, this weekend was nothing short of a life-affirming experience.

Boston is an incredible city. I have never been to a place where people have so much pride in their hometown. Everyone I met or passed on the street – they all love “Baaston, baby! For life.”

With the Red Sox at the top of their division, the Celtics a serious contender for the NBA Championship, and the Bruins winning in the Stanley Cup play-offs, B-Town natives were in especially high spirit.

Which brings me to a second quick note about Boston, or rather, the people of Boston. A couple friends of my friends who attended school in Massachusetts warned me that Boston could be a cold, dark, lonely, urban scene filled with jerks and “Massholes.” Nothing could have been further from the truth!

Maybe a memo went out in the Globe telling people to be on their best behavior, especially with the U.S. Women’s Olympic Marathon Trials held on Sunday and the 112th running of the Boston Marathon earlier today.

Or maybe it was the fact that a three-day weekend brings out the best in people (most of Boston – all of Massachusetts? – had the day off today to celebrate Patriot’s Day).

No matter, the people are some of the friendliest of any city I have visited. Random locals struck-up conversations with me about the marathon, offered to take my picture when I was attempting self-portraits in front of the library at Harvard and inside historic Faneuil Hall, and provided top-notch directions around town when they saw me fumbling with my city map.

In addition to being wooed by the locals, I fell in love with the architecture and history of the city itself. It’s a powerful thing, upon reflection, to sit in the first town hall of America, which is more than 150 years older than the state of California, and where our founders debated the values, ideals, and vision that gave birth to our country.

So my news and notes from the weekend…

I took a direct red-eye from SFO to Boston on Thursday night, arriving way-too-early Friday morning. I rode the T (subway) into town and hung out for a bit at the Boston Hostel until my room was ready.

Quick note on staying in a hostel: wonderful idea! Not only is it a more affordable lodging option than a traditional hotel, but the design of the hostel, and the ethos of hosteling, fosters a wonderful little community of like-minded souls. In the community rooms, I met and talked with backpackers from throughout Europe, self-employed budget business travelers, and a handful of fellow runners who were more than welcome to share their war stories and advice from previous races. (I stayed in a co-ed dorm room for the first two nights and was fortunate to secure a private room for the night before and after the big race.)

After dropping my gear on my bunk bed (another cool thing about hostels — you get to sleep in a bunk bed!), I headed over to the Marathon Expo at the Hynes Convention Center, just a few short city-blocks from my hostel.

For an athlete-geek like me, these expos are awesome: the buzz of the race, all the latest gear and products… It makes for a fun scene. It is also a bit like a casino. There are no clocks anywhere (I easily spent half the day inside), and the mix of fancy-colored shoes, the weirdly intoxicating smell of specifically-engineered food products for athletes, and the swarms of short-shorts clad runners overwhelms the senses.

I splurged on a nifty Boston Marathon zip-up fleece, bought a new pair of race shorts, and then swung by the Nuun booth where I had an opportunity to hang with Eric, one of my regular training buddies from the Endurance Running Club (ERC) last year. Right after our big December race – I did a 50K, Eric doubled-down and tackled the 50 Mile course – he moved from San Francisco to Seattle. It was great to see a familiar face in Boston and after the Expo that evening, I met-up with him and one of his co-workers at one of the uber-trendy and fun bar/bistros on tony Newbury Street. I ordered myself a chocolate milk – with extra chocolate. Mmmm mmmm good.

I slept-in on Saturday morning; there was no where in particular I had to go to and I needed to let my body recharge after a week where I had averaged less than five hours of rest a night. After a quick breakfast with some new friends at the hostel, I jumped on the T again and explored Harvard and Cambridge, an awesome college community that rivals any I have visited. The weather begged for some sun-soaking, so I joined the masses in Harvard Square with my books, alternating between reading and people-watching.

Then it was time to head to the North End of the city of Boston, where I marched down the Freedom Trail, saw Paul Revere’s house, and battled tourists at Quincy Market, a San Francisco-like Fisherman’s Wharf where you can eat a wicked good bowl of chowda while taking in one of the many street performances. I also spent some time at Faneuil Hall, which I referenced above. An absolute must! Be sure to sit-in on one of the free National Park Service lectures, held every half-hour. Boston: The cradle of liberty.

Saturday evening I met-up with a couple more guys from the ERC who were also running the Boston Marathon – Kendall and Elliott, along with Elliott’s wife and sister-in-law. We dined at Limoncello Ristaurante, which offered one of the best Italian food experiences in my life. Mama mia!

Usually, those of us in the ERC never see each other in anything but our sweaty running gear, and while conversations dip in-and-out of life in general, most of our Saturday morning trail runs are filled with chatter about all things running related: upcoming races, shoes and various gear, and hydration and nutrition plans. That night, we had a great conversation and shared many a-laughs about our personal lives: relationships, school, work, hopes and aspirations. We continued our hedonistic feeding adventures by stocking-up on some scrumptious desserts at the famous bakery Mike’s Pastry. I myself brought home $20 of home-baked cookies and pastries that night, all of which were gone within 24-hours. (Part of my carbo-loading process, I told myself.)

Sunday was a whirl-wind of day. I joined the thousands of people on the streets of downtown Boston to cheer-on the top 200 elite women marathoners in the country, all vying for one of three spots on the U.S. Olympic team. The race was a beautiful, powerful, inspiring demonstration of the awesomeness of the human spirit. American-record holder and crowd favorite Deena Kastor, within the last two miles of the 26.2 mile run, chased-down Magdalena Lewy Boulet, who ran a gutsy race and had established a near-two minute lead over the first two-thirds of the race, to win the race. The battle for third-place and fourth (the first-alternate spot on the U.S. team) was epic.

Most special for me, however, was watching the women towards the back of the race – those whom had qualified, perhaps by just-barely satisfying the ‘B’ requirements to get to the trials, but had no chance of winning. They were all incredible athletes; on my best day, I aspire to run like them on their worst day. And most of them were wearing smiles, taking in the experience of being on a national stage with the best runners in the world! What an incredible thrill to participate in the U.S. Olympic Trials. And no matter how far back they might have been from the lead-group, they ran hard, with determination, focus, and intense energy. The entire scene was simply inspiring. I watched the race with Kendall, Elliott, and Sandy, another awesome member of the ERC and veteran runner of the Boston Marathon.

I sought more inspiration by attending the annual Blessing of the Athletes mass at Old South Church, which, along with the Boston Public Library, sandwiches the finish line of the Women’s Trials and the Boston Marathon. The service was beautiful and allowed for some further reflection on the purpose of faith when embarking on a physical or spiritual marathon.

After a quick check-in at the Expo (I wanted to pick-up a singlet as the weather forecast called for clear skies), where I bumped into Steven, another good bud and former training companion who was also running the marathon (what a small world Boston is!), I dashed over to historic Fenway Park to catch the afternoon Red Sox-Tigers game.

Oh, man… What a thrill. The Green Monster. Fenway Franks. And Red Sox fans everywhere! Seeing a game here was the highlight of my Boston weekend and the best way to experience the people, sights, sounds, and pride of B-Town.

Fenway is an old park – 96 years old, if I recall – and its charm, its history gave me goosebumps: Williams; Yastrzemski; Boggs; the heartache of Buckner’s error; the awesomeness of Schilling’s blood-stained sock; the high-flying victory penants for winning the very first, in 1901 over Pittsburgh, and most recent, in 2007, World Series Championships; and of course, the Curse of the Bambino which broke the hearts of all Bostonians for most iof the years in between.

THIS is a baseball town. THIS is a baseball stadium. No flashy scoreboards or ridiculous mid-inning entertainment that distracts from the game at hand. No bottles of wine or sushi are sold at the concession stands… Just baseball, baby. (The scoreboard at the base of the Green Monster that keeps track of other MLB games and scores is managed by a guy who takes a little ladder out to it every three-outs to update it with hand-painted signs.)

Last night, I fielded some calls of good luck and cheer from friends and family and turned-in early.

Today… Marathon morning.

Pre-dawn, I took the T a few stops north to Boston Common where I loaded one of dozens of school buses headed for a high school in Hopkinton, site of Athletes Village and start of the 112th Boston Marathon. On the bus ride out of Boston, I couldn’t help but think, “Dang, this is a long drive. And we have to run this?! Twenty-six miles is… far!”

Eventually we got to Hopkinton “It all starts here!” a welcome sign announced.

At Athletes Village, I visited the Port-o-Johns, strolled the grounds, grabbed a bagel, a banana, and a few PowerBars, and huddled with other cold athletes under the big white tents. We still had a good two-plus hours to kill before the start of the race. (Note for next time: bring something to read and a few extra blankets to sit on while passing time at Athletes Village.)

One hour till go-time, and after one last bathroom break, I shed my sweats and walked/jogged a mile or so to the start of the race. I settled into Coral 4 and was a bit intimidated by the toned bodies around me. Minutes before the gun sounded, the sun came out of hiding from behind the clouds and lifted the temperature a few degrees. I got plenty of rest last night; the weather was perfect this morning. All that was left to do was to run.

Boom. And we were off.

I’ll spare the mile-by-mile rundown of the race, but I do want to share one thought that kept running through my mind: Wow! Wow to the incredible crowd support. Wow to the thousands of talented and awesome runners that stretched in front and behind me as far as I could see. Wow for the hills.

The first few miles are downhill, which to a non-runner seems like a great way to kick things off. It’s not. Coupled with the thousands of people screaming and cheering for you, a downhill start pushes people out of the gate fast – too fast. And the hills take a brutal toll on the quads and hamstrings. I usually bolt from the start, only to fatigue mid-race, and applauded myself for exercising restraint today. My first two miles were right on pace for a 2:59 marathon.

As were the rest of the 11.1 miles of the first-half of the marathon. I was feeling good and strong, clocking sub 6:45 miles. And that crowd… Not enough can be said to capture what it’s like. Every mile is lined with the most supportive bunch of people I have ever seen attend a sporting event. Never, for more than twenty feet, is there an empty stretch of road. They crowd in tight, forming a narrow tunnel on the two-lane country road to Boston for us runners to pass through, many of them passing out water, juice, fruit, and other goodies to us hungry and thirsty athletes. And they scream. Loudly. It’s awesome.

At the half-marathon point, while feeling good, I knew that I had not invested the necessary training to keep-up a sub-three hour pace. And wanting to experience Boston, I slowed waaaaay down. My goal became to high-five as many people as possible, which after a mile of doing, my scrawny arms were no longer to do pain-free.

I walked-through every water and aid station those last 13 miles, thanking the volunteers and taking in the scene. The sky was blue, the sun was out, and it seemed as if every person in Massachusetts had decided to spend their Patriots Day holiday cheering us 25,000 runners to the finish line.

Ashland, Farmingham, Natick, and Wellesley – each community along Route 135 was an idyllic and picture-perfect postcard image of New England. Small and stately brick and wood-sided homes sat on large plots of grass on which kids had set-up free lemonade stands for runners, passed out frozen Otter Pops, and offered us cold-water soaked sponges to dab the sweat and salt from our faces.

Around the 16-mile mark, my body started to crash. Keeping a 9-minute pace was taking way too much effort than it should, and I couldn’t get my grubby hands on enough water and Gatorade to satisfy the deep thirst in my throat and pain in my stomach.

My hammies were screaming for the race to be over – so loudly that they nearly drowned-out the deafening wall of women from Wellesley College, hundreds of whom were screaming their lungs out underneath signs advertising “free kisses for runner.”

Heartbreak Hill didn’t break anything of mine… After all the early downhills and my familiarity with the hills of San Francisco, it was nice to run up for a change, no matter how slowly. At the mid-race mark I had abandoned any hope for a PR and was content to wave and cheer and flash thumb’s up or pump a fist to the incredible crowd, some whom were blaring motivational music from the roofs of their homes.

The last four or five miles of the Boston Marathon are a punishing downhill. Entering Boston, the crowds get wider, deeper, stronger, louder. I had my name on a fabric sticker on my shirt and it seemed every 20 seconds I was being encouraged by spectators: “Let’s go Jay Ar’!” (Love that Boston accent.) It was radically encouraging, but there were a few short moments where I wish there was no crowds: I did not want to, was not able to, go any faster, and I felt as if I was disappointing the cheering crowd with my humble crawl through the neighborhoods.

My legs were hurting. I wanted to stop. Wanted to walk. Wanted to hop the metro rail that rambled past and tooted its horn, leading the mass of runners towards the finish line. But there were thousands of people saying, “You can do it! Almost there! Looking great!” I wasn’t sure I could; I didn’t think I was; I knew I didn’t. But there’s a funny thing that happens in marathon: a suspension of belief. Just. A few. More. Miles. Hurts. So. Bad. Hurts. So. Good. Soldier on! Shuffle on! No matter how — onwards we go!

At the famous Citgo sign, signaling one mile to the finish, most of the runners around me dug deep and left me in their final-stretch dust. I started counting in my head. Anything to take the mind off the pain. Just don’t stop now. Not when so close. Steady, baby. Slow is okay.

Entering Boyleston Avenue, 800 meters till the end of the course, I looked up at the blue skies, over at the throngs of Bostonians, at the thousands of family members and friends of runners lining the homestretch, down at my shuffling feet, and then ahead towards the finish line.

I have two goals in every race: (1) To finish. And (2) to do so with a smile on my face. I was going to do it!

I crossed the line, smiling. I high-fived the people with whom I entered the finisher’s corral. I oh-so-painfully stumbled to gather my sweat bag. I collapsed on the ground, tried to down some food, took out my cell phone, and called home. I talked to my mom. It was so good to hear her voice. When I tried to tell her about my run, I had to stop talking in mid-sentence. I was choked up. Tears came to my eyes.

At first I thought they were tears of disappointment. This was my fourth road marathon in 12 months and my slowest by over 25 minutes. Just a month prior I had run almost half-an-hour faster. I started the day racing, aiming for a PR; I ended with a tired and broken body.

But then I realized no, I wasn’t disappointed. These were tears of awe, of inspiration, of insight. I had swallowed my ego at the half-marathon mark and was forced to run a different type of race than I had ever run before. A race where I was passed by many thousands of runners of all ages and shapes… and this was okay! A race where I was slowed to a humble shuffle… And this was okay!

For it was a race, too, where I got to truly experience all that makes the Boston Marathon such an incredibly awesome event. Never I have I been a part of something so big, in the middle of something so special.

Twenty-six and two-tenths of a mile. Ugh. Wow.

Run with it!
J.R. Atwood


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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Kenyan Runner  |  April 25, 2008 at 12:56 pm

    The biggest irony of running is that running down hill is difficult. Your heel and hips are under a lot of stress. Last year I also missed my goal of running a marathon under 3 hours. My finish time was 3hrs 6mins. I have realized the only way to run under 3 hours is to train all year round.


  • 2. joannafrench  |  May 13, 2008 at 12:59 am

    Just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed your Boston Marathon recap. Your story is so inspiring and well written that I was at times moved to tears. Thanks for sharing.

    As a Boston local, I have to commend you for taking such full advantage of the city. Dare I say that you did more in your short weekend than I have in all my years here!

    Best of luck for many more years of happy, speedy feet.


  • 3. J.R. Atwood  |  May 13, 2008 at 6:45 am

    I’m so glad you enjoyed my chronicle of my Boston adventures. And thanks for the kind words. You live in a beautiful and wonderful city! :)


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Jason R. Atwood

I'm an avid trail runner and doctoral student at U.C. Berkeley who studies motivation and the relationship between the mind and body. This blog is a forum to share research, news, and musings about these topics of interest. More

Play is the beginning of knowledge.

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