Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Boston Marathon Experience

On Monday, I had the delight of joining 20,832 other runners for the 109th annual Boston Marathon. Being a trail runner, Boston was new for me in many ways - pavement, screaming fans, hash house harriers, and enough sub-4 hour marathoners to fill a stadium. I really wasn't sure what to expect, but by the time it was done, my eyes were open to a whole new world of marathoning. I congratulate all those who ran and cheered, and feel privileged to have been a part of it.

I'll have to admit, I didn't understand what it meant to "qualify for Boston" when the officials at the Park City Marathon had told me I had done so in June, 2004. But it didn't take long to find out, since nearly every other runner there had a story/goal to fill in the details on the prestige of the event, and the unique experience and history that was simply "doing Boston" to each of them. Runners (and supporting family members) would light up with stories of "the scream tunnel", "Lobster man", and the dreaded "Heartbreak Hill". It sounded like one helluva party so I sent in my application.

From the moment Christi (my wife) and I got on the plane from San Francisco to Boston, we could tell this event was huge. About 1/3 the plane were runners, coming from Japan, Korea, California, etc., already chatting about the qualifying races that got them to Boston. For many, it was the goal of a lifetime that took years of training, and the simple fact that they were there was worth the finisher medals weight in gold. Many others were flying out to be spectators, cheering on family members and friends. To each, it was a pilgrimage, spoken of with sincerity and reverance more so than any race I had ever attended.

Christi and I came a few days early to play tourist, walking the Freedom Trail, visiting the USS Constitution, cruising Harvard Square, and hitting a couple Irish pubs. Everywhere we went, eager runners from all over the world were soaking in the American history of Paul Revere's ride. Sunday night we hit the North End (Italian district), where thousands had congregated for carbo loading on pasta and cannolis. One more restless night, and I was ready to run.

Within the first hour of Monday morning, I was stunned by the efficiency of the race directing. I spent less than 10 minutes in line to take a bus out to Hopkinton with tens of thousands of others, and before I knew it I was chilling with all the starters on the back field of a middle school. I guess when you do a race 109 times, you get the hang of it! It was unusual to have a few hours to kill before a race (it starts at noon), but I enjoyed getting to meet so many other runners. There were three ladies from Romania who came on a bet, a divorcee from Phoenix who was proving to herself she could do anything, a four-time Boston runner from Otttawa who had all the tips, the Red Lizard sport club from Portland, OR, a three-generation family of runners from Rhode Island, and many, many more. Most of them proudly wore head-to-toe Boston Marathon garb, and were thrilled to share stories of hundreds of hours of training, lifelong goals, raising money for charity, honoring loved ones, and years of effort to realize this dream.

As noon rolled around, we were slotted into the chutes according to our qualifiying times and promptly set off down the road to Boston. I brought enough Hammer Gel and KaBoom! drink to be self-sufficient, only later to realize there would be plenty of food and water along the course. As I stretched out in the chute in the 70-degree afternoon, I could hear 3-4 languages around me, each reflecting the anticipation of the moment in the universal inflections of joy and laughter. I wondered if I would ever see anyone I recognized in this group of world elites, but that question was quickly answered when the guy behind me said, "hey, weren't you at Rucky Chucky three weeks ago? Wasn't that great?". Turns out it was Eric Aarrestad from Issaquah, WA, who was still sporting poison oak scars from that race (much like myself). Even in this big race, it's a small world.

As the gun went off and the front-running gazelles sprinted out beyond our vision, the stampede of eager runners headed out of Hopkinton. The streets were lined with cheering fans, 2-3 deep for miles. Every time we went up a hill, I could see thousands of runners in front of me, and with a quick glance back, I saw the river of runners trailed off into the horizon. The thump-thumping of thousands of feet shook the pavement beneath us. I had never experienced anything like it!

By mile five, I began to realize a few things. First, the cheering crowds never got sparse, nor quieted down. They took their support very seriously, and avidly supplemented the aid stations with oranges, sponges, water, signs, and more, all at their own expense. Kids would line up and hold out their hands for rolling high fives, and costumes and music abounded. Many of the runners had written their names on their arms and t-shirts, and the crowds embraced the opportunity to cheer people on by name. This race was a part of their local history, and a big part of the Patriot's Day weekend celebration.

At mile 12, we hit Wellesley College where the "scream tunnel" of raving female college students could be heard for blocks. It was so loud it made my ears ring! Signs like "kiss me, I'm a senior" may have tempted a few runners to slow down, but for the most part everybody smiled and waved and kept moving on. We passed two dozen fully-clad Army soldiers rucking through the 26.2 miles in step, and cheered them on.

One great thing about being slotted with a bunch of people your speed was that there wasn't a whole lot of people navigation required from the 1/2 way point on. When I compared my qualifying time with those around me, it was clear we were all within 60 seconds of each other. My mile splits were insanely consistent - 7:08, 7:10, 6:58, 7:06 - and I only passed people on the downhills as they saved their quads for the long-haul. But the steepest of hills were yet to come.

Mile 20...the dreaded Heartbreak Hill. For most trail runners, 450 vertical feet isn't that big of a deal, but even the mountain goats would appreciate the psychological heartbreak of this one. Not only does it kick in at mile 20, but it's one of those hills that creeps up slowly and never allows you to see the top until you've been working at it for over a mile. The crowd kicked into high gear to get everyone up that hill, but it was taking casualties left and right. But with their deafening support, I had no trouble getting over the top. The reward was some great downhill sections, and the raging party at Boston College that presented the biggest crowds on the course. One runner stopped to get a BBQ chicken breast and a beer - sounded like a great idea to me.

The last six miles cruised by like a dream as we entered into downtown Boston towards Haynes Convention Center. Those who had a little extra surged down the last straightaway and into the arms of volunteers with wheelchairs. As I crossed the finish line (3:04:17), a volunteer said, "congratulations - you just qualified for Boston again". But this time I actually knew what it meant, and I could barely contain myself. There was no doubt I would be back again.

A couple of things I learned that I would love to pass on to future Boston runners:

1) Your pre-race bag will be waiting for you at the end, so be sure to stash pre-race and post-race stuff. I saw a few runners get right into their flip-flops and thought it was a great idea.

2) You will have some time to kill in the morning (between the 8am bus ride and noon start), so bring something to read. There are also limited food supplies, so be sure to bring a small lunch too. I saw a few $8 air mattresses that made the lawn much more comfortable, and one should plan on sitting if you can.

3) Write your name on your arm or t-shirt. If you don't, all you will hear is "go, Kevin" or whatever the name of the person next to you is. This crowd WANTS to cheer you on, so put the vanity aside and let them know who you are.

4) No need to carry water, there is plenty along the course. But definitely bring your favorite gu/gel, and plenty of sunscreen.

5) Have a great time and remember that you earned this. Navigating the masses can make a PR difficult, but saying that, I managed to clock my fastest marathon time, so it's possible. If you feel you're going to go much faster than your qualifying time, go ahead and move up. We had a few "big numbers" in our section and they held their own the whole way. But if you haven't logged the miles, stay put.

6) There is plenty of fine dining in Boston, and we went nuts the whole weekend. The Federalist had amazing cod and a wine list to die for, Lucca's was perfect for carbo-loading (get your reservations early), and Great Bay had an amazing ceviche bar. Rumor had it that Modern Pastry served even better cannolis than Mike's Pastry, but I bet they are both pretty good. I think you really can't go wrong in this town.

Hats off to Injinji, who managed to get me through another race blister-free; my quads are another story, however. But as I realize a "pavement recovery" is going to take a bit longer than a "trail recovery", it's still not enough to wipe the smile from my face. To all of you who ran, cheered, and supported your friends and family, I thank you. And I'll see ya next year!




  1. OK you convinced me. Sounds more like a moving party than a race. But to remain pure I am going to use a trail marathon to qualify.

  2. Scott, all the big races have lots of volunteers and spectators. The NY marathon and Chicago marathon are even bigger than Boston. But it sounds like you thought these spectators were "better"? How would you compare to NY or Chicago?

  3. Conrad -

    You're right that the NY marathon (36k runners) and Chicago marathon (33k runners) are bigger, as is the Honolulu marathon (24k runners). They all have great spectators too, so I don't mean to knock those races. There were many Boston racers raving about both of those marathons. But I did feel there was something special about Boston.

    Let me share a story with you about one of the spectators I had met. She had four cases of oranges and was slicing like crazy so her kids could hand them out. When I asked her if these were at her own expense, she said "of course, everyone in this town chips in to make this race happen". She then told me stories of her grandfather handing out orange slices when he was a kid...70 years ago!

    It's more than spectating with the Boston community in that they feel a deep connection to this race. Helping is a tradition that they take seriously, and it really makes the race special. I've never experienced anything quite like it.

    - SD

  4. Hey Scott - its Gordon Wright of OutsidePR. I wonder if you could give me a holler about an article I'm writing for CitySports.



  5. Scott, excellent blog. I too am a runner, though not quite your caliber. My blog is a comedic account of training for marathons. You can check it out at www.charronrunning.blogspot.com

    Thanks and keep running. I'll be back to check up.

    James Charron
    Ontario Canada

  6. Be sure to also check out my Boston Marathon write ups for 2006 2007.

    Thx, SD


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