The Path to Boston

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It's time...welcome to Athletes' Village!

“I really didn’t train well enough for this…I’m already tired!” I thought at mile 11. I glanced up at my surroundings and noticed a double amputee pulling off to the side of the road to adjust his prosthetics, and I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. It turns out that the Boston Marathon has a lot to teach you about endurance…namely that there are people in this world who are much more well-versed on the subject than you are.

Thinking back, my own path to Boston started about four years ago. I had fallen in love with running while I went through graduate school in Madison, Wisconsin…and I had also fallen in love with the American Cancer Society’s DetermiNation training group (if I may digress, this group even led me to the love of my life Rob, whom I’ll be marrying in October!). I had no idea what I was doing when I trained for my first marathon, but as I got a couple more races under my belt, I got a small stirring in my bones that Boston might be a possibility. I started training in earnest to hit my required qualification time, but after a series of setbacks including a broken foot and a race cancelled due to unexpected heat, it became clear that it wasn’t in the stars. When I look back and do the math, I realize that if I had qualified when I wanted to, it would have put me at Boston in 2013…and most likely at the finish line right around the time of the bombings. As devastated as I was at the time to not reach my goal, I realize now that it was a time in my life when I should have put my anger aside and a bit more trust in God.

Enjoying a drink at the pre-race dinner!

Enjoying a drink at the pre-race dinner!

After healing up, finishing up my Ph.D., and moving to Ann Arbor to be with my now fiancé, I decided to give things another shot at the Detroit Marathon in 2013. I put aside my loathing of speed work and focused for several months to shoot for my qualifying time of 3:35. I didn’t care if I was a “squeaker” (what they call someone who just barely qualifies for Boston)…I just had my eyes on that number. Detroit is a fantastic race, for anyone considering running it…nice and flat, making it a good course to try and qualify (and despite Detroit’s reputation, quite beautiful!). I ran around a 3:32 in 2013, but I had to wait to register for the 2015 race because registration for Boston 2014 had closed. I didn’t mind this because I knew that 2014 was going to be a time of healing and catharsis for those who had suffered through the devastation of 2013. There was even some nail-biting when registration opened for 2015 because they open registration up first to those who qualify with the best times (read: not yours truly). I just prayed that things wouldn’t fill up by the time I was able to register, and when I received my confirmation letter, I couldn’t get the smile off my face.

Several months went by, and I continued to get emails from the Boston Athletic Association, but it still didn’t seem real. I made a deal with myself that I would run Boston to enjoy it and not put any pressure on myself to reach a time goal. Part of this had to do with the fact that the timing of the April race put me in the dead of Michigan winter for training, which…for those of you who might not live in the Midwest…can be brutal. Let’s just say that I logged a lot of hours on the treadmill and finished a few audiobooks (Gillian Flynn, for anyone who might be curious, will get you through training, but will also make you afraid to leave your home). Despite the training and bombardment of emails from the BAA, things just didn’t seem real until tapering a couple of weeks before the race. I started neurotically eating, having frequent emotional outbursts, and obsessively checking the Boston weather forecast. “Are you having taper tantrums?” my beloved friend and fellow runner Becky asked. Yes…yes I was. The race couldn’t get here quickly enough.

Shameless advertising of my work project...

Shameless advertising of my work project…

Rob and I decided to drive from Ann Arbor to Boston, which saved us a lot of money but resulted in…well…a very long drive. We cut through Canada and saw Niagara Falls, which was incredible…and I was on Cloud Nine because the forecast for race day couldn’t be better! (Insert ironic laugh track here). I was also beyond excited because I was getting to stay with my best friend Katie, who lives in Medford, Massachusetts; I don’t get to see nearly enough of her, and she and her roommate graciously opened their home to us. We drove out on Saturday and spent the Sunday before the race going to packet pickup, seeing friends, eating out, and walking around the city. Here’s a tip: that sentence included several things that one should not normally consider doing before running 26.2 miles the next day. However, this leads me to tip number two: occasionally running a race with no time goal can be liberating because you can enjoy the whole experience without obsessing too much about a defined prerace routine.

I cannot possibly express how impressed I was with the well-oiled machine that is the Boston Marathon. The expo was massive, and packet pickup was effortless. At first I cringed when I saw the winding, serpentine line that led to the pre-race dinner; but Katie, Rob, and I waited a maximum of 10 minutes to get in. I don’t usually eat mystery pasta the evening before a race, but I wanted to milk every part of the experience that I could, so I caved. It turns out it was a good idea because the food was fantastic. I was maybe a bit surprised that dessert consisted of a bag with some potato chips and a pear…but you can’t win ‘em all. I’m sure the race director will call within a week or so to ask what I might suggest for next year, and I’ll tell him that everything was excellent…but Katie and I think that maybe next year there should be some chocolate cake.

Did I mention that during this time the weather forecast took a horrendous turn for the worse? Ah, yes…that happened. The other thing that took a turn was my mood. Despite the wonderful day we’d had before the race, by the time I went to bed, I was absolutely dreading the coming day. The forecast called for temperatures not quite hitting 50 degrees, pouring rain, and wind gusts up to 25 miles per hour. I had brought a lot of different clothes to wear depending on the weather…but nothing that seemed entirely appropriate for what was being predicted. “Are you getting excited?” Rob asked about ten minutes before bed. “Nope!” I responded without missing a beat. “Dreading it like the plague.” There’s the positivity we runners are known for!

A celebratory cake from a wonderful coworker!

A celebratory cake from a wonderful coworker!

Spoiler alert: it didn’t wind up being nearly that bad. I woke up and ate my typical pre-race two pounds of oatmeal, then fidgeted nervously until we took the T from Medford to Boston Common. I owe a TREMENDOUS debt to Katie and Rob…Katie for providing detailed directions, and Rob for dutifully following them (I will fess up that if needed, I couldn’t find my way out of a paper bag). Boston Common is the location where the buses depart for Hopkinton; Boston is a point-to-point course that passes through numerous towns along the way. I breathed a little easier once I was on the bus because my mind had turned over every possible way that things could have gone wrong to thwart me from reaching the start line.

One unique aspect of the race is its notoriously late start time. Even the elites didn’t start until about 9:30, so my wave was scheduled to depart at 10:50…when I might normally be FINISHING a marathon. I won’t lie that by the time I’d taken the T to Boston Common, ridden the bus to Hopkinton, waited in Athletes’ Village, and reached the start, I was quite frankly exhausted. Add to that the constant worry that the weather was going to take a turn, and I kind of felt like I had already run a marathon before toeing the start line.

This story has gone on long enough that I won’t provide a mile-by-mile account of everything that took place on the course. I will say that in all of the races that I’ve run, I’ve never seen volunteers or spectators like I saw at Boston. It was apparent that every town we passed had its own version of how it supported the runners, and I loved the pride that they obviously had for their hometowns. There are volunteers along the course who have been supporting the race for decades, and there was no way of adequately expressing gratitude for their support. The conditions were miserable, yet their energy was unrivaled. I had been warned about the Wellesley girls at the half marathon point…a friend of mine who is a Boston veteran had told me to “high five them for a pick-me-up” at the 13-mile point. The Wellesley girls are famous for kissing the marathoners as they pass by, and their signs are…shall we say…entertaining (“entertaining” in this case is euphemistic for “obscene”). I was laughing so hard by the end of that mile that I didn’t even notice that my pace had picked up significantly…and the cherry on top was the young lady who held her sign in front of her otherwise unclothed body as she cheered us on (remember the weather conditions that I mentioned before?). I appreciated the runner next to me who commented, “Oh, my. I expect she’ll end up with a date.”

The commemorative charm bracelet from my parents

The commemorative charm bracelet from my parents

Otherwise, the race carried on with it the typical ups and downs of a marathon…though perhaps with even more inspiring stories along the way. Aside from the double amputee whom I mentioned before, there were numerous charity runners, several blind runners, and others completing the race with varying impediments and disabilities. Seeing those individuals definitely made me reevaluate my own discomfort during the later miles. And having Rob and Katie cheering me on at miles 22 and 25, when I was hurting the most, definitely put the wind back in my proverbial sails.

Coming down Boylston at the end of the race was surreal. In that short time, I started to reflect on some of the news footage from 2013, when we watched runners knocked down by the blast from the bombs, then stand up and keep struggling toward the finish line. I didn’t understand at the time, and I’m not deluded enough to think I now fully grasp the gravitas of that moment. However, when I thought about what led me to the race, the people who supported me along the way, and what it meant to me personally, things became a bit clearer. More than ever before, Boston is a story of personal struggle, heartbreak, and resilience. I feel humbled and privileged to have been even a minor fraction of this year’s story, and I’ll carry it with me for the rest of my life. And God willing…I’ll be back next year.

Gina is a graduate student of microbiology, and she runs to maintain her sanity!