Ho boy. Writing this one’s gonna hurt — almost as much as it hurt to run the thing.
No, that’s impossible.
In a future post, I’ll explore the difference between “bonking,” “hitting the wall” and just plain sucking. For now, the much-overdue Boston Recap:
A few months back, Leslie and I headed up to Boston to run the world’s most-famous marathon. For a couple of jittery days, we enjoyed soaking up the vibes of the great New England city in the company of my mother, Leslie’s parents and our friends Nick and Ashley.
On Easter Sunday, the day before the big day, Leslie and I stepped out of our hotel for a shake-out jog and cringed when we discovered it was 85 degrees and sunny. On TV, newscasters were joking that, while the following day probably wouldn’t be quite as hot as this, it sure was looking like a fine day to watch the Boston Marathon.
And so, I fretted — and drowned my system with enough water to send a camel across the Sahara.
IN WHICH WE GO TO HOPKINTON:
Finally, race morning arrived. Getting up at 5, Leslie and I took our hotel shuttle to Boston Common. Strolling across the park, we watched warily as the sun began to climb in the sky and assert itself.
On Boylston Street, near the bag check-in area, a homeless guy was in the spirt of things. Clinking some change in a Dunkin’ Donuts cup, he offered up unsolicited advice.
“Watch out for Heartbreak Hill,” he said with a cackle. “It’ll get ya!”
Leslie and I took a race-provided school bus on the 45-minute trip out to Hopkinton. Rolling into that quaint New England town, the first thing I saw was a large man standing on his front porch with a small boy in his arms, each of them waiving to all of us arriving runners.
At the Athletes’ Village at Hopkinton High, Leslie and I found a spot under one of many tents. For two hours, we hunkered down for a routine of: sip water, sip Gatorade, go to bathroom, repeat process.
When the organizers called my starting group, I joined the mass of bodies making the mile-long trek to Hopkinton’s town square. It felt like marching off to battle.
I was in Wave 1, Corral 2, which put me a stone’s throw from the actual start line. This was exciting because at 9:45 a.m., the elite men paraded out from wherever they’d been waiting (no doubt, not under some crowded tent). They passed right by us, slapping people’s hands.
For a running nerd like me, this was like the start of the Super Bowl: There’s Meb! There’s Abdi! There’s Galen Rupp!
Up above, the helicopters circled. The sun arced higher.
Then, the gun went off.
IN WHICH TIM GIVES THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT:
I had read a thousand times that Boston starts with a downhill — but holy sh–, I didn’t expect it to be a half-mile cliff! It was crowded, of course, and I tried staying relaxed on the left side of the road while people were flying past me and/or diving into bushes to relieve themselves. One man, clearly a veteran of this thing, was telling his buddy: “We’ll be seeing lots of these idiots later — when they hit the wall.”
“Not me,” I thought. “I’m prepared.”
Now, a downhill start can be tricky. It can lure you into dashing off faster than you should. But if you try holding back too much, you could beat up your quads by applying the brakes.
Not that it was easy to hold back. Bostonians are known to go bonkers on Marathon Monday — but even so, I was gobsmacked to see just how rowdy they can get in the early miles of Hopkinton, Ashland and Framingham.
This got to my head. Dispensing with all my pre-race plans to take myself seriously, I hammed it up — slapping kids’ hands, waiving to people who’d called out my name (which was written on my singlet), putting my hands behind my ears and DEMANDING MORE NOISE!
In short, I was being an idiot.
IN WHICH TIM PONDERS GREATNESS:
In summer races of the past, I’ve often suffered when the sun is roasting and drains your fuel reserves faster than you can possibly replenish them. In most cases, though, I’ve only had another mile or two to slog through.
In this case, I started feeling trouble brewing at Mile 6 — with another 20 to go.
The tailwind — ordinarily a welcome gift– wasn’t helping. It was blowing about 10 miles an hour, roughly the speed we were moving. In effect, this robbed us of any cooling effect we might have gotten from breaking through the air. It felt like running in an oven.
There were, of course, plenty of hydration stations. I took to them with gusto, wading into the crush of bodies at each curbside table and fighting through the tangle of limbs to obtain a cup of water and Gatorade. I downed about half of them, tossing the rest over my head.
I was perhaps overzealous in this. By Mile 10, I began feeling somewhat nauseous from all the sugar. In any case, I don’t think my body was absorbing much of the fluids — certainly not as fast as I was sweating it out.
In fairness, there have been hotter Boston Marathons over the years. Still, temps were in the 70s, much warmer than anything I’d run in since, well, probably October. Thanks to the 10 a.m. start, the sun was high overhead, unblocked by clouds and therefore free to fry all of our faces and shoulders.
Despite all that, I reached the half-marathon mark in a respectable 1:22:48, right on pace for my pre-race goal of 2:45. This, however, came with a catch. In my four previous marathons, I’ve come through halfway thinking: “Piece of cake — I can do that again!”
But not on this day. The best thing I had going for me at this point was this dude:
— abdul 🚀 (@Advil) April 17, 2017
It took me a moment to comprehend his sign. Then I recalled Tom Brady’s come-from-behind heroics in this year’s Super Bowl and began wondering (surely an early sign of my slipping grasp on reality): “Could I, lowly Tim, be on the precipice of one of the greatest comebacks in the history of Boston sports?”
IN WHICH TIM IS SOMEWHAT HUMBLED:
It was riiiiight about then that my left calf cramped up. I’d never experienced this before. Out of nowhere, it felt like a snake had bored into my leg and experienced a panic attack in trying to escape.
Over the next couple of miles, the calf kept seizing up on me, each time worse than the last. By Mile 15, I had to take stock of things. I realized I was breathing way too heavily for the pace I was running — a vexing situation, since I’d run a 15-miler a few weeks earlier in Central Park at a faster pace and feeling strong.
I knew the Newtown Hills were looming ahead, where things could really unravel.
The first big hill began at Mile 16, and it was a crusher. It forced me, for the first time, to resort to jogging. Scooting to the right, I watched helplessly as swarms of people began flying past.
“I’m one of the idiots,” I realized.
Near one medical tent, I mulled dropping out. I saw a volunteer there with an empty wheelchair, eyeing me with considerable interest.
But onwards I forged, up to and over that vaunted Heartbreak Hill, which actually lifted my spirits.
“That wasn’t soooo bad,” I thought.
Half a mile later, I discovered I had not, in fact, even reached Heartbreak Hill.
By this point, my memory gets a little fuzzy. I do recall getting to and climbing the actual Heartbreak Hill (without resorting to walking!). I also recall my calf seizing up on me at the top and realizing once and for all that I was no longer looking for a particular finish time.
I was simply looking to finish.
IN WHICH TIM’S EMOTIONAL STATE IS ALL OVER THE MAP:
First, however, I had a landmark to reach. At Mile 24, Leslie and my cheering section awaited — my mother, Leslie’s parents, my Uncle Mike, my cousin Bridget and her husband Will.
I vowed to run to them. Then I realized this was foolish.
“Better off preserving some energy,” I told myself. “Then unleash it all in a heroic burst past them, giving off the impression that I’m truly elite.”
Entering Brookline, I slowed to a (gulp!) walk. With my calf cramping up again, I felt dejected. I saw a few other guys walking along Beacon Street, most of them stopping-starting-stopping-stretching-starting-stopping like me.
“This sucks,” I said to one guy, hoping to wallow in our collective pity.
“Don’t be so negative!” he shot back. “We’ll get through this.”
Now, I’d been shamed, too.
The man was right, of course. I was being ridiculous. Beacon Street was mobbed with screaming fans. One college kid reached a Bud Lite in my direction. I nearly took it.
“How selfless do you have to be,” I thought, “to hand out all your beer to strangers?”
At long last, I saw the “Mile 24” sign looming ahead. Seeing all the familiar faces was a bigger boost than I’d expected. I slapped their hands, reveling in the familial bonds, but didn’t stop to explain why it had taken me so long to get there. What was the point? Frankly, I’m not sure they even realized I’d been slowing down in the last eight miles.
Feeling somewhat rejuvenated, I tore down the ensuing downhill like a champ (well, relatively speaking). A couple hundred meters later, Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” was blaring from speakers — a Red Sox favorite, yes, but also a family favorite. My grandfather Fred — who once dropped off my Uncle Mike at the start in Hopkinton — used to sing it to my grandmother. Coming on the heels of seeing my mom and Uncle Mike, and considering the sorry state I was in, the song packed a particularly emotional punch. I started sobbing — and yet, because of my state of dehydration, there were no actual tears.
“Do it for Fred!” I told myself. “No more walking the rest of the way!”
And so off I went, fighting the good fight, pressing on all the way to Mile 25 — that is, until my body started shutting down again. Upon further review, I decided that Fred, ever the personality, would probably be eating up the crowd experience instead of beating himself up for having an off-day.
And so, I vowed to soak up the moment. Slowing to a walk again, with perhaps a mile to go, I heard a complete stranger scream out: “C’mon, Tim! Boston strong, baby!” Nodding dutifully, I sped up to a shuffle. The crowd went berserk.
Infused with this conquering spirit, I turned right on Hereford Street, the race’s final hill — a tiny block-long incline nicknamed “Mount Hereford.”
“To the finish!” I cried.
Chugging up, my left calf started convulsing like crazy. Then my right calf joined in the protest. Not to be stopped, I pushed on, lifting my toes and stomping on like a savage caveman.
From there, it was a left turn onto Boylston Street, where I expected to see the finish line only steps ahead. But in a final cruel joke, the Boston Marathon places the actual finish about 600 meters down the road.
I’d started my kick too early. My calves were going haywire, and now my quads and hamstrings were seizing up, too. It was a nuclear explosion of leg pain. I had to stop one final time, collecting some energy (and a f—- race photographer was there to immortalize the moment).
“Let’s go!” someone screamed. “You’re right THERE!”
Regrouping, I broke into a plod, then accelerated to a shuffle, then, when the finish was truly near, I pulled myself together for what might charitably be called a “kick” to the finish.
IN WHICH TIM IS CROWNED FIRST IN SOMETHING:
Is the Boston Marathon really all that hard?
Certainly, there are more challenging marathon courses. And even in Boston, there have been hotter years. While I know the heat got to me some, I was initially at a loss for what exactly had gone wrong.
My legs, of course, were in tons of pain. I felt, too, like I’d been sapped of life. This is pretty standard after a marathon, though. By now, marching onward from the finish line, I joined the mass of people getting draped in those metallic sheets to stay warm. Their reflections made for a really bright ambiance that irritated my eyes.
“Excuse me,” I asked a woman with a wheelchair. “Can I, um, sit down?”
“Not unless you need to go to medical,” she said. “How are you feeling?”
“A little dizzy.”
“All right, sit down!”
The woman whisked me into the medical tent. It was hopping in there. Runners were sprawled out on cots, showing various degrees of agony. The guy to my left was puking. The guy to my right was hooked up to an IV.
The doctor set me down on a cot and took my pulse and blood pressure.
“Get this guy a bullion cube,” he called out to an aide.
I probably laid there for about 15 minutes before the doctor cleared me to go. He gave me a sheet of paper to carry to the check-out table that listed my pulse and blood pressure (along with the word “coherent” circled). At the table, they informed me I couldn’t leave yet because my doctor had forgotten to sign it. They asked me to go back to him. Then they said, “Nevermind, we’ll do that.” While they were gone, I got dizzy again.
And so, back I went to the cot.
It was almost pleasant lying there. I had no idea bullion cubes dissolved in a cup of hot water can be so refreshing. After another 15 minutes, the doctor came back.
“You’re looking a lot better now,” he said. “You think you’re actually ready this time?”
“I think so.”
“Because I don’t want to see you again,” he said, smiling.
“I don’t want to see you either.”
So it hadn’t been my day. I’d missed my goal time by about 30 minutes. But there was one achievement that belonged to me alone. As I was getting up to go, feeling a bit more steady now, my doctor’s assistant handed me my check-out paper.
“Tim,” she said, “is our first medical re-entry of the day.”