My writing production schedule has slowed this year, but for good reason. Two days ago on Monday April 17th, 2017, I ran in the 121st Boston Marathon. It was my fourth marathon and it was by far the most memorable one. See, in order to have something to write about, it helps to get out there and really LIVE, to challenge yourself, to choose the hard road, to go after the big goal — the one you think is beyond your reach.
About ten years ago I was suffering from chronic pain so bad that doctors told me to give up running. I said, “No, you don’t understand. I have to run.” Runners get it. It’s your soul. Who you are. Running, as hard as it was, made me feel better. It made me feel alive. It gave me goals, the first of which was to get better. To do that, I had to take better care of myself, and as many women can probably relate to, that meant I had to stop always putting others first. At my lowest, the pain was so bad I could barely sleep. I woke up regularly at 3 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep. I could barely walk across Wal-Mart or transfer the laundry from the washer to the dryer. I would have spasms in my back and shoulders and hips so bad that sitting through a car ride or one of my kids’ school programs was excruciatingly painful. I couldn’t appreciate life much because it was full of pain.
So I went to other doctors. Researched on the internet. Figured out myself that chronic myofascial pain was my issue. And then I shunned the pain pills and sought the help that made me better. But it didn’t happen overnight. It happened in small almost undetectable bits, mostly through chiropractic care and therapeutic massages. I worked to get stronger, to maintain flexibility, and I kept running, returning to 5Ks, then building to half marathons. There were injuries and setbacks along the way. Three years ago I ran a (for me) blazing half marathon in 1:49:32, even though with two miles to go I felt a stabbing pain in my heel — what turned out to be a tendon tear. I ran every step of those last two miles on pace, even though every other stride was like a knife to the bottom of my foot. I had to take almost three months off after that. It was another six before I’d run another half.
In 2014 I decided I needed to tick ‘Run a Marathon’ off my Bucket List. It was meant to be a one-off. There were no aspirations beyond simply completing one. Somehow I ran a 4:08 on that first try. Out of curiosity, I looked up what it would take to qualify for Boston in my age group. Amazingly, I wasn’t that far off. So the real training started and in 2015 I met my qualifying time at the Columbus Marathon with a 3:56:56. But that didn’t mean I’d get in. They can only accommodate so many runners on the course (30,000 total). Fearful that my time wouldn’t make the cut-off, I trained for the 2016 Cleveland Marathon, hoping to better my time. It was supposed to be a fast course. It was in May. I anticipated wearing shorts. I was in awesome shape!
On race day it was 32 degrees, 25 mph winds, and SLEETING. The crowd was thin. The last few miles were on the shoreline highway, a long mile uphill, and absolutely nobody was out there. Demoralizing. Most miserable day of my life. I ended up 10 minutes slower. Looking back, that wasn’t so bad, given the conditions, but at the time, it left me with a sour feeling for marathons. My attitude was in the gutter.
Then, miracle of miracles, entries for Boston opened. I got in. Which meant I had another six months of training to do. Through the winter. I love running. But I hate running in the cold. I’m thankful for treadmills, though. They may be boring and you go nowhere, but at least you’re running.
The day for Boston came. The road has been almost ten years long. I should’ve done this in my twenties or thirties, I kept thinking, not wait until I was fifty. The temperature forecast for the day kept going up. By race time, it was in the low 70s, full sun, with a 20 mph tailwind. Practically tropical. Far from ideal when you’re used to training in the 40s and 50s.
The heat took its toll and although the race started well, it went downhill after about Mile 15. I realized I wasn’t sweating. The wind was evaporating every drop of moisture. The sun had robbed me of energy. Whenever I wiped my forehead expecting sweat, all I got was a handful of salt. My 9-minute miles slowed to over 11. My legs were loaded with lead. If it had been a training run, I would’ve bailed. But you don’t make it to Boston and quit. That little piece of hardware at the end is what you came for. You don’t go home without it. I wasn’t the only one struggling. In my four marathons I’ve never seen so many people walking, even though these were the better runners in their age groups, some of them veterans of a dozen or more marathons.
So at Mile 15 I made myself two deals: 1) don’t walk until I get to that first big hill in Newton, and 2) cross the damn finish line standing. It wasn’t about the time anymore, even though I’d gone into it hoping for sub-4. It was about surviving.
I also decided to just soak it all in. I slapped hands with 100 people in the first 6 miles. I looked at faces, listened to them cheering, absorbed the energy. There were thousands of volunteers and tens of thousands lining the roads all 26.2 miles. I passed amputees running on blades, blind runners, racers in wheelchairs. I listened to discarded water cups clattering behind me as the wind kicked up. Saw a house fire along the way, even. Walked up Heartbreak Hill. Ran the last mile. Slowly, but I ran.
As I went down Boylston Street along that last stretch, I took in the buildings and the signs being held up. Heard the noise. Felt the energy. This was the same place where four years earlier bombs had gone off, lives and limbs were lost. Some of those survivors have since come back to run at Boston. People besides me have overcome greater obstacles, I realized.
And I realized what can happen when people come together with a common goal, when strangers lend a helping hand or give an encouraging word. Good things can and do happen. Days like that make you look at life, and people, a little differently. Without all those cheering along the way, I’m not sure I would’ve made it to the end. I made it a point during the race to turn to the older runners and tell them they looked strong and were doing great. Words cost nothing, yet they have great currency.
Humankind is capable of so much. It gives me hope.
All my best,