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Monthly Archives: April 2014

Bucket List

I’m not big on bucket lists, probably because I am not yet willing to concede mortality. I really haven’t seen mortality work out well for other people in the long run.

For many years, casual conversations with new acquaintances have come around to running.

“So, you look like a runner.”

“Yeah.”

“Do you run marathons?”

“Yes.”

“Have you ever run Boston?”

Having answered “no,” I could see the expression on their faces change. I was tempted to explain, to say how many marathons I had run, what my marathon PR was, even to talk about my recent age group results. Then I looked into their eyes and decided to skip it. They were pretty sure that because I had not run Boston, I was a hack. The die was cast. This judgment stung less if the person I met asked what was the longest marathon I had run or how many miles Boston is versus other marathons. Once I had said that I had not run Boston, my new acquaintance’s judgment could not be redeemed.

Sure, I had other reasons to run Boston but I kept coming back to this one: I wanted to temper the judgment of people just meeting me, even if they knew nothing about marathons other than that Boston is a very famous marathon. It’s probably not a great idea to let judgments of ignorant people drive your behavior. Even so, I entered Boston the morning after completing Ironman Wisconsin. Lacking my own ignorance of endurance athletic events has not improved my judgment.

Flow

Running the Boston Marathon was not the only reason for our trip to Boston. Our daughter, Katie, rows for Bowdoin College. On the Saturday morning before Monday’s marathon, Katie and her boat rowed in the Greater Boston Invitational.

The morning air was crisp, breeze strong and skies brilliantly blue. The river was high and ran brown, swift and turbulent. Rowing up river to the start would take time and energy. Then it would be tricky, even dangerous, to turn the nearly 60 foot boat around. This meant taking the narrow, twitchy racing shell and turning it perpendicular to the churning current. Even experienced rowers were cautious and concerned.

Katie’s boat was fast. They had been instructed to get out front in their first heat and to keep Amherst just off their stern, expending only that energy necessary to keep Amherst about a boat length behind. The object was not to taunt Amherst but that was the effect. As it happened, Katie and her boat executed that tactic perfectly, though it is not clear just exactly how annoyed Amherst felt. Katie said that it was actually harder than racing all out. The discipline to slow down and control stroke rate was more difficult than responding to the animal spirits that naturally rise when racing.

In the finals, Bowdoin’s coach told the girls to let the horses out. And they did.

It’s tempting to think of strength as the shuddering motion of a weight lifter jerking a barbell from floor to mid-thigh, mid-thigh to chest, then, with a pained grunt and red face, pressing the barbell overhead. The strength of Katie’s boat differed. It was the strength of unison and grace, four rowers and the coxswain acting in perfect synchronization. Smooth muscles, broad shoulders, open faces fixed in concentration. It looked too smooth, too fluid, too quiet to be powerful. But Katie’s boat opened a gap on the other boats in the finals and that gap just kept widening. The other boats became increasingly small off Bowdoin’s stern. Turns out that it was crushing strength delivered at the ends of perfectly orchestrated oars pulled by four college girls organized by a tiny coxswain stowed in the bow.

Tell the truth. If you saw these girls on the street, would “strong” be the first word that came to your mind?

 

Image Bowdoin College Rowing Club Women’s Varsity 1 Boat. Left to right: Katie, Emily, Sophie, Courtney and MB.

The 2014 Boston Marathon

Advice from a School Bus

Two bits of advice for running a marathon: First, get some sleep the night before. I got none. I worried about my friend Warren who had recently entered the hospital. His brain tumor had progressed and it had become too difficult to stay home. I hoped that he was comfortable. I worried that I would not hear my alarm. I worried about the race. I worried about Katie soon moving to Boston, a big city, a great city, but not exactly the cocoon into which a dad fancies gently depositing his daughter.

My second bit of advice involves point-to-point marathons like Boston. Don’t pay too much attention to the drive from the finish area out to the start. The Boston Marathon course runs from rural Hopkinton east toward downtown Boston. At around 6:15 a.m., I joined more than 32,000 other runners and boarded one of 588 buses near the finish line in downtown Boston. I was to start in the first wave of runners at 10:00, almost four hours after boarding the bus.

I sat near a 25 year-old math teacher from Wisconsin named Chris. This would be his second marathon. Chris and I watched the miles roll by the fogged windows of the school bus as the rising sun painted inbound Boston traffic orange. Cars crept along in the opposite lane as we headed from the urban heart of Boston into the wooded outskirts.

Most runners chatted amicably. Others closed their eyes and tried to rest. Chris and I noticed how long it had taken us at highway speeds before we arrived at the start. It looked like an awful long way back to where we caught the bus to begin. We decided that it was probably best not to think too much about how far we had come on the bus and how far we needed to go to get to the finish line.

Walking from the buses to the high school grounds in Hopkinton that formed the “runners village,” a guy beside me pointed out police snipers on the roof of the gymnasium. Military helicopters whirred overhead.

Chris and I stuck together and staked out a spot on an athletic field near the Hopkinton high school. I had brought a garbage bag to use as a disposable shell for warmth. We put the garbage bag on the ground and sat out of the breeze. The field was sparsely populated when we first sat down but soon teemed with runners who queued up to use the port-a-potties that rimmed the field. The lines grew so long that runners went to the bathroom, grabbed their Gatorades and got into line again. (Katie, I don’t think that this is the “circle of life” that they sang about in “The Lion King” but I can’t be certain.)

Chris and I were in the first of four waves of approximately 9,000 runners each. Chris was in Corral 3, I in Corral 9 of that first wave. I was among the “worst of the first.” Runners placed in the first wave were the fastest runners and were segregated within waves by corral according to expected finish times. The public address announcer called each corral into a parking lot for staging, then sent them on a 0.7 mile walk toward the start line.

When my corral was called, I tossed my sweatshirt onto a pile gathered for donation to charity and began my long walk. The road to the start area was narrow and lined with modest homes. Temporary fences separated us from a few spectators and lots of cops standing in their bulletproof vests. I looked down at the pavement and saw my shadow. I saw my misshapen hat, the one I have used since the 2002 Ironman Wisconsin. I saw my skinny legs and lithe shape. The shadow reassured me. I could do this thing.

If I Can Get to the Start

In Corral 9, I looked up a hill onto the horizon. There I spotted the sign for Corral 4. This meant that I could not see the starting line or the 4,000 runners closest to the start. I amended my confident statement to myself: I knew that I could finish if I could make it to the start. It was the starting part that now seemed dubious.

A guy from Texas stood beside me. He said that he was coaching an athlete to ride the Race Across America, a bike race often requiring that racers ride more than 24 hours without stopping.

“That’s pretty sick,” I said with the authority of someone standing in Wave 1 at the Boston Marathon.

“By the time you are training for RAAM,” he said, “you are likely missing some of the signposts that something is off.”

Then the guy described his own issues with his shoulder following a bike accident. He talked about simultaneously suffering a deep bone infection, using an antibiotic pump, indoor training rides and qualifying for the Ironman World Championships. Even in this sea of fitness zealots, this guy stood out as a certifiable wack job. This conversation was curiously reassuring. At least I knew what things would look like when the cheese slid entirely off my own cracker.

We were too far back to hear the public address announcer or the starting gun. We knew that the race had begun when we saw runners near the crest of the hill in the distance begin to walk slowly over the top of the hill. We crept ever so slowly to begin, then walked. Finally, near the starting line, some guys began to jog. At the crest of the hill, I spotted the starting line banner overhead. When I got to the timing mats at the start line, I looked up to see that the race had started six-and-a-half minutes earlier. So far as I could tell, we received no credit for the distance we had covered just to get to the starting line.

The Boston Marathon course proceeded by degrees from rural to urban. Tree enshrouded ponds gave way to used car lots. Then the homes improved, going from small, sparsely distributed homes to mansions. Transmission and muffler shops gave way to Starbucks and Paper Source. Each town marked its border with banners, Natick, Newton, Wellesley, Brookline. The terrain undulated with the biggest hills in Newton and Wellesley.

The crowds, thinner at first, built through the course. Spectators don’t usually think that a marathon is about them so much as it is about the runners. Actually, a marathon is very much about the spectators, the inspiration they provide, the inspiration that they receive. This was never more so than the 2014 Boston Marathon. After all, it was the spectators, not the runners, who bore the brunt of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. The 2014 event was the biggest collective psychotherapy session in history. Countless signs said “Boston Strong” while others simply said “Martin” to commemorate the youngest fatality of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. A few signs were sad but the overwhelming majority were celebratory, only emphasizing what this race was regaining, not what had been lost. Most signs were made by hand. Some supported friends or family but most said something personal to support the Boston Marathon as a community – runners, spectators, cops, volunteers. To come out and cheer was an act of defiance, catharsis and strength. It was a way to reclaim territory and tradition that Bostonians felt had been taken away, if only temporarily.

So people picnicked in their yards. College kids lined the course in front of Wellesley and Boston College. The Wellesley girls yelled so loudly that my ears rang. Students in Tufts hats worked several water stops. Little kids held up hands looking for high fives from runners. We were all looking for ways to connect again, to recreate the community that it was before.

The crowds along the course had been sparser early on in Hopkinton but swelled steadily as we neared Boston. I have run no other race during which people cheered so loudly, so sincerely, so constantly. By the time we were near Boston University the spectators lined the course several people deep. What had been enthusiastic cheers became a constant din; it was like the sound of crowds cheering home runs in an indoor major league baseball stadium – but these home runs kept coming so frequently as to not let the spectators stop clapping and cheering for even a second.

Nearing the finish, most marathons thin out. You cross the line by yourself or with one or two others. In Boston, I shared my finish with a steady flow of runners. It felt good to share.

Before the Start

Earlier that day, while we were sitting in the field on the garbage bag, Chris asked for advice. This was, after all, only his second marathon. I was happy to help. I had run my first marathon long before Chris was born. I told Chris what I knew about the topography of the course and how the hills would affect pacing. I suggested places at which he should pay particular attention to his pace. I told him about nutrition and hydration. He said thanks.

I paused and reflected for a few seconds. “All that may be helpful,” I said, “but it is not my real advice.”

Chris looked a little puzzled.

I thought for a few more seconds about all of those perfectly clear mornings when Warren and I had raced Wildflower. I remembered the warmth of the sun and the smell of the breeze blowing off Lake San Antonio. I recalled the blue green lake rimming the brown, grassy hills dotted with live oaks. Then I thought of Warren lying in the hospital in Mountain View. I hoped that he was comfortable.

“You never know when you will have another day like this,” I offered. “This is a great opportunity and it may not ever come again. Look up at the clear sky and feel the sunshine, hear the sounds of other runners around you and listen to the crowd cheering you on. Take it in. Take it all in.”

Chris smiled at me as he stood to leave. We shook hands and he disappeared into a sea of runners gathering in the parking lot before they walked down the hill.

Boston Strong

I still don’t know what people mean by “Boston Strong” but I was sensitive to the many ways that I saw strength on my trip to Boston. I think that strength derives from many sources and comes in many forms. American society has a special affinity for the rugged individual, the person strong enough to stand on his or her own but my weekend in Boston proved that a whole bunch of people working for the same purpose are a lot stronger than any one of us, whether it was a crew of unlikely looking college girls or a million people standing along a marathon course cheering for 32,000 runners. Sometimes strength is graceful and beautiful. Sometimes it’s just getting up in the morning and putting one foot in front of the other because there is no other choice. Sometimes it’s just someone holding up a handmade sign with your name on it.

Image Katie and I shortly after I finished the 2014 Boston Marathon

 

Special thanks to Collin and Paula Burke who came to see the race and bought me Boston pizza afterward. And, as always, thanks to Margy for marshaling all logistics. Margy makes everything look easy, especially the hard stuff.

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