Running the Boston Marathon-1993

I don't know how many people have told me that I'm crazed. But the reaction I get when I tell someone I'm running in the Boston marathon is either a "that's wonderful -- how exciting!" or a "you must be out of your mind..."

Usually, it's the latter. And if the person I'm talking with is not a runner or bicyclist or someone who enjoys the pleasures of a workout, then the conversation usually turns toward the health hazards of rigorous exercise. I've been told to watch for vitamin depletion, unexpected calcifications, loss of sensation in the private bits, shin splints, and even unexplained loss of sleep. It's touching, really, especially the ones that are worried about vague causal factors like "getting the body too riled up..."

So it's hard to explain sometimes why you'd even want to run so far. The marathon is 26.2 miles, a distance that takes me about three hours and fifteen minutes to run. It *is* difficult to run that long, but it's not a superhuman feat, no matter what you might have been told. It's mostly just long and tiring rather than heroic.

But as someone one said about practicing the viola, "the epiphanies come in practice." Don't mistake me, running the marathon will be tremendously exciting; there's nothing quite like the sensation of running into the chutes at the finish line, all of the cheers, hearing your name and time called out over the PA -- it's a little like being born and first love and finally getting permission to stop all at once. It's relief, desire and fulfillment borne over the past several months all condensed sweetly into that final few minutes of running.

As wonderful as that is, it's not really why I run. I run to stay healthy, certainly (motherly concerns about being over-riled notwithstanding), and I run to explore the territory and satisfy my curiosity about the geography and topography of the places I run. But I've trained for this marathon for just over a year, ever since Ramana suggested one morning that we try to make it.

So I've been running six days a week for the past year just to make it to Boston. Or have I? Seems to me that running is about, well, not to put too fine a Zenish point on it, running. Like anything else, once you've put enough hours of practice into a skill, the doing of the skill transcends the normal, pedestrian everyday experience. Once you get past the first thousand hours or so, the act of running becomes larger than the little aches and pains of physical motion. When I run, I'm moving over terrain; I glide through topography; my body becomes the vehicle that transports me through space. This is an odd, almost out-of-body feeling that starts to happen when you run long miles for training. More than a few times I've run and had the feeling that it would be fun to explore down this road; so I turn, and run down this road. Natural enough, but when you're running 18 or 20 miles, these side roads and random ventures can be two or three miles long each. That kind of distance really begins to change the nature of the experience. You cross towns on a whim and run over sizeable chunks of real estate just to see what's on the other side. On more than one occasion I've run north around a mountain or decided to shift to another watershed during a run. It's the change in scale that's so quietly dramatic. You stop worrying about distance and begin thinking about time -- "if I go this way, will it take another hour?"

On the other hand, there's a definite limit to what you can do. Although I haven't measured it, I'll bet there's a linear decrease in mental agility as a function of distance run. Your appreciation doesn't diminish, but I find that it gets tougher and tougher to figure the minutes per mile, or average speed the farther you go. I have this suspicion that my personal distance limit is more a computational one than a physical one. After some amount of running, my computational ability will deteriorate so much that I won't be able to figure out where I am!

Another downside to all this running for training is a subtle, but growing sense of "body linearity", for lack of a better phrase. While I try to run on a variety of terrains (grassy slopes, mountain trails, curved roads, as well as long straight lines of asphalt), I still have the feeling that my whole body motions are becoming optimized for going in straight line running motions. It's not as if I've taken on the aspect of a giant knee brace and just moving up-down / back-forth, but I'm not sure that dancing in a conga line is what I'm good at these days.

Each marathon takes about 8 weeks of focused training. (Assuming you have some kind of base running to start from.) In those 8 weeks, you'll run from 40 to 60 miles each week. Since it takes (me at least) about an hour to run 8 miles, you figure it's going to take about 5 to 7 hours of running each week. Then there's stretching (about 15 mins each time), the showers and assorted stuff that comes along with working out -- so, call it 6 hrs running + 2 hrs setup time -- 8 hrs per week. Or, over the entire training time, about 64 hours of work. So all told, it's about a 1.5 week's worth of training to prep for the marathon.

There are some people who take this to an extreme -- people who do triathalons and ultras, for example, train much more than this, but then, that's their life and defining ethic. In the large scheme of things, spending the time to prepare for a marathon is, to my mind, largely the value in the event. All those runs, all that country seen -- in those 60 odd hours there is beauty, hard work and a whole set of conceptual and physical experiences that are just a little beyond what most people see in their daily lives. And as happens with the perceptual shift of running as distance vs. running as time, the entire experience of training is transforming.

Running isn't the only way to get beyond the normal. Some fly, others climb rocks, others play music -- I don't think which mechanism much matters. The hours devoted to a singleminded pursuit and a close appreciation for what that gives you is reward enough.


[Day before Marathon Day]

Sign on bulletin board in local running shop: "Marathon bib wanted -- will pay up to $100. Must have!" There were 5 more signs with the same desparate message, all from different people.

Overheard at the hotel's front desk: "No ma'am, I'm sorry, we don't have any rooms available. I think the next available hotel room will be in New Hampshire... it's Marathon Weekend...."

Everywhere you go, there's marathon memorabilia for sale, or special advertisements that equate the sponsor's longevity with the race. (It's remarkable to me how many products have been around Boston for 100 years.)

On Boylston Street, in front of the main Boston library, they're setting up the grandstands. This evening I saw a couple semi-trailers full of portapotties driving off down the course to begin setting up the facilities.

And today's only Thursday. The race isn't until next Monday at noon, four days hence.

So it feels a little like the locals are preparing for an invasion. When I told one Bostonian my clever plan of leaving two hours to drive my car to the airport (which is only 6 miles away), he laughed derisively and claimed that it would probably take more like 4 hours to drive there. "You'd be better off abandoning the car and walking, if you want to really want make a 7PM flight. Better yet, buy your subway token TODAY and just plan on leaving all your luggage at the airport."

Hmm. This is the kind of story that makes sober men pause.

I went for a short run this afternoon. It was just 5 miles up and down the dirt path that parallels this stretch of the Charles River. The weather has lightened up considerably. When I first arrived, it looked like cold, snow and deep water were to be expected, but this afternoon was glorious. A cool breeze sailed downriver, the sun emerged from scattered high, broken clouds, God was in his heaven and all was right with the world. I ran along the wide river, with racing shells skittering past on the water, lots of other runners out... all doing the same thing... lots with marathon t-shirts on.

Then why is it that the last few runs before the marathon are always scary? Two days ago I went to the track to do one last calibration run -- you know, practicing your pace and reminding yourself exactly how much effort you've got to exert in order to get a desired pace. For Boston, I'm hoping for a 7:30 pace over the 26 miles. At the track, on Tuesday, I run that pace... and it feels terrible! You think to yourself, "How can I possibly keep that pace up for 5 miles, let alone 26?"

Here's where practice really helps. At the last marathon, the same thing happened: a few days before the Sacramento Marathon, I did a 5 mile run at 7:30, and felt as though I was working pretty hard. Uncomfortably hard. It was depressing because it meant that I might not qualify for Boston. But then, after a couple days of rest, and in the excitement of the race, I ran a 7:20 pace over the full marathon distance without killing myself! The excitement value of race day is not to be underestimated.

I hope this happens again, otherwise it will be a very long run.

The only other challenge now is to eat decently while on the road. Always a challenge at the best of times, and especially important now that I've got this longish run coming up in a few days. Focus, gotta focus....


[Marathon Day]

It was early in the pre-dawn morning when I arrived downtown. Even then, the line of butterscotch yellow school buses seemed to stream beyond forever along the edge of the Boston Common. Some 37,000 runners were being shipped from downtown to the small town of Hopkinton, a little over 26 miles away. We were being taken there so we could find our own way back along the path of the 100th Boston Marathon.

A dozen buses pulled away and headed off, sending a wave of runners out of town. Another dozen buses pulled up and we got aboard, wrapped in pullovers against the morning chill, waving goodbye to those friends brave enough to face the morning challenge with us.

The bus ride to the starting line is always startling -- it always seems to take much longer than you'd think. "I'm supposed to run back *this* far?" The trip out always seems extreme.

But eventually you arrive at the staging area. This time it was the Hopkington High School, with three huge tents and runners scattered absolutely everywhere. Someone said "it's like the runner's Woodstock" and that's pretty close to the mark. It was muddy (rained the night before) and although they'd put down straw and countless barrels of kittylitter, people everywhere sought out things to stand or sit on to avoid the mud. More than a few wore plastic bags over their feet, looking like exiles from a clean room wearing running tights and eating Powerbars.

We stood, sat, lounged, and even slept for four hours in the staging area. There was a band playing R&B tunes, there were thousands of uneaten Dunkin' Doughnuts (who would eat doughnut before a marathon??) and an unbroken plain of runners meandering around the fields. Remarkably, everyone seemed very relaxed about the whole thing. Usually, there's a kind of heightened tension, a background of anxiety as runners plot strategy and carefully monitor their body state, preparing for a focussed effort.. just not today... this run was the run everyone had been working for... this run was the party, the celebration.. this was the run to relax and enjoy, and that attitude came across through the mud, over the doughnuts and filled the schoolyard air. Hey, the sun was out, it wasn't raining, it was a perfect temperature, and -- by God! -- you'd made it to Boston!

Unlike most marathons that start early in the morning, Boston starts at noon. So sometime around 11, the herd started moving toward the start area. As we went, people were stretching on the warm grass of someone's front yard, and peeing into the bushes of the good Hopkington townfolk. It's a wonder that hydrangeas and lilacs survive in that town.

Also unlike most runs, the marathon is so huge that they make chutes organized by runner number. I was 13583, so I wandered around a bit looking for the section of pavement marked by a number 13 high on a stick overhead. There were 3 streets feeding into the start zone -- each about 1/2 mile long, each with 10 chutes, each chute packed with about a thousand runners. And every runner had a story they were swapping with someone at their side.

5 mins to start: people begin taking off their disposable outer layers and ejecting them up and outward from the mass of runners; trees along the course rapidly begin acquiring a new set of cotton, poly and lycra leaves. It seems everyone has a camera (I did!) and started taking pictures at the same time. People bend down to adjust their shoe laces and the "ChampionChip" tied into their shoelaces (a passive resonator that marks when you cross the start line; a 12 byte string; can detect up to 1,000 runners / second).

At noon, on a clear, crisp, rural New England day, we hear the starting gun over the loudspeakers, and a cheer goes up from the pack. We've begun! There's a little surge forward, but there's no sense of desperation as there often is; no one's trying to skirt around the edges of the pack, no one's trying to skinny through in a hurry and no one's zig-zagging back and forth. It's a party, let's enjoy it!

The music played, the conversation scarcely slowed and the atmosphere in the pack was festive as the long, goofy conga line started, slowly pulsing forward. Amazingly, it only took me five minutes of jog-walk-stop-jog-walk-stop before I turned the corner and crossed the startline. The crowd was cheering, the grandstand with Boston Athletic Association officials, mayors and whatnot was beside the television booth, and as far as the eye could see down the road was a continuous stream of runners weaving through the trees.

It's a wonderful thing, seeing so many people bent on just having a good time, and then to see so many other people cheering them onward toward Boston.

The course wends through rural/urban New England. Pass through a town center, complete with sign (Newton, organized 1639), a train, a steepled white church, and with traditionally organized hodgepodge of shops cheek by jowl with the rigidly rectilinear strip malls.

Running. Running. Running.

The course is a vaugely straight line toward downtown Boston, with just a few shallow turns that add interest and a chance to look back along the line of the run. The composite organism that was the pack moved along over the map of the land inching ever toward Boston.

The early miles just flowed past, covered in the excitement of being there. They were mostly a slight downhill, or flat and completely lined by cheering throngs. And that's when I realized that the most salient thing about the Boston Marathon isn't the terrain, the competition or the architecture, but it is the crowds along the way.

Most marathons are held at an early time and on roads that are chosen to minimize traffic disruptions to the surrounding communities. So it's often Sunday morning, early, when the roads are closed. As a consequence, marathons are usually just for the runners and the runners' family and friends. Oh, a few folks might come down to watch, but the rule is that there are long stretches of quiet time, long stretches of empty roads.

But not here. This marathons features wall-to-wall people for 26.2 miles. And at all the big sweeping turns, the finish area or the famous hills of Newton, there's an immensity of spectators, and a tangible sense of support and encouragement that just sweeps you along, caught up in the excitement and heady vibrance of the run.

Somewhere around mile 12, you run through Wellesley. I've never been to Wellesley before, but I instantly knew where I was from the sound. Although it's not a long strech along the college, there's a very superheterodyne intense wall of sound of young female voices all screaming at once. They're screaming for you, they're screaming for the people around you... it's an amazing section of road.

And you keep running, running, running.

Runners in my cohort know that the run will take about 3.5 hours. If you work really hard, you can take 15, maybe 20 minutes off by pushing the pace and really focussing every moment on form and position, optimizing with every step. But in this run, in this mobile party, you could just sort of run with your cohort and watch it change over time.

This slowly shifting group always happens, but it was more evident by the relaxed pace. You start out within a group of runners at more-or-less your speed, but as the miles flow by, people pass and some slow down, so the local group slowly evolves into a little community. There's the guy with the funny red shorts, and the woman who's running with an odd left foot strike, there's a guy with the bald head, and the runner in bright blue with a long, striding step.

Somewhat surprisingly, your cohort makes a difference. All along the way, the Boston crowd loves to cheer the runners on. And while you'll hear them occasionally yell "Go 13528!! Go!!!", it's not as warm, personal or as much fun as cheering someone with a more personal description. For a while I ran near a runner wearing a cardboard model of the Old North Church. (Really! Remember: it's Patriot's Day in Boston, Paul Revere, one-if-by-land...) His goal was to run the Boston Marathon and then next month run in the Bay-to-Breakers in San Francisco. Fair enough. But while I worked my way slowly past him, you could sense the change in the crowd's mood in the area right around him. "YAAAAH!!! GO OLD NORTH!!!!" He was working harder than most (it must have weighed 10, maybe 15 pounds), but he ran in a circle of extraordinary crowd support; a ring of encouragement moving down the roadway toward Boston.

That's not to say there wasn't amazing encouragement anyway. Perhaps the thing I'll remember most about the Boston Marathon are all of the faces, especially those of the kids along the way. For miles and miles and miles there were little kids right along the edge of the run, looking up at you, holding out small slices of orange for you to eat, lifting tiny Dixie cups of water, and everywhere, little hands hoping to get a high-5 touch from a passing runner. It wasn't a few hundred, it was most likely a few tens of thousands of little kids -- all hoping you'll take their orange, their water. That much hope, that much support, that much admiration, all those small faces looking up in joy and expectation is the image I'll take back from Boston.

Running. Moving on. Catch some more water, maybe a cup of Gatorade this time. Don't stop running, just drink while breathing through your nose and it'll go down right. How're the legs? Okay? Maybe eat a packet of Goo? (Easily digested energy source.) Grab another orange from a kid and keep easing on down the road.

Mile 20 is the big mental hurdle. Once you reach 20, the rest of the run is within your grasp; it's just a 10K run from here on out, and you know you can run a 10K, you've done it a million times before.

At mile 21 you catch your first glimpse of the Prudential tower. It's the finish line, and although it's a little smaller than you'd like to see, it's still quite a sight, when you're that tired. It's also the place where you're clearly in Boston, and, if anything, the crowds intensify -- the cheering grows even more exuberant, the Boston accents become a little more pronounced and there's a growing wonderful feeling that the finish line is really coming near.

The big triangular Citgo sign is at mile 25, and marks the beginning of an outpouring of emotion from within. The finish line is just a little over a mile away, at this pace it's probably only 8 minutes more to run, but all of the memories of runs past start to well up inside -- you've trained for a long time to get here, and finally the dream is made real. Up ahead is the final turn onto Boylston Street and the last couple hundred yards; thousands upon thousands line the roadways and look down from the buildings; it's a sea of sound and motion all around. All of your friends know you're here, it's an emotional and physical cacaphony of shouts, love, investment, passion, work, hopes and dreams. It's the last hundred meters of the marathon; how can I absorb this all, this swell of sound and image, this moment you've worked for over a year.... the swell picks you up and carries along past the library and in an eyeblink over the threshold of the finish line.

You're there.

It's over. The tears well up, making little puddles at the salty corners of your eyes and start trickling down your cheek.

And then the guy in front of you throws up. Oh well, he's just feeling poorly, it's been a long run and some people just have delicate tummies. Oh no, again. And again. And again. Poor guy. Better to dance around him and avoid the whole thing. The medics were right there, supporting him, making sure he would be okay.

I have to tell you, I actually felt pretty good at the end. I know it seems like a strange thing, but I really did just sort of mosey along the run, not pushing, not worrying about times or paces, but just enjoying the whole thing. Although at this moment, there were a LOT of very unhappy runners. Intellectually, I know they were ecstatic, but physically, they were in another place all together. Several people were in wheelchairs, being too unsteady to walk the rest of the way though the chutes.

The chutes were *really* long, going all the way to the end of Boylston and back to the Boston Common from whence we came. We picked up our aluminumized mylar blankets, turning the column of runners into a sea of walking baked potato lookalikes.

The walk to the bus to retrieve the bag of stuff I'd left in Hopkinton was anticlimactic after the emotional high of the finish line, but so it goes. I collected my stuff, picked up my medal, and walked onto the Boston Common with a deeply satisfied smile.

I was here, I'd run the course, and it was time to turn my attention to other things.

But for the rest of my days, I'll remember this run in this place on this bright, clear, cool day in New England. The memories will grow more faded around the edges, and the sequence of events will become somewhat disordered, but the faces of the little kids along the route, looking up with hope and admiration and shyness, holding out an orange piece, and the sound of the crowd as I turned the corner will never leave. I've run Boston.

(c) Daniel M. Russell -- Last edited September 23, 2006 -- Home page