Monday, April 22, 2013

A Tale of Two Races

This is about the Boston Marathon - both my experiences and some commentary about the explosions that took life and limbs from so many.

I'm still not convinced it's clever, but I've struggled a healthy amount with the name for this post.

It was going to be A Tale of Two Cities, but that's wrong, because it's a shining example about how the one and only Boston acted before and after.

It was going to be called Two Races, One City, but I'm terrified that if you don't get the reference to the disgusting video of a similar name, you're going to go on a google mission and lose both your lunch and all remaining respect you have for me.  #fortheloveofgoddontgooglethat

It was going to be called The Plight of the 4:10 Marathoner, and while that may be the best title, I feel as though it may rub those fresh wounds a little raw, or be wholly misunderstood.

So it remains A Tale of Two Races, and I'll lay it out as best I can.

My race:
The Boston Marathon gradually went from being totally off my radar to being a huge focus without much pomp or circumstance.

When I was at MIT, the marathon fell on the third day of a four-day weekend.  This = party.  We lived about a 3-minute walk from Kenmore Square, so we'd watch on TV and drink beer until the elite runners were nearby.  We'd hurry over to Kenmore to watch them blitz by, then hang out for two or three hours more, cheering for the hordes of runners that came behind.  I did this all four years I was there, and it was a fantastic way to spend a day.  At that point in my life, running a marathon was wholly beyond my comprehension.  It was so far out there that running the Boston Marathon never made it on to my list of stuff to do.

Well, fast-forward a few years, and a marathon doesn't seem so awful any more.  Still, however, Boston wasn't on my list of must-do races.  After I got hit by a car last summer and missed Embrunman, I desperately needed some race to work towards to motivate my recovery.  Conveniently, I had a run a qualifying time for Boston a few months prior, so I decided to cash that chip in and make Boston a goal.  Being on the other side of the barriers than when I was a student seemed really attractive, all of a sudden, and I wanted to go big.

For about the last 7 months, I did just that in my training.  I set lofty goals for the race, trained like I meant it, and slowly morphed into something of a decent runner.  A couple of big training blocks hit me hard.  In January, I ran 148 miles in 10 days, which included an accidental marathon.  Yes, such a thing is possible.  In March, I ran 112 miles in 7 days, and that week put me into a pretty deep hole.  I spent the next five or so weeks chasing away some aches and pains, and thought I had it handled.  Of note, I had a sore foot that felt fine when I ran, but hurt when I walked or slept or whatever else, so I conveniently ignored it.  Ha ha ha, dramatic foreshadowing.

Race day.

The atmosphere in Boston and in Hopkinton before the race is electric.  It's swarmed with enthusiastic people, and the sheer logistics of getting 27,000 people to the start and through the race course are staggering.  It's NUTS.  I had earned a pretty good starting position, but when the gun goes off, all we're able to do is walk.  When we cross the start line, we're jogging, and within a couple hundred meters, we're essentially up to speed.  The crowd support is unreal.  At times, the cheering is deafening, and the energy is tangible.  The college students take the cake for enthusiasm.  Nearly every mile marker has a clock next to it, and those miles keep melting away in six minutes, plus or minus a few seconds.  This is good.  The training has paid off.  The hammer is down.

Wellesley is everything it's cracked up to be.  A single guy (or girl) who isn't concerned with his (or her) time could do well along the sidelines there.  The miles melt away.  I can feel that twinge in my right foot, and it feels like it's extra sensitive to every wrinkle in the pavement, but there's no pain.  The first half-marathon goes by in a PR time: 1:19 flat.

Somewhere around the Newton hills, the twinge in my foot actually starts to hurt.  My pace slows enough that I can feel it.  Then, over the course of just over a mile, between the 30k and 20mi markers, it becomes unbearable.  My foot feels like it's swollen to twice its normal size, and every footfall is matched with an excruciating electric shock.  When I crest the hill to begin the ideally-fast descent into Boston, my race pretty much ends.  My legs feel great (relatively), but the added impact of the downhill on my foot is a no-go.  I slow to an unsightly limp.  Compared to those around me, I begin moving backwards quickly.  Like, really quickly.  They're running by me in droves, and it's pretty obvious to me what the problem with my foot is.  Or we can call it a problem with my shoe, since my shoe isn't normally filled with broken bones.

By the time I reach Kenmore Square, I'm reduced to a grimacing mess.  The crowds are insane, but I'm barely aware.  I have given up 9 minutes in the last 6 miles of the race.  I manage a PR, but my ideal race went out the window with those stress fractures.  I peg-leg across the finish line and limp towards the med tent (first time ever, thanks), pausing along the way to collect silver blanket (100m from finish line), medal (another 100m), water (another 100m), food (another 100m), and navigate around a couple corners.  I find Ethel further down the block, sit for a while, wait for Velsko to show up, and then hobble off to get a the bar, where they sell pain medication.

As I slide into the quiet cab and out of the raucous environment that I've been in for the last few hours (and days), I reflect briefly about how spectacularly the city has supported the race and the runners.  And not just the city as an organizing entity, but the residents of the city, too.  Boston has long stood behind its sports No Matter What, unless you're Bill Buckner.

We are only 1200 yards away, right at the corner of the Common at Charles St. and Beacon St., when we hear two big booms.

The City's Race:
Well, we all know what happened.

The day, of course, began like many Marathon Mondays before it. Stupendous logistics: road closures, traffic control, barriers, aid stations stacked with tens of thousands of cups.  Nervous runners with no greater concern than favorable weather.  Thousands upon thousands of genuinely cheerful volunteers. Medical staff expecting to deal with blisters, cramps, and other first-world problems.  It ended turned upside down.

Almost instantly, kind souls sprung into action.  Reports of doctors crossing the finish line and immediately offering their services.  Reports of others crossing the finish line and heading directly to donate blood, no matter how dilute with Gatorade.  And 5,000+ people publicly offering their beds and couches to displaced runners, families, and spectators.

Athletic events tend to be among the most pure gatherings out there.  Athletes seeking personal goals.  Spectators happy to support those athletes.  Volunteers and organizers enthusiastically providing the setting for it all to happen.  And running is an interesting example, as the everyman runner gets to be on the same course as the world-class runners.  Play basketball?  Sure, but not on the same court as the Celtics.  Play baseball?  Sure, but not on the same field as the Red Sox.  Run?  Great, you get to start right behind world record holders!

The general public seems to view runners as a little bit unhinged.  "You're running how far?  I don't even drive that far and I get tired" is a common one, whether at a 5k or a marathon.  So it's usually with some curiosity that the public will come out to watch runners do their thing.  And bless them, because their support is pretty awesome.

The bombs went off with 4:10 on the race clock.  This presents us with a quandary.  A lot people who are crossing the finish line of a marathon in just over four hours, and forgive me for painting with a broad brush, are not racehorses.  That 4:10 finish might have been the result of a life goal to finish a marathon without walking.  That 4:10 finish might have been in the name of raising a bunch of money for a charity.  Or that 4:10 finish might have been a triumphant return to competition after an injury or serious illness or other health problem.

And if you'll still allow me to paint with a broad brush, those people have more supporters - friends they've inspired to get off the couch, tearful relatives who still can't comprehend how far that is, and kids who think mom or dad is a superhero for crossing that line.

And those are the supporters who lost so much on Monday.  Not the ironman widows who have seen it all before, not the coaches of the 2:08 elites who are wondering why they had an off day and ran 2:12, but rather the ones who were there to watch the 4:10 marathoners, the most selfless of the spectators watching the runners most moved by their finish.  And that makes me sick.

Since I started writing this, an MIT police officer lost his life, most of the entire metropolitan area entered a lockdown, and a massive manhunt concluded with one suspect dead and another in custody.  Still, little is known about why the attacks played out as they did, but that will likely change.  To say it was a wild week for Boston is a mild understatement.

Through it all, the residents demonstrated resilience at previously unseen levels.  I also saw more compassion, empathy, and concern for the human condition than I had in the entire four years I lived there.  The city came together, cared for all within its confines, and countered a terror attack with a refusal to live in fear.  And that gives me hope.

'Til next time, Boston.


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