The Boston Marathon 2018

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“Memory is an abstract painting; it does not present things as they are, but rather as they feel.” —Eudora Welty

The memories of my 2018 Boston Marathon experience are snippets; flashes of thought tethered to visual imprints. I’m not certain if what I remember is actually what happened, but this is what I remember:

I remember following the instruction to use the loo before getting on the bus in downtown Boston because the ride to Hopkinton would take an hour. I’m glad I did that. I remember the bus lines were shorter if I walked farther from the entrance to the bus loading area. I remember the heat blasting on the bus so hard that the windows were completely fogged; I took off my top three layers because I didn’t want my race clothes to get wet from the inside out. I remember the runner sitting across the aisle wore only a red singlet and red sweatpants.   I wondered then, and wonder now, if that was enough. The man next to me was kind, eager, and as worried about the weather as I. This was his first Boston, too. He told me he’d been trying to qualify for five years. He’d cried when he collected his bib, and the volunteer who gave it to him hugged him and posed with him for a photo. I’d had a similarly emotional experience collecting my bib, and though my volunteer didn’t notice my tears, my friend Ali captured the moment in a photo, no doubt recognizing its significance. I remember recalling the advice not to pay attention to how far and how long the bus ride was. (It was coming up on an hour.) I remember the disparity between wanting to get to the Athletes’ Village and not wanting to get off the dry bus. I remember putting all my layers back on as the bus slowed to a halt and wishing my seat companion a good race.

Photo credit: Ali Brohi

I remember turning a corner and walking into the Athletes’ Village and knowing I had just entered a very exclusive club. Wow, it was muddy!  I was glad that I’d thought to pack the old pair of trainers that had sat next to my front door for months waiting to be tossed into the bin.  I opted not to go under the tent set up in the middle of the field, anticipating that it would be a mudslide by the time I would be called to the start.  Instead, I got in line for the loo. I’ve never been in such a slow-moving line. It took thirty minutes. During that time I stood as still as possible, trying to stay dry and also contain my warmth and energy. I had an umbrella in the plastic bag tucked under my arm but it was too windy and wet to even attempt opening it. I noticed people already drenched and shivering. I felt terrible for them.

I remember the stormy sky beyond the porta-johns. A solid bank of dark gray clouds stretched along the horizon. This weather was not going to break anytime soon, and in fact we probably hadn’t yet seen the worst of it. At that moment I told myself that I would simply be drenched for three hours (and I hoped no longer than three hours and ten minutes) of my life and that I would be okay. I reminded myself that I want to run this race; that this is the race I trained for and that the weather was part of the experience. This moment of acceptance was the last time I thought about the weather until I crossed the finish line and started shivering uncontrollably.

During the wait for my second trip to the loo, and at exactly 10:00 a.m. a sheet of torrential rain smacked down on the Athletes’ Village. A public-address announcer said, “Ouch, that hurts” over the loudspeakers and added that a 10:00 a.m. downpour had been predicted. He followed that up with, “Better you than me.” I was second in the porta-john line when Wave 2 was invited to the start. Now it felt like the line was moving even slower. I stepped to the front and knocked on one of the doors that had remained closed for well over ten minutes. I received several nods of approval on the way back to my place in line.

Upon exiting the toilet, I looked for the least muddy path out of the Village. I managed to remain upright, and after leaving the field I found an awning under which I clumsily changed my shoes and socks, then covered the dry ones in tightly knotted plastic grocery bags. I removed my leggings and corduroy pants, arranged my gels and gloves, and tied a HeatSheet around my waist. It is incredibly challenging to do all of this with cold, wet hands. The walk to the start was long, crowded, and rushed. I got to Corral 2 with about four minutes to spare. At 10:23 I ate a gel, drank some water, tossed the bottle, and removed the two itchy wool sweaters that were keeping me toasty warm. I also removed my HeatSheet skirt. For the remaining few minutes I stood in my race outfit and one last protective layer: a Mylar poncho that my friend George had found at the expo. That thin piece of material was the best $10 I’ve ever spent.

The race began. I took off the poncho and off I went. It was a rather anticlimactic start, but I was grateful and relieved that I was starting the race dry. “I’m running the Boston Marathon!” I thought.

The first mile of the race is a pretty steep downhill, and water was cascading down the road. People were flying past me. In response to their tactical mistake, another runner shouted “See you in Newton!” I laughed at that.

I remember a guy who was running diagonally across the road in front of me, seemingly annoyed that the steps of a guy near him kept splashing him. “I think it’s inevitable,” I told him. I never saw him again, but I’m very sure that he didn’t stay any drier than the rest of us.

I sipped from a small bottle of Gatorade for the first few miles to ward off a recurrence of the calf cramps that had plagued me at the Berlin Marathon the previous September. I ran in the center of the road or just left of center; those were the driest places. (The road has a camber and the sides were waterfalls.) I paid close attention to my watch because my entire race strategy was dependent on not running the first four miles too fast. I wanted to conserve my energy in order to have the strength to power up the Newton Hills. Running marathons requires patience, Boston perhaps the most. Throw in this year’s weather and being patient became a Herculean effort.

At the five-mile mark, I took off my gloves to open my first energy gel. Then I couldn’t get them back on. I carried them without noticing until Mile 8, when I tossed them to my left. I remember thinking that some Bostonian would find them and know, after reading the graphics, “NYRR Al Gordon 4 Miler” that a New Yorker had been there. I remember a split-second thought that I was cold, but it was also at this point that I started to feel good, and I picked up the pace. Perhaps this is why I didn’t feel cold after that.

Just past the 11-mile mark I could hear a herd of runners coming up on my left. There was the splish-splashing of many feet hitting wet pavement, but also an odd rattling unlike anything I’d ever heard in a race. When I looked over my left shoulder I understood: a trash bag that a runner was wearing as a raincoat was whipping and buzzing in the wind, as loud as a boat’s mainsheet during a tack. The group passed me and I saw that it was a tight pack of women. I tucked in with them for a bit. The pace felt rather quick for this early, so I backed off and stuck with the woman at the back of the group. At that moment, I missed my running buddy, Barbara. I wished that I had someone with me whose running I knew. I didn’t know this woman: what her race plan was, how she runs, how she felt, if she’d gone out too fast or was simply faster than I. I made sure to continue running my own race. I eventually passed her.

I remember hearing the Wellesley Scream Tunnel well in advance of running through it and not knowing what it was right away. When I made the turn at Wellesley I could not believe that so few people could make so much noise. I stayed on the left to keep from going too fast because of their energy.

The next thing I remember is crossing the 13.1-mile mark in exactly the time I wanted: 1:34:35! It was satisfying to step on the soft black timing mat: every time I stepped on one, I knew I was checking in with the friends and family members who were tracking me, letting them know that I was still in this thing, wind, rain, and chill be damned!
I entered Newton Falls on the steep downhill that I’d anticipated. I thought of Shalane Flanagan, who described Newton Falls as one of the hardest points in the race for her. My memory is of a downhill with a curve, and a store or restaurant on the left with a brown-and-white sign: a bucolic rural scene. The uphill that followed is the one that no one talks about but that I included in my race plan. There are four large hills in the Boston Marathon: this one in Newton Falls and the three to come in Newton. I ascended the first hill with ease.

The right-hand turn at a fire station just past the 17-mile mark is the official entry into Newton, wherein lies the meat of the Boston Marathon: the three aforementioned Newton Hills. Game on! No more holding back. This was what I’d been waiting for during the past 16.5 miles. I learned how to drive in a stick-shift car, and throughout marathon training I thought of dealing with these hills similarly to how one downshifts in a car to get more power when overtaking a driver or going up a hill. Newton was where I planned to downshift. “Sixteen miles of coasting done, five miles of work right here, and then downhill to the finish. That’s it,” I told myself. Just before the first hill, a tough-looking little female runner barreled past me on the left. I instantly picked her out as my hill target. We would do this together; little did she know! A few steps later I heard a very familiar voice shout, “Looking goooood, Restak!” and into the race jumped my friend and training partner Ali. This was supposed to have been his second appearance, but we’d missed each other at Mile 10. It was a gift to have him with me now. We’d run countless hill repeats together, so having him with me felt normal and expected, and he also helped me relax during this frenetic part of the race.

Ali and I had become so close as training partners that I was able to tell him wordlessly that I was feeling good and know that he “got it.” I was laser-focused and let him in on my plan to stick with that woman by pointing and saying “Her!” That came out fairly clearly, but when I tried to speak again, I found that my face muscles were so cold that I couldn’t properly form words. “Will you run Heartbreak Hill with me?” came out like “Wullaarun herrbruhhk hulluhme?” He looked confused, but I wasn’t able to try again. Fortunately, during the pause, Ali ran the permutations and replied “Of course.” So we did.

Hill Number 2. Recover. Hill Number 3. Recover. Then, there it was…Heartbreak Hill. Sheets of rain were coming down, obscuring my view of the top as if I was looking at the hill through a dirty windshield. What I saw was definitely a big climb, but not the looming Tower of Doom I had feared. Three days before the race, a New York Road Runners coach and mentor whom I admire and respect told me to mentally prepare for a big hill. I kept this simple instruction in mind during the days leading up to the race, and for all of the miles of the race leading to the hill. I know that this helped me not to feel daunted by the challenge. Instead, I felt good. Through the torrent, I saw a streetlight at the top and told myself, “This is like Cat Hill in Central Park. Just get to the light at the top.” At the exact same moment, Ali said, “Get to the stop light. It’s just like Cat Hill.” The rain was coming down extremely hard at this point. I kept my eyes on the woman ahead of us and we went for it, passing countless runners along the way up. I may even have yelled “Coming through!”

I remember noticing an unusual number of timing mats in Newton but I didn’t know why at the time. After the race I learned that Heartbreak Hill is timed. I ran up it at 7:33 pace. When I reached the top, Ali bid me farewell and all the best. Now I was racing him to the finish line, but he’d be in a car.

Just past the top of Heartbreak, I saw Carolyn from my running team under a tent on the left. Like a true champion she was out in the rain cheering for her teammates. I remember having the energy and excitement to fist-bump the air and give her a big air kiss.

As they say, it was all downhill from there! I’d mentally prepared so much for the Newton Hills that once I’d ascended Heartbreak Hill I wasn’t sure how to approach the rest of the race. I’d spent my taper weeks studying the splits of runners from previous Boston Marathon years and noticed that most ran the next mile far too quickly and were then forced to back off significantly in the next four miles. I didn’t want to perpetuate the error, so I tried my best to use the downhill to carry me but not go nuts. I recognized how this point in the race could be unbearable if I had gone out too fast. My legs definitely felt the work of the miles before.

The remaining miles to Hereford Street were a rainy blur colored by the usual sense of quickening urgency that intensifies in the last few miles of a race. I started to “smell the finish line.” The energy was increasing, and my body started screaming at me a bit louder, but I noticed that I’d never felt better this late in a marathon. It was a very enjoyable realization.

The next thing I remember is another deluge. Sheets of rain dumped from the sky. I could hardly see. I think I started laughing. The road widened: I was now running on what the British call a dual carriage road, with a grassy median and red crash barriers on the sides. My Heartbreak Hill target runner was still ahead of me; I couldn’t catch her, but I kept her in sight.

I can’t remember if I saw the Citgo gas-station sign before or after the road widened. I remember thinking “Oh, the Citgo sign, that’s important,” but I hadn’t been waiting for it like a lifeline.
Next up was the “Boston Strong” overpass. I couldn’t believe I was there already. I only knew exactly how close I was to the famed “right on Hereford, left on Boylston” because the previous day I happened to have been in a Lyft car that drove under the overpass and past Hereford Street. What was about to happen started to sink in—I was about to experience the two most famous turns in all of marathoning—and I allowed myself to get a little excited. I also knew that I was about to see a group of my intrepid friends who had been standing in the rain for much longer than I had been running. This circle included my friend Jim, who had taken a 4:00 a.m. bus from New York that morning to watch me run past him for about 10 seconds. Perhaps it was “marathon brain,” or inattention before the race, but I misremembered where they would be and zipped right past them on Commonwealth Avenue when I was expecting to see them on Hereford Street, right before I turned onto Boylston Street. It all happened very quickly, and amidst the turns on the road, the sounds of the rain, wind, and splashing, and the excitement of the final mile, I couldn’t decipher anything.

As I made the left turn onto Boylston Street, I knew to expect the finish line to seem far away. It had been recommended that I really pay attention to this stretch and take it all in. I did. I’m a very competitive runner, but at this point I made sure to strike a balance between pushing the pace only as much as would allow me to still see, hear, and fully enjoy the experience of running toward and through the Boston Marathon finish line. I hope to run other Boston Marathons, but, in the words of Sade (one of my favorite singers), “it’s never as good as the first time.”

Through the cheering and mental blur I extracted the sound of a familiar female voice shouting “Go, Ann!” I couldn’t place whose voice it was—I don’t hear it frequently anymore, but I heard it regularly during my formative years. Later that day, I learned that my best friend from third grade had cheered for me on Boylston Street. She even got a picture of me near the finish and sent it to other friends of mine, who showed it to me after the race.

Photo credit: My friend, Maura

As I approached the finish line I tried to lift my arms for that iconic finish-line photo, but I couldn’t. They felt like lead, and my struggle to lift them even a few inches higher is well preserved in my ridiculous race pictures. You know you’ve raced hard when you look like hell in your finish photo.

The steps from finishing the race, to checking my watch, to getting my medal are private, painful yet euphoric, life affirming, and very emotional. In this short period of time I recognized that the memories of weeks of training runs, fears, doubts, confidence, excitement, anticipation, and uncertainty had solidified into the final product that had been created over the past 26.2 miles. Happiness, satisfaction, vindication, humility, shock, and pride were just a few of the feelings swirling through my heart.

A volunteer placed a medal around my neck. During the time it took me to walk from there to the next area, I started shivering uncontrollably and my teeth started chattering. Luckily, the next place was the Mylar-blanket zone. The woman who wrapped me in my blanket squeezed my arms and said, “Give it a few minutes, dear, and then you’ll be warm!” The tenderness with which she handled me was incredibly moving. As I walked away from her I started crying, because it was through her kindness and caregiving that I truly recognized what I had just accomplished.

Fortunately, I felt less wrecked after this marathon finish than at after any of my other three, and I was able to walk pretty quickly to the bag-claim area. There was no line, but the attendants couldn’t find my bag. I was so cold that I almost jumped over the table to look for it myself. I would have taken any bag at that point. I needed to get out of my drenched clothes immediately. Finally, my bag was handed to me and I was told there was a changing tent just “down a tent or two.” Finding that tent became an emergency. I managed to squeeze inside, but trying to change clothing was even worse than it had been at the starting line. My race clothes were like a freezing and soaked extra skin, and my hands weren’t working normally. I managed to put on a few dry shirts and a jacket and gambled, incorrectly, that I’d be okay with wet shorts. Frankly, I just wanted to get out of there and into a warm shower—but more and more near-incapacitated runners were cramming into the tent and I could hardly move. When I finally emerged, I took my phone out of my bag to call Ali, but my hands were shaking and the screen was too wet. At that moment I heard my name. I looked up and there he was. We had a meet-up plan and this was not it, but it was so much better. I hobbled to the end of the fence that was dividing us and we hugged that hug that takes place between training partners. The one that conveys more than words ever could. I had run the race for both of us and so it was a victory for both of us.

Ali recognized how cold I was and we left as quickly as I could. At this point I still didn’t know what my official time was. In the weeks before the race I had felt prepared to run between 3:06 and 3:08 if I ran smart, with 3:10 the time under which I definitely wanted to finish. The weather was the last-minute wildcard. I said to Ali, “What was my time?”

The smile on his face when he turned to me was the best news I could have been given. And then he made it real. He said “3:09:39!”

“I DID IT!” I shouted.

“You did it,” he said.

I don’t remember much after this point, but Ali has filled me in. We tried to get into a church on the corner but the doors were locked. We continued down the street and saw the Taj Hotel Boston and decided to see if they would let us in. It was still early, so we thought maybe they weren’t yet flooded with runners. As we entered the lobby I was desperate and said to Ali, “I will buy a thousand-dollar bottle of champagne if that’s what it takes to change in that bathroom!”

Not only did they let me use the bathroom, but on our way out they also bid us farewell with a gift of Gatorade and hot cider. They had been anticipating runners all morning and provided the most hospitable possible shelter from the rain. As we stepped out and back into the storm, Ali ordered an Uber. We walked to the designated “Uber Loading Area” around the corner on Commonwealth Avenue and Berkeley Street. Our car arrived very quickly and we shimmied into the back seat as if our lives depended on it. Though I was dry, I was still chilled to the bone. Ali proudly told the driver that I had just run the Boston Marathon and asked if she would please crank the heat up. We sat in the backseat, bubbling with excitement, exchanging notes about our thrilling mornings. We got so involved in the descriptions that I didn’t realize I was slowly defrosting until the moment when our driver, Melisa, who was wearing a down coat, turned around and asked if I was warming up. I looked at her in the rearview mirror. Her eyes met mine and then I glanced at the dashboard temperature gauge. It read 90 degrees.

“Thank you,” I said. “I am!”

Proud Finishers of the 2018 Boston Marathon
Ali and me after an interval workout in the snow and ice
Ali and me after a workout in the cold and ice
George, me, and Ali after a tempo run in February

* * Special thanks to my coach and friend, Stuart Calderwood for editing this story.

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