I had seen the lonely timing mat about 200m from the finish line, off to one side. As I listened to the names being called out on the speakers, I quickly deduced that the only thing it could be for was to identify the hundreds of runners finishing every minutes, and damn it, I was going to be identified.
"Finishing now, Bradley Cunningham from Burnaby, British Columbia!"
There. I had been identified. My Boston journey had come to an end.
I arrived into Boston late on the Saturday night before the Monday race. The two prevailing theories about travelling to a race are to arrive far enough ahead to adjust to the time change, to very near to race day and not try to adapt at all. I chose the latter.
My Dad, who drove down from New Brunswick to spend the weekend with me, took me back to our hostel (yes, with a "s"). I climbed into bed about midnight Boston time and fell asleep about 1:30 Boston time.
The next morning was spent in the famous Boston Marathon Expo, watching the women's Olympic Marathon Trials, and hanging out with the infamous Bob Jackman and his fiance Jackie. The expo was a place that you could easily lose four hours in; many a marathon has been lost in that expo from walking around too much the day before the big race, but I took it in and got out unscathed for the most part (although I did pick up a Garmin 405 as it made its world debut!) After lunch and a planning session with Bob and Jackie, Dad and I went food shopping for dinner and made our way back to the hostel - he for a nap and me for a light run.
The pre race run felt great and, in my star moment of the trip, I found Fenway Park. The hallowed grounds of the Boston Red Sox emerged from around a corner in the middle of the neighbourhood. Even luckier, there was game on. I stopped to look into the stadium and felt the aura of this ballpark, the one that was the bane of my existence as a Blue Jays fan in the eighties. An usher called to me the runners don't stop. A quick chat, touch of the wall, and loop of the park and I was on my way back to the hostel (it was only about a 4 minute run). The cheer of the crowd rose as I ran away. My thoughts drifted to tomorrow.
Dinner was spent at the hostel and Dad and I met a group of other Canadians - three ladies, two of whom were running and one was cheering. Tiff, Laurel, and Becca provided the levity of the evening with their lively chatting about all things running, triathlon, and Canadian. It was a good night, with equal parts pasta, hydration and company.
Sleep didn't come to me the night before the race. I read until about 10:30pm, Again to Carthage is my current reading, and then climbed in bed. Our room had six beds and they were all full. I don't usually sleep well with a number of people in the room, but this was getting ridiculous. At 12:30 I went to sleep on a couch in the common room and fell asleep by 1:00am, only to be awoken at 1:53 by the front desk guy.
"Hey, I need to see your reciept if you want to sleep out here."
"Wha?" I mumbled in my waking voice.
"I need to see your reciept."
"Are you serious? I don't have it on me. It is my room and to be honest I am not even sure where it is in there. It is the night before the marathon. Don't you remember me? You checked me in last night!"
"Sorry, but they are the rules."
I got kicked back into my room after about 50 minutes of sleep. I ended up sleeping about 2 hours that night, with my alarm going off at 5:00am in order to join Chris to find our way to the busses which would take us to Hopkinton for the start of the race. Taking the "T" to Boston Common was fun. 6:00am with nervous, excited runners and people stumbling home after a night out. We found out line with what seemed to be a small city of runners lining up at the busses. It was a beautiful dance of packed buses leaving only to be replaced by empty buses within 30 seconds. And when I say buses, I mean about 100 buses at a time (or at least that is what it seemed like).
The ride to Hopkinton was pretty uneventful - a little traffic jam of busses and picking up some runners who were walking into town. I talked with Chris and was texting with Bob to figure out where we were going to meet. Everything was on track.
Athletes' Village was a large city of runners peeing and stretching and laying down (not simultaneously). We were there with about 90 minutes to spare, so it was great. Got in line to use the bathroom, and things were good. Chris and I did our things and when the time came to move to the corrals, we wished each other good luck and took our first steps to getting back to Boston.
The corralls stretched before me and filled all of my vision. I was in the second corral, and it took me some time to find it. The 10 minute jog to my corral became my warm up and while I really wanted to pee, seeing all the police around dissuaded me from finding a bush. Apparently, that was a good decision as I saw one guy getting a ticket and a scolding.
There are two starts to the Boston Marathon now - one at 10:00am and one at 10:30. The first 16 corrals go at 10:00 and the last 10 corrals go at 10:30. Your corral is based on your qualifying time, so the faster your time the closer you are to the front. I found my corral and made my way into with about 5 minutes to spare. The national anthem had been sung and the fighter jets had flown over, unseen due to cloud that would disappear in a matter of minutes.
I lined up at the front of my corral and found Bob at the back of his. Our plan had worked. We were to run the Boston Marathon together, both of us looking to run 2:39:59. But we knew that to run that time we had to be conservative on the downhill start. The first 10k of Boston has a pretty drastic elevation drop, and many a runner has left their quads on the hills, only to realize this at 20 miles when the Newton Hills begin. The gun sounded and we were off.
The first km was slow, as would be expected with 2000 runners in front of us, everyone starting to run. We weaved our way around some but felt good. We wanted to be smart. We had talked about that for months. Don't lose the race in the first 10k. For us to achieve our time, we would have to run 18:57/5k or about 6:08/mile.
The start was amazing. A veritable wave of humanity moving forward, all the paths that lead people here finally merging into one path back to Boston. It was overwhelming, knowing how important this was for so many people. For me, it was to be an experience. I wanted to do Boston at least once and the timing worked out for it be this year. I wanted to do the race honourably.
Our first 5k split came in at 19:47, which we were very pleased about. We were slower than we were supposed to be, which is great at the start of the marathon. It is monumentally better to be 1 minute slow than it is to be 1 minute fast in the early going. We continued on, with the path opening up a little. Open in a relative sense. We were no longer having to run AROUND people so we were happy about that. So it was with surprise the we ran into the back of a wall of people.
"What's going on here? Where did all these people come from?" Bob asked me.
"No idea." I tried to peer through the group, only to see a yellow sleeveless jersey on a guy flanked on either side by larger guys.
"Oh. It's Lance."
Ok, so it was pretty cool to be that close to Lance Armstrong, running Boston after two completed New York Marathons. He had a couple of pacers and a whole bunch of Forrest Gump-type runners following him. Thus the wall. We went to left around the group, glanced over our shoulders and left him behind.
The people are what make the Boston Marathon special. I couldn't believe the cheering that was occurring. I vowed to myself to absorb the experience, and so I gave high fives to some kids along the way and my head swiveled around, taking in the biker bars ("You go, girl!" they yelled to me), family BBqs, and general revelers. It was an American holiday and it was apparent that some had started the celebration quite early that day.
10k approached quite quickly. Not in the mechanical time sense, but in the body time. Kilometers were passing very quickly, so much to look at and so many people cheering. 39:03. Our 5k split was 19:20. Getting back down to where we needed to be. But a very good opening 10k. We were on pace.
"My legs don't feel very good." Bob, while running well, apparently didn't have it in his legs.
"No man. You are fine. Keep it up." The marathon is a long enough event that you are going to have good and bad parts. I was hoping that this was just a bad patch for him.
15k. 58:12. 5k split was 19:09. Bob and I were right on pace. Feeling good, I was excited for what was to come. My training had been going better than it had and I was setting personal best times all spring. Things were going well.
Wellesley College, the infamous screaming tunnel of university girls, was a great experience. I may have stopped to kiss a few (or three) with signs that read "Kiss me like I am senior!" and "Kiss me! I'm Canadian!".
It was between just before 20k that Bob fell off pace. We crossed the 20k mat about 10 seconds apart and the half-marathon mat about the same. He was there, hanging in, but I didn't know. In about a 10 second span, there might be 100 runners, and I was not looking back, but hoping for his companionship again.
The half marathon split was 1:21:58, which would project a 2:44 finish time. My 5k split to 20k had been 19:31. The plan had been to hold back in the first half and crank it up a little in the second half. I was pleased with my split. However, 1:21:28 was my half split in the Royal Victoria Marathon last fall, and things had gone well up that point as well. What comes next is tale that has been told before.
I had to pee from the start of the race, so I ducked into a port a potty and took care of the bladder. I thought of the story of Peter Reid, a friend and one of the great Ironman athletes of all time, running up to a port-a-potty during the World Championships and banging on the door to hurry up the spectator that was using it, calling "Come on! I've got a chance to win this thing!"
I was not anywhere close to winning. And things, as has happening in the three previous marathons, began to slowly come apart. The next 5k, up to 25k, passed and with no real issues save a climbing heart rate. My split had been 21:20, but I accounted for the bathroom break in that. I had been conscious of trying to keep my heart rate low through the first part of the run, but had noticed that it had been climbing steadily over the last 10k. Whether it was the sun that had emerged from the clouds shortly after the start, or the cheering of the Wellesley women, or the fact that I was starting to get excited about doing well, my heart rate had read 180 at parts of uphills. This was concerning. It should not be that high unless I am near maximal effort and this was not feeling like maximal effort.
At 25k, there is a significant downhill before the first of four long hills leading to Heartbreak Hill. It was this downhill that initiated the trouble. After the initial drop in elevation to start the race, it was relative flat. No long up or downhills. This downhill was to be my undoing. My hamstring was the first to go. But I caught that in time and adjusted my stride to compensate. But the uphill was where I felt the first twinges in my quads.
My nemesis in any run over 30k has been cramping. I have tried all the electrolyte based solutions I can think of, and it hasn't helped. Iceland. Victoria. ENDURrun. And now Boston. The longer than 30k races I have done have ended in cramping.
I pulled off to the side and stretched my quads. I knew this was not good, but there was no way home if I stopped. This point to point race had only one way to finish it. The streets were lined with cheering spectators to which I had become numbed at this point. Seriously. There were so many that the sound had become normalized.
I started back on the course, knowing that to open my stride was to invite walking to join me in my trek home. My split through 30k was 2:02:07, with a 5k split of 24:04. I was in trouble. I started looking over at every runner that passed me. It was a swell of sound that caught my attention 10 meters before the 30k timing mat. The wall of people had returned. It was with bowed head that I crossed the 30k mat, 2 seconds behind Lance Armstrong. And I was also unaware that my day had become worse than Bob, who was only 10 seconds behind me.
The rest of the day was spent coming to terms with a marathon build that had been very good, but did not change the result of the other races. So, it was a slow and steady pace of 9-10min/miles that I ran home. I high-fived people and generally took in as much as I could. Heartbreak Hill isn't that hard, just poorly placed. I got sunburnt. I smiled as much as I could having seen another race slip away for an issue I have yet to figure out. Bob passed me and gave me some encouragement. I had hoped that we would both have a great day, but it was also somewhat comforting knowing that we were still having a similar Boston experience. But really, you can't be sad on the Boston course. Too many people offering you beer or yelling out your number.
As I made my way into Boston proper I started feel a little emotional again. 35k came and went as my 5k split was 28:44. It was cool to see so many people lining the streets, the sounds from Fenway echoed in the voices of the spectators on the course. I looked for my Dad in the area he was supposed to be, but in a moment of synchronicity, neither of us saw each other. My friend Jon from Frontrunners had left the finish line at 2:50, thinking that he had missed me. I was watching the swell of humanity pass me on their way to the finish. I crossed 40k at 3:01:14, good for a 5k of 30:21.
Turning into the final straight on Boylston St is something else. The huge arching balloons. The thousands of people lining the 400m to the finish. The screams climbing the buildings lining either side of the road. I tried to take it all in. Although the day had not been ideal, it was an amazing moment. The marathoners pilgramage from Hopkinton to Boston was complete. Well, almost. There was a timing mat off to the left, about 200m from the finish line. I had one last thing I wanted to hear before the completion of my journey.
"Finishing now, Bradley Cunningham from Burnaby, British Columbia."