The other day at practice, I mentioned Carl Lewis to my high school sprinters, and none of them had any idea who I was talking about. How many household names are there in Track & Field? Usain Bolt. Jesse Owens. Maybe Steven Prefontaine. Maybe Flo Jo (thanks, Sir Mix-a-Lot). Is that it? Beyond those four, even my semi-hardcore track athletes don’t know about Michael Johnson, Roger Bannister, Mo Farah, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Alan Webb, Edwin Moses, Marion Jones, Hicham El Guerrouj, Haile Gebrselassie, Kenenisa Bekele, LaShawn Merritt, Gail Devers or my personal favorite, Allen Johnson.
But everybody knows the Boston Marathon.
Obviously the tragedy in 2013 helped cement the Boston Marathon in the hearts of the American public. But even before then, everybody knew about the Boston Marathon. Marathons themselves are perhaps at their most popular now, and only getting more popular. In 2014, there were over 541,000 marathon finishers just in the US. Back in 1976, there were only 25,000. The “yogging” boom of the 1970s, sped along by The Complete Book of Running in 1977, brought that number all the way up to 143,000 in 1980. Only 10% of marathon finishers in 1980 were female. Now that number is almost 50%. Even more impressive, around 57% of all road race finishers in 2014 were female (there were an amazing 18,750,000 road race finishers in America in 2014).
You ready for another great statistic? The median finishing time among males in 1980 was 3:32:17. Median time in 2012? 4:17:43! Same deal for the women. Median finishing time in 1980 vs. 2012 was 4:03:39 to 4:42:58.
The average marathon finisher in 2012 is over 42 minutes slower than the average finisher in 1980!
Running a marathon, obviously, is not just for fast people anymore. It is a bucket list item, a challenge, a destination, a way to feel accomplished. And there is nothing wrong with that at all. I will admit that when I set out to run a marathon, I did so with one goal in mind: qualify for Boston. Only 10% of all marathon finishers in the US run under the Boston Qualifying time for their age group. The challenge is what makes it great.
Most people see my lanky, 6’1″, 165-pound frame and just assume I was a distance runner. I’m happy to tell them I was a sprinter/hurdler, then just figure they assume I sucked. Whatever. I do have some distance running experience though, having run three years of Cross Country in high school (I quit soccer and went out for CC my sophomore year because the hottest girl in the school was on the team). I also participated in a couple road races each summer, just for kicks. But the longest I had run in a row at any time in my life was five miles.
Thankfully, the Chicago Marathon is a great place to get a Boston Qualifier. At the time, I needed to break 3:10:59 to qualify (that time is now 3:05:00). But to get in a good corral at Chicago (I cannot overstate the importance of this), I needed a qualifying time. Thankfully, they accept half-marathon times. In the fall of 2008, I trained for the half-marathon, ran 1:26:43, and qualified for the A corral at Chicago for the following fall.
My marathon training started in June of 2009, giving me four months to get ready for the Chicago Marathon. Started with 13.8 miles the first week. Then 24.1 miles, then 32.2, then 37.5. I had two weeks total over 50 miles, my highest at 55.0 miles three weeks out from the race. My longest run before the race was 20.2 miles, exactly two weeks before race day. First line in my running journal was, “Harder than I thought it would be.” I ran 7:37 pace. My marathon goal pace was 7:15.
Marathon race day is like nothing I can begin to explain. Without question, the 2009 Chicago Marathon was one of the best days of my life. My mom, sister, brother-in-law, aunt, and brother all came to watch and cheer me on. About 100 times in the first few miles, I wanted to shout out, “This is awesome!” There are around 1.5 million spectators at the Chicago Marathon. I’m spoiled now. I can never do a small-city road race ever again. Thankfully, Chicago has pacing groups. Since I had to run under 3:10:59, I just stuck with the 3:10 pace group as long as I could. That made it super easy for my family to find me as well, since all the pacers were holding up “3:10” signs.
Having the pacers made the race significantly easier. I could shut off my mind, enjoy the surroundings, and just run with the group. The miles started clicking away. 7:19, 7:10, 7:06, 7:06, 7:06, 7:20, 7:04, 7:06, 7:22, 7:14, 7:12, 7:12, 7:12. We passed the halfway point in 1:34:21, so I’d put 39 seconds into the bank. My identical twin brother, Keith, would jog with me every time he saw me and hand me a super-concentrated Gatorade solution I’d concocted before the race. Second half of the race, I kept on rolling along. 7:11, 7:11, 7:11, 7:13, 7:14, 7:07, 7:15, 7:16, 7:20. Then the bear got me. I tried to pick it up, I ran 7:30, then 7:33, then 7:36. Thankfully at this point, I only had 1.2 miles to go. Picked it up to 7:16, finished the last 0.2 in 1:30, for an overall finishing time of 3:10:04. On to Boston.
The Boston Marathon
To call the Boston Marathon a race would be selling it way short. It is an event. All of New England is off work for Patriots’ Day. The Red Sox play early in the day, so the spectators can get out in time to see part of the race. The last 8-10 miles of the race course are one big party. Plus you have the race expo and other little festivals going on the entire weekend.
Waking up on race day is amazing. The late start (waves at 10:00am and 12:00pm) means you can sleep in a little bit. Thankfully, in 2010 the late start did not mean the weather was too ridiculous. We ran with 50° temps and a slight breeze at our back. The most memorable part of the morning was the buses. Because Boston is a point-to-point course, you need a way to get to the starting line. So when you walk outside, all you see in both directions are school buses. We all hop onto a school bus to take us 26 miles away to Hopkinton, where more adventures await.
Imagine a small town. Nice little main street area. Local school with a big field next to it. Now imagine there are 25,000 runners hanging out in that field before taking a half-mile walk to main street to line up for a race. It’s surreal. The guys have it better than the girls. Virtually none of the local shops are open (the roads are closed and the only people in town are a bunch of runners just minutes away from a race), so once you get to the starting line, there are no bathrooms. Since most marathons drink a bunch of water before the race, the pre-race bathroom break is pretty important. Guys have a much greater ability to improvise in this situation. The first couple miles of the course are on highways, so about the only sites you’ll see on the roadside are a bunch of female runners finally getting a chance to relieve themselves.
Like all major marathons, the runners are organized basically in order of ability. The elites are up front and corralled off from us mere mortals. My number, 5503, put me relatively close to the front. I figured I would run slower than my “seed” would suggest. My goal was to run 7:30 pace, or around 3:17:00 for the full marathon. Training in the summer and fall for the Chicago Marathon was one thing. Training in the winter and early spring for Boston meant treadmills (I worked until 8:30pm each night) and bitter-cold outdoor weekend long runs. Overall, my goal was to finish, soak it all in, and have some fun. The one thing I told myself repeatedly was to not go out too fast.
The race started with a military flyover. If you have never been in a small town with 25,000 other runners in skimpy outfits when fighter jets fly overhead, it’s awesome. The runners are already pumped, we start running, the excitement hits us, and it seems like we’ve immediately started running downhill. Very downhill. And it’s the Boston Marathon. Try not to start out too fast.
First mile was 7:18. Slow down, John. Next mile was 7:07. I told myself I had to slow down tremendously. I practically hit the brakes and swore I was running 10:00 pace. Third mile was 7:06. My mom, sister and brother-in-law had been camping out for three hours to catch me at the 5K mark. They said it looked like everybody was flying. After another mile at 7:13, I finally settled in to my desired pace. Next few miles were in 7:29, 7:24, 7:26, 7:27, 7:30, 7:39, 7:38, 7:33. There were pockets of spectators all over the place for the first half of the race as we ran through small towns. Every town was like a parade. At one point I saw an enormous, red-headed lady holding up a sign that said, “Real gingers run marathons.”
Maybe the funniest moments were at the water stations. You hear a lot of Boston accents in movies and such, but in real life they are much more varied and often times pretty hilarious. At every water station there was at least one Bostonian yelling out in the thickest Boston accent ever, “Watta! We got watta hee-yuh!”
“Watta! We got watta hee-yuh!”
Somehow, I had no idea what would happen at the halfway point. We approached Wellesley College, a prestigious all-girls college on the right side of the course. The sounds of thousands of screaming girls is something you get used to in major marathons. The site of those girls holding up signs saying “Kiss me!” was unexpected. Many of my fellow runners were indulging, stopping over for a quick smooch with the college women. I figured, why not? After a few pecks on the cheek, I noticed that most of the runners were putting their bashfulness aside and going for kisses on the lips. Again, why not? I was very single at the time.
One girl actually pointed at me with excited eyes and waved me toward her. I like to think I’m cool, but I’m definitely not, and I excitedly ran to her. When I got to the point of no return, with my momentum carrying me toward her and my lips puckered, I realized she had a small mustache. That may have been the worst kiss I’ve ever had in my life. But I soldiered on and kissed another dozen girls before the row of babes ended. My mile split was 8:30.
Just being able to run pain free was amazing though. Two weeks earlier, I was at the end of a 14-mile run at Grant Woods Forest Preserve when I round a corner to see a dog lunging at me. The owner had the dog on about a 20-foot leash and wasn’t paying attention. Jumping out of the way on my dead legs popped something in my knee. The only run I had taken in the next two weeks was a 3-mile shakeout the Thursday before the Boston Marathon to test it out. It killed. The adrenaline of the Boston Marathon (and getting lots of action on the 13th mile) made the pain go away though.
A whole new type of pain would set in soon. After the kissing mile, my splits started creeping up toward 8:00. At mile 17, I went above 8:00 and never went back down. Hills, hills, and more hills. The uphills were actually much better than the downhills. I was in so much pain, I actually yelled at a Girl Scout for not holding up orange slices high enough for me to reach them. My legs hurt and I wasn’t thinking straight. Sorry, Girl Scout.
The highlight for me, by far, was seeing Team Hoyt at around mile 19. There are only three times in my life I have been awe-struck. One was being in the same building as Michael Jordan on February 16th, 1996. One was meeting Billy Mills at the 2002 NCAA DIII Track & Field Championships. The third was passing Team Hoyt at the 2010 Boston Marathon. After being temporarily speechless, I yelled out, “Team Hoyt! Holy crap, you guys are my idols!” Dick Hoyt was in such a zone I don’t think he even heard me. I kept going up the hill, telling everybody around me, “That was Team Hoyt!”
The race was awesome from then on, even though my legs were trashed. You run over a highway with all the cars honking. The hills start killing you around Newton, but then there are so many people! Imagine the best house party you’ve ever been to in your life, add another 10,000 people, and that’s the atmosphere around Boston College. I did not even notice the infamous Heartbreak Hill (my watch did, I split 8:52). No words I can use will properly explain it, so I won’t really try. Let’s just say that while it is a very memorable experience for the runners, I doubt any of the spectators remember it, if you catch my drift.
Screaming is my most vivid memory of the last few miles. Screaming from the spectators and screaming from my legs. I thought I had already hit all the walls I could possibly hit, but I hit another one with a few miles to go. My split for the 25th mile was 9:47. Seeing the “1 Mile To Go” sign may have surpassed the flyover, kissing mile, Team Hoyt and Boston College as the highlight of the race so far.
Barely putting one foot in front of the other, I rounded the final corner. Crossing the finish line was a relief, but not a relief from the pain. Knees, hips, ankles, quads, calves, hamstrings…everything was killing me. Blood had soaked into my shoe, making for a pretty cool picture (at the top of this article). My final time was 3:28:53.
After hanging out around the finish line for a while, I found my family and took a cab back to our hotel, where they were nice enough to let me take a shower. From there my mom and I took a shuttle to the airport, flew to Milwaukee, drove back to Antioch, IL, and I went right to bed at 11:00pm. Since I woke up in the morning, I had done nothing but run and travel. At 7:00am Tuesday morning, I woke up with the intention of getting ready to work. The only problem was that I couldn’t move. I don’t mean it hurt to move. I mean I literally couldn’t move. My mom had to hold me as I rolled out of bed onto the floor. I used my arms to drag myself to the bathroom. For the first time in my life, I called into work and took a sick day.
Last line of my journal for the race? ONE HELL OF A GOOD TIME!
Want to see more about the Boston Marathon? Don’t worry, there’s a documentary coming out soon.
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