By Dr. Terry Clare
The Boston Marathon is run on Patriot’s Day, this year on April 18.
In essence, for me the race was really run in the cold, wintry months of December to February.
It was during this time that the real work and discipline for the race took place. On those cold, dark, snowy evenings, the appeal of a hot meal at home followed by a Canucks game on TV was very strong. It was tough to motivate myself to put in the miles necessary to prepare for a marathon.
In truth, it wasn’t a bad winter for training. With some creative planning and a careful eye on the weather forecasts I was able to get in the necessary six runs per week, gradually increasing the distance and intensity as April approached.
I admit there were times when I was out there battling the elements when I questioned my decision (and my sanity). Boston is the oldest and most prestigious of all marathons. Every entrant has to run a qualifying marathon in a specified time in the 18 months prior to Boston. I ran the Kelowna Marathon in October 2009 and my time of 3 hours 25 minutes was good enough to qualify. So, it was now or never, or else I would have to re-qualify. The die was cast!
The Boston Marathon was unlike any other running event I have ever experienced. I have run about 20 marathons and ultra marathons, mostly in my twenties at university. Boston is an event as much as it is a race. The city embraces the marathon and it has become an integral part of its history and culture. Twenty-five thousand runners converge on the city for the weekend and there are banners and posters everywhere. Runners bustle around the city, clearly evidenced by their Boston Marathon jackets and shirts. This is the time to flaunt it!
The race starts in the town of Hopkinton, 42 kilometers east of Boston, and the organizers provide transport for the 25,000 runners from downtown Boston using 593 school buses.
One of the enduring images I have is coming out of the subway at the Boston Commons Park and seeing an endless line of yellow buses sucking up runners and heading out of town. I was impressed by the incredible organization necessary to pull it all off.
We were deposited at the high school in Hopkinton, and I was reminded of scenes from Woodstock (minus the drugs and beads of course). Athletes were all over the field, huddled in blankets and sleeping bags, trying to find some warmth and relief from the bitterly cold wind. I took solace in the fact that the wind blew from the east and would be a tailwind blowing us towards Boston. In fact, conditions were perfect—cool temperatures, sunny skies, low humidity, and a tailwind. The stars were aligned and I was fit and ready.
The run itself is a standard marathon distance of 42.2 km and meanders through the New England countryside, taking in a number of small towns on the way.
The start of a marathon is always a collection of conflicting emotions—relief that all the months of training have come to fruition, apprehension of knowing what lies ahead, and, of course, great excitement about just being there. This was no exception.
The first few kilometres flew by and were spent trying to interpret physiological signals from the muscles in my legs and from my breathing in order to gauge a sustainable pace.
Initially there was a lot of buzz amongst the runners, chatting and interacting with the crowd. After the first hour or so, the runners became quiet, focused in on their effort, and accompanied by the ever increasing noise of the spectators. It is estimated 500,000 people watched the race and they were very vocal in their support. It was great to see some Canadian flags in the crowds.
At around 20 km, we approached Wellesley College. This has become a famous and much anticipated land mark amongst the runners over the years. The girls waved creative placards enticing runners to stop with the promise of a kiss. Mindful of the mission at hand (as well as of my age category) I resisted the temptation and powered through the halfway mark in one hour, 39 minutes, 15 seconds; bang on schedule and still feeling quite strong. I later heard that one of the runners dallied at Wellesley College for 45 minutes. I can only imagine!
Shortly afterwards, I caught up to a young fellow dressed as a hotdog. The crowd went crazy and I felt a surge of energy, soon leaving him behind. Try as he might, he was unable to “ketchup”. So much for fast food!
The next 10 km of the run contained four hills, the last of which has famously been named “Heartbreak Hill.” This part of the course comes at a time when the body is starting to tire and exposes any deficiencies in the athlete’s training schedule. It was here that I was thankful for all those tough runs in the winter months and I ran the hills without too much difficulty.
The last 10km of a marathon are always hard, no matter how well trained the athlete is. My legs were tiring and starting to feel heavy, and I could tell my pace was starting to slow. This is when I always try to focus just on the next few yards and not think of the seemingly endless road ahead. I was no longer aware of the crowds. I understand that the Boston Celtic cheerleaders were helping at one of the drink stations around this point. I never saw them (I think I’m getting old) and was now working hard to keep going.
At 38 km I “hit the wall.” This is the stage where the body runs out of energy and sends signals to the brain that it must stop running. I felt an overwhelming need to walk, to stop, to end the suffering. At this point the conscious mind must override these physiological signals in order to keep going. My pace slowed dramatically as I struggled to keep running. After what seemed like an interminable distance with this internal conflict raging on I turned on to Boylston Street and saw the finish line. The pain and fatigue no longer seemed as overpowering and I crossed the finish line in three hours 19 minutes, and 49 seconds.
It is hard to describe the feeling one gets when finishing a marathon—a mixture of euphoria, fatigue and pain. The elation and satisfaction comes later. Initially there is a sense of relief and almost a strange emptiness—the intensity and stress of exertion is suddenly gone. What now? I was handed a finisher’s medal but hardly even noticed. The reward for me comes from within—a deep sense of satisfaction of having done something worthwhile and at the limits of my ability. Fighting off cramps, I walked over to meet up with my friend. I started to feel good and we began to swap stories of our runs. Runners’ camaraderie took over. The race was done.
I heard later that the winner Jeffery Mutai of Kenya had completed the run in two hours, three minutes and two seconds, the fastest time ever for any marathon. I feel lucky to have been part of that historic day. I like to think that he felt pushed by the pack. Maybe he looked over his shoulder at some point, concerned that #9833 from Barriere was catching him and that this spurred him on just a little. I think not, but I’ll hold on to that thought anyway.
My time qualifies me to enter the Boston Marathon again next year, but I will not be back. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to be a participant, to be a small part of something so big. It was on my “Bucket List” and now it has been ticked off. I will continue to run for the mental and physical benefits but have no intention of running a marathon again. Having said that, the New York or London marathons do hold a lot of appeal for me. Who knows? Maybe one day, I’ll take these thoughts and run with them.
Dr. Terry Clare’s medical practice is in the community of Barriere.