“You just beat Heartbreak Hill!”
The woman holding the sign was cheering like mad, a huge smile on her face despite the cold and the rain. My shoes squeaked with wet as I neared her and the slightly wilted posterboard. I was walking by then, and had been for a while, speeding up to a jog when I felt particularly inspired by the unending crowd. I couldn’t understand what she was saying from a distance, but I focused on the sign and realized that I was standing on top of one of the most famous hills in international racing.
And the sign started to get blurry.
As the year draws to a close, I begin to think about 2016 and all the incredible things I’m going to do during the next 12 months that are going to revolutionize my life and change the world. Though I once (on this blog, I believe) downplayed the idea of New Year’s resolutions in general, 2015 has been a metaphorical kick in the everything, and I’ve never sought the fresh start and “new me” ideals of the season more than right now. I’m excited. I’m motivated, and for once, I’m not starting from scratch.
For me, looking ahead necessitates looking back as well. You have to see where you’ve come from before you can decide where to go next. Otherwise, you make the same (bad) choices again and again. And while this year has had some very dark moments, there was light as well. I’ve hit some of my lowest lows, but also a couple of the highest highs, including the top of Heartbreak Hill.
It has been brought to my attention that I never wrote about Boston, so this seemed like the right time. Quick recap: in the early hours of February 1, I entered the hospital with a strangulated hernia. By Tuesday the 3rd, everything had gone sideways, and I had to have more extensive surgery that necessitated a full two weeks in the hospital and a long, slow recovery. At the time of my admission, I was nearing the end of the Austin Distance Challenge and was in moderately good running shape. Not great, by any means, but good enough to get across a finish line, with Boston on the horizon.
Naturally, my training took a hit. My next run was March 3, a whopping 1.42 miles. Then 1.83 on the 15th and 1.72 on the 30th. Not a single mile in February, and less than 5 in March. There may have been a treadmill run in there as well, but that spreadsheet is currently on a dead hard drive, so we’ll use the Map My Run stats I’ve got to work with.
I managed just three runs in April before the marathon on April 20, topping out at 5.36 miles and a training total of fewer than 20. Most running experts will tell you that it’s better to undertrain than overtrain, but I don’t think that’s what they mean. I had long since decided that I would be going to Boston. My incredible sister decided to make the trip as well and picked up the hotel and rental car costs, and the plane tickets were bought. The only question was whether I’d actually run. I told everyone that I’d wake up on race day and see how I felt, and make the call then. In truth, I was always going to run. I was always going to try.
The Expo was huge and amazing. The crowds were electric. I wanted to see and do everything, but I also knew that I had to be careful with every step, so everything went down to Monday morning. I woke up and sat up in bed without pain. The race was on.
Dressing, fueling, train, bus ride, all standard. Athletes must now get to Hopkinton incredibly early, which I suppose I don’t mind, except that it was cold and rainy. I forget the exact temperature, but I think it was low 40s with rain. I found a spot under a tent on a tarp and hunkered down, wrapping myself up in mylar. I dozed and tried my best to stay out of everyone else’s way, and eventually, they started calling us to the line. I was in the first starting corral, where I had no business being on that day. Still, I earned that spot, and I wanted to start there. The start line was rife with the usual joking and camaraderie that accompanies most social marathons. Honestly, it’s all a blur, and suddenly, 75 days after fairly major surgery, I was running.
The rain had stopped, mercifully, but the wind was still there, and it was in our face the whole way. If you don’t know Boston, you basically run East, so when the wind is blowing West, you’ve got a challenge on your hands. I had not adequately prepared for the weather, bringing my usual singlet and shorts, but I made some compression sleeves from a pair of socks and borrowed my sister’s new sweatshirt for the start. I would give it back to her at mile 5.
My goal was to run a 10-minute pace. I felt I could keep that up for a nice, long time. Unfortunately, I also felt that I belonged in the first starting corral, where everyone around me was running sub-7s. The first road out of Hopkinton is narrow and lined with spectators. (In fact, the whole course is lined with spectators!) This meant that all the thousands of people who were starting with me were flying past at top speed and I had nowhere to go. I stayed as slow as I could without getting trampled. At 5K, my time was 23:47, a pace of 7:40. Too fast.
The crowds flowed past me, but I didn’t care. It was all too incredible. I continued to slow as road opened up around me. I had a conversation with another runner who had also just been through surgery, though his was for a reconstructed knee. Even I thought that was crazy, but he turned to me and said, “I don’t know how this knee is going to heal. I may never be fast enough to qualify again, but I qualified for today, so I’m running.” I agreed. He went on ahead as we passed the 10K. 49:44, a pace of 8:01. Too fast.
I was uneducated on a lot of the traditions of the course, so the Wellesley women petitioning for kisses was a fun surprise. I was on the other side of the road and in no shape to dart across, but I enjoyed the spectacle and the sheer volume of sound (which I heard 4 minutes before I saw anyone). As the noise faded behind me, a far less welcome element lay ahead. The rain was starting again. I’d returned my sister’s sweater to her and now was running in a singlet and my sock-sleeves. The wind and rain worked together to bring a fairly miserable sense to my body, but I was still moving pretty well, and as long as I kept moving, I could stay warm. At the halfway point, I was at 1:53:15, a pace of 8:39. Still too fast.
And that’s right about when it hit me. Hard. My legs cramped, my stomach turned. Within a couple miles, the sleeves were soaked through and freezing, so I took them off and threw them in the general direction of a trash can. This would prove to be my biggest mistake of the day. Less than a minute later, my arms were burning from the cold and rain. I started walking, at first on a regular schedule (Galloway-style), but before long, I was running less than a quarter mile at a time. And I had ten miles to go.
I truly asked myself if there was any way I was going to quit, and I could not imagine doing so. Run, walk, crawl… I was going to cross that line.
The next four miles were a lesson in patience. Run as far as you can, then walk. The crowd was incredible. “That’s right, man! You can do this! Walk if you need to, but just keep moving. You start running again when you’re ready!” Occasionally, I’d nod and smile and start to run, always to huge ovations. There were many pleasant moments in an overwhelming sea of miserable pain. I was not ready for this race, and certainly not for this weather. But I was going to cross that line.
When I realized I was on Heartbreak Hill, I got very confused. I realized I had no idea what it looked like or how long it was. Was I really on it, or was there another hill about to come around the corner? It was terrifying and exhilarating to think that I was at the spot where history had so often been made. And then I saw that woman’s sign and started to cry.
From the darkest depths of fear and injury, I’d made it to the top of Heartbreak Hill. I honestly can’t even explain the feeling. So I cried.
And then I hid in a porta-john at mile 22. You guys, it was so cold. My hands barely worked anymore. I was soaked through. My legs were so cramped, I was afraid to even sit down. So I stood there for a minute or two, doing nothing besides being out of the cold and rain, hoping for a miracle to get me to the finish line. I got two.
The first was that, upon my exit, I found that the rain had stopped. The wind was still there, but with no rain to fill my eyes and sting my hands, the pain lessened significantly. The second happened somewhere around mile 24. We were alongside train tracks (for the T) and, on the other side of the tracks, maybe 50-75 feet away, was a group of young adults who together yelled “GO!” As loud as they could. I was walking at the time and took their cheer as an encouragement to run again. I yelled back, “You try it!!” And then ran the longest stretch I’d done in a while, to the cheers of the group. At around mile 25, we re-entered the city of Boston, and I would not walk again.
I learned later that the group was actually comprised of some college friends of mine, who recognized me from a distance and had, in fact, yelled “Joe!” at me. With blurry eyes, I could not see them, but, having not seen them in 9 years, they returned to my life at just the right moment.
The finish line of any marathon is a welcome sight, but that last turn onto Boylston was one of the most emotional moments of my life. I was over 90 minutes off the time that got me there, but nothing mattered. I saw my sister on the sidelines to my left and pointed to her as the tears started again, grateful to have someone to share the moment with. I my worst marathon was ended with the single ugliest finisher picture I’ve ever seen. Ugly cry for real.
I’ll be back. For sure, this will not be the only memory of Boston that I will have, but honestly, I’m not disappointed. I did what I did not think could be done, and as this year has dealt each successive gut punch to me, some part of that woman’s sign has floated before my eyes. Two and a half months after near disaster, “You just beat Heartbreak Hill.”
Hell yeah, I did.