Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Boston Marathon 2017


When you hear the name, something invariably pops into your head. Maybe you think of the Red Sox, or MIT, or of tea parties. Maybe you think of seafood, or music and art. Maybe you have friends or family there, and it gives you a warm feeling. For me, and many other runners, when we hear Boston, we think of the marathon.

And for good reason. It is the world's longest running annual marathon, hosting over 30,000 runners per year. Those are just statistics though, and you can't truly appreciate the scope of the event until you find yourself surrounded by all of those excited runners in Athletes' Village. Men and women train their a$$es off to qualify for one of the world's most famous events. It's an achievement all on its own just to find yourself on the starting line.

I didn't qualify for Boston. I need to run a marathon in 3:10 to do that, and I missed the mark by 4 and a half minutes at Run for the Red. As is the case for many runners, Boston is a culmination of many years of training, a recognition of one's dedication to the sport. When I failed to qualify, it only meant that I had to keep working, to keep making myself stronger. So that I could one day be part of the mass of talented runners.

But fate decided I had earned that privilege anyway. Yesterday, I found myself in Hopkinton, suffused by the palpable joy and anticipation of more people than I had ever seen at once in my lifetime. I felt a pang of guilt, as if I had sneaked my way in. But that was quickly overcome by the sheer exhilaration of the fact: I was running Boston Marathon!

How did it come about? About 3 weeks ago, a fellow LUNAR (Lace Up Now and Run) friend, Sheila, shared a post that a blind runner, Mike, was scrambling to find a guide for Boston to replace his previous guide, who'd gotten injured. I figured it was a long shot that I would get picked, but I eagerly reached out with my excited offer!

Barely two weeks before the race, I got a reply. And after some communication, it was set in stone. Unbelievable! It all happened so fast as to be surreal. My mind honestly could not contain the reality of it. I called the BAA and sent countless emails to make sure all of the details were ironed out. I kept thinking the rug would be pulled out from under me. That it was just a dream. It was not!
"It all starts here"

I've signed up for races on short notice before. But this was entirely different. Who the heck runs Boston Marathon on two weeks notice?! And not only that, but to help fulfill the dream of a disabled runner! I hadn't run a sanctioned marathon in 6 months, my New Years Day solo marathon notwithstanding. I'm training for an Ironman! And I had already registered for a half marathon just the weekend prior.

It was frightening. I had suffered my first DNF at Syracuse half-marathon just a month and a half ago. Would my body hold together for a full marathon? And it wasn't just about me. I had promised to guide a blind runner for the entire 26.2 miles. I didn't have the luxury of bonking out halfway, because I wouldn't be ruining the race just for me, I'd be ruining it for him too. And Mike, it turned out, was a super cool guy.

Boston is challenging too. It's not a victory lap after a year of training. It's hilly. It's windy. And mother nature always throws something extra at you on race day. This year it was heat! No joke. It was HOT. Burn-your-skin-to-a-shade-of-lobster hot. But I'll get to that.

My amazing friend Meghan allowed me to stay with her over the weekend of the race. Actually, it was her sister's house. It turned out Meghan's entire family were amazingly kind and generous! Truly I was blessed. And they hosted two other LUNAR runners, Michael and Charles, who had traveled all the way from Michigan for the race. I had no clue I was going to meet them until I arrived!

Me, Mike, Charles, and Michael
Photo Cr. Meghan

They had qualified for Boston the old fashioned way, by being super fast! But despite being powerhouse runners, they were exceptionally fun and down-to-earth guys. I don't know why I say "despite". Every LUNAR I've had the pleasure of meeting has amazed me, and these two were no exception. Geoffrey's daughter Aria was there as well, so the house was packed with awesome people.

Michael is a 56 year old who runs faster than me! He is quite the character. He'll talk your ear off about running if you give him the chance, and he doesn't hold back any of the gnarly specifics, including precisely how many deuces he has to drop before race time, or how much chafing his manly bits may suffer throughout. I got to run with him and Aria on both Saturday and Sunday before the race. Michael is definitely a memorable "old fart".

Charles is a tall and devilishly handsome runner in his 40's. We hit it off immediately, talking at length about the challenges of dating while training as much as we do. By the end of the weekend, we were exchanging some rather intimate details about one another's escapades with the fairer gender. I don't know how Aria put up with us; we seemed to amplify each other's um... masculine behaviors. But she seemed to enjoy our ridiculous antics. She kept trying to force us to stay up past our early bed times to play pool.

Me, Aria, and Michael

On Sunday, Meghan's family had an Easter meal. I didn't know about it at all. I was sitting on the front porch, wearing only a bath towel, when people started arriving with their kids. But as I mentioned, they turned out to be really laid back folks. And they invited us to stuff ourselves with a tremendous amount of delicious food. I can't remember the last time I've eaten that much or that well. I must have weighed an extra ten pounds on the morning of the marathon. And yes, I did eventually change out of the towel into real clothes.

The morning before that, I headed into Boston with Charles to hit the expo. While wandering Boylston St., we ran into another LUNAR, Noel, also a very talented and prolific runner. The three of got to the expo right at 9am and did some shopping. Not surprisingly, the expo was HUGE. We got out of there before it got too packed. Even that early, it was quite overwhelming.

Me, Noel, and Charles... That filter makes us look like babies!

The three of us parted ways and I went back to my car. Or I tried to. I spent half an hour looking for it and finally gave up. At that point I decided to just head back to the expo and meet Mike, the runner I was guiding. I helped him go up and get his bib, and we managed to be in and out in record time. I did run him into a table, which... yeah, lesson learned. I did have the fun of pushing people out of the way, and then watching them turn around to make a scathing remark, only to swallow it in a hurry. Evil delight, that.

I keep scrolling back up through this post as I write it. I know I'm missing a huge amount. Countless conversations and adventures with Charles, Michael, Aria, Meghan, and her super cool family. The experience of meeting Mike for the first time, knowing we'd be running together for a long time the next day. The massive and constant love and support I got online from friends and LUNARS. But if I tried to recount every detail, I would never stop writing.

After a very full weekend, Monday morning arrived. Thanks to Meghan, the logistics of getting us to Hopkinton was very straightforward. She had run the last four Boston marathons, and this was her first year spectating. She told me that the experience was very different. As a runner, you only have to worry about yourself. But this time she had to worry about a lot of things, some of which were out of her control. It gave her a new appreciation for all of the friends and family who had supported her in previous years.

Meghan dropped me, Mike, Charles, and Michael off and we got on the shuttle buses. The amount of coordination that was required to facilitate such a massive race boggled my mind. Everything was well-organized and ran smoothly. After a short ride we arrived at the Athletes' Village with plenty of time to spare.

The sheer volume of runners was colossal. I quickly lost Charles and Michael. I helped Mike navigate the crowds, and for the most part we avoided stepping on any runners sprawled on the grass. We navigated our way through the two massive staging areas. We got some coffee and snacks, and then waited in the long lines for the port-o-potties. The guy in front of us had a very strong British accent, which tickled me.

We spent a couple hours waiting for our wave (4) to be called. We eventually got reunited with Charles, and met his friend Christina, who he was running with. They were in Wave 2 and were soon called. Watching thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people stream through the chute towards their starting corrals was mesmerizing. The entire time we sat and waited, the runners poured through the chute in a never-ending river.

Thirty thousand people. I can't wrap my head around it. That's more than the population of the town I live in. That's more than the entire staff, faculty, and student population of the University I work for. It's more people than the Baltimore Running Festival, which had five races at once. It's more than the Boilermaker by a factor of three, and that crowd never seemed to end. And every single one of those people walked from the Athletes' Village to the starting line.

Then Mike and I were there too, slathered in sunscreen that somebody offered us from their front lawn. Time seemed to compress. Your senses are constantly stimulated to the max, and it just doesn't feel like that much time passes. The whole race was like that. A huge amount of sights and sounds engage 100% of your mind. Screaming cheering spectators every inch of the way, even before we started.

I could barely remember waiting in the starting corral. Because suddenly we were running! After days off anticipation and a mind-numbing disbelief, I was suddenly running the Boston marathon! The roar of the spectators was near deafening. There were runners in front of us and behind us as far as the eye could see, and this would be the case for the entire marathon. I had never before run a race where I was always surrounded by people.

The miles flew by. Not because we were running quickly. It was too hot for that. But because there wasn't a single moment of the race that wasn't awash with the energy of the runners and spectators, and the sheer magnitude of what I was doing! And of course I had to be conscientious of Mike the whole time. Despite my best effort, I ran him into other runners.... pretty much nonstop. After the first couple minutes he told me to stop apologizing.

The heat! It was almost 70 when we started. There was a tailwind in the beginning, which was apparently quite rare. But with how much we were sweating, an occasional cross draft felt really good. We stopped at almost every single table and grabbed several cups of Gatorade and water. Everybody ran slow that day, and quite a few people dropped out. Most of us had trained through the winter months, and while 70 may not seem that hot, to us it was a heat wave. The course had no shade, and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. Scorch city.

But we kept on going. Mike and I encountered quite a number of other blind runners and their guides. We even encountered a pair from Japan! Hiro and his guide.

"Konnichiha! O'tenki wa totemo ii desune!" I said ("Hello! The weather is very nice!).

"Atsui!" The guide replied ("It's hot!").

"Hontou desu ka!" I laughed ("I know, right?!"). We passed them again later and I complimented them on their speed and asked how many marathons they'd run. That was about when I burned out on the Japanese I knew. It made the race all the more amazing though, that I could have a conversation with runners from the other side of the world!

Before the race, Charles had told me about the Wellesley college girls. I couldn't recall if this was before or after he remarked on the many many beautiful women in Spandex. He'd told me that the girls would kiss passing runners. And I don't mean bashfully on the cheek either. These were full, tongue-in-the-mouth, drool-everywhere, kisses.

I thought he'd been exaggerating at the time.

He had not. It seemed like every single female student was on the side of the road, and about half of them had signs that said things like, "I just aced my bio exam! Kiss me!" or "kiss me I'm [adjective]" or "I'm single! Kiss me!" And sure enough, runners ran over there to receive their smooches. Sadly, I could not risk pulverizing Mike into the barriers, so I only got to look on with longing. Charles told me later that while they ran together, he'd asked Christina, "so are you going to kiss any girls today?"

She did. And Charles also got to play with dogs while waiting for Christina to take one of five bathroom breaks. So clearly he had a grand ol' time as well. At one point he had four German Shepherds licking sweat off of him. Seriously? Boston Marathon for you.

In no time at all (but actually about 3 hours in), we ran past Meghan and Aria. Meghan had told me ahead of time she'd be cheering us at mile 16.8. And there she was, yelling her head off! Apparently she'd also gotten to see Meb Keflezighi run past earlier (much earlier)! She'd waited forever for the opportunity, and seeing him in his last Boston was extra special. She also saw Galen Rupp and Jared Ward. And Meghan screamed her head off when she saw Desi Linden run past. Astonishing!

We hit Heartbreak Hill after mile 20. The whole course was hilly, but I could see what all the rage was about. Heartbreak is a big hill! It made it that much more impressive that the elites ran as fast as they did. The hill does gobble up an occasional runner, including, unfortunately, my friend Michael.

"The heartbreak is over"

Michael's day had started out great. His coaching plan had been good and he had a very ambitious goal for the race. He ran conservatively due to the heat, but by mile six his feet were on fire. He dropped to a more comfortable pace, but by the time he reached Meghan he was alternately walking and jogging. He sucked down water and Gatorade at every stop and ran through every sprinkler. He felt so bad he wished he could've thrown up. He even took his shoes off at one point, his feet were so hot. He got his photo taken with his shoes in his hands, which made him laugh.

Michael figured he just had to get to the top of Heartbreak hill and he'd be home free. But halfway up he stopped. He dropped his head. He felt lightheaded. Angry runners collided with him as he struggled to the side. He was done. The volunteers thought he was saying, "water!" But he was saying, "meds!" He had to lie down. With the help of an EMT named Steve, he was taken to a med tent on a gurney. 

They called Charles, who was one of Michael's emergency contacts, but he wouldn't receive the message until he picked his phone up at the end of the race. So nobody knew what was going on. Meghan almost drove to the hospital. They had threatened to send Michael to the hospital. Believe it or not, he had hypothermia! His core temperature was 94 degrees, his lips were blue, he had all the textbook symptoms.

They gave him IV's and put him on a hot bed. Of course his body immediately started cramping up, but they couldn't do anything about that until his temperature got back up. A nurse named Natalie talked him through it all. Finally his temperature came up and an athletic trainer massaged his muscles. Michael was given the choice to go to the hospital or take a shuttle back to town. He decided to go to Boston.

The race was hard on everyone. Just about everyone ran slower than their goal time, including Mike. I was lucky in that I didn't have a goal, except to love every minute of it as I guided him to the finish. As we got closer to Boston, the crowds became thicker and more ecstatic. Mile 22 was Mike's fastest split of the day! It was a bit painful keeping up with him as he suddenly turned on the jet engines, but I managed. And that last turn onto Boylston Street!
Blurry pic, but the street sign says "Boylston St."!

I can't overstate how incredible that is. It seemed like half the population of Boston was on the side of the roads screaming at us as we approached the finish. There wasn't a single empty inch of sidewalk. It was a continuous cacophony of ecstatic shouting! And then to see that street sign: "Boylston St." My heart almost exploded in my chest. And that final stretch.... Wow. I couldn't even feel my body. I can't compare it to any experience I've ever had. It was powerful.

I made sure to let Mike finish just ahead of me. I pumped my fists and shouted wildly, trying to compete with the spectators. We finished in just under 4 hours and 52 minutes, but it didn't feel anywhere near that long. I felt incredible, like I could run another marathon.... until a few minutes later.
The finish line!!

After some doing, we all managed to reconnect again. Everyone was in a panic over Michael, but we found him too, high on drugs. He was disappointed of course, he told me.....

You know what Michael, if you're reading this, you're awesome. I'm not going to repeat the self-bashing, because I've been there. I've had a lot of lousy marathons, and I even had my first ever DNF recently. It sucks. But if you're as insane as I am (and I'm pretty sure you're even more insane!) then you'll get over this and get back to doing mind-blowingly crazy things in no time. Anybody who can crash that hard and then say, "ambulance? No thanks," is tough as nails in my book. It makes for a much better story than, "yeah, I ran a race and got a medal." You're going to be telling this story to your grand-dogs for years! And of course, I still think the whole story is a lie and you don't want to admit you got totally sidelined by an over-amorous Wellesley lady!

We had an insane amount of pizza afterwards. And I'm just overlooking.... so so much. Charles got to see a man in an assless Bumblebee costume (100% true). I saw Santa Claus. Michael got to see the Old Ironsides and the Heritage Trail. Being a spectator, Meghan was reminded of how truly amazing Boston is, after burning out on running it 4 years in a row. She was reminded of how incredible everyone was: The elites, the folks raising money for charities, the disabled runners, and just all the regular folks who make the epic journey!

And that's what it's all about. I got a huge number of compliments for volunteering to guide a blind runner. Even my mom teared up at what a great guy I was. But, to be honest, it surprised me a little. I didn't think I did anything so special. The biggest thing I've learned about running is that... it has nothing to do with running. It's about the community. And the community is amazing.

Me and Mike post-race!

I want to give back to that community. I want to keep meeting amazing new people. LUNARs, like Charles, Michael, Noel... John and Deborah who joined us for the pizza party.... Maddie, who I sadly missed but ran an astounding race after a challenging winter of training. Friends who go out of their way to support us, like Meghan's incredibly generous family. Volunteers who take many hours out of their lives to make it all possible, like the ones who made sure Michael made it out OK. And the countless people who inspire us with their courage in so many ways. And just everyone in Boston who make us feel so welcome, and the whole world that was there for us after the bombings in 2013 (which Meghan and Mike experienced first hand). And folks like Aria who make us laugh so we don't take ourselves so seriously!

I know I'm missing people. People I should thank. I'm forgetting key events. I only transcribed a third of the notes I got from Michael and Charles about their races. I'm forgetting so many people I met. The lady I met at a rest stop on my way home who'd also run the race! It was such a transcendent weekend: An entire lifetime packed into 3 days. I totally forgot that I stopped in Western Mass on Saturday for my niece's fifth birthday party!

I have to stop writing. It's late and I'm tired and I still have to scrounge up all these photos. So much love. So much adventure. So much fun and hilarity. Late nights. Too much mac and cheese (as if!). Mosquitoes on the front porch (in April?!). Too much intimate detail about Michael's bodily functions and Charles' ex-girlfriends (but really, no such thing as too much). Photos on cellphones that will hopefully never see the light of day. And the love. I said it once. But the love. Incredible. That's what I feel. Love for all of these many many unbelievably wonderful people.

Good night and thank-you for reading.

I can't believe I almost forgot to thank Mike! Mike, thank-you so much for the opportunity and privilege of running with you. It was a truly incredible and singular event, and it would not have happened without you. Thanks for making all of this possible.


  1. Peter, this is a fantastic blog/story. what an incredible privilege to meet you. I look forward to more adventure weekends with you.

  2. Peter, thank you for sharing this amazing story. I hope to experience Boston myself one day even if I don't get a chance to run it. I think it was truly inspirational of you to volunteer to be a running guide. You are right about running being an awesome gift in its own right, but the running community is truly what makes running special. Thanks again for sharing your story and don't stop Crushing Pavement!