As many of you may know, I am currently training for the 2010 Boston Marathon. This will actually be my second time running in Boston as well as the second time I have been a part of Team Hoyt’s charity team. Last year I wrote about my experiences surrounding the marathon- my training, the trip there, the race itself, and everything that followed. Now that I am just 10 weeks away from running in Boston again, I thought it would be fun to share my experiences with everyone.
To start, let me tell you a little bit about how I got involved with the Hoyts. I was originally introduced to Team Hoyt through my work at Worldwide Sport Supply, where I have been an employee for several years. Dick and Rick Hoyt “started” Team Hoyt almost 30 years ago when Rick, a spastic quadriplegic who doctors said would never be more than a vegetable, asked his father to push him in a 5K race. They have now run in over 1000 races (the 2009 Boston Marathon was their 1000th race), including several Ironman Triathlons. In races Dick pushes Rick in a special wheelchair during the run, has an attachment on his bike so Rick can ride with him during that segment, and he pulls Rick in a boat during the swim. Anyone who has competed in a running event or triathlon of any distance knows how challenging it is; now imagine you are pushing/pulling/carrying another 170 pound person with you! Needless to say, when I first heard of Dick and Rick, I was inspired.
Every year Team Hoyt extends invitations to a select group of runners to start their marathon training and run with them in the Boston Marathon. In September of 2008, I was privileged enough to receive an invitation from the Hoyts to run with their charity team in the 2009 Boston Marathon. My first inclination was to say yes, but I didn’t want to get caught up in emotion and get in over my head. I had been lifting heavy and I hadn’t run more than 3 miles at a time in months. I have run for fun off and on since my teens, but have never considered myself a “runner.” I enjoy running, and I am sure it will always be a part of my life, but it is not an integral part of my existence; I am not someone who has to run every day. After a lot of deliberation, I decided that this was something I needed to do. I knew the training would be intense, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to run in Boston and to be a part of such an amazing team of runners with the Hoyts. On October 15th, 2008 I signed my commitment letter to run in the 2009 Boston Marathon.
Out of the countless runs I went on from October 2008 to April 2009, there are three training runs that really stick out in my mind. I like to refer to them as the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The Good- one of my early long runs during my running training was through Otsinengo Park here in Binghamton. People come to exercise their dogs, take walks, run, bike, and rollerblade. I was feeling good and running at a comfortable pace as I passed by mothers with strollers, another runner, and a couple of teenagers walking a Pomeranian. About two thirds of the way through my run I passed a man who was walking slowly, I would assume, to enjoy the scenery. As I ran by him he said to me, “shouldn’t you be going faster?!?” I didn’t take the time to turn around and respond, but I did have a smirk on my face for the rest of my run. I found it incredibly amusing that someone going far slower than myself thought I should have been going faster, particularly because he had no idea how far I was going. It really helped me put my training in perspective- there are a lot of ways to push yourself (think about the difference between a single rep max bench, cranking out 8 reps of a heavy squat, pushing the prowler 100 feet, and running 10 miles continuously). For every activity I mentioned, you absolutely have to push yourself, but in completely different ways. Pushing yourself in the right ways, at the right times is a huge part of a successful training plan. If I had let that random walker’s comments affect me mentally, and I had picked up my pace just because he thought I should, I might not have been able to finish my run as strongly as I did.
You’ve heard about “the good” run, next comes “the bad.” I think all athletes have made a bad decision on their training gear at some point or another, and I am not an exception to the rule by any means. Whether it be wearing something too warm, not warm enough, too tight, too loose, or even wearing the wrong underwear, we’ve all done it. Not long after my encounter with the “judgmental walker” I decided to break in a new pair of shoes. I opted for a style that had more stabilization than my previous pair. They felt great when I tried them on and jogged around a little bit and I thought it might benefit me by providing extra support as my weekly mileage increased. Boy, was I wrong! I ended up with knee pain less than a mile into my run and at the end of my run I had the biggest blister I have ever seen on the back of my heel (seriously, it was bigger than a silver dollar and hurt SO bad). I learned my lesson- more stabilization is not necessarily better. To be safe, I had my foot analyzed and it was determined I need a neutral shoe with cushioning. It is amazing what a difference the right pair of running shoes did for my training. So, my lesson from “the bad” run tied in with my first lesson from “the good” run- as important as it is to push at the right time in the right way, it is equally important to wear the right gear for your body type, weight, stride, etc.
The Ugly- one bad thing about training for the Boston Marathon when you live in the northeast- particularly when you are running in Binghamton- is that the majority of your long training runs are in the winter- cold, snow, sleet, ice- you never know what you’re going to get. For my first 18 mile run I decided to try a new, hillier route to better prepare myself for the hills that I knew I would have to tackle in Boston. I headed out into the 30 degree cold (although at least the sky was clear) bundled up in layers of bright running gear to avoid getting hit by any cars, and pulled out my balaclava for the first time. If you’ve never heard of a balaclava before, it’s pretty much a moisture-wicking ski mask that only shows your eyes. I looked like a puffy, glowing ninja, but I hoped my attire would keep me protected from the elements for the 3ish hours I would be running in the cold.
I took off and tackled the rolling hills of the route I had charted for myself- fyi, hills seem a lot longer and steeper when you are running them than when you are driving up and down them in a car. Somewhere, I must have missed a turn, because my run was supposed to be an 18 mile loop and I came to a T in the road an hour and a half into my run. The sky was starting to cloud up and, despite my strategic layers, my legs were stiff from the cold. I was almost on the verge of tears- it sucks to be an hour and a half away from home, not know where you are, have no cell phone signal, be cold and tired, and know that the best case scenario is to go back the way you came, which just happens to be completely up and down hill the entire way… On a quick side note, to this day I do not have a GPS, or any other device, to keep me on track on my runs. I am a very low-maintenance woman. Ok, back to your regularly scheduled programming…After second guessing myself multiple times, I decided to turn around and I hoped that I had already gone 9 miles so my new “out and back” route would be the 18 miles I had planned on covering. I was mad at myself for messing up such an important run, but I became progressively happier that I had turned around at that point because it started to snow, hard. I could barely see a few feet in front of myself and I was indescribably glad that I had opted to wear the balaclava, so my entire face was covered, rather than just a hat. I eventually made it home- almost 2 hours later. I was annoyed that an 18 mile run had taken me so long. To see where I missed my turn, I went out in my car. I found the road that I should have turned on (that happened to be called a different name on its sign than it was on the map I had consulted when charting my route) and continued driving on the course I had actually run. It turns out, my run had actually been 18.8 miles total. I learned my lesson and from that point forward I made sure to document street names AND landmarks for the rest of my long runs.
With a new gym opening, my boyfriend/business partner (now husband/business partner) and I needed to make our trip to Boston as short as possible. We left at 7:45am Sunday morning for the 5 ½ hour drive. I had the privilege of driving (after all, we were going to Boston for my event, so I should be the one to drive us there, or at least that was his opinion). On the drive I reflected on the past 5 months of my training and wondering what the expo, and the actual run, would be like. I had mixed emotions of excitement, nervousness and pride. I felt overwhelmingly lucky to have been presented with this opportunity and I couldn’t wait to meet Dick and Rick Hoyt, Uta Pippig, and the rest of the charity runners.
Our timing was impeccable- we hit Boston right when a bunch of Red Socks fans were headed to the game! Other than the inconvenience of the last 10 miles of our trip taking an hour to traverse, the end of our drive went smoothly, we dropped off our bags at our friends’ apartment, and we headed over to the expo- about a 3/4 mile walk from where we were staying.
The expo was insanely busy, but the number pick-up was so organized that it took less than 5 minutes for me to get my bib, info packets, and bag of goodies. There were thousands of people in the Hynes Convention Center. I have never been surrounded by so many athletes in one place before and you could just feel the energy in the air. I was so excited to finally be in Boston with less than 24 hours before the start of the marathon. I wanted to document anything and everything I could. All I needed was my camera.
Another runner was having her picture taken with her bib and I thought that seemed like a great idea. It was then that I realized my camera was in our bags- the bags we had dropped off before heading to the expo. Now I can look back and laugh, but at that moment not having a camera felt monumentally unfortunate. I was in Boston for the first time, for the Boston Marathon, and I had no camera to document my experiences! After a minor freak-out (on my part) we decided to head back to the apartment to get our digital camera since a disposable camera that we could acquire at a drug store across the street would not be reliable; the last thing I wanted was to take pictures and have them all come out fuzzy, out of focus, or too dark.
We made the mile and a half round trip in good time and, digital camera in hand, headed back into the expo. Now that I had the camera I wanted to take as many pictures as possible so I turned it on. Well, I tried to turn it on. After multiple pushes, prods, and pokes at the power button it was evident something was wrong with the camera. Freak out #2 was not as long as freak out #1 (although I was even more stressed out) and, once I composed myself, we headed over to the drug store to get a disposable camera since, after all, fuzzy, out of focus, dark pictures would be better than nothing.
Now that I had a camera we could check out the rest of the expo. We stopped by the Team Hoyt booth so I could meet the people I had been emailing back and forth with for months and so I could pick up my bag of items I would need for our team dinner later that night. Then we headed over to the Spira booth- Spira was generous enough to donate a pair of shoes to every Team Hoyt charity runner. We also went to the Timex booth because a friend of ours was working there with her sister. We socialized with her the majority of the time we were at the expo since neither my boyfriend (now husband) nor I really get into hitting up every booth at expos.
The expo was ending at 6:00 so we decided to help Kathy- Team Hoyts wonder woman- and Dick Hoyt pack up their booth and take everything out to the van. It sounded like a quick trip and we figured with a couple of extra hands a 10 minute job could become a 5 minute job. It ended up being QUITE fortunate that we stopped by, because directions out of the expo to the van made the trip sound much shorter than it was. After going up and down several streets and hills we finally made it to the van. Everyone was a little worn out from trying not to drop anything during the unexpected 15 minute hike (it was tantamount to a strongman event), but we were in good spirits as we headed to dinner.
Dinner was delicious, but my stomach was not accommodating- the excitement of being in the presence of people like Uta and the Hoyts made eating anything of substance difficult, but I picked at my pasta and salad, and even a little cake, to make sure I had some reserves for the next day. I socialized with the other runners at our table, one of whom was pretty much there on a bet (he promised a friend that if he, the friend, qualified for Boston that he, the one making the bet, would find a way to run in Boston as well). It was wonderful being in such a positive environment. I was in the presence of 21 other people, each there for different reasons, all of whom had also been training and raising money the same way I had been for months before. After dinner there were speeches from Rick’s speech therapist, Dick, and Uta. The most moving part of the night was when Doug, the group coordinator, read a letter that Rick had written for each member of our team. To finish the evening we took pictures as a group.
My months of preparation were going to be put into action in less than 12 hours. I could hardly wait!
Back at our friends’ apartment there were discussions of what to do for the evening. There were brief talks of some people going out to a few bars, but since everyone had to be up by 6am we all eventually agreed that staying in would be the best option. I got my race day bag packed and outfit laid out while everyone else had a drink around the kitchen table. While we were sitting around talking I realized I had no clue how to get to the buses that would take me to the starting line for the race. I had a vague address, but even our Bostonian friends could not figure out exactly where I would need to be. I texted Doug to find out how he was getting there and he suggested I meet up with him at his hotel and he would make sure I got where I needed to be. The hotel was right next to the convention center where the expo was held, so I knew where to go and when to be there. I got to bed at a decent hour and, other than a few distractions from people who decided to start their Patriots Day celebration early, had a pleasant night of sleep.
I wanted to make sure I had plenty of time to shower, get ready, and double check everything I had packed the night before, so I got up an hour and a half before we needed to go. I had also planned ahead and told my boyfriend (now husband)- who has a very bad sense of time and is chronically late for almost everything- that we had to leave by 6:15 (we really needed to leave by 6:30, but I was 99% sure his 6:15 would be 6:30 real time). We were out the door at 6:25 and made it to the hotel 10 minutes before the time Doug and I had agreed upon the night before. I perused the lobby and…No Doug! I texted him so he would know I was there; no answer. I waited 5 minutes, called him, and left a voicemail when his message came on. Another 5 minutes, and still no reply text or call from Doug. Oddly enough, these events did not invoke the same freak out reaction I had regarding the camera, or lack thereof, the day before. I couldn’t risk missing the bus to the starting line, so after 5 more minutes of waiting I made a command decision and decided to take a cab; I figured any cab driver in Boston should know where to go! Luckily, the driver did know where to go and got me within 2 blocks of the buses.
The start of the 2009 Boston Marathon was less than 4 hours away and I was in line to get on the buses that would take all of the runners to the starting line. The line for the buses was thousands of people long. Fortunately, efficiency was the name of the game and runners were orderly put onto empty buses as soon as full ones left. I was behind a woman from Toronto and in front of a woman from Texas, who had just returned from Asia. Both had qualified for the marathon, which I thought was phenomenal, but both of them acted like it was a bigger deal that I was there running for a charity. We talked about the weather, our training, how long the line was, and goals for the race. I was surprised that the woman from Texas (who ran a 3:50 qualifying time) had the same goal as me- she just wanted to finish! This could have intimated me, but rather, I felt empowered. A “real runner” had the same goal as me and I knew as long as I kept moving forward during the race, even if it was at a snail’s pace, I would continue to get closer and closer to my goal. We got on the buses, continued engaging in small talk for a short while, then all quieted down; it felt like I was 11 again and on a long bus ride for a school field trip. About 10 minutes into the ride I nodded off.
The bus ride was long (over an hour) but since I was only semi-conscious for the majority of the trip it didn’t seem that bad. We were dropped off at the Athlete’s Village (I took a picture of the welcome sign with my handy disposable camera) where there were tents upon tents and port-a-potties upon port-a-potties. There was no access to regular bathrooms or permanent shelter, so runners were everywhere- under tents, leaning against buildings, even lying on the ground. It was dry, but only about 40 degrees out, so I have no clue how people in shorts and running singlets weren’t blue-lipped and shivering. Even in my multiple layers of moisture wicking tees, long sleeve tees, sweatshirt, and sweatpants I got a bit chilly any time the wind blew. Luckily, Jerry Spar, a friend of the Hoyts, had offered to let the Team Hoyt charity runners stay at their house for the hour before the race. Unfortunately, I had been planning on arriving at the Athlete’s Village with Doug (see my last post if you need a refresher) and walking to the house with him. I knew it was somewhere between the Athletes’ Village and the starting corals, so I figured I would just start walking and hope I could either run into another Team Hoyt runner or miraculously remember the address of the house, which I had read only once in an email 2 weeks earlier. Once again, I did not freak out for some reason; maybe I was still groggy from my nap on the bus.
After taking in the sights and sounds of the Athletes’ Village I was ready to relax before having to head to the corrals. The last thing I wanted to do was to wander around aimlessly for an hour before I started running 26.2 miles. I had my fingers crossed that I would be able to find the Spars’ house.
The Spars must have had me in mind- 2 minutes into my walk in the direction of the starting line I saw a sign for “Team Hoyt Runners” with an arrow. I felt completely happy and relaxed once I saw that sign and after following subsequent signs, I arrived at the Spars’ and went down into the basement to join the rest of the Team Hoyt runners. Everyone greeted me warmly (nobody questioned why I was the last one there) and we all talked about race strategies and how awesome it was to be where we were. Again, I was hit with a wave of emotion- all of these people had been training the way I had and each of them was about to undertake the same incredible challenge. The goals for the individuals on the team ranged from a 3:30:00 finish time to just getting across the finish line before the course closed (that would be a 6:00:00 finish time if you were cutting it close), but there was no competition or judgment. Everyone was supportive of each others’ goals because we all knew what an intense undertaking running a marathon is. Before heading to the start the team held hands and said a prayer (it sounds cheesy, but it was very calming and I sincerely believe that saying “Amen” in unison brought all of us, including those who are not religious, even closer together).
We made our way down to the corrals. I was waiting for myself to break down in tears, but it all felt oddly normal. I was headed to the starting line of the Boston Marathon with thousands of other runners. This was a HUGE deal, probably one of the greatest moments of my life, and I felt happy and excited, but it felt like I belonged there. We all entered our assigned corrals and greeted other runners around us. Runners are a very social bunch and I met about 15 new people during the 10 minutes we were waiting for the race to start. The official start time for my wave of runners was 10:30, but since our corral was about 10,000 runners back, I actually crossed the starting line 12 minutes later (thank goodness they calculate your race time based on when you actually go over the starting line rather than when runners start moving). This was it!
The race had begun! The first few miles of the Boston Marathon were just a taste of what was to come.
I paired up with Joseph, another runner from Team Hoyt. He wanted to finish the race in 4:00-4:30 (faster than I thought I would finish) but we wanted to start at the same pace so we figured we would stay together as long as we could. We spent the first couple miles jostling among other runners, passing some and being passed by others. We continually banged elbows, trying not to hit other people, and kept apologizing to one another. After saying “I’m sorry” close to 30 times we decided we could forego the civility and not worry about it. There were people all along the route, and even a couple of bands were playing. Young children with outstretched hands cheered every time a runner would give them a high five. The people watching seemed as excited to be there as any of the runners did. Joseph and I sped up a little bit each mile without really trying to. I think it must have been a combination of the energy around us, our own excitement, and trying to “keep up” with one another. Even though things were going well so far, at mile 8 I decided I needed to drop back and slow my pace. I was feeling strong, but with almost 20 miles ahead of me I did not want to be overly ambitious and pay the consequences later on. Joseph and I said our good byes and wished each other luck. It seemed like he sped up as soon as we parted ways and I felt happy that I was not holding him back from a faster pace. I passed the 9 mile marker still feeling good and still moving ahead, albeit slightly slower than I had been moving ahead until that point. I couldn’t believe I was already over one third of the way done.
I was one third of the way through the Boston Marathon and feeling great; what would the next 9 miles hold in store for me?
Out of the entire race, these 9 miles were the least eventful. There were still the crowds of people, the energy of those people and the other runners, and my own energy, but again, everything felt normal. It felt like I was on a casual long run, as though the Boston Marathon was still an intangible event that I was working towards. Granted, there were thousands of other people running this casual long run with me, but I experienced a nervous calm and I enjoyed the run. Passing the half way mark felt great and I passed it earlier than I had expected to (my official time at the check point was 2:12:33). I walked at a couple of points, but never longer than for a couple of minutes. Oddly, when you’ve been running for over 2 hours, walking ends up being less pleasant than you would imagine. As much as being fatigued sucks while running you become far more aware of every bit of tightness and discomfort while walking (especially the soreness in your feet)! Even though my pace continually slowed a bit, each mile seemed to go by faster and faster. A few miles later I headed into the notorious “Newton Hills,” the most difficult part of the course, with the pack of runners around me and the crowds cheering. I knew I had trained hard, but would it be enough to get me through?
The most difficult part of the Boston Marathon course was just ahead of me. There is a slogan in Boston that, “The race doesn’t start until Mile 20” because the first few miles are mostly downhill (only slightly, but a decline is a decline), the next few are flat, and then there are about 7 miles of hills. I certainly wasn’t racing anyone, but I was well aware of how challenging the next several miles would be with hill after hill. The hills were difficult, but not impossible; they were not incredibly steep, but they were plentiful. The large crowds helped keep everyone going and nobody had shame in walking for a few steps here and there- any step, be it walking or running, was one step closer to the finish line (at least that’s how I looked at it).
Just after passing the mile 19 marker I called TJ, my boss at Worldwide Sport Supply. He provided a lot of encouragement in the months leading up to the race and I also thought he would appreciate that I was still forging ahead with just over 7 miles to go. I honestly can’t remember our exact conversation, but I do remember hearing a spectator say “Is that girl on her phone?” I’m sure most of the runners were not making phone calls just before hitting Heartbreak Hill, but I was running my own race. I was running as fast or as slow as I wanted to, walking when I felt like I should and I figured if I wanted to include making a phone call while I was running a part of my marathon experience then that was my prerogative.
Other than knowing the approximate mileage, I didn’t realize I was actually running on Heartbreak Hill until I was half way up it (the multiple spectators holding signs saying things like “You’ve almost broken Heartbreak” and “Half way up Heartbreak” clued me in)! The multiple hills I had already run up through Newton had all been different distances and grades (i.e. some were steeper than others) so it just seemed like I was hitting yet another of many hills. At this point in the race the crowds seemed to grow exponentially. Passing by Wellesley there were hundreds of students wearing “Kiss Me I’m _____” t-shirts with descriptors like “German,” “Blonde,” and “Gay” filled in. One runner around me actually went over to the side of the course to get a kiss.
Passing the 23 mile marker and heading into the last 3.2 miles of the race it felt like I had just started! Well, let me clarify. PHYSICALLY I felt like I had just been running for about 4 hours (because I HAD been running for about 4 hours). My muscles were tired and my feet were sore, but I was not in any kind of pain. Now, MENTALLY, I felt like I had just started running. I couldn’t believe that I was so close to the finish. I almost wanted to slow down because I didn’t want it to be over. Note I said I ALMOST wanted to slow down- my desire to finish was stronger than my desire to prolong my marathon experience, even though it was AWESOME. I kept telling myself that I could take 50 minutes to get to the finish if I wanted to and I would still finish in under 5 hours (that essentially would have been walking all of the last 3.2 miles and I knew that I would continue to run the majority of the time). Tears came to my eyes on multiple occasions as I was running through the city of Boston and I actually got a little bit choked up a couple of times. The only thing that kept me from actually breaking down and sobbing was the knowledge that I would have a very difficult time breathing if I was blubbering like a baby. I was thrilled to experience what I can only imagine rock stars and professional athletes experience- tens of thousands of people screaming for me. Granted, it was for me along with all of other runners around me, but they were screaming for me none the less. Rounding the corner to the last stretch the noise of the crowd reached a roar. I could hear individual cheers and comments here and there, but there was a huge, continuing buzz of excitement, noise, and energy along the last couple of blocks that cannot be described. The finish line was in sight several hundred feet ahead with the huge “Boston Marathon 2009” banner overhead and the time clock just underneath it. I had goose bumps as I crossed the finish line (partially from the cool air and partially from my adrenaline, but mostly because of how excited I was). I was finishing the Boston Marathon!
I had actually finished the Boston Marathon. I was proud, excited, and just ready to relax. More corrals! All of the runners, including myself, were herded forward to make sure there was no congestion. Again, I was amazed by how organized the event was and how well all of the volunteers worked together. I got my finisher’s medal, took off the race chip that had been used to track my progress along the course, got my bag that had been transported from the starting line (more fantastic organization), and another goodie bag- runners get a lot of goodie bags! I met up with my boyfriend (now husband) and our friends we had stayed the night with. We walked about half a mile to the subway- going down the stairs was brutal- and got back to their apartment in just a couple of minutes. Bear in mind that their apartment was only ¾ of a mile away from the finish line, but my boyfriend (now husband) and our friend expressed concern that they were worried the extra ¼ mile might be too much for me. In all honesty, I think my boyfriend (now husband)- a powerlifter who considers 5 minutes on the treadmill “cardio”- and his friend- a heavy smoker- were thinking more about their own legs/lungs than mine!
The rest of the day and our trip home were uneventful. We thanked our friends for being so accommodating. I ate some delicious Pad Tai in the car- don’t ask me why that’s what I craved, but I did and there was a restaurant right around the corner from our friends’ apartment, so it must have been fate. In the days following my return I enjoyed recanting the tale of my experience to my friends, family, and coworkers. I was really excited that email correspondence among all of the Team Hoyt charity runners continued even after the marathon. Reflecting back on the race, I still couldn’t believe that it was over and done with. If anyone had told me the year before that in late April I would be recovering from running in the Boston Marathon I probably would have laughed at them. Running for myself was fantastic- running for a charity like the Hoyt Foundation was even better. The pride I feel every time I tell someone about the race, and my experiences leading up to it, is fantastic. Soon after that surge of pride the thought of the thousands of other runners who accomplished the same thing I did overwhelms me. Then I think about Dick pushing Rick for the entire race, and not just for this race, but for their 999 races leading up to it, and I get the same goose bumps that hit me at the marathon finish line. Isn’t it funny that one event can make a person feel both special and unique, but also almost insignificant at the same time? Overall, this was both the most empowering and most humbling experience of my life. Running the Boston Marathon brought out more in me than I ever could have imagined and it made me an amazing person- one of over 26,000 amazing people.