Monday, April 16, 2012

Marathon Monday

From the moment I awoke on Monday morning and glanced out the window, I knew the prognosticators had been right. It was going to be a hot one, perhaps even record-breaking. It may seem a bit paradoxical to say I was filled with equal parts excitement and dread, but that's exactly how I felt about spectating the race. On the one hand I was thrilled to be experiencing Marathon Monday as a fan of the sport and friend of many of the race participants. On the other hand, it was almost a certainty that every single person I knew, regardless of fitness level, would miss their goal times. At best, many of them would resign themselves to this irrefutable fact early on and adjust their game plans. At worst, others would struggle stubbornly against the elements until the elements mightily, emphatically won. It would not be pretty.

But first, before any of the carnage unfolded, Emily and I had our own run to tackle. We met up with Carly in Back Bay and carpooled up to Wellesley, where we planned to camp out several hours later. As we drove up Comm Ave through the Newton hills, tracing the marathon course in reverse, it was hard not to get swept up in the magical feeling that is Marathon Monday in Boston. Even now, hours before the race was to begin, the road was crowded with cyclists, runners and walkers, volunteers, police officers and even incredibly dedicated spectators who'd already staked out their prime viewing spots. (The fact that several of them were obviously sunbathing already only further reinforced the absurdity of the weather situation.) Arriving to Wellesley at 8am meant we got an ideal parking spot in the downtown train station parking lot, steps away from the halfway point on the course but still with easy access out of the lot and back to the highway. For the next 90 or so minutes we meandered around the nearby soft surface trails, concerning ourselves more with the next available water fountain than the pace. While we were having a great time frolicking around in the woods, we were also getting hot. In particular Carly, our pregnant companion, noticed how much stronger and more intense the sun felt than any other day during her pregnancy. The three of us grew somber with the realization that if we were struggling now, before most racers had even toed the line in Hopkinton, the situation for everyone from elites to charity runners was going to get real in a hurry.

Thanks to excellent strategic planning (Terry would be proud), we made it back to the car with plenty of time to towel off, grab a few key belongings, dash the spirits of several drivers hoping to snag our parking space, and secure a spot on the edge of the race course with minutes to spare before the elite women came by. We also had in our possession a cooler and large bag filled with several frozen water bottles of all shapes, sizes and varieties. Carly had pre-arranged a handoff with several BAA sub-elite runners, and I'd let Jay know I would have one ready for him as well. For what was probably only a few minutes but seemed like an eternity, we had nothing to do but hurry up and wait. The crowds swelled as we gradually found ourselves surrounded by several hundred other ebulliant fans, all of whom were just as nervous and excited for their daughters and sisters and fathers and friends as we were for ours. For now, in those expectant moments, the only aura was excitement. As we would learn, for many the dread would soon follow.

The elite women passed first, and once the lead African pack had passed it became apparent that most were already struggling. None were walking--yet--but not a few of them had already been reduced to a shuffle. For the three of us, I think that was the first moment of the day that was actually sobering, a harbinger of things--and people--to come. The men's elite field came by several minutes later, looking markedly better but still incredibly, absurdly hot. We stood quietly, nervously, craning our necks off into the distance in hopes that the yellow and blue BAA jerseys would materialize soon. Shortly thereafter several did, and the next 30 minutes or so passed in a flurry of activity as we busied ourselves with handing out the water bottles. Technically, this type of behavior is against the rules of this and any other major marathon. Today, I would've defied anyone to stop us. It's probably telling of the situation at hand that we earned bursts of cheers and applause for our efforts, especially on the handful of occasions when we had to toss the bottles into the road and, miraculously, every time they were snagged from midair by their intended targets. Around the 1:17 mark I saw Jay's familiar loping form in the distance, and several seconds later he was right by my side still looking fresh and strong. I handed him a bottle and some words of encouragement and then watched him stride ahead, his two Urban Athletics teammates close behind. The next familiar face we expected to see was Betsy's, but as the minutes passed and the masses thickened we began to grow concerned. Instead, the first woman we saw approaching from the mass start was Emily's friend (and our other housemate for the weekend), Meredith. She was grinning from ear to ear and easily looked the best and most comfortable of anyone else we knew. Similarly, Elle passed by shortly thereafter also beaming. (Side note: I'm certain Dalena Custer from Charlotte must have also gone by during this time as she finished right between these girls in the final results, but I never saw her. Must've been going too fast!) Over the next few minutes I spotted several jerseys I recognized, from CRC (go, Caleb Boyd!) to Trak Shak to Charlotte Running Company to TrySports, but still no Betsy. We were just about to abandon our post and book it to Heartbreak Hill, our second destination, when Emily spotted her. I quickly grabbed a bottle of water and sprinted after her, knowing with a sinking heart that she was already struggling in the conditions. Like hundreds if not thousands of others, today was not meant to be her day.

Once I rejoined Carly and Emily, it was time to embark on a race of our own to Heartbreak Hill. We made it there in remarkably good time and located a stellar parking spot, which meant we'd still have an opportunity to see most if not all of our friends. I hoped to catch Jay, but he must've already passed--which for him was a good thing!--so I would estimate we arrived just in time to see those who would ultimately finish in the 2:45 to 3:00 range. You know, those who typically look fit and spry and sprightly. Today, in sharp contrast, I doubt there were more than a few 7-minute miles among them. As Allen said with painful eloquence in his own tortured race recap (which, by the way, is still hilarious and incredibly well written because--SPOILER ALERT--he managed to not die from heat stroke), most of their hearts had been broken long ago. The minutes ticked by at an agonizing pace, as did most of our friends, some looking far better off than others, and after a while it was honestly too difficult to watch. We left, shaking our heads in disbelief and awe at the throngs of racers pushing themselves to--in some cases beyond--their limits, with a dogged perseverance and tenacity that no doubt embodies the true spirit of the Boston Marathon. As much as I respected them all, I have never in my life been more grateful to not be competing in a race.

The rest of the race was a bit anticlimactic, at least for me. By the time we arrived back to Emily's and made our way to Boylston Street, the crowds were too dense to allow us many good views of the finishing stretch. I'd once again missed Jay, who held on strong to finish remarkably close to his PR. We did see Meredith bounding by, still looking as fresh as ever in 2:55, with Dalena (who I finally saw!) and Elle soon to follow. By that point Jay and most of the BAA guys had already passed, but many of our other friends would still be quite some time. Having spent the past six hours out in the sun myself, I felt as tired and salty as if I'd just finished my own marathon. We decided to head back to Emily's, only then hearing reports that both the men's and women's winners had run the slowest Boston winning times in years. Last year's champion, Geoffrey Mutai, had dropped out due to heat-related cramps. The returning women's champion, Caroline Kilel, was rumored to have been seen walking somewhere near Fenway, another victim of the extreme conditions. One of the most prestigious sporting events in the world had been reduced to nothing more than a quest for survival.

And yet, miraculously, everyone did survive. I say that with no facetiousness, given that hardly a warm marathon goes by anymore without one unfortunate report of death. I think it's a testament to the efforts and organization of the BAA, coupled with the general level of fitness and preparedness that most Boston runners take with them to the race, that mercifully resulted in today not becoming another statistic. I'm relieved that all of my friends made it out of there only slightly worse for the wear, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for everyone who toed the line today knowing it would be tough and embracing the challenge anyway. As for myself, I leave Marathon Monday the same way I approached it, feeling excitement tinged with dread. I know for certain that I never, ever want to run Boston if it means experiencing conditions like today's. But I'd also be lying if I didn't admit that a part of me pictures myself out there next year, tearing up Heartbreak Hill and sprinting for the finish down Boylston. Either way, one way or another, I'll be back for Marathon Monday in 2013.


mfranks said...

Hey Meagan- I'm not sure if I can quite make that the goal yet! Things are looking up, I'm going to see how the next 6 weeks unfold and let you know. Philly sounds interesting.

Good job at the BAA 5K, sorry it was not the time you wanted but you're having a pretty impressive year so far!

jayholder8k said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jayholder8k said...

I had to ask Lauren what loping meant. I don't think it is an insult.