by Patrick Reed
I thought that it would be fitting – on this eve before the 117th running of the Boston Marathon – to break from my recent tradition of following George Sheehan’s Running and Being formula for just a moment and wax electric about the grandfather of marathons.
I had the great fortune to run Boston back in 2005. I still remember clearly my buddy Scott’s call about 6 months earlier: “Pat, wanna run Boston this spring?! Go get your qualifier and call me back.” Click.
All at once I was taken by the allure of running arguably the greatest of marathon courses — the legendary ambience of the Hopkington start, the crazed Wellesley women, the ominous right turn towards the Newton Hills at mile 17.5, the drama of Heartbreak Hill and the drag race down Boylston to the finish along the Charles River… and everything in between!! I scoured a recent copy of Runner’s World to find the closest, soonest marathon. The Richmond Marathon it was, just 10 days after that original phone call. I registered, and a little over a week later I drove south from Washington, D.C., very early one morning, and ran.
Ugh! I was not in great shape, and I ended up falling apart after a strong start. I remember walking at the 23 mile mark, trying to figure if I could still possibly qualify with the then 3:15 time I needed. It was not my first time walking in a marathon. I had come to pieces numerous times over the years. But before, my disintegration was the result of stepping too close to the edge — and over the edge — as I tried to run specific splits while pushing myself in both workouts and on race-day to my absolute limits. On this day, I had the more modest job of taking an out of form Boston dreamer through the tape on time. And I was caught walking.
I had pretty much given up all hope of qualifying that day, and I remember walking along despondently but still as quickly as I could in the direction of the finish line. Then, an encouraging word from another runner about the pace we were on — as he cruised by — and a second wind (probably the result of my short walk) — and my enthusiasm reemerged. I began a slow jog and then a run — and I was back on it. In the end I had 4 minutes to spare. Close call.
And now it was marathon prep time. Boston Marathon prep time! This was a sweet season of running for me. After I recovered from that qualifier (I took some time off to get my legs back), I slowly built up for the race. My goal was simply to enjoy a finish at Boston and to drink in the race — and to share some great bonding time with a couple of friends. My training went fine, and before I knew it, it was Boston Eve. Just like tonight! I put it to my friends that evening after we were all reunited from across the country and settled in to our hotel: “Who wants to run Heartbreak Hill with me?” Scott looked at me quizically: “The race is tomorrow!”
“Yeah, I know,” I retorted back, “but it’s not often that I have the opportunity to run Heartbreak. I have seen it so many times on TV – I want to run up it and see it for myself.”
My friends shook their heads and left me to my folly. I, personally, didn’t care a whole lot about being a little sluggish for tomorrow. My fastest marathons were behind me, and now I was in it for the experience. Solely for the joy of it. And a jog up Heartbreak is about as good as it gets…
I remember turning off of a side street and onto Commonwealth Avenue and seeing Heartbreak for that first time. All at once I was back – in the middle of Bill Rodgers’ duels over the years. I could feel the passion and the energy there. It was like walking onto a battlefield for me – envisioning the history that had played out here. In this spot.
Heartbreak comes at such a juncture in the course. It is a masterful spot for a final devastating blow to one competitor — and the all-in gamble by another. So, to run it the evening before the race back in 2005, was to imbibe the Boston experience all at once for me.
But the race was the next day, and the running experience was still to be had. It did not disappoint. I remember the jostling in the runner’s pen before the start. I remember a wave of enthusiasm spread through the field in the direction of Senator John Kerry, who also ran that year. And I remember the gun and the swarm of runners. It was all hundreds thick in all directions as the first miles poured downwards on the narrow 2-lane, serpentine course. What a course! And what crowds!! Some eager runners edged to the outsides and high-fived their way for hundreds of meters at a time. I chose the more conservative approach — drifting swiftly and effortlessly down the middle of the road with the tide of runners pulling me … down, down, down into the 5k mark, the 10k and continuing…
I couldn’t help but run faster than I had prepared for. That’s the nature of the course. For 17.5 miles, it is all downhill and the air is electric with well-wishers. It is like a party which you are looking in on — except that the partiers along the side of the course are all-the-while looking in on you! You are the focal point. You are the show. And for those first 17 miles, you are loving the limelight.
And then the course turns 90 degrees, and the course suddenly sours with a smack of reality. A sharp uphill in a world where uphills hadn’t existed. And the hills don’t stop — but instead course in waves. Boom, boom, boom — and then it is Heartbreak time.
All who have studied the course know that at mile 20.5, the challenge awaits. Your job is to carry whatever momentum you have not let go of over the past 3 climbs and get to the mile 21 marker. For from there, it is all downhill and flat. Unfortunately for me, though I crested the hill with vigor, at “Go-Time” – when I hit 21 miles – I was spent. I was literally wonderful until I crested Heartbreak.
Had I been a fool to have run Heartbreak the night before?! Surely, no other competitor had been so short-sighted! Had I gone out too fast –running 6:30’s mile after mile — all despite the fact that I had been reigning myself in!!…
In the end, I have decided, Boston was out of my hands from the moment I had committed to run it all those months ago on the phone with Scott. The atmosphere was so exhilarating, the course so magical, and Heartbreak so true to its name, that my destiny seemed already written into the ledger long before I had arrived.
Thankfully, as with all marathons I have run — that dead zone at mile 23 and beyond proved finite. And eventually, after persevering to get one foot in front of the other even as the heavens began to slow down to a halt, the turn onto Boylston came — and I raced down Rodgers’ street and broke through the tape.
Best of luck to every runner tomorrow!
image credits: Boston.com