Sunday, April 15, 2012

Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight (Tomorrow)

"At Boston, you're on the biggest stage, under the hottest lights" - Ryan Hall

Dagnabit (real word? fake word? southern word?), I wasn't going to write about the Boston Marathon this week. I mean, if you get me started, I just cannot stop (as my family well knows). Heaven help some of the runners I coach if they dare ask me "Have you ever run Boston?". Holy Crow! They're doomed. I don't reflect on Boston as how I felt in terms of the miles - it's how I felt in Wellsley, the turn at the Fire Station, Heartbreak Hill, Coolidge Corner, and the almost religious experience of "right on Hereford, left on Bolyston".

This weekend, here I am back in Beantown for what feels like another overdue visit with my grandson, Adam, grandaughter, Emma, and my family. Funny how it coincides with the Boston Marathon. Life weaves a strange tapestry sometimes. Once again, I won't see the starting line this Monday, or the finish line for that matter (a major case of the too's - too old, too slow, too rusty), but I plan to hug the sidelines at 23 and give my best "suck it up", "just 3 more miles", or steal Ken's line "nuts and guts, baby, nuts and guts". I PROMISE not to say "lookin' good". Last year, I stood at mile 23 as I saw the leaders motoring by me at a 4:30 per mile pace on their way to a World Record (the heck with those bigwigs who say no WR because Boston is too much downhill or the starting line is too far away from the finish line...yeah, let them line up in Hopkinton and then come up with rules that make sense). Anyway, the top two leaders ran 2:03, almost a full minute below the then WR. Ryan Hall came flying by with his USA singlet on and the crowd was going nuts with "USA, USA, USA", having the race of his life...It was crazy... "Here I was running a 2:04 pace, and I couldn't even SEE the leaders!!". Not long after Hall (ok, relatively speaking...ok, an hour later) came my buddy Ken. He was on his way to a great 3:29, but would have no part of me saying "Pretty good tailwind, huh?". Once again, this year it seems the weather god will take a holiday, for as I write this, the forecast for this Monday is 88 degrees!! Going to be more a test of re-prioritizing ALL your goals.

But, what is it with this Boston thing? Like a rock rolling downhill, marathon running has gotten crazy popular. Everyone and their grandmother seem to be doing it. Used to be just the hardcore runner would even entertain the thought of tackling what was thought of to be the top of the running mountain, and now it has almost become common place to see marathons pop up for this charity or that cause and BOOM! - 10,000 runners line up. A half million finishers a year! And that's great because so many folks are finding out about that person locked up inside them and not only getting off the "Couch of Doom" but throwing that couch in the trash pile.

But if marathon running is the mountain, then Boston is Everest. I've done Boston 5 times and can honestly say there is something very different about being there. Something that gets in your gut and won't let go. Standing at the starting line in Hopkinton is the culmination of a dream for most marathoners, because not only have you survived having run a previous marathon, but you have had to run it well, often an over-your-head effort to just qualify to run Boston. Very few make the Boston qualifying time (a BQ) on their first attempt. It is based on age and for most, it is just out of range. Back in the 90's, when I had completed probably close to 40-50 marathons, I still didn't think I had much desire to go to Boston, but everyone kept asking "Ever been to Boston?" and the answer was no. It was like I was cast to the minor leagues. I wasn't validated as a "real" marathoner. Then one day, running the old Vulcan Marathon in Birmingham in 1993, I surprisingly got under the cursed qualifying time and screamed "I'm going to Boston!".

For many, Boston has become a quest, beginning as a dream, then a goal, then, finally, a reality. Anytime you set limits, you will exclude some folks and that might seem elitist, but I don't think so (of course I realize I'm talking from the "been there" side of the fence). The limits are based on performance, and are set at a point where most, given time and discipline (ah, that doggone training) can reach them. After I ran Boston the first time (199
5), I said I would never go back because the experience was so over and above anything I expected, I felt it would never top that. But, you ask any first timer, or 20th timer, and they will tell you that from the expo, where everyone is wearing a shirt from a different marathon, to Copley Square, where you recieve that most coveted medal, Boston lives up to it's billing. And once you run it, you are infected with the Boston Bug and for most, there is no cure.

The crowd noise is incredible as you go through the 7 different towns from Hopkinton to Boston, getting louder and louder with each town, but it is the last half of the race that defines this marathon above others for me. At about mile 12, just a quarter mile west of Wellsley College, you begin to hear this high pitched squeal that is getting louder as you run. You are entering what is known as the "Scream Tunnel". The girls of Wellsley is all it's cranked up to be. A deafening wall of sound. Imagine about 200 yards of young, excited girls stacked 4-5 deep along the road, screaming their heads off and clanging cowbells. Now, throw is signs of "Kiss me", "Kiss me, I'm a senior", "Kiss me, I'm Mormon", "Just kiss me". And if a women goes by...the noise ratchets up a few hundred decibels...and if a girl wearing a Wellsley shirt comes-a-runnin', Holy crow!! - hold your ears. When you leave the Scream Tunnel, you are whipped from the excitement. Unfortuneatly, you're only halfway to Boston. When you make the right turn at the Newton Fire station to begin the famous humps known as Heartbreak Hill, the bombardment of noise for the last 10 miles is constant. Going up Heartbreak, if you're struggling, someone will jump from the crowd and run along side of you yelling "You can do it! You're almost to the top. Suck it up". Now, from my standpoint, Heartbreak is WAY over-rated. It's actually a series of 4 hump-flat, hump-flat, hump-flat, big hump. It's just that at the end of 16 miles of mostly downhill and flat running, the startch in the legs are a little stale and Heartbreak is wringing out of them whatever is left. Rolling into Boston is a loud, loud, LOUD moment in the race. And what had been a strong spectator turnout up to that point is ratcheted up another notch. Seriously. People and people and people for the entire rest of the race. I remember, the first year I ran, there was a large Billboard near Fenway Park, about a mile from the finish, that read "Welcome to Boston. You earned it!". I love that.

By writing, I could never do justice to the last half mile, but I'll give it a go. Remember, there has been pretty much a continuous deafening cheering for the past 10 miles or so. Then, there is a 50 yard tunnel under Massachucetts Avenue in which no spectators are allowed - the screaming has become silent except for the runner's feet slapping the pavement - it is sureal to say the least. Then, my favorite moment. You exit the tunnel to an incredibly huge wave of spectators and a flood on noise as you make a right turn onto Hereford Street. Two blocks of struggling uphill, and then the most glorious left onto Boylston Street. In plain view, 600 yards ahead, you can see the finish line. In my life, I have never been bombarded by sound the way I was for those last several minutes along Boylston. The crowd is 5-10 deep, screaming their heads off, the sound reverberating off the buildings, and I am almost crying because I'm about to finish The Boston Marathon! God, it's great to be a runner!!

No, I won't be running this year, but I can always close my eyes and not only see the past, but feel it too. Good luck to all the runners and I'll see them, and ofcourse, I'll see you, on the roads - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"

1 comment:


I still remember my first and only Boston marathon experience. The entire way I was thinking "I'm doing Boston! I can't believe it! BOSTON!!! I'm surrounded by hundreds of strangers when after a few miles I hear someone behind me yell out "Hey Bama!!" And then you and Ken are passing me. That's the last I see of you guys as you speed past. I really hope I can qualify again one day. Just one more time!!