Patriot's Day weekend consisted of multiple visits to the Boston Marathon start line, and one very rewarding trip to the finish line - alongside my mom.
The Boston Marathon is special to me. It's what inspired me to start running in the first place. I first experienced the race from the scream tunnel, at Wellesley College. You stand there cheering for hours. First you see all the people who look like runners go by. Then you see people who are older, or overweight, or even disabled. You think, "Huh...if they can run a marathon, maybe I can run a marathon!" I decided to give it a go - first as a bandit (you could do that in the days before the bombings), and eventually as a qualified runner. After running the race five years in a row, I switched my focus to triathlons, and trying to qualify for Kona. But I always knew I would run Boston again. This year, the time was right.
My mom had taken up running in her late 50s. While I was competing in my first ever Ironman race in 2009, she ran five miles on the treadmill at the hotel, thus sharing the experience with me in spirit. It was the farthest she had ever run in her life.
My mom had never thought of herself as an athlete. In elementary school, she was made fun of for being the slowest kid in her class on field day. In her 20s, she injured her knee hiking into the Grand Canyon. She hiked out under her own power anyway. Forty years later, I convinced her to join me for the Antarctica Marathon. Her attitude was "I want to go to Antarctica. If running a Marathon is the price I have to pay for that, I'll do it."
She might not have sprint speed, but what she does have are the determination and grit to keep putting one foot in front of the other. She proved that in the marathon. The last eight or ten miles, her bad knee was starting to give out, so she had to increasingly lock the knee, and make her other leg do the work...but she finished.
After her knee recovered, she kept at it. She didn't just break 6 hours; she broke 5. I told her that if she ever qualified for Boston, I would run with her. Last year in Myrtle Beach, she did exactly that.
That meant I needed to qualify, too. I signed up for a qualifying race. Then I broke my toe, and signed up for a different qualifying race. Fortunately, I was able to make good on my promise.
Going into the Boston Marathon this year, I knew it would be my mom's last. She had told me that no other marathon could top Boston, and that afterwards she wanted to try her hand at triathlons. Triathlons that didn't involve running 26 miles.
Mom's goal was to run Boston in under 5 hours, and I would be there every step of the way. My goal was to make this experience as special for her as possible.
I got creative about it, and planned a surprise. I pulled out the 16-mile marker from when we had done the Antarctica Marathon (they auctioned off the mile markers after the race), and gave it to members of the Greater Framingham Running Club who would be at mile 16, so they could wave it as we came by.
I figured since I was not actually racing the marathon, I didn't need to stick to any pre-race routines. So I did things I wouldn't normally do. I ate a burger at mile 7. We stopped and took pictures with our mile marker. I also stayed up to do the Midnight Ride the night before.
The midnight ride has long been a tradition among cyclists. It is roughly on the anniversary of Paul Revere's midnight ride, which may be how the tradition originated. In any case, hundreds of cyclists take to the streets at midnight the night before the Boston Marathon, and ride along the same route that the runners will complete a few hours later.
N+1 Cyclery, the bike shop I work with and am sponsored by, is located right on the course at mile 7.3, so we organized a ride to the start line and back. The ride was also sponsored by the Bianchi Dama Ambassador Team, which I am a member of. Our goal is to encourage more women to take up cycling, since it is still largely considered a men's sport.
My mom remembers when Kathy Switzer ran the Boston Marathon in 1967, and the race director tried to throw her off the course. Now women are allowed in the Boston Marathon, but a lot of the top cycling events are still men-only. Bianchi is working to get more women on bikes, and the Bianchi Dama Ambassadors are organizing a variety of no-drop rides, to encourage new riders and grow the sport among women.
I was a little worried the Midnight Ride would get rained out, but we had a group of nine, and it was a lot of fun, despite the wet conditions.
We did not do the entire route round trip, since we wanted the ride to be beginner-friendly, but we did have some sizable hills on the way to the start line. My uncle Bruce had made some LED helmet lights for us - in celeste, to match the Bianchi bikes! They also made it easier to keep the group together. Back at N+1 Cyclery we hung out and did some carb loading. Then home for a couple of hours of sleep.
The biking part was finished, and it was time to think about the run. At 5:45, the alarm went off. We weren't starting until 11, but the roads closed hours earlier. My dad drove us there...in what turned out to be the worst weather of the day. Torrential rain was punctuated by thunder and lightning. We were some of the first ones to arrive (thanks to my parents. Left to myself, I am seldom early for anything).
Fortunately, there were tents set up in the athletes village. We had come prepared, with ponchos and space blankets. We lay down on the space blankets, and discovered that running shoes make great pillows. As we did this, I noticed there was a photographer standing a few feet away. "Um, Mom? We're being videotaped." "What?!" She saw the camera, too, and we dissolved into giggles, thinking how silly we must look. The photographer wandered away, to find their next victim.
A few minutes later, another reporter came over. She was from the associated press, and interviewed us at length about our running, and about the marathon bombings. 2013 was the most recent time I had run Boston, and I was lucky to have finished before the bombings took place. Though as I explained to her, it really puts things in perspective. Whether or not you have the race you were hoping for, events like that teach you not to take life for granted, and make you appreciate being able to race at all.
I kept reminding myself of that throughout the day. It was special, running side by side with my mom. These streets were home. I had lived close to the marathon course for most of my adult life - first near mile 12, then near mile 16, then near mile 22, and now I live near mile 7. I knew the course like the back of my hand, but until recently, had never imagined I would get to run it with my mother.
The first few miles, she was grinning from ear to ear. We high fived more spectators than we could count. We pointed out funny signs to each other: "You're running better than the government!" Someone had created a very realistic "Entering Brookline" sign - while we were still in Hopkinton.
Mom had asked me to stay on her left side the entire way, rather than on her right. She has an incredible ability to listen to her body, and feel exactly what she needs to do. She told me before the race that every time her bad knee gave her trouble, she could trace it to something she had done where she was torquing her body to the right. She wanted me to run on her left, so her knee would behave, even if she turned slightly to look at me.
She also paid attention to the curvature of the pavement. A couple of times, she was running on the right side of the road, and her knee started to feel uncomfortable. She moved over to the left, where the road was at a very slightly different angle. Sure enough, her knee stopped hurting.
At mile 7.3, we ran past N+1 Cyclery. My dad was there cheering for us, and so was Cisco - my bike mechanic, bike coach, and sponsor. I stopped to give my dad a hug and take my jacket off. Cisco was grilling burgers. It was lunch time, and they smelled awfully good, so I grabbed one, put some cheese and ketchup on it, and ate it while I ran to catch up with my mom.
We also shared some energy chews from HoneyStinger. They are made with real honey rather than artificial ingredients - for once, dessert was healthier than the rest of my meal!
We had expected rain, but the day was becoming surprisingly warm and sunny. Mom was starting to overheat, and I dumped a cup of water over her head. I didn't know if she wanted it or not, but I knew she needed it. At each aid station for the next ten miles, she asked me for a shower.
We entered the town of Wellesley. The Wellesley scream tunnel marks the halfway point, and it's where you get the loudest cheers of the day. Hundreds of girls stand along the course screaming for the runners - with high fives, kisses, and motivational signs. I have heard anecdotes of runners backtracking, so they could run that part of the course again. Wellesley is also my alma mater, and cheering in the scream tunnel is what got me interested in marathon running in the first place. It never gets old - and it was cool to vicariously experience it for the first time with my mom.
The first half was done. Now we just had to do it again. The miles ticked by, but a bit more slowly now. Sometimes we talked, more often we ran in silence, each of us focused on listening to our body. Mom thought about her knee, and how much of the work she was doing with her right leg vs her left leg. It changed, depending whether we were going up or down hill. I thought about my cadence and stride length. Somehow I had gone into this expecting that a 5-hour marathon would be significantly easier than a 3:20 marathon. Now it occurred to me that since I didn't seem able to slow down my cadence, I would be taking about 1.5x as many footsteps as usual for this distance, and that it might not be so easy after all.
One of my jobs was to pay attention to our split times, and keep mom on pace to break 5 hours. At mile 15 I looked at the clock, and for the first time I started to worry. We still had time in the bank, but mom had slowed significantly over the last couple of miles. We ate some more HoneyStinger energy chews. They hit the spot. We could not afford to slow down any more, and the hills were still to come.
Before the race, I had pulled out the 16-mile marker from the Antarctica Marathon, and given it to Greater Framingham Running Club members who would be at mile 16. I had originally planned to surprise mom with it, but then told her about it before the race. Now I was glad I had. She announced that when we got there, she wanted to stop and take some pictures. As she said this, she picked up the pace.
We entered Newton Lower Falls, where I had lived for seven years, and there it was! Duct taped onto the actual B.A.A. mile marker! We stopped for pictures. Another runner saw us, and decided he wanted a picture with the mile marker, too!
It was worth every second we spent there. Mom suddenly had much more energy than she'd had a few minutes before! We ran past a sign that said, "In Newton and looking strong. Our hills don't stand a chance!" Then we turned right at the fire station, and began our pilgrimage up the hills.
Heartbreak hill is really a series of three hills, with some flat parts in between. The first time I ran this race, back in 2007, I hadn't looked at a course map beforehand. I asked someone next to me at the start line if she knew what mile Heartbreak Hill was at. She thought a minute, and said, "I think it's from mile 16 to mile 21".
When I actually got there, it wasn't as bad as I expected, and mom seemed to be having the same experience. The first and second hills, she only took short walking breaks. At mile 19, I pointed out the statue "Young at Heart". It shows two runners, but they are really the same person. One is Johnny A Kelly when he first won the Boston Marathon at age 27. The other is Johnny A Kelly at age 84...when he finished his 59th and final Boston Marathon. They are holding hands.
We got to the third and final hill. This time, Mom ran the whole way.
Then came mile 22. It is sometimes called the haunted mile. Partly because you run past a big cemetery. Also because more leads have been lost here than any other part of the course.
Mom was bonking. It is not so much the size of the hills that makes them difficult - it is the placement. They create a mental trap. You tell yourself you just have to make it to the top of Heartbreak Hill. And you get there. And then - you still have five miles to go.
The mile markers were much farther apart now. We were still on pace to break 5 hours, but Mom was hurting. I could see it in her face. When I made jokes, she did not laugh. I asked her how she was feeling. She was starting to cramp, and was losing it mentally. She said she might have to let go of her time goal, and just finish.
I wanted to put my arm around her, tell her she was doing an amazing job, and that she was almost there. Instead, I ran a few steps ahead of her, at the fastest pace I thought she could go, so she would have to chase me.
Finally, I saw the Citgo sign in the distance! It is at mile 25, but considered a landmark among runners, because you can see it from so far away. I pointed it out to Mom, but then there was a tree in the way, and she couldn't see it. I felt like I had given her false hope.
We still had a few minutes in the bank. As long as Mom kept running, not walking, we would break five with time to spare. We entered Kenmore Square. The Citgo sign was above us. In the street were the words, "One Mile To Go!"
It was wall to wall spectators. The road dipped down briefly to go under Mass Ave. Directly above the course were a group of people yelling "Welcome home to Boston!"
We turned right on Hereford, and left on Boylston. We could see the finish line. I looked at Mom, and saw not pain, but joy on her face, for the first time since we crested Heartbreak Hill. I felt tears welling up in my eyes. I don't cry at movies, and I don't cry at finish lines. but I almost cried at this one.
We crossed the line holding hands. 4:54. Now we could stop and walk. They make you walk a long way after the finish. First to get some water, then your space blanket, and finally your finisher medal.
We found my Dad. He had been cheering for us on Boylston Street, but somehow we hadn't heard him over all of the spectators. He gave us a big hug - and the dry shoes and socks that he had been carrying around all day!
My mom's feet were covered with blisters. She would lose several toenails. My legs felt pounded - really, really pounded. I had less muscle soreness than usual, but had taken far more foot strikes than in any other marathon, and my feet and hips were very sore.
We had a wonderful post-race dinner at a Brazilian steakhouse. Then it was time for my dad to leave. He had to get home for his own marathon - in the form of four back-to-back classes. My mom was staying an extra day. We took the train back home to Framingham. The train runs parallel to the course, and it is much more fun to think "I just ran all that distance" than "I have to run all that distance tomorrow!"
Mom reiterated what she had said before the race: she was never going to run a full marathon again. She would do half marathons. She would do triathlons. But she had done what she set out to do with full marathons, and there was no way to top it.
It seemed fitting, in a way. Her last marathon, Boston, was the first marathon in the world to be held annually. Her first marathon, Antarctica, is officially known as "The Last Marathon" - possibly because it's the last place anyone would think to run a marathon. We met up with Thom Gilligan - our tour leader in Antarctica, and the founder of Marathon Tours - when we were at the Boston Marathon expo!
There is a great quote from John "the Penguin" Bingham, who was one of our other tour guides. He said "The miracle isn't that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start." I have tremendous respect for my mom, and how many mental barriers she had to break through to start running at all. I look forward to doing shorter races and triathlons with her, although this may be the only time we do one side by side.
This summer, she will be doing the Boston Triathlon and competing at Age Group Nationals, and I will be there to support her. She also supported me at St Anthony's Triathlon in St Petersburg, FL, two weeks after the marathon. Blog post about St Anthony's coming soon!