It’s been three days since I completed the 2012 Boston Marathon. It’s quite extraordinary how this marathon has provided such rich analogies for my life. When I ran this grand daddy of all marathons for the first time three years ago as a first-time qualifier I was like an ingénue, a shy debutante. I was wide-eyed and full of wonder, mostly wondering how a fifty-year old woman found herself in such elite company. My nerves were palpable, family members accompanied me and cheered me on, a hotel suite adjacent to the finish line awaited and the experience was my middle-aged fairy tale. As I crossed the finish line for the first-time, I threw another gauntlet down as I re-qualified for another year. Naïvete brings with it a certain charm. Oh how I would love to recapture that charmed life where infatuation and innocence weave an indestructible net of possibility.
Last year, I traveled back to Boston to run this famed marathon once again, but this time I was alone, staying with a friend of a friend on Beacon Hill atop a three story walk up brownstone. I now could anticipate the highs and lows of the course, instead of traveling first class in celebration of a major milestone, I traveled on a red-eye flight barely making the transition from East Coast to West Coast before the starting gun sent us on our way. I ran faster and fleeter, shaving eight minutes off my previous time and securing my entry into the marathon for another year. I wasn’t yet a veteran but I was earning my stripes. I forced myself outside of my comfort zone finding fellow marathoners to celebrate with, trading training stories and course experiences with other runners. Still to this day, I wear a Canadian maple leaf pin on my windbreaker, given to me by an enthusiastic Canadian runner wanting to commemorate her first Boston experience with good cheer and ambassadorship. I ran a personal best on a perfect day, but I also had major shoe malfunction leaving blisters by mile 10 and I had no nurturing cheer squad awaiting me at the finish line.
This year, as I trained for my third Boston Marathon I battled a nagging hip/groin problem and searched desperately for joy and unencumbered training miles. I ran in China, France, and Italy, and replaced my shoes with ones that not only fit my feet but screamed “I am Woman” with their shocking pink hue. Gone was the infatuation and thrill of the debutante and the drive for a personal best, both replaced by memories of everything that hurt and the mental gymnastics needed to get to the finish line. I no longer felt special or extraordinary, I was now a middle-aged woman hanging onto a dream that she was never certain was ever hers.
I once again arrived in Boston on the red-eye, following my tried and true pattern of not allowing any extra time for nerves to set in. A forecast of unseasonably warm weather led to advisories that only the most fit and acclimated runners should attempt to run this year’s marathon. I thought back to my Seattle training runs in unseasonable winter weather of snow, more snow, ice and countless cold and rainy days. Over 4200 people opted to give up on their goal and defer their qualification until next year. To me, that’s like looking for a perfect marathon when no such animal exists. Charity runners were advised not to run. I had trained, I had persevered, and I had traveled across the country to run. I was running faster and fleeter, but my mojo was still missing. I marveled now with this third Boston visit I was feeling familiar, almost like some sort of veteran of an event I never imagined myself running. What I did know, is that this was a test of embracing obstacles and overcoming them. So, I along with 21,000 other runners elected to run, giving up any hope of a qualifying time in record heat, but running for the simple reason that we said we would. The course temperature with the reflective heat off the asphalt was a sizzling 92 degrees. Runners adjusted their plan or they risked not finishing or arriving in Boston in an EMT. By mile eight I was certain that I would not be able to finish. I was hot, fatigued, and could feel my body temperature getting to an uncomfortable level. I recalled the advice of a friend and looked for ice on the course. The Boston Marathon spectators are like none other and they were out in record numbers offering orange slices, extra water, encouragement and yes, ice. As I ran, I held a handful of ice on the back of my neck, chewed ice cubes for distraction and hydration, and stuffed the remainder in my sports bra and under my hat. Somehow that was enough to get me to the next mile, and the next mile, and eventually to the finish line. Garden hoses sprayed us down as we slogged by. The college crowds cheered us even more enthusiastically than usual. And the drums were in full force as we ran up the Newton Hills ending with the legendary Heartbreak Hill challenging even the steeliest resolve.
When you are fighting elements that you can’t control, you start looking for signs and symbols to give you the illusion that there are elements that you can. As I ran up the first of the hills, I felt a slight cross breeze and I took it as a sign that I would make it. As I ascended Heartbreak Hill, my playlist consisting of handpicked songs that reminded me that I might be a special person, even if I didn’t quite believe it myself. Jason Mraz’s recent single “I Won’t Give Up” gave me the strength to crest the hill and feel a second wind as I allowed my legs and gravity to carry me down hill. I continued to battle the course and the heat until I found myself three miles or 5K to the finish line. My shoes and my legs looked as if they had been embalmed in paper mache from all the disintegrating water and Gatorade cups littered along the course. I strained to hear the roar of the crowd near the finish line and I put my head down, knowing that my qualifying time had already passed but I had given everything to the course and I was prouder of this finish than any other.
I looked up giving a thumbs up to the clicking cameras as I crossed the finish line. My sports watch clocked 27 miles. It must have been all my meandering from misting station to ice bucket to water station. The course quickly turned into something resembling a triage scene with runner’s lying prone on the street, athletes being transported to the nearest medical tent in wheelchairs, and the siren of an ambulance blaring away. I collected my medal, my recovery swag bag, and retrieved my gear bag from the transport buses. I shuffled several blocks to Boston Commons, found a shady patch of grass and tried to take in what I had just accomplished. I high-fived strangers, congratulated weary looking finishers who didn’t seem to realize they had overcome punishing obstacles. I stepped outside my comfort zone and asked a stranger to snap my photo so I could remember that I had finished what I started and to remind me that I am stronger than I think. I turned on my phone and let the congratulatory messages wash over me. It was my own digital cheering section. Slowly, I got to my feet, smiled at my pink shoes and tried not to think about how many flights of stairs or lost toenails were still ahead of me.