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The Parable of the 108th Boston Marathon

There everyone was awaiting the call to the start line. It was 10:00 AM and we were about 25 miles from Boston, in beautiful and sunny Hopkinton, MA. In the pre-race staging area some were stretching, some were talking amongst themselves, some were applying lubrication and sunscreen to every inch of their bodies, some were running to the bathroom every 10 minutes because they had already consumed too much water during the morning hours, and still others were nervously shoveling bananas, Powerbars, Powergels, and bagels down their throats. EVERYONE was nervous.

Amidst all of this nervous energy, the organizers thought it a good idea to parade a host of dignitaries, most of whom were former winners of the Marathon, one of whom was 92 years old and could barely speak let alone walk, and all of whom thought it wise to lecture the anxious runners about the perils of the impending weather conditions. Advice abounded as to how to remain hydrated (but not too hydrated), how to avoid cramping, how to tackle the infamous “heartbreak hill”, how to start slow, and most importantly, how to finish the 108th Boston Marathon. With all of this hoopla, it was hard to remember that we were essentially here to go for a long jog in weather that was hotter than we had expected after training through a winter that was colder than we anticipated. The glass was half empty.

At 11:30 am, the call came to the start line. Most runners had numbers and they corresponded to “corrals” that were used to create a more efficient start, but in the end served to further dehumanize the experience. With the temperature climbing from the 70s and into the 80s, and people being marshaled into these fenced off waiting areas by people in uniform, it was hard not to feel like cattle being lead out to slaughter. At high noon, the start gun sounded and the race began for those few elite runners that hoped to finish the race in less than two and one-half hours.

For the rest of us mortals who were standing nervously in our corrals, the race would take another ten to thirty minutes to actually begin. We waited nervously; some ran to the bushes to empty their bladders or bowels one last time before the race, others tried to stretch one last time. After what seemed like an eternity, we began to move slowly, and then we were jogging, and at some point, we crossed the start line in full stride. The energy was undeniable, the race began on a downhill slope, and some of us (in spite of the warnings of the many “experts” who said to start slowly) were off to the races! It was the world famous Boston Marathon, so why bother to listen to all the warnings to not go out too fast. It was, after all, just a long jog on a hot sunny day. The glass was half full.

The beginning of the race was uneventful by marathon standards. Runners were passing each other, talking with their running partners, discussing pace, race strategy, the weather, the wind, and whatever else could help them to forget the heat and 26.2 miles of asphalt that lie ahead. Then, somewhere between Framingham and Wellesley (miles 10-13), the mood began to change. The heat began to wear on runners, fatigue set in and some began to walk, everyone was taking water or Gatorade at the hydration stations, fewer runners were talking, even fewer were still smiling. It seemed that reality had begun to set in for people and that reality was not pretty. In fact, it smelled of asphalt, included a bit of sun burn, chaffing, blistering, and cramping, and all of this was many miles before “heartbreak hill,” and still further from the finish line in Copley Square. The glass was half empty.

Then came the girls of Wellesley College. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of cute, minimally clothed, screaming undergrads cheering the runners past the halfway point and on towards Boston. On the heels of that boost, the mood of the runners seemed to change, fewer runners were walking, more smiles appeared; it felt like we were all poised to run into Boston with our legs kicking and our heads high. For a couple of miles at least, it seemed like the heat wasn’t so bad, Boston wasn’t so far, and the course wasn’t so tough. The glass was half full.

Fast forward to the finish line where at about the same time the rest of us
were crossing the half-way point, the elite runners were finishing the race.

Imagine being able to run a marathon in less than two hours and thirty minutes (the winning male time was 2:10 and the winning female time was 2:25, both times were incidentally posted by Kenyans)! That works out to running just over twenty six miles at a pace of between 5:00 and 5:30 per mile. And, even though the winning times were about average for the Boston Marathon, the heat did cause a few of the elite runners to seek medical attention and there were several DNFs (marathon speak for “Did Not Finish”) amongst the professional ranks. Not even the Kenyans could withstand these conditions!

However, this euphoria was fleeting. The temperature continued to rise, the smell of sweaty runners began to permeate the air, dehydration began to set in, and all of this before we even reached “heartbreak hill” the last and most famous of the three Newton Hills (miles 17 -22). Many, if not most runners, chose to walk up the hill. Others jogged at a slow pace.

Few runners had the energy to attack this infamous part of the course.

Those who did probably ended up paying for it in the end (I know that I did). For those who did make it over the hill, and in the end the vast majority of runners did conquer this part of the course, what remained in the race wasn’t much better. The temperatures were still rising, the smells got stronger, it seemed like everyone was experienced cramping in the lower extremities, runners began dropping like proverbial flies and being carried off by medical staff (word has it that 1,100 of the over 20,000 runners needed medical attention), running partners got separated, and the general mood on the course was closer to that of a wake than that of a race. The glass was not just half empty, it was bone dry (as were all of the runners’ mouths).

For those of us who did manage to make it to the finish line, it was probably a cross between exhausting, anticlimactic, pyrrhic, and an overall sigh of relief. On that particular day, one of the worst that I have ever experienced for a marathon, the winning strategy was different for each runner – use whatever you got to get you across the finish line. The glass was finally full.

For those of you who came out to cheer us to the finish line, I say thank you. I, for one, don’t think that I could have finished without everyone’s support during the race.

April 26, 2004
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