The 2018 Boston Marathon

The RunRunLive 4.0 Podcast– Boston 2018

 (Audio: link) audio:]
Link Boston2018


We are near the ‘one-mile-to-go’ marker.  Eric says something about one more hill. 

The crowds are thicker and more enthusiastic than they should be, but this is Boston.  The spectators take it as seriously as the runners.  A multi-colored sea of umbrellas lines the road and the encouragement is loud enough to rise above the storm.  Because it is the Boston Marathon, and this is our race. 

I am slowed but not walking.  Eric has those ultra-marathon legs and is pulling me.  If he wasn’t there I might, I just might, take a walk break.  But I don’t.  And we grind on. 

This race has ground me down but has not beaten me.  The rain continues to come in sheets and stand-you-up blasts of cold wind.  It is a din of squishing footfalls and the wet-plastic scrunching of ponchos, trash bags and rain coats.  All cadenced by the constant buffet and roar of wind-driven rain smashing into humans. 

That one more hill Eric is talking about is not really a hill.  But I know what he means.  It’s Eric’s 10th Boston and he has decided to run it in with me even though my pace has deteriorated in these last 2 miles as my legs lose the battle to this Boston course. 

I will not stop. 

It’s my 20th Boston so I remember when they added this underpass to avoid a road crossing many years ago.  I remember the old days of looking ahead and wishing with all my heart to see the runners disappearing to the right onto Hereford Street.  Now we looked ahead to see the moving tide of storm shattered humans jog left and dip under and out the other side. 

We don’t walk or slow our grimly purposed grind through the storm.  We rise out of the underpass.  Shifting to avoid the walkers or stumblers, or just having to jostle through yet another weaving, wet, exhausted, human-trash-bag blasted into our personal space by the gusty rain. 

There is not much antipathy left for these wayward castaways.  An elbow, a shoulder, a tired shove and we all keep moving. It’s like being inside a washing machine filled with ponchos and rain gear with a cold firehose turned on you at the same time. 

We all just want to finish.  

Ironically I feel a tail wind slap me on the back as we grind up Hereford.  The only tail wind on the course.  Maybe a bit insulting. Too little, too late.

Eric says his family is in the crowd somewhere up by the turn onto Bolyston and I grudgingly grind a wide tangent as he searches the crowd.  Nothing against his family but I don’t think I’d stop here to see God if he were behind the barrier.  The pull of that finish line is too strong, and I’m exhausted from 3-plus hours of pummeling rain and wind and cold. 

Typically, in a rainy race people will strip out of their protective clothing in the first few miles as they warm up.  Not today.  They never warmed up.  But now, as they approach the finish line and the anticipated succor of hotel rooms and hot showers they begin to shed their rain carapaces en masse. 

For the last 10 miles I have been looking out the 6-inch circle of my found poncho’s hood.  Now as I pull it back and look down Bolyston it is an apocalyptic scene. 

Usually in high wind situations the discarded rain ponchos and trash bags will blow across the course like dangerous plastic tumbleweeds to tangle the runners’ legs or lodge in the fencing.  Not today.  The cold rain is so heavy that it plasters the detritus to the pavement like so many giant spit balls. 

Through this apocalyptic landscape we grind out the last ¼ mile of this storied course.  There is not much of a sprint in my stride as we push through the timing mats.  I pull up the found poncho so the timers can see my number.  I’m still clutching my bottle in one cold-cramped claw.  I never finished my drink. I’m not sure I could let go of it if I wanted to.  My hands ceased to function as hands more than an hour ago. 

Grimacing we finish.  Around us runners throw their arms up in celebration.  The look on their faces is a combination of triumph, relief and disbelief.  They have survived the worst weather that Boston has ever offered up.  They got it done on a day that was at once horrible and at the same time the most epic journey in a marathon most will ever experience.

And not just any marathon. 

The Boston Marathon. 

They lived to tell the tales, and this one will be talked about for decades.

I was wrong. 

I thought I had seen everything and raced in every type of weather.  I have never seen anything like this.  The closest I have come was the last leg of the Hood to Coast Relay in 2016.  I had the same 30 mph head wind with the same driving rain.  But the difference that day in Oregon was that the rain was a few degrees warmer and I wasn’t going 26.2 miles on one of the hardest marathon courses.

I have experience. 

I ran my Boston PR in ’98 in a cold drizzle.  I rather enjoyed the Nor’easter of ’07. I had a fine day in the rain of 2015. 

Friday , as the race was approaching, when we knew what the weather was shaping up to be I wrote a blog post to calm people down.  In that post I said not to worry too much, it’s never as bad on the course as the hype makes it out to be. 

I said that the cooler temps were good for racing if you could stay out of the wind.  I mollified the nervous by noting that in the mid-pack there are thousands of people to draft with.  I cautioned against wearing too much rain gear as it would catch the wind and slow you down.  Instead, I recommended, wear a few layers to trap the heat.

I was wrong. 

I have never seen anything like this.

Most races would have canceled or delayed in the face of this type of weather.  Not Boston.  This type of weather at Chicago would have resulted in a humanitarian crises on the scale of an ill-timed tsunami rising out of Lake Michigan.  This weather at New York would have driven the runners and spectators into emergency shelters.

Not the Boston Marathon. 

This old dame of a foot race has been continuously pitting the best runners in the world against each other for  122 years.  This race is part of our cultural fabric.  It’s special.  We don’t stop for weather.  It’s too important to us to stop for anything. 

I remember emailing Dave McGillivray from a business trip in the days before the 2007 race as the Nor’easter bore down on New England.  I asked him if the reports were true, that they were considering canceling the race?  He responded matter of factly that he didn’t know about anybody else but he was going to be there. 

It’s not bravado or false courage.  It’s a mindset that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. 

The organization, the athletes, the cities and towns and the spectators are all in it together.  Together, on Monday, we all screwed up our grit and ran our race despite what wrath nature decided to unpack for us.

The athletes who run Boston are not the type to give up.  They have earned the right to be there.  Either by qualifying or working to raise thousands of dollars.  This is not the one-and-done bucket list crowd.  This is a cohort of seasoned endurance athletes who have trained hard and long over many years to get here.  If they skipped runs for bad weather they would never have made it to the start in Hopkinton. 

For the first time ever I decided to skip the Athlete’s village in Hopkinton.  From past experience I knew it was going to be a mess.  Based on the reports I have from other runners it was like a medieval battlefield scene.  The athletic fields turned into ankle deep mud under the marching of 30,000 runners.  Athletes struggled to find shelter under the tents.  Some crawled under vehicles in the parking lot in an attempt to get out of the elements. 

It was already raining and blowing hard as the day broke in Hopkinton.  The temperatures struggled to find 40 degrees.  There was no good place to be.  It was a mess.  There was no way to stay dry.  Waiting around to be called to the corrals runners started to accumulate a core temperature loss that would haunt them throughout the race.  The organization did the best they could but it was miserable and chaotic. 

I avoided it. 

My youngest daughter offered to drop me off in Hopkinton and I took the spectator bus downtown (instead of the athlete bus to the Village).  Seeing what the conditions would be, I took Eric’s offer of safe harbor at Betty’s place. 

It’s a long story, a Boston story, and it goes like this…  A long time ago, a family from St. Louis owned a home in Hopkinton.  They started a tradition of hosting the visiting Missouri runners in that home.  Eventually that family from St. Louis sold the home to Betty’s Family.  They continued the tradition and this is where Eric, one of my running buddies, who is from St. Louis, has been sheltering before his Boston Marathons. 

This year, Betty has sold the house and moved into a senior center, right next to the start.  She arranged to have the center’s hall open to the Missouri runners.  I joined a dozen or so gathered there in the warmth, replete with food and drink and good nature to wait for the start.  We didn’t know how lucky we were to have this safe harbor. 

Around 10:30 Eric, another runner and I made our goodbyes and started walking to the corrals.  We walked out into the storm.  We were ostensibly in wave 3 corral 3 but were soon to find out that much of the rigorous Boston starting procedure had been blown out the window. 

I made them stop at the big porta-potty farm on Main Street.  I took my dry race shoes, socks and hat out of their bag and wiggled into them in the cramped plastic box. 

Ready to race.  I tossed the sweat pants, old shoes and ski hat to the volunteer who was stuffing soggy cast offs frantically into a rattling plastic bag.

I have raced and run in all kinds of weather.  I generally know what to do and how to dress. 
Monday I dressed for racing in a 35-40 degree rainy day.  I had trained in much colder weather.  I wasn’t expecting this day to be too cold, especially once we started racing and warmed up.  The only real risk was at the end of the race.  If we were forced to walk or slow down we might get chilled.  I dressed based on my experience from 19 previous Boston Marathons and 60+ marathons over the last 25 years. 

And I was wrong.

I wore a new pair of high-cut race shorts that I bought at the expo.  I have a rule of thumb, especially after a winter training campaign, 35 and above is shorts weather.  We were close to but above that line.  I slipped on a thin pair of calf sleeves in deference to possible wind chill and rain.  Calf sleeves are good compromise between shorts and tights if the weather is on the line and add additional protection against cramping on cold days. 

For the top I added a layer to what I would usually wear.  I had a thin tech tee shirt that I had made into a tank by cutting off the sleeves as my base layer.  On top of that I wore a high-quality long sleeve tech tee I got from Asics for the 2014 NYC race and on top of that my Squannacook singlet with the bib number.  People forget that the bib number is waterproof and wind proof and helps keep your core warm.  Three layers plus the oversized bib should keep the core warm. 

I wore a pair of tech gloves that were designed for this in-between type weather.  You wouldn’t want to wear these when the temps got below freezing but they usually work well in the in-between temps.  I topped it off with a simple Boston race hat from 2017.  That’s the same scheme I’ve used in countless 35-40 degree rainy runs.

I was wrong.

Mentally I was prepared.  I’ve been doing this too long to worry about things I can’t change.  I was happy to not have another hot year.  I had had a decent training cycle and my fitness was good.  I had avoided injury except for a minor niggle in my high left hamstring.  I was ready to race.  I slept well.  I was ready to respect Boston.

I was wrong.  This was a different thing.  This was different than anything I had ever raced in. 

65 seconds.  That’s how long Eric said it took me to poop at mile 9.  I knew those porta-potties were there in the parking lot across from the reservoir.  I have used them in previous years.  I told Eric I wanted to stop. 

We had come to the conclusion that today wasn’t the best racing weather by that point.  We had been holding race pace fairly consistently up to that point down out of Hopkinton and into the flats of Ashland and Natick.  I didn’t feel horrible, but I didn’t feel great either. 

I was worried about spending too much and getting caught at the end.  My effort level was good, but a little high.  My heart rate was good.  But I weirdly felt like I was burning energy faster than normal.  I could feel the energy I was expending fighting the storm. 

Our ability to draft had been minimalized.  With the gusting wind and driving rain runners were having trouble staying in their lanes.  Even if you could get on someone’s shoulder that just meant you were in the wettest part of the road.  The runners you were trying to draft stuck to the dry crown of the road and in order to get into their shadow you had to run in the water filled wheel paths. 

Even a veteran like me, who knows the course, couldn’t make good tangent decisions as runners weaved and wobbled in the storm.  My watch says I ran an extra ¼ mile. 

People were running in all kinds of rain gear in an attempt to stay the effect of the tempest.  Shoes wrapped in bags tied at the ankles, runners clutching space blanket fragments, trash bags, ponchos and even shower caps that they had stolen from their hotels.  All bets were off.

I wanted to slow down and drop off of race pace to conserve energy I knew a forced break was a good psychological way of doing this.  Anyone who has raced with me knows that I will keep repeating things like “we have to back it off” but for some reason struggle to put this sentiment into execution.  A potty break would be a good reset.

Once we had the race monkey off our backs Eric and I settled into a reasonable pace and looked up ahead to anticipate the girls and the hills.  I wasn’t feeling great but it wasn’t critical.  I didn’t really know if I needed to be drinking more or how nutrition should work in this weather.  I told Eric it was now a fun run and he said “Anything under four hours is good”.

We ran on through Natick and Framingham.  Eric turned to me and asked, was that the ½?  I said I think it was.  They hadn’t put up the arch that has been there in recent years due to the wind and we almost missed it. 

Eric kept marveling at the spectators.  He kept repeating ‘these people are the real story’.  He was amazed that they were still out in force lining the course and cheering. 

The spectators at Boston take it as seriously as the runners.  If I could turn my head in the final miles I would see the incongruent, multi-colored sea of umbrellas lining the. route  The spectators at Boston are not spectators, they are partners, or rather part owners, with the athletes. 

Coming down the hill out of Hopkinton there were a couple of kids in bathing suits frolicking in a front yard.  One guy was wearing a mask and snorkel.  There are countless stories of spectators tying shoes and helping runners with food and nutrition when the athletes hands were too cold to work anymore. 

One out of town runner, in a fit of hypothermia went to the crowd looking for a spare rain poncho and got the nice LL Bean rain coat freely off a mans back so he could finish the race.  In some ways it reminded me of 2013 when the people of Boston came together to help each other overcome adversity. 

It’s been five years but our spirit is still Boston Strong. 

We ran on through to Wellesley staying on a good pace but trying to recover enough for the hills.  Other years you can hear the girls at Wellesley College screaming from a mile away.  This year the hard rain damped the sound until we were almost on top pf them. 

They were out there.  They were hanging over their fence imploring the shivering runners with kisses and high-fives.  Eric and I ran through smiling as always.  Even though my energy was low I drifted over and slapped as many wet hands as I could. 

Coming into mile 15 some combination of our slower pace and the increasing ferocity of the storm started to get the better of me.  I could feel my core temperature dropping.  I was working but I couldn’t keep up. 

How did this happen?  How could someone with my experience get it wrong?  Why was this different from any other cold rain run? 

It was, in a sense, the perfect storm.  The perfect combination of physics, fluid dynamics and temperature conspired to create a near perfect heat sink for the runners.  The wind, on its own, was just a strong wind.  The rain on its own was just a hard rain.  The temperature on its own was just another spring day.  But the combination pulled heat out of your body faster than you could make more.

The volume of rain driven by the winds penetrated through my hat and washed the heat from my head.  The same cold rain drove through the three layers of my shirts and washed the heat from my core.  My gloves filled with cold water and my hands went numb.  When I made a fist water would pour out like squeezing a wet sponge. 

The rain and wind was constant but would also come in big waves.  We’d be running along and a surge in the storm would knock us sideways or backwards like being surprised by a maniac with a water cannon.  I would stumble and lean into it and mutter “Holy shit storm!” or “Holy Cow Bells!” Really just to recognize and put words on the abuse. 

The wind was directly in our faces.  The rain was directly in our faces.  The whole time.  We never got out of it.  There would be lulls but then it would return with one of those smack-you-in-the-face hose downs.  My shoulder and back muscles were sore from leaning into it. 

I was having difficulty drinking from my bottle because I couldn’t squeeze my hand hard enough.  I resorted to holding it between two hands and pushing together between them.  People reported not having the hand strength to take their nutrition or even pull their shorts up after a potty stop. 

I was starting to go hypothermic and my mind searched for a plan.  Eric knew I was struggling. 

I started scanning the road for discarded gear I could use.  The entire length of the course was strewn with gear.  I saw expensive gloves and hats and coats of all descriptions.  We passed by an expensive fuel belt at one point that someone had given up on.  Eric knew I was suffering and I told him I was going to grab a discarded poncho if I could find one. 

As if on cue a crumpled orange poncho came into view on the sidewalk to our left and I stopped to retrieve it.  Eric helped me wriggle into it.  It was rather tight, and that was a good thing.  It was probably a woman’s.  It clung tightly to my torso and had a small hood that captured my head and hat without much luffing in the wind. 

It's at this point that Eric says I was a new man.  I may not have been a new man but the poncho trapped enough heat to reverse the hypothermia and we got back to work.  By now we were running down into Newton Lower Falls and looking up, over the highway at the Hills. 

Eric said, “We’re not walking the hills.”

I said, “OK” and we were all business. 

We slowed down but we kept moving through the first hill.  I focused not on running but on falling. Falling forward and catching myself with my feet.  Hips forward.  Lift and place the foot.  Not running just falling.

The hood of the poncho was narrow.  I had an enforced tunnel vision, but it was somehow comforting, like a blinders on a race horse.  I could see Eric’s blue shoes appear now and then on my right, or on my left.  I settled into my own, little, six-inch oval of reality and worked through the hills. 

Other runners would cross my field of vision and I’d bump through them.  I was in the groove.  I don’t know why but people’s pacing was all over the place during the race.  It might have been the wind or the hypothermia addled brains but they were weaving all over the road.  I had to slam on my brakes for random stoppages the entire race. 

Eventually I just ran through them as best I could.  I didn’t have the energy to stop.  This kind of behavior is unusual at Boston in the seeded corrals, but the whole day was unusual. I think the relative chaos of the start may have had something to do with it.

When we got to the corrals they had ceased worrying about protocol and were just waving runners through.  If you wanted to bandit Boston this year or cheat, Monday would have been the day to do it.  But you also might have died in the process, so there’s that. 

We got through the chutes and over the start mats without any formal starting ceremony.  The flood gates were open, so to speak.  Because of this I think the pacing was a bit strange at the start and we passed a lot of people. 

I was racing and Eric was doing his best to hold me back.  We chewed through the downhill section of the course with gusto.  Given the conditions we were probably too fast, but not suicidal.  Both of us have run Boston enough times to be smart every once in a while.  We were holding a qualifying pace fairly well and trying to draft where we could.  Eric had to pull off and have someone tie his shoe but I stayed in my lane and he caught up. 

We rolled through the storm this way until I realized this was not a day to race and we had to conserve our energy if we wanted to finish.  We metered our efforts and this budgeting process culminated in the voluntary pit stop at mile 9.

In Newton between the hills we’d focus on pulling back and recovering enough for the next one.  Eric had a friend volunteering at mile 19 who we stopped to say ‘hi’ to.  We were slow but we were moving forward.  We reached a point of stasis. 

Every now and then Eric would pull out his video camera and try to capture the moment.  I was thinking sarcastically to myself how wonderful it would be to have video of my tired, wet self hunched inside the poncho like a soggy Quasimodo.

I had brought a bottle of a new electrolyte drink called F2C with me.  It was ok but because of the cold I wasn’t drinking much.  I knew my hands couldn’t get to the Endurolytes in my shorts pocket.  I had enough sense to worry about keeping the cramps away.  I managed to choke down a few of the Cliff Gels they had on the course just to get some calories, and hopefully some electrolytes. 

Eric and I continued to drive through the hills.  I miss-counted and thought we’d missed HeartBreak in the Bedlam.  With the thinner crowds I could see the contours of the course and knew we had one more big one before the ride down into Boston. 

We successfully navigated through the rain up Heartbreak and Eric made a joke about there being no inspirational chalk drawings on the road this year.  Eric was happy.  He had wrecked himself on the hills in previous races and my slow, steady progress had helped him meter himself.  With those ultra-marathon trained legs he was now ready to celebrate and took off down the hill. 

I tried my best to stay with him but the hamstring pull in my left leg constrained my leg extension and it hurt a bit.  I was happy to jog it in but he still had juice.  I told him to run his race, I’d be ok, secretly wishing he’d go so I could take some walk breaks without a witness, but he refused.  He said “We started this together and we’re going to finish together.” 

OK Buddy, but I’m not running any faster.  I watched his tall yellow frame pull ahead a few meters though the last 10K, but he would always pull up and wait for me to grind on through. And so we ground out against the storm and into the rain and wind blasts through the final miles. 

In my mind I never once thought, “This is terrible!” or “This bad weather is ruining my race!”  All I was thinking is how great it was to get to be a part of something so epic that we would be talking about for years to come.  The glory points we notched for running this one, for surviving it and for doing decently well considering – that far outweighed any whining about the weather.

This type of thing brings out the best in people.  It brought out the grit in me and the other finishers.  It brought out the challenges for those 2700 or so people who were forced to seek medical treatment.  That’s about 10% of those who started. 

It brought out the best in Desi Linden who gutted out a 2:39 to be the first American winner 33 years.  In fact it brought out the best in the next 5 female finishers, all of whom were relative unkowns.  The top 7 women were 6 Americans and one 41 year old Canadian who came in 3rd.  No East Africans to be seen. 

The day brought out the best in Yuki Kawauchi from Japan who ground past Kenyan champ Geoffrey Kirui in the final miles. 

It was an epic day for epic athletes and I am glad to have been a part of it.  I am grateful that this sport continues to surprise me and teach me and humble me.  I am full of gratitude to be part of this race that pushes us so hard to be better athletes, to earn the right to join our heroes on this course.  I am humbled to have friends in this community, like Eric, who can be my wing men (and wing-ladies) when the storms come.

I am thankful for that day in 1997 when a high school buddy said, “Hey, why don’t we run the marathon?”  Those 524 miles of Boston over the last 20 years hold a lot of memories.  This race has changed me for the better and I’m thankful for the opportunity.

Direct download: Boston2018.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 8:16pm EDT





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