If you are running the Boston Marathon today, don’t waste your time reading this column. You have a long day ahead. Start stretching.
I have spent a lot of my career on the road, sometimes in arduous situations. I have peeled leeches off my feet after going barefoot on a mountain in Thailand. I have suffered near frostbite by exposing my bare hand to minus-30 degree weather in the Arctic. I became exceptionally agitated when I temporarily lost sight of my Arabic-speaking driver at the Syrian border last year. And five years ago today, I ran the Boston Marathon.
Only this last effort still sends shockwaves through my entire system.
When the race is over, there will be talk of endurance and determination, of personal bests and getting past the proverbial wall, of Heartbreak Hill (it’s actually a bunch of hills — there is no forgetting that) and the finish line. Visitors will praise the hospitality of this city whose residents pass around water and cheer athletes onward.
That’s all true and, as a fan of running sports, the city of Boston, and the state of Massachusetts, I should be sharing in the warm fellowship of those who even once finished running the 26 miles and 285 yards. But looking back, I have to admit it really was horrible. Painfully horrible. I don’t remember most of it, and I have blocked large chunks of it out. I had never run Boston before, and I haven’t run a marathon since. I have no desire to do it again.
The signs that the whole endeavor would lead to frustration were evident from the beginning. I gained weight during the training. People told me it had to do with muscle growth, but that was little solace. If I was exercising a few hours a day, on average, I wanted something to show for it.
I was, like the many who run for a charity cause, just an average runner. I received an official placement that is reserved for public safety officials because I was working in state government at the time. It was too easy to qualify, and I wish I had been put to some sanity test before being allowed to join those elite runners. The siren call of Boston made me lose my better judgment.
I should have known. I had already seen the medical tent at the finish line of the previous year’s marathon. It looked like the post-battle scene from “Gone with the Wind.”
The misery during the race was my own doing. I did what every training manual advises runners to avoid in Boston: I went too fast, too soon. The race starts downhill and runners, made giddy by all the spectators, tend to forget what lies ahead.
The hills felt bigger and longer than when I had trained on them over the winter. The Citgo sign kept getting farther and farther away.
My friend Laura met me at mile 20. She saw me and didn’t have to ask. She forced me to eat a banana and simply said “look at my feet, just look at my feet” as I trailed her a few paces behind.
She is running today. Good luck, Laura, but I just can’t be there for you. I can’t go back.
For those who finish, it will feel like it was worth it. Those hours of training, often in the wet and cold, are over. If lucky, within a week, you will be laughing about how miserable you felt at mile 18. And, perhaps sometime soon, the training will start again and the distances will get longer and longer until 26.2 miles feels just about right.
But, there may be some of you who never desire to do it again. The marathon will be an accomplishment but not one worthy of repeat. There are other cities with long races. There are even other sports. Pilates, for example, can be mastered while lying down.
Perhaps a trek on a leech-filled mountain in Thailand will seem, after today, somewhat more appealing.
Even with the memory of my Boston marathon many years past, I’m with you on that.