HOPKINTON TO BOSTON - It is easy to sum up why I run marathons: the challenge and the experience. Some people like Sunday morning crosswords. I like a Sunday morning 20-miler. Some people like rock concerts. I like swapping race stories with other runners. So, despite forecasts of temperatures in the high 80s, it never crossed my mind to skip the 2012 Boston Marathon. Like almost everyone else who took to the course Monday, I embraced the challenge with equal parts anxiety, uncertainty, and runners’ humor.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, runners’ humor is a guy running Monday’s race with a sign on his back that read: “Is it too late for a deferment?’’ I passed him at the 22-mile mark and laughed. And it’s another guy who, upon seeing an electronic sign board on the course in Wellesley that flashed “Hot, Hot, Hot’’ shouted “No #$@$!’’ Even the spectators had to laugh.
The 2012 Boston Marathon was my favorite to date of the nine I’ve run. Not because I performed up to expectations or even well, far from it with a 3:40:19 finish in temperatures that reached a high of 89 degrees along the course. But because races don’t come any more challenging and running experiences don’t come any richer. Although I admit that perspective was a little hard to appreciate as I willed myself up Heartbreak Hill and zigzagged from left to right in pursuit of hoses and ice cubes to drop down my back.
Much is made of the “loneliness of the long-distance runner.’’ It’s true. Long-distance running is an individual sport, but Monday, as heat humbled even the best marathoners, a strong sense of camaraderie developed. We were all in this together - the runners, the spectators, the water stop volunteers, the firemen with misting tents and sprinklers attached to hydrants - and we were all going to push through to the finish.
But when I started in Hopkinton I had no idea what was ahead. Before the gun went off, I spent 25 minutes crammed into corral 9, at the very back of the first wave of runners. A woman behind me said, “I’m from Florida and this is hot.’’ A man chimed in, “The race hasn’t even started and I’m sweating.’’ And despite applying liberal amounts of water-resistant sunscreen, I practically could feel my skin browning under clear skies.
Even with all the BAA advisories and news stories, the reality of running a marathon in extreme heat is hard to appreciate until you actually do it. We crossed the starting line into the great unknown.
Although I ran the first mile in 7:10 and it felt easy, I could already sense the energy-sapping effect the heat would have. My legs did not have the freshness they usually have after tapering training for a marathon. There would be no falling into a comfortable rhythm and clicking off the miles. Still, I planned to try to keep close to my goal pace of 7:15-7:20 until around the 10K mark in Framingham, see how I felt and reevaluate my race strategy from there. But even before I got to the 10K, I knew I was in for a long day.
And judging from the chaos at water stations and the way runners migrated en masse to every small strip of shade, it seemed everyone else figured the same.
Although water stations struggle with traffic flow, with everyone intent on getting precisely the fluids they need, picking up a cup of water felt a lot like entering a packed rotary. It was hard to tell who was coming and going, who was slowing down and who was completely stopping.
When buildings cast the narrowest of shadows in Framingham and Natick, we all swerved to the temporary shade, resembling a scene from a wildlife video about flocking birds. Almost everyone seemed to decide simultaneously that shade was more important than space for open strides. It was shocking how much better it felt, how much cooler it seemed. But the shadows never stretched out long enough for a true respite from the sun and heat. They were constant companions.
As I made my way through Framingham, Natick, and Wellesley, I stopped checking my watch at some mile markers. And I tried to take part in the experience as much as I could. As I passed Moose’s Tavern not long after the Natick Town Common, the song “YMCA’’ blasted from a sound system. And with all the runners around me, I made the arm motions, spelling out the letters. It was another sign that my “race’’ day was over, though I knew more challenges, namely the Newton hills and Heartbreak Hill in particular, awaited.
When not engaged in a song and running act, I focused on finding hoses, sprinklers, and spraying hydrants. I would like to thank the Natick and Newton fire departments for their misting tents. Not sure I would’ve made it without them. I would like to thank the young boy who engaged in truth in advertising when he shouted “Ice cold sponge.’’ I grabbed that big, orange sponge from him and held onto it the rest of the race, drenching it at water stations and wringing it out over my neck for the final 12 miles. And I would like to thank the woman with the handful of ice who saw I was flagging on the Newton Hills and jogged a few steps beside me to make sure I got every last ice cube.
Much of Heartbreak Hill passed in a blur, probably because I kept my focus 3 feet in front of me and repeated the mantra, “You got it. You got it’’ until I reached the top. After I crested the hill and the crowd shouted, “It’s all downhill from here,’’ I knew the final 5 miles would be the toughest. My quads started to slightly tighten on the downhill toward Cleveland Circle. I thought of 5-mile training runs and how relatively short the distance is, how those are the easiest of runs.
And I kept searching out any water source I could find. This is the way it went as I approached Boylston Street. I knew I would finish, but it wasn’t until I turned the corner that I could really take in the accomplishment. I took one last look at my watch and shrugged. I’ve never been happier to see a finish line.
Completely heat-sapped, I did my best approximation of a sprint down Boylston. I’m sure it wasn’t pretty, but in so many other ways the 2012 Boston Marathon was a special sight.
Checking in along the route
Globe reporter Shira Springer gives a ﬁrst-hand account of the difﬁcult conditions, with her thoughts from each checkpoint:
5K: I was in shape to run around 7:15-7:20 pace. I thought I’d start off at close to that, see how my body handled the heat and adjust from there.
10K: At this point, with the sun beating down in Framingham and heat rising from the roads, it was clear the day was going to approximate a fast training run more than a race.
15K: Although my legs were willing, my body simply could not shift gears in the heat.
20K: Instead of focusing on pace, I started looking down the road for the next water hose.
Half: Even though my halfmarathon time projects a 3:22 ﬁnish, I know there’s no way my body will do that in the heat, though I feel more comfortable with slightly more shade on the roads.
25K: My body is going downhill as the Newton hills approach.
30K: All I’m thinking is hills, hills, hills and hoses, hoses, hoses. I know Heartbreak Hill is coming.
35K: This is the time when I ﬁnally let myself look forward to the ﬁnish and try, in vain, to keep my mind off the heat.
40K: I had moments of doubt when I wondered if I’d make it to the ﬁnish. No doubts now. Left, right, left, right.
Finish: Turning the corner onto Boylston and running to the ﬁnish line, slow time and all, was the most satisfying experience I’ve had running marathons.
Shira Springer can be reached at email@example.com.