To the non-runner, this might not seem like a significant abbreviation. But to those of us non-Olympians that aspire to “running greatness”, being a Boston Qualifier might be as close as we get to achievement on a grand stage. Except for the Olympics and some championship races, the Boston Marathon is the only U.S. marathon that maintains qualifying times and standards that one must meet in order to register for the event. So if you are an age-group runner that has qualified and run the Boston Marathon, you are amongst unique company (there were 15,534,000 road race finishers in 2012 with 21,554 being from the Boston Marathon).
I ran my first Boston Marathon in 2004 (qualified at the 2003 Baton Rouge Beach Marathon) and ran it again in 2005 with three other members of my Goldenflier Running and Racing Team.
(Eric Lewis, Eustis Corrigan, me, and Joe O’Brien)
While it is not many, some runners just want to qualify for the race and then never wind up going for various reasons. But for those that qualify and do attend the event, it is an experience like no other.
With our qualifying race being in December, there were still four months of training to tackle before the April race (the Boston Marathon is run annually on the New England holiday of Patriots’ Day – the third Monday in April). In those months, it was energizing to answer folks with, “I’m training for the Boston Marathon” when asked why I was running. When arriving at Logan Airport in Boston on race weekend, there was so much Boston Marathon propaganda there it was a bit overwhelming. Larger than life race posters, life-size standups of running legends Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter, as well as thousands of others in the airport that made the pilgrimage to the “running holy land” for the weekend seem like they decorated every mile between the airport and our hotel.
When race morning arrived, our carefully laid plan was put into action. We would leave our hotel early (around 5am) and take the Green Line of the “T” (the commuter rail line in Boston) from Cleveland Circle to Boston Common. There were school buses that would take thousands and thousands of runners out to Hopkinton (approximately 26.2 miles away) where this sleepy little town was turned into Athletes Village and the start line of the 108th Boston Marathon. With a noontime start and plenty of time from when we got dropped off, the key was to take in the energy of the arena, but not expend too much by walking around and spending too much time in the sun. There would be plenty of time for that social aspect once the race started. We took some decks of cards and some inflatable rafts and staked out our claim in the cool and shaded doorway of the high school where most athletes waited. Most athletes except for ones like Bill Rodgers. Rodgers once told me that when he ran one of his first Bostons in the early 1970’s, the wait at the start was extremely cold as the early spring weather in New England still can be. So he found a local that allowed him to stay warm in the resident’s home until right before the race went off. With the usual 27,000 or so runners of these days, that would be a near impossible feat.
Once the race organizers called the athletes to the start, we had to find our seeded corrals. You could sense the anxiety of some and the extreme relaxation and excitement of others as we all made our way towards our designated areas. The elite athletes went off first at noon and then we all proceeded to cross the official start like cows being herded towards their barn. I think it took us about 15:00 of walking and slow jogging to actually get up to the start. But once we did, it was all down hill from there. Literally. The first few hundred yards of the race are a series of gradual downhills. Boston is actually a net down hill course due to its start as well as an area around mile 17 that starts the Newton Hills. This is where Heartbreak Hill is located.
The parts of the race route that really stood out to me were numerous: the start with its incredible energy and anticipation of what is to come, the thunderous cheering of the girls from Wellesley College at the halfway mark of the race, turning the corner at the fire station to begin the Newton Hills, coming over the last hill and into the Boston College area, seeing the famous Citgo sign and going by Fenway Park, and then making the left turn onto Boylston Street into one of the greatest finishing stretches in road racing.
My second Boston was my better one, but was not without its struggles along the way. As I went under the freeway on Commonwealth Avenue with about a mile or so to go and then turned on Hereford and then to Boylston, I remember cramps creeping into my calves. And as I seized up and my “fluid” gait became a bit hobbled, I vividly remember the spectators screaming at me to keep going and that I was almost there. It was an overwhelming emotion that carried me to and through the finish line. If I could have gone back and thankfully hugged the hundred or so people at that exact spot that cheered me on when I turned that corner, I would have. But the crowds at that point were six or seven deep and scouting out those folks would have been futile. But it was awesome!
When I finally crossed that famous blue and gold painted finish right in front of the Boston Public Library, I was overcome with silent emotion as I do at most of my marathon finishes. I stopped, collected myself, and not only thought about the 26.2 miles that I had just completed, but also thought about the months and years of persistent training it had taken me to get to that point. My family
(my sister and dad traveled to the 2005 event and are here with me at the family reunion area), my teammates, my friends, my coach – I felt like they all had a hand on my back pushing me towards that finish line. It was an incredible sense of relief in finishing and sense of accomplishment in knowing how I got to the start. They say it takes a village to raise a child. I think it takes more than just the runner to qualify for and complete the Boston Marathon.
So as we gather again this Patriots’ Day for the annual New England Spring tradition, know that many of those folks that are running from Hopkinton to Copley Square are not doing it alone. They are all out there together, we runners are all there pushing them in spirit, and maybe, especially this 118th Boston Marathon, all of humankind are with the runners on the roads and with the people of Boston. BOSTON STRONG.