Passing the ominous Citgo sign with 1 mile left till the finish

Prove It

“Once lucky, twice good” my PE teacher used to say.

A student would hit a half court shot, or an improbable hook/bank combo and out my teacher would holler “Once lucky, twice good!”

Inevitably, whether due to nerves, or the variables of chance, the second shot would often go glancing off the rim and send the humbled student to begin again. So close to bragging rights only to be denied.

This was my mindset into Boston 2017.

Having been the guy who pulled a fast one on the 2016 Boston Marathon by breaking 2:30 on a tough day, I entered this year’s race with massive expectation from others and myself. No longer an unknown, success from Hopkinton to Copley Square now felt like a middle schooler who just hit a dubious shot: sure it could happen again, but wasn’t it just a fluke?

Boston 2016 left me feeling like the kid who escaped from detention. It was hot and windy, and everyone suffered…except me somehow. How could that be? people wondered. Did I have a hydration strategy? they emailed. What was my long run build up? they inquired. 31st place? Wasn’t that just cause of a depleted field due to the top runners focusing on the Olympic Trials? the skeptics questioned. Yes to everything. Somehow I had run well when very few people did.

At 35 years old I’m well aware that I’m playing with house money. The cash I brought to this game is already mine, all winnings are gravy. But…how much can I win? Am I good? Is this just luck?

I entered Boston 2017 with this weight on my shoulders.

The 4th annual track half marathon hosted by the NAC running club in Portland, OR

As the winter training progressed I found myself in surprisingly good shape. A half marathon on the track in the cold Oregon rain in 1:11:59 left even me surprised. Hard days under harsh conditions give you hope, “what if I catch a good one in Boston?” you wonder.

I purposefully decided to run an ultra-relay, The 340 Speed Project in March for an adventure, but also to distract from the pressure of Boston 2017. A pure build up with Monday April 17th as the sole focus would be too much. Death Valley might be hot, but not nearly as crippling as a 12 month mental climb to proving my shot again in Boston.

Striding out into my 40th mile of The Speed Project ultra relay from LA to Vegas

Speed Project complete. Death Valley conquered. Recovery days finished. I found on a Wednesday workout with my training partner Patrick that I was fitter and fresher than expected. Apparently four years of continuous marathon training prepares you for a lot.

Chasing Patrick Reaves around the Michael Johnson track at Nike. This will make you faster.

And so, with some excitement and some chagrin I turned my focus to April 17th.

My chance to Prove It.

“I’m sorry, I know none of this sounds really rational” I apologized to my wife Julia as we entered the Boston expo. I’d spent the last 15 minutes rambling about nerves, fears, expectations and pressure. I’d been trying to hold her hand unsuccessfully due to excessively clammy palms. Wisely, she paused before responding, “I don’t think it could. If it was rational we wouldn’t be here.” I stared 600 meters to the finish line down Boylston, the distance I knew too well, “True.”

Boston 2017 wouldn’t be a surprise. It couldn’t. For me the myth was busted, the stakes were known. It would be pure pressure.

And that was before the heat began to rise.

Monday 3 a.m.

A restless night, too warm to sleep, I was awake with too much fitness, too much rest and too much glycogen to drift off. “Only 6 more hours to endure till the gun” I sighed into the darkness.

6 a.m.

Sipping black coffee on the patio, it was already too hot. I nervously ate nothing and packed my things for the trip to Hopkinton.

Boston 2016 was like unwrapping a present carefully for two and a half hours. Anticipation, followed by realization, followed by celebration. It was a surprise to everyone, even me and my closest training partners. I was prepared last year, but the performance still seemed implausible.

“You’re so humble about your Boston run!” some people exclaimed to me over the past year. “You don’t seem arrogant about your running at all” they remarked, without knowing much about running at all. “It’s a product of getting my ass kicked for 15 years” I’d lament. Having been beaten down in high school and humbled in college, I graduated with a sense of my running worth etched in granite. I’m as good as I am. I know my ability and have accepted my place in relative mediocrity. Fast enough, but hardly notable.

8 a.m.

The good fortune of stepping off the bus in Hopkinton accompanied by my closest friends from college and from Portland, to run the Boston Marathon, did not escape me. But nearly. I couldn’t eat and my heart was thrashing.

9:50 a.m.

10 minutes to the start, “Let’s head to the line eh?” Nate, my close friend from college, suggested. “Yeah” I gulped, sighed and we strided toward the start.

I socialize to break my nerves, so when I saw a man at the start in a Bowerman Track Club singlet I struck up a conversation, “You from Portland?” I asked to cut my own tension. “Oh yeah, you wrote that 9,000 seconds essay right?” he replied.

No escape from this reckoning.

10 a.m.

Another national anthem. Another military flyover. Another starters gun and we’re off. Without the fanfare, without the novelty and even with a bit of dread.

I hit my watch, “Here we go.”

(It should be noted that it was much too hot and the wind was precarious. The optimists were calling it a tailwind, but it was squirrelly at best.)

Mile 1 — 5:42

“Fine” I lamented, it’ll do.

I was with my friends and training partners, but felt I was working too hard.

We were running with a young gun from Portland, Nick Roche, a recent D-I grad from Gonzaga who was new to the marathon but packs more talent and accomplishment in one calf than Patrick or I have in our entire aging legs. We passed Knox Robinson from the Black Roses of NYC and he hollered “Show our young man the ropes!”

The reality of expectation continued to settled on my shoulders. Today we were the train to ride.

Mile 2 — 5:27

“It’s downhill, whatever” I moaned to no one.

Patrick was off the front. “What’s he doing?” I thought. “We’ll get to him gradually” I cautioned Nick.

Miles 3, 4, 5 — 5:29, 5:28, 5:42

“Whatever. Okay. Gross” I pitied to myself.

As I’ve become a marathoner the judgment has grown to unexpected heights. Miles in the 5:40s aren’t to be entertained or allowed, they add up much too quickly.

Miles 6, 7, 8 — 5:34, 5:38, 5:38

I missed a mile split due to the hectic task of swerving for hydration. Gatorade and water every mile. Full bottles whenever possible. Running fully drenched from hat to socks. Even the novelty of grabbing the Elite water bottles felt expected this year. Having declared to thousands of my essay readers that Patrick and I had uncovered a secret, I was struggling to appreciate even this respite.

Around here friendly trash talk from the Greater Boston Track Club rang out, “We’re coming for you this year Bromka!” I waved it off with a hand in the air, but it didn’t go unnoticed. My heart rate spiked.

Looking to my watch in hope of good news

Switching my Garmin to heart rate mode the news was grim. Rolling at low to mid 160s for the current flats. It was the heat. I knew it. I don’t know much about the physiological effects of heat, but it didn’t take a doctor to decipher the pressure on the body today.

“This may all end poorly” I feared.

The Portland pack

Mile 9 — 5:34

“Help me guys, I’m in a dark place” Nick pleaded.

“This is the worst part” I feigned. “There’s a downhill coming up!” Patrick exclaimed. I wasn’t sure if Patrick was telling the truth or just approximating. Either way it appeared to help up the young guy.

Miles 10, 11 — 5:38, 5:36

“So fast, so hot” I bemoaned.

Then my calves started to cramp.

Not full clenches, but playful, painful spasms, enough to slow and terrify the marathoner with 15 miles left to Boston.

Not even half way I was full of self pity. My legs were faltering and I resented my inspirational self. I hated the Peter who often posted on Instagram about celebrating the journey, and just appreciating the opportunity to run. Was even he an imposter? I wondered.

Around here I passed a man running full tilt with an amputation below the knee. “How could I sob about a calf cramp while passing a man missing a leg?” I wondered with disgust.

There had to be a way out of this.

Mile 12 — 5:32

“You know, we’ve got so much time in the bank, we can slow down and still have a shitload of time on the backside for a good time” I offered Nick. “Good idea” he replied and almost immediately dropped back.

The heat and pace were a lot to ask of anyone, let alone for a first endeavor.

“We’re going too fast, we’re wasting so much energy”

I whined to myself. I could feel the GBTC pack behind me. I knew that role well. A year ago I felt like a hunter, picking people off at my will. I was now running scared. Heart pounding, skin cooking, I felt like wounded prey.

But then, it occurred to me,

“This isn’t inevitable!”

“This” being impending cramps and carnage. There is a certain sense of inevitability when you’re rolling with a pack, an obligation to hang tough and keep up. “I don’t even know these guys!” I screamed internally. “Who cares!”

Determined not to fall apart I tried to back off slightly, and whether it was the 51 foot decent or the Wellesley scream tunnel, I caught my breath and finally found a rhythm.

Mile 13 — 5:38

1:13:23 — Half Marathon

Fastest I’ve ever split by 30 seconds through Wellesley Town Center, but the least joy I’ve ever experienced through their quaint celebration.

Miles 14, 15 — 5:34, 5:50

There it was. A mile in the 5:50s. This was it. Every cord of imposter syndrome struck in unison. “Last year WAS a fluke” I spat at myself. Anymore of those and this day is done.

Mile 16 — a downhill. It’s a test.

If you can’t run mile 16 fast you’re toast.

Having consulted with my fast friends they all agreed, “At 16 you turn it on and the race begins.” Having been the racer a year ago I knew the feeling well. Hell, last year I even noticed children playing on the town green. I hadn’t had a care in the world.

“PUSH, YOU BABY!” I insisted. Patrick was off out front, but not that far.

A student of the Boston Marathon, I knew one reality, this is the FASTEST mile. You lose 112 fucking feet. This split would be a litmus test.

I hit my watch: 5:25. “I’ve still got it” I realized with surprise.

Mile 17 — 5:41 — here come the hills

A year ago I came to the Newton firehouse turn as though it was my home, nearly leaping around the corner.

This year I turned it with the bitter taste of fear on my parched lips.

Crossing I-95 Patrick came back to me, “I’m going to chill a bit” he mentioned casually. Cool. Then off the top he was off again, but we were racing.

Mile 18 — 5:50

So many friends out to support me and I could barely escape my dark cave of sorrow.

“Yeah Bromka!”

I heard up ahead and spotted Jason Mann, Tufts ’02. Jason had put in 100 mile weeks in January only to be forced to withdraw from today’s race with a mysterious knee injury. A father of two, he knows full well that our time in this marathon game is wearing thin. I knew he would give nearly anything to trade places with me right now and even that only mustered slight inspiration. Having sworn off high fives for this race I dropped my left hand down low and gently slapped his hand.

8 miles to Copley Square. Maybe this day won’t end in disappointment.

Shortly after this I came upon the fitness movement The November Project and my friend Paul, their NYC co-lead. Inexplicably I kissed two fingers and pointed a peace sign. I’ve never done this before, but it struck me as the only thing appropriate in the moment of suffering. Love for their movement, survival through my moment.

Paul Leak crossed the road to get right in my face, but then he spoke calmly and encouraged me to hang tough, exactly what I needed

Mile 19

A flat mile of internal anger and doubt, don’t back off now, this split is a judgment of your ability and desire: 5:34.

Still got it.

Miles 20 & 21 — 5:51, 6:02

When your calves have been spasming for 10 miles uphills almost feel good. It’s horrible, but you’re not fearful of full debilitating cramps. I was moving fine. The exertion was maximal, but the fear and self doubt were diminishing.

Top of Heartbreak, Top of the World.

I saw the Black Roses run crew and indulgently popped my jersey, for pride, for emotion, to fake what it would feel like if I was feeling good. And then I was off down through Boston College.

Doing my best NBA jersey pop to represent the Stumprunners of Portland, OR

Running is my family’s tradition and because my parents met at BC there is no more poignant location to run my fucking heart out. I thought of my mom as a girl in the 70s, my dad in his curly Polish fro, and tried to muster every bit of emotion available.

And then I couldn’t resist a BC tradition. I waved my arms, cupped my ears and taunted the crowd to respond.

They did in waves, and I continued to provoke. I pointed, waved and sneered for them to try harder. They did not disappoint.

When the crowd is too calm let them know you expect more and they will respond to the challenge

Mile 22 — 5:33 — The next 22 minutes will SUCK

Paula Radcliffe, the women’s marathon world record holder, used to turn to mental games in times of peril. She would count to 100 repeatedly.

I settled on 50. With my legs nearly shot, feeling as though I was flinging myself forward stride by stride I challenged myself to count to 50. And then again. And then again. When that was too hard I settled on 20. More times then I care to recall.

Mile 23 — 5:38

Throwing myself stride by stride through Brookline I felt like a mess, but apparently it was working.

Almost missed my friend Jenna as I suffered downhill through Brookline

Mile 24 — where Meb won Boston

I’d recently revisited Meb’s win from 2014 and noticed his second fastest mile was 24. Striving to escape the pursuing Kenyans, to win Boston and redeem Boston Strong, he’d hammered this mile, so I knew it was fast.

5:45. Not good, not horrible. Continue onward.

Mile 25 — 5:44

Nearing the overpass of the Mass Pike I spotted Julia and noticed how beautiful she appeared. Sun kissed, in a t-shirt and shorts, it was a perfect day for spectating: warm with a cross breeze. “Shit day for a marathon” I whined and barely cracked a smile.

5 laps around a track to go

Almost done, when almost feels like forever

Mile 26 — 5:49

I couldn’t do the math, but having seen every split I reluctantly acknowledged that Boston 2017 hadn’t fallen apart on me.

At this point every stride was a project, I’m proud this one came out well

No idea what place I was in, I could guess it was decent, but was still struggling to finish this performance.

Dropping under Mass Ave, 1K to the finish. I flipped my hat backward and began to drive my arms.

Sprint! Sprint! Sprint!

Noticing Patrick turn the corner onto Hereford Street I thought about how cool it would be to celebrate with him in 3–4 minutes.

Right on Hereford, drive your arms, Left on Boylston Street….and there she is: The Boston Marathon finish.

Kicking to home I felt like a marionette, a stick man awkwardly jutting and lunging to the finish. “This isn’t running” I scoffed, this is almost embarrassing. Turns out I was running nearly 5:15 mile pace. Don’t trust anything you think in the final 10k of a marathon.

Feels so good to cross that historic line

Across the finish and I heard my name on the loudspeaker, Patrick turned with his arms raised and we embraced. Thousands of miles run together, we could finally walk.

I thanked him. For leading me, for giving me confidence, for providing moments of sanity over the last two dark hours.

He accepted, then reached out his arm, doubled over and puked everywhere. I understood.

The only way to survive the past 3 hours was to chug a disgusting amount of Gatorade and gel. He’d run valiantly, but his stomach had had enough. Feeling better he walked on towards recovery.

But I stuck around. I waited for my Tufts friends, shaking hands and high-fiving total strangers as they finished.

Trying to make sense of what I’d just done, I stood there still in shock. Having allowed the pressure and self-doubt of the past year to reach nearly crippling levels, I’d somehow survived.

I’d resented the surprise in so many compliments of my Boston 2016 run. I’d bristled at every question of the arguably reduced strength of last year’s field, or questions of the supposed heat conditions. But I’d done it, I’d replicated my performance from last year, better by .5%

My middle school teacher had tossed me the ball, asked me to “Prove it” and sure enough,

I’d sunk the shot.

2:28:44 | 52nd Place | 35th American

It took a few minutes, but once it dawned on me what I’d done I was on top of the world
3 friends, 3 very different races, each embodied in our facial expression
So special to have Julia there with me at the finish

Thank you for reading!

If you enjoyed this story, you may appreciate my other stories, about

Boston 2016, a write up on my training philosophy “Dad Strength”

And the essay I’m most proud of, “Raised a Runner” about my family’s history with running and the 2014 Chicago Marathon.

And please be in touch, always love to hear from fellow runners Bromka@gmail.com