Going Steady

It is difficult to believe that it has been almost a week since the Boston marathon. Now that I have worked my way through a pile of marking, I finally have a chance to gather my thoughts. I will try to do justice to the epic journey. Well, epic is perhaps too strong a word; I will try to do justice to the memorable journey. Even as I begin, I find myself trying to dodge clichés.With the marathon used so often as a metaphor for conquering anything from a lengthy task to an endless day, I am left searching for metaphors to describe the marathon itself.

There were ten of us from Guelph going to Boston, and four of us — Kelly, Lorraine, Michelle and myself — were making the journey together.We left Friday afternoon, after I went to school in the morning and was surprised and touched to see the message on the school’s sign, wishing me all the best in running Boston. I also received a poster that several of my students had created with some simple instructions: Run, Robin, Run. Both the poster and the sign would be in my thoughts days later as I went through the check points, thinking of my students and colleagues getting the updates and knowing I was on track and doing as instructed: I was running.

We had rented ourselves a spacious mini-van and had filled it to the best of our ability with all of our belongings as well as a generous supply of drinks and carbohydrates.As Michelle said, in defence of her bag containing oatmeal, apple sauce and honey, who knows if you can get this stuff in Boston.Turns out you can, but had we been forced to sleep in our car for a few nights with no outside aid, we would have been just fine.

We arrived in Hopkinton well past the dinner hour, but we managed to find a restaurant that provided us with a perfectly palatable if not memorable pasta and salad.We then rolled into the residence at the New England Laborers’ Training Center, where we were staying for a ridiculously cheap amount that I will not disclose for fear of not getting a room there next year.For the same reason, I will not disclose our inside connection; suffice to say we were very, very lucky.

We woke to a sunny morning and a strong chorus of frogs celebrating the mating season in the pond outside of our window.The weather looked great for Saturday and Sunday, but they were forecasting rain and high winds for Monday, so already I had begun to fuss. Let me briefly explain my rocky relationship with the Boston marathon.We dated briefly during the heat wave of 2004, and it ended in a terrible case of heat exhaustion.I swore I never wanted to see Boston again, but in 2012 we made amends, only to go through another turbulent heat wave together.Boston had promised it would be different, only to greet me with the same sweltering day, complete with a 27 degree start and 31 degree finish.Of course we broke up again, particularly after I finished in 3:51, but would I let Boston break my heart a third time?Well, you know distance makes the heart grow fonder and all of that nonsense, and I forgot the pain, or perhaps convinced myself that Boston would never treat me that way again. Now suddenly it looked like the rain and gusting winds were going to be Boston’s new method of heartbreak.

I had little time to worry, though, as we had to get to the Expo, where we would pick up our race kits and check out the swag.We drove part way to Boston, and then took the train the rest of the way, which allowed all four of us to play tourist as the train rolled by park after park full of kids playing and trees on the verge of blossoming. When we got to the Expo in the Hynes Convention center, it felt like the whole world might be lining up to enter.We are talking a lot of runners and their loving partners and screaming children. Kelly and I meandered about, trying to get in as many free samples as possible — bars made with quinoa, carb drinks made with yak’s urine (okay I am kidding about that, but maybe I just didn’t make it to that booth). Talk about a crowd ready to shell out for the next great thing, whether it was compression socks, caffeine-infused gels, space age treadmills, or pizza margherita flavoured organic energy food. I am not making that up; it’s made by CLIF Bar. Kelly made me sample it, and it was awful, though I confess the sweet potato flavour was okay, and the banana mango one was awesome. I bought a tube and ate it on the train on the way home, not realizing how ridiculous I looked until I glanced across the aisle and saw Lorraine laughing away at me.

After sampling and shopping, we began our adventures of trying to find somewhere to eat on Newberry St, which seems to have the best shops in the city.If you are from Boston, and I am dead wrong about this, please accept my apologies.We found a great little deli; however, the woman was determined to make our sandwiches at a glacial rate, while spreading extra-strong Dijon mustard on our baguette with a zeal that, were it applied elsewhere might be considered commendable, but in this context merely resulted in our eyes and nose running. Still I tried to consume what I could in the name of loading my muscles with just a little more glycogen.

After our mustard-fuelled lunch, we headed back to Hopkinton for a late afternoon jog.One of the downsides of tapering before a race is that it often leaves you feeling like a lethargic barnyard animal.As we began our jog, Kelly lamented how heavy and puffy she felt, and we were all wheezing on the first small hill.This is the time a marathoner might be prone to declaring herself ill. I confess I have fallen into that trap.Reader, several years ago, a week before the Mississauga marathon, I announced to Phyll I had meningitis and potentially tuberculosis.Miraculously, I ran one of my fastest times ever. Now, two years later, I am a wiser human being, and I do not declare myself diseased, at least not out loud.

On Sunday morning, we made our way to Hopkinton to get some photos of the start line, which is on the main street. There was a police officer on duty, and he stopped traffic so we could get out on the street and take pictures. This is when I began to realize how much this race means to those who live in Hopkinton.Certainly there must be some people who live there who resent the race, or who see it as silly and self-indulgent, but I didn’t meet any of those people.Instead, I met people who were happy to help, who marvelled at our accomplishments, and who couldn’t believe we had trained through the winter “up north.” This was coming from people who had endured record-breaking snowfalls. In turn, I marvelled at their generosity and interest in us.Yes we had qualified, and I was certainly proud of that, but I hadn’t been helping out with the race for thirty years as some of the volunteers had done.

Much of my Sunday was taken up with marking and report card writing; that may sound painful, but it kept me from checking the weather every seven minutes. While taking breaks, I joined the rest of the Guelph runners, including Art, Eric, Allen, Phil, Chris, and Stephen in the cafeteria.The food was beyond spectacular at the residence, including Saturday and Sunday night when we were offered such dishes as scallops with risotto.

We woke on Monday to overcast skies, but at least it was not raining — yet.Because we were in Hopkinton, we did not have to get up too early.Carol, one of the phenomenal volunteers, drove us as close to the start as possible, sweet-talking her way through the police barricade.Once she dropped us off, we prepared to get into the corrals.The first Guelph runners went off with wave 1 at 10:00 a.m., and then Kelly and I got into our corrals for wave two.I was in the first corral, so I was right near the starting line.There was still no rain in sight, but it was chilly, so I kept my throwaways on until minutes before the start, then I put them in the bags provided by volunteers.Last year, they collected over 15,000 pounds of clothing for Big Sisters and Big Brothers. With minutes to go, I bounced up and down, eager to get going but remembering the two words I had written on my hands — patience and belief.I was determined not to go out too fast.It is a downhill start, and with the crowds cheering and the adrenaline flowing, it is all too easy to sprint off the start line like some mad man at the running of the bulls.

Even in the first few miles I tried to establish a balance between enjoying the crowds and running my own race.It is easy to use up a lot of energy reacting to everything around you, or trying to high five every kid along the way.For those who enjoy doing so, I think that’s awesome, but I wanted to race the course in a way I had not been able to do in the past, so I tried to save my energy.That meant not engaging too much with the crowds, including the wall of screaming women at Wellesley College, most of whom were waving signs explaining why I, or anyone else, should kiss them.Kiss me I know CPR; Kiss me I’m studying Geography, or, the more direct approach: Just kiss me for fuck’s sake. I couldn’t help but feel she had started out with a kinder, gentler request, oh say, Kiss me I’m studying Latin, then grew irate at her low rate of return and flipped the poster over to scrawl her second message in bold red lipstick.Shockingly, I did not stop to kiss her, or any other woman for that matter.

I can’t remember when the rain started, or at what point it became heavier, but it definitely drenched us.Still, I was dressed perfectly, with calf sleeves and arm warmers; only my fingers grew colder as my gloves became soaked.The wind was not nearly as fierce as I feared, and though the elite women felt it at the front of the pack, where sixteen of them battled on their own, it seems the eight thousand runners ahead of me provided a buffer of sorts.

I took in water almost every mile, though just a couple of sips, then I took in my first gel at 10 km, and I was soaring.I definitely felt a lull between 15 and 20 km, and the old doubts started to creep in, but I reminded myself that I had done the training; I was prepared.Not long after I saw a bright neon orange sign that said “Almost half way Anne.” I thought someone was way off, but I came around the bend and saw the 12 mile marker, and that lifted me immensely.

I had been bracing myself for the hills, which I had struggled through during the heat waves, but this time, they seemed small by comparison, and I ran through them steadily and with relative ease. Still, I did not want to go down the final hill, Heartbreak, too fast, as the downhill elongates and shreds your quads, which can make the last eight km torture.I was conservative, and got down the hill without pain, and then I thought I only have eight km left, I don’t need to be careful anymore.I am not going to blow up; I am not going to walk; I feel strong. I started passing people and held a 4:30 pace through the final seven km. I have read so many running articles about racing that last ten km, and it has always sounded amazing, but in the past that was something other runners were able to do while I always slowed down. I am hesitant to say this, lest I somehow jinx myself and never have this wondrous experience again, but when I turned onto Boylston street and could see the finish line banner 800 meters in the distance, I flew towards it. I could see that I was going to come in just under 3:12, and as I passed under the banner, I felt a rush of emotion. I was proud and happy and grateful that the day had gone so well, and that I was in one piece. Beyond the finish line, the volunteers were just as phenomenal as they had been the entire race: there were medics carefully eyeing all of us; there were people waiting to give us our medals and water, and most importantly there were volunteers to put on the thermal capes that would keep us warm, though even then some 1800 runners were treated for hypothermia.As the volunteer put my cape on, I told her how amazing she was.She said she was just standing there, while I was the one who ran the race, but I ran that race for myself, and now I was going to go and get warm and dry, while she stood there and handed out capes to another 20, 000 runners still to come.In my mind, she and all of the other 9000 volunteers were the true marathoners.

After I finished, the winds began to gust down the main street, making for a surreal and futuristic scene as our silver capes billowed about us, and we shuffled along to the family meeting area.We were all to meet Lorraine, our support crew, under the L, and I stood there with my bag of food clutched in my hand, wondering where she might be, trying not to whimper as my jaw began to lock.Suddenly Allen, a fellow Guelph runner, arrived, and we stood together — two frozen, shivering creatures — until Lorraine came running up with my clothes.Changing in a porta-potty some minutes later, I thought I was going to have to swing the door wide to the world and ask some complete stranger to remove my sports bra that was now bunched about my middle, but reason prevailed, and I warmed my hands up until I was able to wrestle my way out and put on my dry clothes.

Not long after Kelly and Michelle arrived, cold but happy, especially Michelle who ran a PB, and we found our way to the bus that would shuttle us back to Hopkinton.As we got on the bus, someone told me I was 6thin the 50–54 age group, and I was truly stunned.I had been aiming for top 20, but I hadn’t dreamed of top 10.The day became even more surreal, and I was just about as high as you can get without ingesting pharmaceuticals.Is it a tough way to get high?I guess it depends on who you ask.For the group of runners who went out for dinner and then sat around drinking beer and wine while watching the race broadcast on the television, I think most of us would say, indeed it was worth it.

There were approximately 26,000 runners, and though we were all moving along the same route, with the same conditions of rain and wind to confront, each of us ran a distinct race, and in some ways a solitary race in the sense that the true battle is mental, and there is little anyone can do to help once that battle begins. Add to the 26,000 runners, the 9000 volunteers and the million spectators between Hopkinton and Boston, and suddenly the number of races, or rather the number of experiences, is multiplied exponentially, and this is what overwhelmed me the most. I saw that it was so much more than a single marathon.

As for me, I am one runner who has experienced the rush of Boston, and, at least for now, Boston and I are going steady once more.

Kelly, myself, Allen, Paul, Phil and Lorraine hanging out where it all starts.

Sunday, checking out the corral markers at the start line in Hopkinton. Seriously, when did I become 6 feet tall?

Lorraine, Kelly and I owning the start line.

Striding towards the finish line. (Photo by by Lorraine Nelson)

Originally published at rtodd-smalldetails.blogspot.ca.