Mentally speaking, in the weeks leading up to the 2018 Boston Marathon, I was all over the place. I was having an identity crisis over the fact that I had under-trained for this race. I was embarrassed that I wouldn't be putting up a time that was anywhere near as fast as what I was capable of. I was afraid I was going to finish the race with an injury - or worse, not finish at all. But, at the same time, I was excited to run in the race that had inspired me to run marathons in the first place. I was achieving one of my dreams, something that seven years earlier, seemed anything but possible.
In the days leading up to the race, and in the days since, I find trying to articulate my feelings about my first Boston Marathon experience to be a bit overwhelming.
And, I wasn't alone. The weather forecast for the day of the race called for temperatures in the low 40s, sustained winds of more than 20 miles per hour, and enough rain to put the city of Boston on alert for flooding. Before the starting gun went off, I already had what felt like an inch of standing water in my shoes. My entire body was shaking uncontrollably. In all my years of backpacking and snowboarding, I've never felt cold like that. I pulled an emergency blanket out of a trash can, dropped down into a squat, and sat in a fetal position in Hopkinton until the race started.
As far as training is concerned, I was way under-prepared to run in the Boston Marathon. So, my goals for the race were pretty simple:
- Finish the race without any injuries
- Be sure to find my parents and my girlfriend (who had flown out to cheer me on)
- If things are going really, really well - try to finish in under four hours.
I figured the key to achieving my first goal was to just run as easy as I could (9:00-10:00/mi). I told myself that I was fine with walking. I told myself that I was fine with stopping at aid stations and taking bathroom breaks. I told myself that the goal for the marathon wasn't to finish fast, but that it was to take the whole thing in.
Everyone around you has probably trained much more than you, I told myself. They deserve to be passing you. You should be getting passed. There's going to be a lot of adrenaline and excitement at the beginning of the race, I told myself. Don't let yourself get caught up in that and come out of the starting gates too fast, I told myself.
I let the sleeves of my jacket come down over my watch. I decided not to worry too much about my heart rate or my pace while I was running.
Let's just be sure to take things easy, I told myself. And then it started.
Mile 1 (7:44), Mile 2 (7:28)
Like I said, I wasn't looking at my watch while I was running - it was covered up by the sleeves of my rain shell. The only updates I had on my pace came at the completion of each mile, as my watch would flash the finishing time of each mile I logged.
7:44? I better slow down. Besides, I had to pee. I spent the two hours before the race huddled under a tent, too afraid to cross the open field of rain and mud and slush to wait in the rain to use the bathroom. So, I was on the lookout for a port-o-potty.
After clocking my second mile at 7:28, I realized that I was actually speeding up, not slowing down. I've gotta get this under control. So, I pulled over for a bathroom break to try to force myself to slow down, get collected, and let the faster runners pass me up.
I've never been excited to be in a port-o-potty before, I thought to myself, this is incredible! It's not windy in here! It's not raining in here! It was the first time I'd felt even mildly warm in hours. I thought about staying.
Mile 3 (7:42), Mile 4 (7:05)
Before long, my watch beeped again. 7:42.
How did I just run a 7:42? I had to have been in there for at least 30 seconds... Consciously trying to slow down my pace wasn't working, so I decided to focus on something other than my pace for the next mile: high fives.
I spent the entire third mile just seeing how many kids I could give high fives too. That was literally all I was thinking about. I was zig-zagging across the course, dialing in long-distance high-fives to anyone who was shorter than the fences that lined the streets .
And then, another mile. 7:05.
What the f*$%? I just ran a 7:05? That didn't even feel like I was running hard!
At that point, I figured one of two things was going to happen: I was either going to put up an awesome time on the course (exceeding my own expectations by 20+ minutes), or I was going to blow up and have to walk the final 10 miles in. But, even after putting up sub-8:00 miles for the first four miles of the race, I still didn't feel like I was pushing my body at all. So, I let it roll.
Mile 5 (7:52), Mile 6 (7:12), Mile 7 (7:27)
As I came to the five mile mark on the course, there was a building that said "Five years of #BostonStrong at Mile 5" - a sign acknowledging the bombings at the race that had happened five years before, killing three and injuring more than 250 near the finish line of the race.
I'd just spent the previous mile laughing and smiling and high-fiving strangers in the rain, and suddenly, I was overcome with empathy and sadness. I was visualizing myself at the finish line with bombs going off. That could have been me, I thought to myself. I thought about how, today, I was achieving a dream of mine - like many runners were on the day of the bombings. I thought about how elated I felt, how happy those people must have felt; the flurry of emotions they must have felt as they approached the finish line; the terror and trauma they must have felt as the explosions went off; the hurt that the runners and their families and the whole city must have felt; the deep wound that those attacks must have left on everyone who was there - on everyone who would ever be there.
And I thought about the way the city had banded together; about how the race had continued on in the following years, in the wake of such tragedy and sadness. I thought about the way that great tragedies afford us an opportunity to see true heroes - and I realized that the heroes of the Boston Marathon were truly the people of Boston. I came to this realization, true or not, that the Marathon had come to represent something so much more than just a foot race. It was this real, profound, sobering moment - and the banner I was running toward was a physical manifestation of it. I wasn't making it up.
And then, in the wind and the rain and the bone chilling cold, something I wasn't prepared for happened.
I started crying.
Mile 8 (7:28), Mile 9 (8:16), Mile 10 (7:44)
Suddenly, I was on a mission to show every person who had come out to cheer at the Boston Marathon that I appreciated them. If there were kids lined up on the fence looking for high fives, I high-fived every flipping one of them. If there was a man with a drum set jamming out on his front porch as the runners went by his house, I made eye contact with him and clapped and made sure we connected. If there was a parent standing on the side of the course, getting wrecked by the weather, I made sure to yell "thank you for coming out today!" as I ran past. In fact, I started yelling "thank you for coming out today!" to just about every group of spectators I ran passed. And as I did that, the coolest thing happened: they lit up.
Running has traditionally been a solo thing for me: it's come to represent this rare moment in my weekly schedule where I can truly live on my own terms; it's one of the only activities that truly makes me feel free. But, on Monday, it became something radically different: it was about connecting with strangers and showing as much gratitude as I could.
Mile 11 (8:03), Mile 12 (7:55), Mile 13 (7:39)
As I ran the race, there was a part of me that was trying to visualize what it was like for my brother when I came to watch him in 2011. It was funny, really. As a spectator then, I couldn't remember where exactly we were when we watched him go by. And then,
I've been here before, I realized. This is literally where the dream to run this race was born. My mind felt like I was time-travelling. Meanwhile, my legs felt like I hadn't trained enough. It was the first sign of fatigue I'd felt all day. And then, I realized where I was: Wellesley.
The town of Wellesley, home of Wellesley College, is host to one of the more notorious stops along the Boston Marathon route. Famous for it's "Scream Tunnel," the women of Wellesley have a reputation for incredible signage and loud cheering. More, one of the funnier traditions at Wellesley, is that the women of Wellesley college have been known to kiss runners as they pass by.
Go ahead and kiss anyone you want, Matt. Just see what happens...
That was the "advice" I got from my girlfriend about "what to do" in Wellesley. So... I abstained from anything more than high fives in Wellesley - but nonetheless, the girls in Wellesley were a welcome boost to my morale and my energy.
Suddenly, I was realizing how I'd cruised through the first 10 miles: I was riding the wave of energy that the people of Boston had brought to the race. And more, I came to understand that the more I gave them, the more they gave me back.
Mile 14 (8:09), Mile 15 (9:17), Mile 16 (8:01), Mile 17 (8:11)
The night before the race, I had dinner with my parents and my girlfriend. We had all been to the race before, and we were trying to figure out where it made sense for me to try to see them along the course. My parents were stressed out that we wouldn't see each other during the race, and that I'd wind up pissed off at them for not seeing me.
Are you kidding me? I said, Look, you flew across the country to stand in shitty weather and cheer me on for a few minutes. You've more than proven that you care about me.
So, we decided that, no matter what, my parents would station themselves on the course somewhere between miles 14-17. And I decided that, no matter what, I'd make sure to pull over and chat with them for a minute or two on the course. I wasn't going to set any speed records out there, and I loved my parents were willing to come out to support me. So, after I passed Wellesley, I started scanning the crowd for my parents.
I finally caught them between mile 17 and mile 18. Seeing my mom and dad was easily one of the highlights of the experience for me. My parents are awesome, they're huge role models for me, and they've always been incredible supporters for any and all of the bizarre athletic endeavors I've taken on. Seeing familiar faces like that gave me an awesome surge of energy. Revitalized, I sped off towards Liselle, who I knew was waiting for me somewhere between mile 20 and mile 21.
Mile 18 (8:17), Mile 19 (8:06), Mile 20 (9:09), Mile 21 (10:57)
Between you and me, I'd been riding a wave of energy from the crowd and endorphins to get me through the first 19 miles. But, after 19 miles, my legs were fried. The wind and the rain and the cold were starting to wear me down. I'd been there before: at the point where you know you've got to keep going, but everything in your head and your body are telling you to stop. I've learned that there's usually more in the tank than you realize, and I've learned that the easiest way to keep going is to just surrender to the situation and to let go of whatever outcomes you think should come to fruition. Whatever happens happens. And, it was with that mindset, that the next few miles turned into something comedic:
Whatever happens, happens, I was thinking to myself. And I was thinking about the friend of mine who said I should soak up the experience of being there; that I should take it all in. Besides, my legs weren't going to get any worse at this point. Eff it. YOLO.
For me? I shouted back.
It's all yours! He handed me a red solo that had just been filled up from a keg. He was standing there with a group of friends at Mile 19. They were hammered. I took the cup, shouted Cheers! with them, and crushed it. They all went crazy. It was funny: standing in the middle of what felt like a typhoon, 20 miles into a marathon, with 6 left to go, a beer has never tasted so good. I finished that mile in 9:09, even with my beer break. Not too bad, I thought to myself, and I kept on cruising towards Liselle at Mile 21.
My girlfriend is a culinary wizard, but her favorite snack is something comically simple: a banana. So, when I saw someone handing out bananas after I finished my beer, it was a no-brainer to grab one. I figured it'd be a hell of a move to show up to Liselle at Mile 21 with a banana for her, since I knew she was probably a little low from standing out in the rain.
I was stoked when I saw her; she was at the race with a few friends of hers from college. So, when I saw them, I pulled off from the pack of runners I'd fallen in with, and danced my way over to them. I handed her the banana, kissed her, and introduced myself to everyone in the group.
Why does your breath smell like beer? Liselle asked me.
I just drank a beer. Less than a mile ago. It was amazing. She was scratching her head.
And where did this banana come from?
I didn't want to show up empty handed, I smiled.
After a few minutes of catching up and talking with her friends, I took off again, knowing that I'd seen everyone who came out to support me, that my body was still in relatively good shape, and that I was still on pace to finish well under four hours.
Mile 22 (7:51), Mile 23 (9:58), Mile 24 (9:00), Mile 25 (11:03), Mile 26 (8:30)
I'm not sure whether my body had just rested enough after talking to Liselle and her friends, or whether I wanted to see what I still had left in the tank, but I finished mile 22 in 7:51.
I still got it, I said to myself. And then, a second later, what are you trying to prove out here?
I was reflecting back on the day, on everything I'd been through, and I decided to walk for a good portion of the next three miles.
Why rush to the end? I asked myself. As I closed in on the finish line, I was taking extra time to take it all in. To look up at the college kids cheering from the 7th floor apartment building and banging on pots and pans out their window. To be blown away by the blind and deaf runner to my right who was passing me on his way to the finish line. To realize that today was a day about 30,000 people celebrating the sport of running by racing from Hopkinton to Boston; to realize that thousands more had flown in to support them; to volunteer for the race; to organize the whole thing. It was incredible. I just felt grateful to be there.
Finishing Time (3 Hours 40 minutes 32 seconds)
As I crossed the finish line of the Boston Marathon, I was reflecting on my journey: not just from that day, which started with me shivering in a muddy tent, but on my entire journey with running. My whole interest with in the sport had been born at this event, seven years ago. Since then, I'd competed in a half marathon, three marathons, and one 50-mile ultramarathon. I have another marathon and 50-mile race already scheduled for later this year. It's funny to think about how late in life you can discover something that becomes such an integral part of you.
Maybe this is my thing, I keep thinking. And who knows, maybe it is.