I ran the Boston Marathon once before, in 2000, and remembered little about the actual run. I could recall being very, very cold while sitting on the ground for several hours at the starting area, a.k.a. the “Athletes Village,” and then hearing women at Wellesley scream at the halfway point, and then peeing in my shorts near Boston College at mile 20 due to the long lines at port-a-potties and learning that I should never wear light-blue shorts because they reveal a dark wet spot for all to see. I crossed the finish with one of my slowest times ever. Also, I spent 80 bucks on the official Boston Marathon jacket whose colors that year were orange and black, and I rarely wore it because the oddly stiff, tall collar gave it a Dracula-goes-sporty look.
Nine years later, when I realized our Spring Break family trip to D.C. would put us on the East Coast at roughly the same time as the 113th Boston Marathon, I figured it was worth a detour and an extra two days of travel to give Boston another try. No other big-city marathon boasts of such tradition and crowd support, or of the camaraderie of tens of thousands of runners who must run fast enough to qualify for entry. I had worked darn hard to reach my personal goal of qualifying for Boston under the men’s qualifying time (sub-3:10), and I felt I had earned a “fun” marathon — that is, no finishing-time pressure, just a chance at a heady, hearty training run suffused with all the history and legend that the famed course has to offer.
Boston, here I come!
We arrived and I paid $90 at the pre-race expo for this year’s official jacket, which is royal blue with neon yellow trim and has a tighter fit and brighter sheen than the Year 2000 version. I wore it around town, as did at least 10,000 others who probably are also the types who buy concert T-shirts and wear them during the concert, and Morgan commented that we all looked ready to board the Starship Enterprise.
On race day, the official organizers must have contingency plans that figure in a high likelihood of bus breakdowns, Nor’easter blizzards and mass riots — all happening simultaneously — for why else would they require runners to catch the busses in Boston in time to arrive at the starting area in Hopkinton at least two to three hours before the 10 a.m. start? I joined the masses on the edge of Boston Common, not far from our hotel, at the relatively late time of 6:45 a.m. I didn’t mind, though; I actually looked forward to the 26-mile drive on the big yellow school bus, for past experience told me that this is the most social time of the pre-marathon ritual. Like nervous kids heading off to sleep-away camp, we relieve the tension by swapping stories from years past and making predictions about the experience to come. Friendships tentatively form with each exchange of names and email addresses. The whole drive-to-the-starting-line tradition made me recall the words grandly repeated during our U.S. Capitol tour the prior week: E. Pluribus Unum — out of many, one. We come from points all over the country and globe, but on the bus we share a destiny; we become one tribe.
I eagerly awaited the discovery of the comrade, the potential soul mate, whom fate would place me near.
Fate, in cahoots with paranoia, told me to take a seat in the very front row, as close as I could be to the door, because the steamed-up windows and sauna-like temperature made me gasp and desire a quick exit. “May I sit next to you?” I asked the woman planted in the front-row window seat.
She looked up and revealed a hawk-like face with thin orange hair peaking out under her hat. Her blank expression masked her age — she could have been 25 or 45 — but when she answered, “I guess,” she spoke with an attitude that suggested the overconfidence of a twentysomething in graduate school.
I tried the classic ice breaker, “So, where are you from?”
I could study her profile because she didn’t look at me. I concluded she might be passably attractive if half her beak were carved off and implanted in her nearly non-existent chin.
A minute later, I tried again: “So, what marathon did you run to qualify for Boston?”
With a persnickety point of her index finger she tapped on her cheek, which was rapidly noshing, squirrel-like, on a bagel. She chewed for a prolonged moment, swallowed with an air of inconvenience, and announced with an exhale that sounded like a sigh: “Houston.”
I wanted to thank her for giving me another reason not to visit Texas but instead turned my back to her and looked across the aisle with the hope that the two middle-aged men sitting there together would let me join their animated conversation. They were utterly absorbed, however, in a game of one-upsmanship that involved citing their race times on courses whose degree of difficulty grew ever more dramatic. Not one to give up hope, I looked over my left shoulder to see who might be waiting to strike up a conversation. Into my field of vision appeared a woman who gave me such a start that I quickly turned back and faced forward.
That woman had backwards feet for hands. That is, she had some deformity that made her hands curve and elongate into foot-like appendages, which seemed incorrectly attached to her forearms. As nonchalantly as I could, I turned back and watched her carefully lift a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cup to her mouth with a couple of her bony toe digit thingies. She caught my eye mid-sip with a challenging look that said, “What are you looking at?”
I once again turned back and stared ahead, fixing my eyes on a small, white metal box mounted near the driver’s rearview mirror. It was labeled “Bodily Fluids Cleanup Kit — Massachusetts Department of Transportation.” For most of the next 24 miles I concentrated on guessing at the collection of items it might contain, how each item might be packed inside, and under what circumstances it had previously been opened.
My bus arrived at the Athletes Village with 2 hours, 42 minutes to wait until the start. Stepping off the bus, the temperature dropped about 40 degrees. I could see my breath and feel my skin shiver in spite of being dressed in several layers. I randomly took a seat on the ground among the penned-in multitudes, belatedly noticing that the two chatty female friends next to me had the fake golden tone of tanorexics and as much makeup as sales clerks in a New Jersey mall. While they relived the awesomeness of the Disneyworld Marathon, I congratulated myself for having the foresight to bring along a book so I could lose myself in its pages.
From what I’ve seen of evacuation centers and refugee camps on TV, they strongly resemble the Boston Marathon Athletes Village, but I doubt they have bad dance music blaring over loudspeakers. Against the soundtrack of today’s pop artists whom I’m too old to name, masses of bodies huddled and wrapped themselves in plastic garbage bags for warmth. Aid workers handed out bottles of water from pallets to outstretched hands. I hunkered down, nose in book, and did not move for nearly two hours. While my legs grew stiff and feet turned numb, my jaw started to shiver uncontrollably. Aside from reading, I had nothing to do but contemplate when I should force my nonresponsive limbs back into action in order to stand in the porta-potty line, which I eventually accomplished. By then it was time to shed clothing, check my bag of belongings and walk three-quarters of a mile to the actual start. The shock of undressing and standing in nearly freezing air dressed only in shorts, a singlet, gloves and arm-warmer sleeves was almost more than my already frigid body could take. My jaw started chattering so loudly and shoulders shuddered so uncontrollably that some people gave me worried glances.
Desperately, I approached one man who was sitting on a Hefty bag. “T-t-t-t-trash b-b-b-bag,” I forced out the words. “You n-n-n-need? I-I-I have?”
“Here,” he said, lifting his butt enough to pull out the scrunched-up and no doubt farted-upon sheath of plastic, which to my deep joy turned out to be the extra large, heavy-duty kind. I tore a hole in it for my head, put it on like a dress, and was rewarded for my efforts with some warmth and wind protection. Lemming like, I began to shuffle shoulder-to-shoulder with more than twenty thousand others down a narrow neighborhood street. Many runners took off extra layers of shirts and sweatpants and deposited them into bags thoughtfully set out for collection of discarded clothing, presumably to be donated to charity, and I found myself stepping to the side and rummaging through one to find a not-too-smelly sweatshirt to wear temporarily. Feeling flush with this added layer of warmth, I reflected on the circumstances of this Monday: that my husband had missed work, my kids had skipped school, we had traveled several hundreds of miles and spent several hundreds of dollars, all so I could spend nearly half a day impersonating a refugee who is separated from loved ones and physically distressed, bereft of belongings, dimly following the masses and scavenging through trash.
My bib number, based on qualifying times, placed me in the third of 26 corrals. I had hoped this would reduce the crowding but I could barely move side to side and had no hope of reaching the half-dozen porta-potties, with lines 30 deep, to go one last time in the final minutes before the start. Using my trash bag as a cloak of invisibility, I waited until all heads turned skyward to watch the ceremonial fighter jet flyover and chose the moment to go then and there, in the middle of corral #3.
It was with relief that we started to run and my blood circulated toward my extremities once again. However, my nine-day vacation taper — nightly dining out and drinking — left me feeling “thickly settled,” the term on one of the quaint New England road signs along the route that signaled we were coming to a relatively densely populated neighborhood. My pace, between 7:30 – 7:40 per mile, was decent given my current training, but I never could get into a rhythm. It wasn’t just the stiffness in my legs or lower back pain that developed in the first 10K and worsened; it was the overabundance of water stops. The race organizers, in their wisdom borne of 112 years of hosting and planning this race, determined it was necessary to have a water stop every one and a half miles. This meant I might have a good, steady mile, but then I’d encounter a bottleneck of confusion in which volunteers shouted, runners pushed, cups splashed, and the Gatorade-soaked pavement became a slick hazard of discarded trash. At around mile 7, a large guy slammed squarely into my back so that the whole contents of my cup (thankfully water, not Gatorade) splashed on my face.
However, despite the number of water stops and the tens of thousands of runners and roughly equal number of spectators, the race organizers apparently determined that only a pair of porta-potties, or occasionally a trio, was needed approximately every mile, and most of these were placed behind crowd-control barriers so that if runners needed to use the bathroom, as I unfortunately did three times, we had to maneuver past the barrier, through the crowd, and then inevitably wait a minute or so until another unhappy-looking runner emerged.
Unlike the toilets, the medical tents seemed numerous and easily accessible, and I had the opportunity to observe one up close when I visited it around mile 16 and asked for a tampon and some paper towels. The medical personnel looked at me as though I had asked for a kidney transplant, and then they spent more than a minute fumbling through storage containers to fulfill my seemingly simple request.
You might wonder, as did I, how exactly this marathon gave me the personality of a grumpy old man. I blame it mainly on an aversion to crowds. Most others love it — as one person wearing the blue-and-yellow jacket said the following day at the airport to another wearing the matching jacket, “For 26.2 miles I felt like I was in a rock concert, whoo-hoo!” — but I couldn’t handle the constant jostling for space and ear-splitting roar of spectators. It never let up. Morgan and I have talked about how running across the Golden Gate Bridge is the most overrated running experience because of the deafening noise of the traffic and constant dodging of tourists who walk four abreast. Well, now I’d give that distinction to the Boston Marathon, because it offers the same stress, noise and crowding as running across the bridge— for more than 26 miles.
As I approached the final miles and the crowds grew deeper and louder, I came to terms with the fact the whole marathon morning had felt surprisingly alienating. I wasn’t having much fun, which had been the whole point of running it, and it seemed like most of the stony-faced, uncommunicative runners around me felt the same way. Except the Canadians. They were easily identifiable because of their maple leaf temporary tattoos and maple leaf shirts, and they greeted one another like distant cousins. Eavesdropping on their conversations was always pleasurable, like listening to someone from Long Beach meet someone from Seattle and delight in the fact they both live on the same coast and consequently conclude that perhaps they should visit each other’s homes some day. Meanwhile, I was running alongside with visions of Dustin Hoffman from The Graduate and wishing for an I-Pod playing “Sounds of Silence.”
I ran toward the finish line, crossed in 3:27, and noticed my watch said my final mile was in 7:17. Yeah, whatever, I really did not care. I looked around the crowd, knowing Morgan and the kids weren’t there because we planned to meet at a specific spot in Boston Commons, and realized that out of the thousands and thousands of people I’d seen that day, I had recognized not one face, and no one had recognized me.
Except for that woman standing just past the middle of the finish line, under the TV camera platform. She looked about my age and was cheering like a soccer mom, clapping and jumping up and down, all cutely bundled in a scarf and hat. I could see her face and for whatever reason she had her gaze locked on me, as though she knew me, which she didn’t — but I looked closer, stopped, stared right at her and realized that I knew her. I recognized that ash-blond straight hair flipped back on the sides and those crinkly smile lines around her eyes. I asked, “Are you Uta Pippig?”
“Yeah!” said the 1994 – 1996 Boston Marathon champion, who still holds the second-fastest women’s time on the course, obviously happy someone had recognized her. The lines around her eyes deepened with her smile and she gave a couple more hops of joy while motioning toward me, saying, “Come here!”
I stepped closer and she suddenly threw her arms around me in a deep, genuine hug. I am not making this up, nor was I hallucinating. Uta Pippig, my best friend for the moment, was hugging and congratulating me, saying, “You did really great!”
I wanted to tell her I saved the 1994 Runner’s World issue with her on the cover, in which she posed with her New York and Boston champion medals draped around her neck, because that issue contained the beginner’s marathon guide that I religiously followed for several years, and I always gazed at her cover picture for inspiration, but I felt myself get choked up and just said, “You’re the best thing that happened to me today.”
That probably wasn’t what she expected to hear because she looked a little bit sorry for me and repeated, “Well, you did really great.”
I felt awkward standing there — it’s not like I could invite her to Starbucks or get her autograph, though I wanted to do both — so I just thanked her and said good-bye and rejoined the stream heading through the chutes.
Thanks to Uta Pippig, I had the kind of Boston moment that everyone hopes for, which almost makes me think I would do the whole thing again.