For Boston

The Boston Marathon is huge. Iconic. Legendary. If you qualified to run it, you’re lauded as a Real Runner – fast, dedicated, and maybe a little bit crazy (well, all of us marathoners are a little crazy, aren’t we). It’s the holy grail – this fierce, fragile thing just outside the average mid-packer’s (like myself) grasp. We dream of it. We hunger for it. We’re not sure we’ll ever get there – on those runs where we break down in tears, bonk so hard we’re not sure we can move another step, fail to make our goal time by a smidgen.  We want it so badly.

And yet.

Thousands of others are there for other reasons, innumerable charities for which runners spent hours and sent dozens of emails and phone calls and Facebook posts and blog posts and tweets scraping together as many pennies as possible for a worthy cause. They line up at the later waves, sometimes running in the heat of the day, sometimes for hours longer than the wave 1 qualifiers, smiles on their faces and joy and passion in their hearts and footsteps.

Boston Day is often a day made for heartbreak. Newton Hills crushing down on the fatigued legs of Ana Dulce Felix, looking back in dismay to see the chase pack of women reeling her in, finding another, unimaginably fast gear. The heartbreak of Heartbreak Hill. Shalane Flanagan’s eyes welling up when she crossed the line, the podium having slipped away, even as she laid out her heart in those last 385 yards, plain for everyone to see.

But the last heartbreak I expected on Marathon Monday was the one I found when the friend whom I’d been excitedly chatting about the race with – and plotting out her own first marathon training plan; is there anything more inspiring than watching Boston? – pointed me to twitter, telling me something had happened at the finish line.

I shed a few tears, lapsed between sadness, and rage, and despondency, and hope from watching all those who were leaping into the fray to help. I felt numb when I went to the grocery store after work, as I forced myself to eat some dinner, as I went to a coffee shop to read – just to get out of my apartment. As NF and I sat across from each other and mulled it all over.

Yesterday morning we had a track workout scheduled, and a brutal one: 9 miles total, with 5 by 1 mile repeats done at 5K pace. It’s one I have done once before, so I knew I could, but it remains scary and intimidating. Hours before my feet hit the track, I knew who I’d be doing my miles for.

The morning was dark and cool and crisp. We walked from my car to the track, peeled off layers and left our things in lockers, sucked down some Gu and headed back outside, turning on our watches and sliding into an easy warm up. There weren’t too many runners out there – there was another couple present during our warm up, booking along at a fast clip. A guy doing 400 meter intervals later on, and a very fast faculty member getting his miles in towards the end.

I celebrated each perfect split, the evenness of my stride, the strength in my legs, heart, and lungs. By the end of the fourth repeat, I was gassed, but knew I could not give up – not today. Four out of five was not enough today. Lap one ticked off in perfect time, but by lap two I felt myself slow, felt the lead begin to set in. Boston. I picked it back up and corrected my pace and was right back where I needed to be – even a few seconds ahead. The agony of lap three – when you’re halfway done, but still feel like you have forever to go – loomed before me, but I thought of those runners pushing to the end, then plunging back into the fray. The onlookers caught up in the blast. The family and friends and even perfect strangers who came to cheer them on – a day of celebration ending in devastation.

Thinking of Shalane – her first Boston forever colored by heartbreak, her beloved hometown devastated – I threw down the hammer on the final lap, ignoring my watch and pushing as hard as I could, my legs and lungs on fire. When I punched stop across the final line, I fell to my knees and cried.

Boston has always been a far off dream for me. I’m not fast, have never claimed to be, even as my speed has been improving. I got so many messages and calls that day and the day after – from friends, from family – wondering if there was an off-chance that I’d been there, or thinking correctly that I knew people there (all of whom are safe, thank goodness). My mother apologetically admitted she was relieved I hadn’t yet qualified (I don’t think I even told her it was a secret, fleeting hope)

In just a couple of weeks, I’ll be toeing the line at the Pittsburgh half. There will be heightened security, to be sure, and I wonder how Monday’s events will affect spectator turn out. But I know what the feeling at that start line will be like, or at least have an inkling of the sensation of standing shoulder to shoulder again with my running family, many of whom I’m sure will be donning Boston blue and yellow: filled with love, hope, determination, grief, joy, passion, and the desire to leave it all out on the road. I have an aggressive goal, and I may fall short, but every time I want to slow down because my mind fears my legs will give out, I will think only of Boston.

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I'm a 35-year-old writer and runner. This is my running blog.

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