From the moment a marathoner is born (and often before), Boston looms on the checklist of potential accomplishments. But Boston is an intimidating marathon. First you have to qualify, then you have to get there, then you have to run 26.2 miles! To the non runner, finishing the Boston Marathon sounds like an idiot’s game rather than an accomplished distance runner. But for us runners, Boston is something to work towards, to celebrate, to remember, and to feel inspired by.
Below is a story from a friend of mine who has run the Boston Marathon three times. Winston is a pretty knowledgable guy when it comes to running from Hopkinton to Boylson Street.
I love Boston! I love everything about the city. I love its history, its culture, its people and places. But most of all, I love its marathon. From the very first time I decided to call myself a marathoner and to make running marathons my primary pastime pursuit, Boston became my primary pastime preoccupation. My determination has not gone unrewarded as I have qualified for Boston several times and have had the good fortune to run there three times over the past decade. And although I was qualified to return to Boston this year, I chose not to for personal reasons, and given the record time in which the race filled up this year, perhaps I spared myself some heartbreak as a result. But if you are among the fortunate 27,000 plus who will be running Boston this year perhaps you would benefit from the perspective and insights of someone like me, whose most recent trip to race there was just one year ago.
I think it would be fair to say that my own experience at Boston has run the gamut. In 2003, I arrived out of shape and under trained and when the first cramps set in around mile 11, I decided it would be best to just take my time and enjoy the New England scenery. Two years later in 2005, I was hoping for a little redemption, and with the wisdom gained from my previous attempt, avoid some of the same mistakes that led to my demise back then. By the time I made my next trip to Boston in 2010, I was determined to make a serious showing, and one that my respectable 2:55 qualifying time warranted.
So, in three Boston Marathons, I have gone from being little more than a spectator with a bib number, to being an age division competitor with decent, if not respectable credentials. I can’t honestly say that I have ever quite mastered the challenges and pitfalls associated with this most prestigious of all marathons (3:14.15 Boston PR), but I think I can boast that I have come to gain an appreciation for many of the nuances, thrills, and obstacles one should expect under the best, and even the worst, of circumstances. Whether you’re a first-timer, or a grizzled veteran of countless Boston Marathons, in the paragraphs that follow, I hope to offer a glimpse inside and out of what it takes to prepare and execute the perfect plan leading up to and beyond race day.
Springtime in New England
Good weather, like beauty, is perhaps to be best appreciated by the beholder. After all, some like it hot, although when it comes to marathons, my guess is that most would prefer the temperatures of April to be cool, calm, and dry. Historically, the Boston Marathon has offered a little bit of everything over the years, from ice and snow and freezing temperatures to blazing triple digits. My first two Boston Marathons were almost identical days with cloudless skies and highs in the seventies. In 2003, following the advice of a friend, I wrote my name in marker on my arm so the crowds would be able to cheer for me as I ran by. Unfortunately, being unaccustomed to such warmth so early in the year, I soon succumbed to the conditions and struggled to the finish line in over four-and-a-half hours. By this time I was so badly burned that the white fleshy outline of my name remained visible against the tanned flesh of my arms for the next two months. Of course, back then the marathon got underway beneath a noon sun, but even with the more favorable 10 a.m. start time, the lesson here is to not forget to bring the SPF. I would also suggest some sort of headwear like a ballcap as extra protection from the potential of abundant sunshine and soaring temperatures. You’ll find that there are plenty of spectators along the route who will offer you ice to place beneath the cap to keep your head cool, and as the ice melts, the flow down your neck and shoulders will offer additional relief. But odds are, particularly after a winter of record-setting snowfall, that you will be faced with cooler, if not cold and brisk conditions on race day. At the very least, you can expect to be chilled as you wait in the Athletes’ Village in Hopkinton. For this reason you would be wise to wear multiple layers of clothing and sweats to keep you warm as you while away the hours before the start of the race. Many runners choose to wear disposable gear that can be removed at the last minute and thrown to the roadside. But if you have personal belongings that you are not comfortable parting with, as long as you can stuff them into a bag the size of a backpack, you can rest assured that the race organizers have adopted an efficient and reliable system to get your stuff safely from Hopkinton to Boston. Keep in mind however that no system is one-hundred percent reliable and guaranteed against loss. Valuables such as cash, credit cards, cell phones and electronics are items that you would be well advised not to entrust to this bag claim system if you can’t afford to lose them. Nevertheless, as long as you place your stuff in a bag properly labeled with your race number, and hand it to a race official on the bus parked near the Athletes’ Village with numbers that correlate to your bib number, you can be reasonably certain to see it all again at the finish line.
More on Athletes’ Village in Hopkinton
Unless you are an elite or privileged athlete who has made very special arrangements, on the morning of the race you will find yourself among tens of thousands of other runners assembled on the grounds of Hopkinton High School in an area known as Athletes’ Village. Also, unless you are amongst the very privileged few, the only way you can expect to arrive at Athletes’ Village is onboard one of the hundreds of buses that transport competitors from Tremont Street near the Boston Common to Hopkinton between the hours of 6:00 to 7:30 on race morning. So, even if you discount my advice below regarding sightseeing and touring the city prior to the race, please heed this suggestion: On the day you arrive in Boston, locate Boston Common, find Tremont Street, and make a plan for getting there prior to 7:30 a.m. on Monday, April 18, 2011.
Now, there is also the matter of the John Hancock Sports and Fitness Expo to deal with. In order to claim your packet and make it to the starting line, you will have to arrive in Boston no later than 6:00 p.m. on Sunday, April 17th. But for the record, packet pick-up takes place at the John B. Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center located at 900 Boylston St., in Boston, from Friday, April 15, 2:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m., then Saturday and Sunday, April 16 & 17, 9:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. In addition to claiming your race packet you will also have an opportunity to purchase some of the greatest merchandise and marathon souvenirs known to mankind. My suggestion is that you go as early as possible and plan on spending several hours there browsing. At the very least, you will be given your very own official Boston Marathon long sleeved running shirt as part of your race swag, but if you’re like most runners, you’ll want to also purchase other equipment emblazoned with the official BAA logo, not the least of which includes the 2011 Boston Marathon jacket. Let’s face it folks, wearing official BAA Boston Marathon wear makes a statement not every runner can make, because unless you are an official entrant into the race, you aren’t likely going to be able to purchase this gear. And unless you run the race, you aren’t likely going to feel right wearing this gear in public.
Okay, so let’s assume you’ve safely made in aboard a bus to Hopkinton on race day. You’ll soon discover that the buses will drive you directly to Hopkinton High School and drop you off at the entrance to Athletes’ Village. From there you will be free to roam the grounds looking for the perfect campsite, where you will establish your own little waiting space until race officials instruct you to move toward the starting corrals. You will find an abundance of bottled water, coffee, sports drinks, bagels, energy bars, etc., as the race sponsors do a more than adequate job of providing for most of your pre-race needs. If you don’t mind waiting in line, there are pre-race massage options for those tight muscles that just won’t release themselves after all of the sightseeing and walking you have no doubt done over the weekend. Loudspeakers will incessantly boom with tips, weather updates, race history, race preparation suggestions, and the voice of the occasional running celebrity in an effort to help you keep your jitters to a minimum. This would also be a good time to pose for a photo before the “Welcome to Hopkinton…It All Starts Here” sign. But regardless of anything else you will experience at Athletes’ Village, nothing will have more of an impact on you than hydration and portable toilets.
Yes folks, you will inevitably discover that as you sit and stand around for two, three, even four hours waiting for the race to begin, you will necessarily have to consume beverages in an effort to properly hydrate for the upcoming trial. And despite the fact that race organizers have added more and more portable toilettes each successive year that this event is held, there are NEVER enough facilities to go around. And somehow, on the morning of the race, you will awake to find that your bladder has never worked more efficiently in your life. Should you arrive early enough to get a clear view of the hundreds upon hundreds of outdoor toilettes aligned side-by-side in orderly rows with seemingly no great demand for their usage, I can assure you that within mere minutes, each and every one of them will have lines of no less than fifty people standing before them. Realistically, if I were you I wouldn’t count on claiming a piece of turf on which to lie around awaiting the start of the race. Instead, you might want to stake your place in the porta-potty line, make your way to the front of the queue, conduct the necessary business of the moment, then return to the end of the line in anticipation of the next inevitable need to very soon relieve yourself again. Of course, if you aren’t the least bit concerned about modesty and privacy, there are other options, but they do come with some inherent risks. Race officials and law enforcement personnel constantly warn competitors that public urination is a criminal offense, and residents of the village of Hopkinton have taken preemptive measures to keep trespassers at bay and prevent marathoners from relieving themselves in the local hydrangea bushes. However, should you find that you are in very dire straits, then any porta-potty in a storm will do, right? Admittedly, though, men do have a decided advantage over women in this regard as just about any light pole, tree, or trash dumpster will make for a convenient outdoor restroom in a pinch. But, for the record, I am NOT advocating that anyone, male or female, consider exercising these options!
From Athletes’ Village to the Corrals
Depending on which wave you are assigned to, the voice on the public address system will eventually let you know when it is your turn to begin making your way to your designated starting corral. As you leave Athletes’ Village cinch up your drop bag and hand it to a volunteer through the window of the bus corresponding to your bib number. From there you can expect to walk, jog, or run at least a half mile to the corrals on Main Street of Hopkinton. Once you locate your corral and enter it do not expect to leave it until the starting gun is fired. Do not expect to enter a corral that you are not assigned to, and do not expect officials to allow friends or family to enter the corral with you. Find your corral, stake your spot, and when “The Star Spangled Banner” plays, remove any headgear you are wearing and sing loud and proud. After that, the real fun begins!
From Main Street to Boylston Street
In all honesty, any attempt on my part to describe the Boston Marathon experience would leave you disappointed and shortchanged. Running Boston is something that must be lived to be fully appreciated. However, there are certain landmarks and traditions associated with the Boston Marathon that must be discussed so you’ll know what to look for.
I will begin by reminding you that the first fourteen miles of this course are deceptively downhill. Of course, I know that everyone says that and you may be tired of hearing it by now, but even with 20 years of marathoning experience, having run 30 total marathons and Boston three times, I have yet to fully comprehend this fact. When I arrived in Boston last year, my winter training schedule had me as prepared for a serious attack on a sub-three hour marathon than at any other time in my life. And up until the gun, I continually reminded myself to avoid being suckered in by the adrenaline and downhill portions of the first half of the race. Knowing full well that I would get an additional adrenaline surge at Wellesley, I knew I would not make the same mistake of going out too fast as I had done on my two previous attempts here.
Then the gun sounded…and so much for the best laid plans of mice and marathoners! I’ll spare you the stories of my own personal struggles brought on by going out too fast, yet again, at Boston. Suffice it to say, if you can somehow convince yourself to hold back a little prior to the hills of Newton, you’ll thank me in the end.
And speaking of Wellesley, just prior to the halfway point you will find yourself shrouded on both sides of the street by the fabulous women of Wellesley College. This portion of the race is known by a lot of monikers, but none more fitting perhaps than “The Screech Tunnel”. Although it is located at the half marathon point don’t be surprised if you can hear the cheers and screams from as far away as mile 12. This is one of the most eagerly anticipated portions of the race, especially for men, as throngs of young college women crowd the roadway and cheer wildly and enthusiastically for every runner in the race. For me personally, I have enjoyed the Wellesley throngs more and more each successive time I’ve run there. In 2010 I much preferred the thousands of “Kiss me!” signs they held aloft as opposed to the anti-war signs from 2003.
As for Heartbreak Hill, need I remind you that there are actually several hills leading up to and following the one they call Heartbreak? Well, okay, if you aren’t from the flattest state in the Union, like me, you may not find the hills of Newton, Mass to be anything to fret about. In fact, if you regularly run and train on hilly terrain, these hills probably won’t even faze you, provided you follow my recommendations to go out slow and proceed with caution. Odds are, if you’ve trained properly, you’ll be able to pass through Newton scratching your head wondering just WHICH of these little bumps is the infamous landmark. Should you find yourself running by the picturesque campus of Boston College asking the crowds, “When do I get to Heartbreak Hill?” not only are you in incredible shape, but you’ll need to take a subway train out to Boston College later in order to check out the Johnny Kelly statue. This statue, dedicated to the memory of one of the true legends of Boston Marathon lore, is a lasting tribute to both the man and the landmark hill. But on second thought, you might want to check out the statue ahead of time, before the race. In fact, let’s be honest, no one goes to the Boston Marathon and sits in their hotel room the whole time up to and after the race. Very few people ever go to Boston for ANY reason without taking advantage of all the sightseeing opportunities this city offers.
Of course, if you have grown up or spent a great deal of your life in New England, you are already at an advantage over those who might be making their first trip to Boston in April. Yet even native New Englanders might be tempted to revel in the bounty of historical and modern-day attractions that abound during springtime in the Boston area. Very few other cities in the U.S. can boast of the abundance of 17th to 21st Century historical sights that are to be found in this area, and for a history geek like me, it is all just too irresistible, no matter how many times I return to this beautiful city. But even if you hold a much lesser regard for history than I, there is a very real likelihood that you will soon find yourself drawn in by it all. A word to the wise: Find the time to take it all in. For some, this might mean running Monday’s race on spent legs due to incessant sight-seeing. For others, you might want to book a couple of extra days and use your race-exhausted legs to make the most of the opportunity. Sure, there are bus tours and trolley tours, all of which offer their own special flair, but to really drink in all of the historical richness—to fully appreciate all of the glory that is Boston—you HAVE to do it under your own power. You have to walk the Freedom Trail, visit the Bull and Finch (Cheers, to the less informed), browse through the shops of historic Faneuil Hall, and stroll inside the actual home of American patriot, Paul Revere. Perhaps a trip to the Bunker Hill monument would also be in order, which of course means walking to the top of the 221 foot monument, and climbing all 294 steps on the way. At the Granary Cemetery, you will be able to look upon the final resting spots of such notable historical figures as Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere, as well as the gravesites of the victims of the pre-Revolutionary event known as the Boston Massacre. And take it from someone who was born and raised in a state whose first European settlements go back no further than the 19th Century, there is nothing more awesome than to look at the headstones of former Americans dating back to the 1600s.
But these are just some of the historical sights of Boston, and no trip there would be complete without visiting all of the cultural and social landmarks that make Boston one of the truly great cities of the world. From the authentic Italian restaurants of the North End, to the Asian splendor of Chinatown; from the social flamboyance of Back Bay, to the blue collared neighborhoods of the South End; from Harvard Square to Fenway Park, there is no place quite like Boston. So don’t expect to just arrive at Logan International, catch a cab to the expo to pick up your packet, check into your hotel, then awake on race day to catch the buses to Hopkinton, run a race and go home. Boston will call to you, and you will have to respond.
I’m going to go out on a limb and speculate that if you’re reading this blog, odds are, you are not going to be among the top ten finishers at the 2011 Boston Marathon. But in the end, whether you leave the finish chutes with prize money or little more than a finisher’s medal and bag of chips, you will leave Boston fulfilled. Even if your finishing time proves to be your slowest race to date—as mine was in 2003—simply finishing this race and experiencing Boston, is likely to be all the reward you could ever ask for.
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