Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Marathon Moments

I veered to the sidelines to greet my family at mile 25.

I don’t think I can describe running the Boston Marathon in a way that truly captures the magic of the experience. Nonetheless, here are my reflections on some of the moments I know I will remember about “running Boston”.

The People Want to Know You
Many runners wrote their names on their shirts or bibs to identify themselves to the crowd. I had heard about this practice, but declined to do it because I didn’t want to seem like I was begging for attention. Along the way, I was amazed at the constant response from the spectators calling to “Jimmy” or “Emily”.

Surprisingly, many in the crowd called out to me specifically as “green shirt” or “twelve five eighty-eight” (I wore bib #12588). I realized during the run that the enthusiastic spectators are as big a part of the race as the runners, and that they genuinely want to connect.

In some ways, I felt I had been selfish for not sharing my name and preventing a more personal exchange. The entire weekend was almost perfect but, if I could have one “do-over”, that would be it.

The Drummer in Natick
Just before entering the town center in Natick, we passed a stretch of road where the cheering crowds were especially thick and boisterous. I could hear a rousing drumbeat and I scanned the crowd to find its source. About 150 feet beyond the crowd, at a house set atop a rising lawn, I eyed a young black man who had set up a full drum kit on the New England style wrap-around porch.

While most of the runners pushed forward with inward focus and concentration, I caught the drummer’s eye with a fist-pump and we pointed at each other for several strides. He responded to the recognition with a sharp acceleration of the beat and the crowd exploded with a roar of approval. For just a single, surreal moment, engulfed in the force of a raucous cheer, he was a rock star and I was a celebrity athlete.

I think I will remember that moment for a long time.

The Gals of Wellesley College
In the middle miles of the long challenge, the course passes the picturesque campus of Wellesley College. I’m not sure I understand the full tradition, but from the runner’s perspective, it is a half-mile of screaming female students, each and everyone of them waving signs that say “Kiss Me”, along with a short message about why the runner should do so.

The signs are waved with vigor; there is eye contact, pointing, and begging. I can tell you first hand, it is enough to make a forty-something, anonymous runner believe that they really want him to stop.

Alas, that is a myth better not dispelled, and I will carry from the Boston Marathon a golden memory about the rampant, unfilled demand for my services at an elite, northeastern girls school.

Heartbreak Hill
Over the course of a run that takes hours to complete, runners will sometimes catch stride and compare notes on the experience. A common topic in the Boston Marathon is Heartbreak Hill, the famous incline at mile 21 where the runners’ fitness and resolve are challenged.

Recognizing the historical and cultural importance of that stretch of road, I found myself looking forward to it. I decided that, rather than going inside myself to seek some inner motivation that could  help me meet the challenge, I would stay in the moment and drink up the full experience.

The crowds that line that portion of the run are fully aware of the physical test imposed by the hill, and they rise to the occasion with vigorous, personal encouragement. I noted the passion of their vocal support, their faces contorted with intensity as they implored the racers to "push". It seemed as though many of them were burning more calories than the runners.

From the center of that storm, it was one of the single most impressive acts of group compassion toward strangers that I could have imagined. Their genuine warmth pulled my heart into my throat, and I scooted over Heartbreak Hill like I was rounding the bases after a game-winning homer.

The Disco Rave
Somewhere after the Hill, we ran through the square in Newton, where a major sound system was blasting 70’s music. A spandex-clad lady ahead of me spontaneously raised both arms and began swaying in a disco rave. This took about three seconds to ripple outwardly through the pack of runners and into the crowd on both sides of the road, until a sea of arms pointed upward and swayed in unison.

All of a sudden, we were not tired runners with untold miles behind us, but spirit-filled dancers with too much energy to contain. The much-needed boost was short-lived, but it served as another vivid reminder about the energy of the crowds and their profound effect on the runners.

Some of my favorite moments during the day happened when a nearby runner would meet their friends and family along the way. There would be a brief but intense cheer as they passed, some especially heartfelt support, and a notable up tick in the runner’s pace following the encounter.

As I approached mile 25, I moved to the left side of the road and began scanning the crowd for my family, who had risen early and traveled a great distance to cheer me on. I heard my name and then quickly picked them out, pressed against the barricade in the front row. I swerved over for some high fives and drew a deep dose of encouragement that carried me to the finish line.

Of course I have many more memories of the marathon. Memories that span the training and the qualification process to the countless other runners I met, and with whom I shared this experience. But as I rode the plane home, with a sore body and a soaring spirit, it was the memories of impassioned support from the locals that had touched me most deeply. And I know that looking forward, the Boston Marathon will always be, for me, more about "Boston" than about "Marathon".


  1. Anonymous4/20/2010

    Absolutely incredible experience and so well written for your WWDS fans. Do you plan to run it again?

  2. Debbie4/20/2010

    What heartfelt memories to take away from what I'm sure was an amazing experience !!!

  3. Great Post!! Makes me want to run it...seriously.

  4. Anonymous4/20/2010

    I was out of breath by the time I finished reading the piece!


  5. Anonymous4/20/2010

    :0 awe......you are a great guy! Love the point of view as I watched from the sidelines last year. Wish we would have known....next time...

  6. Anonymous4/21/2010

    Great insight and thanks for sharing Dennis! Still doesn't motivate me to do the same, but I certainly very much respect what you have accomplished!

    Mike M.

  7. Great post! Sorry I couldn't make it, would have loved to have experienced the non-runner side of the Boston Marathon! If you do it next year I will make it down for sure - I'll cheer for you from the Wellesley College sidelines.

  8. well done, dennis. i'd love to get together for lunch and hear about your experience!

  9. Jeff Ryer4/21/2010

    Sorry I was unable to run along with you - I had that damn meeting in Providence.

    Only got one text message from your feet - that you actually finished in 3:59:21 (is that correct)
    Q - is that a good time or should I ask if you consider that a good time ?

    Glad you made it home. Kathy asked if I was going to call you in your hotel room to see if you were OK, Nate piped in "yeah dad you better make sure he is not gasping on the floor just out of reach of the phone". I told them you were fine, although older and much more grey hair than I. They think just because I couldn't ride my bike 26 miles ..........

  10. A few replies:

    All the support and kind words are appreciated. I would like to run it again but I would need to train for another qualifier which means a sacrifice by my whole family. I don't see it in my immediate future but perhaps within 2-3 years.

    To Tom: If you qualify to run it, I will try to do the same. Between the two of us, we could probably fill the demand at Wellesley.

    To Ryer: My time of 3:59 was almost a full half hour slower than my qualifying time of 3:30 so it was not a good time. Having said that, I ran at the pace I trained at, enjoyed the event, and finished without an ounce of pain. I think I ran it right.

  11. Anonymous4/27/2010

    Late response, but congratulations!!! Its hard for me to reconcile this with the "Young Dennis" who would take the shortcut on the HS Cross Country trail.
    Seriously, very impressive and you set a very good example for all who know you.

  12. Excellent! To the casual observer, a runner is just that- a runner plodding along(in my case, not yours- the photo (obviously retouched) makes it look like you're just leaving Hopkinton). But you captured the emotion and inner thoughts of the athlete very well. Thanks very much.
    Oh, am I a bit tardy?