With God as my DJ, the songs I needed came on as if on cue

Marathoning is like a solitary journey into the deepest depths of a runner’s soul. When you are out on a course, it is just you and the road that lies ahead. The only resources you have are your body and your soul. You hope your mind will carry your body through the 26.2 miles you face. You pray your body will not give out before the finish line. And lastly, you hold the dream way down deep in your soul that all your hard work to get where you are is not wasted and you will indeed succeed.

For me, marathoning is not about being the fastest or the best against the other women in my field. It is a personal challenge I make each and every time I sign up and enter a marathon. It is a race where Beth competes with Beth. The idea of working hard and training for a goal appeals to me, and is ultimately what drives me to run 26.2 miles. And eventually will drive me to run the more extreme distances of an ultra marathon. The satisfaction obtained from crossing the finish line is the ultimate for a marathoner.

Running the Boston Marathon was a different kind of challenge. It is the holy grail for a marathoner. Nothing tops Boston. Nothing. I qualified for Boston at my first full marathon in December 2009. I didn’t even have Boston on my radar. About a month later, I saw the qualifying times for Boston and realized I had qualified. At that point, the 2010 Boston marathon was closed, but my qualifying time was good through the 2011 marathon. By January of 2010 I had my sights set on Boston.

Beginning in the spring of 2010, I began planning every race and every training period as preparation for the 2011 Boston Marathon. I hadn’t even registered yet, but knew it was my time and my year to do this race. I told myself this was my one shot and I was not going to let it pass me by without a fight. I made hotel reservations a year in advance and put the Boston registration date in bold red ink on the calendar.

Nothing left to do but train, prepare and wait for the October registration day. In the meantime, I ran three full marathons within a seven month period. Preparation for Boston, I told myself. During one of the marathons, I went out to fast, trying to hold a pace my body was not trained for, and I “crashed and burned” two miles from finish line. I was stunned. How could my body give out on me like that? How was my mind not strong enough to push my body to finish? In hindsight, the failure on that course was a great part of my training, as I realized I had to train my mind harder, so it would and could carry my body to finish.

October 2010 arrived and I was on the computer trying to register for Boston the minute the website opened for registration. Little did I know I was part of a record breaking registration time. I kept trying to register, but every time I would hit the “enter” button to submit my application, it would kick me back to an empty registration page. Panic started to set in and I sat at the computer for a couple of hours filling and refilling the application page. I finally gave up and asked my husband Jeff to try for me from his office. At some point before lunch, Jeff got the application to go through and I was registered. Thanks to Jeff, I was in Boston. I was relieved and didn’t think much more about it.  Later that evening, it was announced the registration for Boston 2011 had closed in a record 8 hours. The year before, it took a couple of months to fill up the registration. I could not believe I was in.

I began to focus all my efforts on Boston. The marathon I ran in December 2010 was the dress rehearsal for Boston. It would be the last full I would run until the April 2011 Boston Marathon. I took off from training during Christmas and said that January 1, 2011, I would be full on Boston Marathon Training.

I will tell you one thing . . . . training in freezing cold weather is not fun. Getting up at 5 or 6 in the morning, walking out the door and having 28 degrees hit you in the face like a fist is quite sobering.  Hell, just getting out of bed in that kind of cold is hard. Looking back, I’m not sure how I did it. I would hop out of bed with Boston on the brain each and every day and I knew that in the end the hard work would pay off.

During the months leading up to Boston, many times I thought of quitting and asked myself why I was putting myself through this mental and physical agony. At the height of my training I was running between 45 and 60 miles a week. That is a lot of miles, but mostly, a lot of time. Training of that magnitude can be very lonely and very isolating. Unless you are a marathoner, you simply cannot grasp the concept of training for distance. And training for Boston is a completely different animal than training for any other type of marathon.

If I knew one thing, it was this . . . .you cannot go into Boston unprepared mentally or physically. The course in Boston will eat you up and spit you out if you are not ready for the challenge. So I did all I could to prepare. I cross trained, strengthened my legs with weight training, worked on endurance, anything that would help get me across that golden finish line.

So as I was feeling physically prepared, I began to wonder about the mental preparation. In previous marathons, when I would hit about mile 22, my mind would start telling my body to stop. The last two marathons I had run, I had experienced extreme leg cramps so painful, I still haven’t forgotten them. It was excruciating. My mind had not forgotten that pain and I was terrified of the pain that Boston was sure to bring.

At some point in late February, I began training my mind for Boston. When I would go out on long runs, I would try and find a place to go in my head and almost leave my body. I found a “zone” where I could stay inside my head and forget the pain that almost always came to me in the upper 20 milers. It wasn’t easy at first, but as the weeks went by, I could almost remove myself from the physical pain and exist solely in the zone. To me, training my mind was harder than training my body.

The mental journey I went through to find my zone was extraordinary. Throughout this mental journey, I found my true self. Who I am, who I want to be and who I will be. It was extremely satisfying and one of the greatest gifts I have ever received. I realized I am strong, and I am independent, and I can do whatever I set my mind to. It has been quite an empowering experience.

The week before I left for Boston was a whirlwind. I had opened Livewell, a women’s fitness studio in February 2011 and had the support of 50 women behind me as I prepared to leave Clarksdale. Words of encouragement flowed freely throughout my day. Gifts of a hopeful success in Boston were given. Arms were wrapped around me as a way of offering peace to my anxiety and nerves. I don’t think I would have had the success I found in Boston without all of those women.

The Wednesday night before my Friday departure for Boston was when it all got real. I was getting ready for bed as I had a full day of clients at Livewell the next day. Something inside of me told me I needed to focus and quiet my soul until it was time to leave. I cancelled my Thursday classes and spent the next day quietly preparing my mind, body and soul for the journey that lay ahead.  Running has always had a spiritual aspect for me. Through running, I found a peace that can only come from long discussions with Him over the course of a long 20 miler. I needed to focus and let God hold me in the final days that led up to the race.

Friday afternoon, the bags were packed and it was time to leave. I was jittery and anxious and trying to hold it together. Jeff and I are known for always being late. When Jeff came home to pick me up, he was pushing me to hurry up and get in the car. Of course, I was running around trying to print boarding passes and water plants. As we got in the car, I silently said a prayer and asked God to hold me close and help me return home with a dream fulfilled.

Coming around the bend on Westover Drive, I saw a crowd and cars down the way. I told Jeff it must be another senior party. As we neared the crowd, I noticed there were signs and banners and began to recognize the faces of all my beloved Livewell Ladies. Jeff slowed the car as we approached the “send off to Boston,” and I looked at all of my friends’ faces and realized how truly blessed I am. They were so happy for me and excited to see me off to realize a dream that until that day was just that . . . only a dream.

After some tears and hugs and tons of squeals and screams, we turned off of Westover and headed toward the airport. I remember Jeff saying to me all of those women were counting on me to cross the finish line in Boston; that they were invested in my dream and even if I broke my leg on that course, I better drag my ass across the finish line for them. We laughed about it, but inside my head, the pressure was mounting.

On the plane to Boston, I was quiet and felt a calm come over me. From that moment of departure, I was at peace with what was in front of me. We landed in Boston, checked into the hotel and made our way to the runner’s race number pick up and runner’s expo. This is heaven for a serious runner. To be in Boston, picking up your race number with thousands of other qualified runners is exhilarating. The vibe throughout the expo was high energy and filled with a buzz of excitement. I was standing among some of the best runners from around the country.

My mom and dad had come to Boston to cheer me on. Saturday night, my parents, Jeff and I were invited to go to dinner with my coach, Kenneth Williams and about ten of his other runners. Kenneth had arranged for a big table at a great local restaurant. I remember Kenneth telling me Saturday night before Monday’s race was the time to drink a few beers and have a good time. So we did. It was fun to swap running stories and training ideas.

I soon realized my coach was “the man.” He announced at the table that night we were all invited to go on a training run the next morning with his friend, Bart Yasso. Bart Yasso is responsible for creating a speedwork training program millions of runners recognize as one of the best ways to get faster. “I’m doing Yasso’s” is a common phrase you will hear runners say when they are working on speed. Needless to say, Bart Yasso is a renowned figure in the runner’s world. He is indeed a runner’s celebrity. And here was my coach offering a training run with Bart the day before the marathon.

Sunday before the race, I was scheduled to tour the marathon course by greyhound bus. A long line of buses departed the hotels around ten that morning. Jeff and I were among many that were making the trip out to see where it all begins. The bus drove us to the start line in Hopkinton and let us get out and take pictures of the start line. We wandered around the start, and looked around the tiny town of Hopkinton, thinking it all looked so normal. This didn’t seem too scary or intimidating at all. And then we got back on the bus.

The bus followed the 26.2 course all the way back into Boston and we had a guide who gave commentary and history about each mile along the way. Everyone on the bus became very quiet and wide eyed as the bus crossed over the start line making its way through the ups and downs at the beginning of the course.

I began to feel my chest get tight with anxiety. The “little hills” at the beginning of the course looked like mountains to me. Where I live and train could arguably be one of the flattest places in the country . . . the Mississippi Delta. I thought to myself, why didn’t I seek out more hills in my training.

As the bus made its way through the 26.2 miles to Boston, I became almost nauseous. Boston didn’t look hard to me, it looked fierce. It was a big, hairy, scary monster and I was sure it was going to gobble me up the next day. I got extremely quiet and couldn’t even fathom that my feet were going to carry me up and down those hills the very next morning.

Needless to say, after the tour was over, I could barely eat lunch and went to my room for the rest of the afternoon and took a long nap. Anyone that knows me well, knows that I don’t sit still, let alone take naps.  But I was so freaked out by what I had seen, I was certain I would need all the rest I could store up for the road from Hopkinton to Boston.

My parents took me, Jeff and Koach out to a nice, quiet dinner the night before the race. I had made it very clear to all it would not be a leisurely dinner. I wanted to be back in my room by 8:00 at the latest.  I remember when we left the restaurant, Kenneth and I walking out of the restaurant together, as I think he was trying to reassure me that all would be fine the next day. I made plans to meet Kenneth and the other runners in the hotel lobby at 6:00 the next morning.

I usually do not sleep the night before a marathon. My mind normally will not settle down and be quiet. I had already prepared myself for a sleepless night. However, this night was different. It was almost as if I could feel the prayers from back home coming over me and God holding me in his arms as I feel fast asleep and slept the entire night, only waking when the alarm went off at 4:45 the next morning.

As I got ready for the race, I felt a sense of calm and peace come over me. I was slipping into “the zone.” Jeff escorted me to the hotel lobby and we met up with Koach and his runners. There was nervous energy for sure that floated around that lobby on that beautiful Monday morning.

As we exited the lobby to catch a cab to the bus boarding area, I told myself when I returned to the hotel, my life was sure to be different one way or another. Yellow school buses lined the streets in downtown Boston, while runners eagerly lined up to board for the trip to Hopkinton.

Once on the bus, I settled in next to Koach and just soaked it all in. Nervous chatter filled the bus as runners swamped race stories, nutrition tips, and time expectations for the race. About half way to Hopkinton, Koach pulled out our first round of nutrition. Peanut butter on graham crackers. I have to admit, he’s a pretty good cook! Best PB on grahams I have ever had.

When we arrived in Hopkinton, we grouped up with most of Koach’s runners and headed straight for the port a potty line. We had been hydrating moderately on the bus ride and thought it would be wise to go on and secure a spot in the long potty lines.

Once we all made it through the lines, we set up camp on the edge of a tent. Spreading out garbage bags on the ground, we got as comfortable as we could considering it was a chilly and somewhat windy morning. We had layered on old fleece type clothing to keep warm while awaiting the start. We were all somewhat quiet, I guess focusing on what was to come later in the morning. There was more carb and nutrition loading. I remember feeling like I was constantly eating, in a last ditch effort to ensure my body was ready for the long road back to Boston.

The hour and a half we waited in Athletes Village seemed like five minutes. At last it was time for the second wave to line up in our assigned corrals. The final step out of Athletes’ Village was to check our extra gear and food bag on the bus to be carried back to Boston. Even though Koach was in Wave 3, he stayed with me up until I left buses and walked out onto the street. I remember him looking at me and giving me a big hug and all he said was “Good Luck.”

As I walked down the street towards the start, I just tried to soak it all in. Kids lined the street screaming words of encouragement. People were so excited at the prospect of watching a bunch of people begin the historic race into Boston.

Lining up in my corral was fairly uneventful. Normally, I make small talk with runners that stand near me. Not today. I kept completely to myself and stared at the ground. As I stood in the crowded corral, shoulders to shoulder with my fellow runners, I talked to myself and I prayed HARD to God to carry me back to Boston.

A deeper sense of self and spirituality is the greatest gift I have received from running. Running has changed me in so many ways and I often wonder if it is from all the hours logged on the road just being with God.  I can’t say that I pray so much when I run as I am just with Him. I love to say to myself, “just be,” which in my world means to just live for the moment and not worry about what lies ahead. I do talk to God over the many miles during a run, but many times, I just open my heart and listen. It is during the times of “just being” that I hear Him the loudest.

So I told myself as I lined up at the start to just be and I knew He was with me. The narrow road in Hopkinton filled with hundreds of runners made it almost impossible to do more than just a jog across the start line. As my feet grazed over the painted pavement that indicated the race had begun, I took a deep breath.

The first couple of songs on my playlist played through and settled me down. I had spent hours making my Boston playlist, trying to insert songs that would play when I hit the miles were I needed more juice or when I needed to settle down. About the third song, I realized that somehow my playlist was on Shuffle and all the songs I had worked so hard to play at the vital miles were not there. I had a small moment of panic and then I said to myself, “No, Just BE.” And I decided I would let God be my DJ that day. Ironically, just when I needed a certain type of song or certain song, it would play. I even began to make a game out of it, saying to myself if a certain song came on at a certain mile, then I knew He was playing them for me. Guess what? The songs I needed came on as if on cue.

The first half of the race was somewhat uneventful. I had read so many books on each mile I was very familiar with the small towns I was running through. I was so focused and so in the zone, I think I did not really soak it all in. I ran in the middle of the road on the double yellow lines for most of the race. I kept my head down, not allowing myself to look at what lay ahead. The hills were so intimidating to me I decided to not even acknowledge them. So I kept my eyes on those damn yellow lines. Even today, when I’m running and I focus on the yellow street lines, it takes me right back to Boston. I only would venture off the yellow lines to catch a sip of water or Gatorade at the water stations. The first thirteen miles I was pretty serious, ignoring the cheers, the entertainment that filled the air and the local kids lining the streets hoping for a high five from a runner. Those miles went by fairly quickly and without incident.

I was very conservative on the first half, keeping my pace close to a nine minute pace which is fairly slow for me in a race. But I had to finish this race and didn’t want to chance going out to fast and not having anything left to finish.

Around mile 15, I was feeling good and kicked it up a notch but reminded myself the worst is yet to come. The hills. Around mile 17, I began to put on my mental armor. I literally went into a zone I have never been to because I cruised the hills from mile 17 to mile 20 without notice. But I still faced the unknown, Heartbreak Hill.

There is a distinct right turn on the Boston course which I remember our tour guide saying was where the race really began. It is around mile 20, I think. I took that right turn, made the sign of the cross over me, told God to hang on and I began to hit it hard.

The body will begin to do crazy things when you have put it to the test on a course like Boston. By mile 20, many times the leg cramps start to whine a little and threaten to throw a full blown tantrum. I kept waiting for my legs to tug at me and ask to stop. Didn’t happen. I think at some point, I realized my legs were on board for this race and I had enough left to carry me into Boston quicker than I had run the first half.

When I approached Heartbreak Hill, there was no way to ignore it. As much as I told myself to not acknowledge the hill, the crowds made that impossible. There were huge tom tom drums beating ominously at the bottom of the hill. Words of dread regarding the hill were written in the street. As I began the steady incline that is famously called Heartbreak Hill, I thought to myself, “f*ck this hill” and I increased my pace only to climb up and over it before I even realized it.

Only when I saw a big banner saying that Heartbreak Hill was over did I realize I had tackled it and won. And I felt like I had won big. At this point, I began to smell the finish and bucked it a little more. I could feel the city. The energy was electric.

The last three miles, I was in the zone.  I had told myself to “just be” a million times over the many miles to Boston. I was totally “just being” and it was working for me. I ran into city limits of Boston loud and strong. As I entered the depths of downtown Boston, I saw the infamous Citgo sign that indicates the finish line is just around the corner. My pulse quickened as did my pace. I could feel the finish line.

There is a saying every Boston marathoner comes to know and cherish . . . “Right on Hereford, Left on Boylston. Translating for the layperson, when you take a right on Hereford Street and then a quick left on Boylston Street, you finally see the pot of gold, the Boston Marathon Finish Line. As I made the coveted right on Hereford and then left on Boylston, I was weaving in and out of runners trying to make up whatever seconds I could and pushing myself to finish strong.

I crossed the finish line with a huge smile on my face and the knowledge I not only had run and finished the Boston Marathon but I did so in the way I hoped . . . Strong. When Koach first asked me what my goal was for Boston, I told him I wanted to finish Boston strong and feel like I was worthy of being in that race. I feel like I definitely fulfilled my goal.

To finish a marathon strong, with “fuel” left in the tank, is a little bit bittersweet because you can question whether or not you could’ve or should’ve run faster. The reality of this is that one will never know the answer to that question. Had I run faster on the first half of the marathon, I may have not had enough to finish strong. So ultimately, I feel good about my race in Boston. I feel like for me, at this time and that day, I ran it just right.

It took me about an hour to an hour and half to make it through the finish line chutes of food and water, medals and bag pick up. I had to walk a few blocks to the family meeting area to meet up with Jeff and my parents. It was a little surreal to be walking down the streets of Boston wrapped in a foil sheet for warmth, dragging my race bag, not really realizing the magnitude of what had just occurred in my life. I was in a blissful daze of glory.

My parents and Jeff greeted me with congratulations and hugs and all I could do was repeatedly say, “it was awesome, it was awesome, it was awesome.” They had been tracking my progress on their phones and knew I had finished better than I had hoped.

We went back to the hotel and went up to the room only to find a nice bottle of champagne and chocolate covered strawberries sent to me by my core group of Livewell girls. It was such a nice surprise. I think when I crossed the finish line I had over 60 texts come through of congratulations and well wishers, which made me so humble and grateful for the friends in my life.

After a celebratory dinner with my family, Jeff and I were invited by my coach to come have a drink in the hotel bar.When we walked up to the bar, Kenneth was sitting with Bart Yasso and they were looking on Kenneth’s iPad. Kenneth was showing Bart my splits and times from the day’s race. I sat down right between Bart and Kenneth and proceeded to listen to Bart analyze my splits and performance. Once again, realizing my coach is “the man,” we stayed in the bar until almost 1 a.m. drinking, laughing and enjoying the much deserved celebration with Mr. Bart Yasso, himself. It was the perfect end to a perfect day.

I will always remember April 18, 2011. It was an amazing day and one I hope to repeat again and again as many times as I am able to. I do know one thing: no marathon will ever compare to my first Boston Marathon. It was truly a gift I gave myself and I will always be glad I rose to the occasion and made a difference to myself that day.

The Boston Marathon was more than just a big race to me. It wasn’t just about that Monday that I ran from Hopkinton to downtown Boston. It was so much more than just another run. For me it was about the dedication and the hard work that went into to preparing for Boston and actually getting there only to have exceeded my goals while on that course. This race was about strength, fortitude, dedication, honor, forgiveness, but most of all love. Learning to love who I am, taking myself as I am today. Loving who I have become and loving who I know I will be in the future. The love I found on the road from Hopkinton to Boston was priceless and something I will cherish for the rest of my life. In the days to come, I know this same love will carry me on to the next race, whether that be as a runner, a mother, a wife or a friend. It is indeed priceless.

This is the prayer I say before and after each run. I think it is quite appropriate for runners!

An Old Irish Blessing
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
and rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

Beth Allen
Clarksdale, Mississippi
April 18, 2011
Age – 39
Bib # 17440