122nd Boston Marathon
April 16, 2018
Epic Wicked Pissah
Age 64, 4:31:27
Although I did not know it at the time, my path to the 2018 Boston Marathon began in 2012 on top of Georgia’s Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the famed Appalachian Trail. Over the next 24 weeks, my husband and I hiked an average of a half marathon every day, carrying our 40-pound backpacks over some of the toughest terrain in the eastern United States.
No matter the weather, every morning we awoke knowing we had to cover 12 to 14 miles before we could sleep again. We hiked in cold, we hiked in hail, we hiked in hurricane force winds; in heat, in rain, and then in more rain. By the time we reached Maine’s Mt. Kathadin, we had climbed the equivalent of 17 times from sea level to the summit of Mt. Everest. And we became hardened to whatever Mother Nature might throw at us.
Six years later, I would draw strength from that experience as I awoke in Boston to an Epic Wicked Pissah…
To say mine was a late blooming long distance running career would be a major understatement. After all, for 37 years I had successfully resisted all my Boston Marathon veteran husband’s entreaties to join him as a road racer. However, coming off the AT, I found myself all sinew and lean muscle, and 33 pounds lighter than when I started. I was looking for a way to keep that excess weight from returning.
Shortly after arriving home from the Appalachian Trail, we hosted some new friends met during our last 500 miles on the trail. Half-jokingly, we told our out-of-town guests, “If you wanted to savor the true flavor of Corinth, Mississippi, the local Rotary 5k race this weekend would be a good place to start!” Surprisingly they jumped at the idea, and so, at the last minute, we all signed up and ran. My pace that day was more of a speed walk. I found while I might have been in really good hiking shape, I was in no condition to run any distance. But I somehow managed to finish third in my age group. That Rotary race trophy got me really excited about racing.
When I started running, my hope was just to race ten kilometers, and maybe, sometime much later, run a half marathon. However, my schedule accelerated when, with the encouragement of Corinth running legend Kenneth Williams, my husband Woody decided to once again try to qualify for the Boston Marathon, a race he had last run before we met, way back in 1975. Pretty quickly I found myself out on Highway 350, training with Kenneth’s Saturday morning “Lunatic Fringe” running group. We joke about those hills on 350 being the “Alps of Mississippi,” but tackling that route weekly can quickly transform you into a serious runner.
By the following March, Woody was ready to attempt a BQ at Virginia Beach, and I tagged along to try my first 13.1 miler. It was a cold morning, with the wind whipping in off the Atlantic. I started out way too fast, which I paid for in the last few miles; but that race gave me such a feeling of accomplishment. If it hadn’t already, I guess you could say the running bug bit me that day.
Woody got his BQ that day with a four-minute cushion. After a 39-year hiatus, he would once again be heading back to Boston in 2014.
After following a low mileage training program (which I modified too often with numerous missed days), in early February 2014 I ran my first marathon in Greenville, Mississippi, where half of the race lies on either side of the iconic Mississippi River bridge. I was in great shape after crossing the bridge, but then sputtered to the finish as my energy level declined to Empty. I placed in my age group, but missed my BQ target by two minutes.
Two months later, experiencing the Boston Marathon for the first time as a spectator on the sidelines opened my eyes to its magic and allure. Boston is so special, and I wanted to be part of it. I wanted to race Boston!
That fall, after a full summer of running in Mississippi’s heat and humidity, and after following a much more consistent training schedule, I traveled to Albany, New York. With a scenic course and ideal weather, I improved my marathon time by ten minutes, a “Boston Qualifier” with time to spare!
While waiting for the 2016 race, I became plagued with lower back pain. With my dream of running Boston suddenly in jeopardy, I went searching for help. I discovered my form as a “heel striker” was putting undue pressure on my lower back. Fortunately, I found a running specialist on-line who was able to use slow motion video to break down my poor running form, and step by step convert my stride to landing mid-foot. Since then, I’ve been injury free.
I arrived at the starting line in Hopkinton healthy, but undertrained, and very, very slow. However, as anticipated, I found I loved running the Boston Marathon. It is a racing experience like no other. Unfortunately, my 2016 finishing time left me disappointed and wanting to do better. I again ratcheted up my training.
In February 2017, this renewed effort paid off with a comfortable BQ at the Phoenix-Mesa Marathon. Considering my expectations and the mid-day desert heat of the final hour, my finishing time was extraordinary; and my age group 3rdout of 21 a source of deep personal satisfaction.
One morning a few months later, I surprised my husband by walking into his home office to announce I wanted to run the six World Marathon Majors. Then he astonished me by immediately turning to grab his world atlas. [We later discovered his first move should have been reaching for his checkbook, but that’s another story!] His only stipulation was my goal must be to race, not just participate. He said to honor the marathon distance I must go for a BQ time at all six: “Your first Boston can’t count. You need to start at zero.” With some last-minute scrambling, that fall Berlin became my World Marathon Major #1.
Which after a way too lengthy introduction brings us to Boston 2018:
As we obsessed over the Weather Channel app during the weeks, then days leading up to the 2018 Boston Marathon, there was one forecast constant: the race would see precipitation. While the percentage was a moving target, ranging anywhere between 40% and 100%, the prediction was always wet. Throwing into the equation the range of late winter/early spring temperatures Boston was experiencing, I packed my suitcase with every possible combination of running clothes. It was a heavy suitcase!
Friday evening, Bernie Pierce, my college roommate who now lives in nearby Reading, treated us to a Red Sox game. It was a Boston win and a late night after a lot of walking at the Expo that day, but I had plenty of time to recover.
Saturday of Marathon Weekend was glorious, and we watched with so much excitement as my back fence neighbor Susan Adams raced the BAA 5k. A self-proclaimed former couch potato who morphed into a hiking machine after following us first figuratively, and then literally on our long-distance hiking adventures, Susan was thrilled with her Boston Experience and very proud of her unicorn medal.
Sunday, we participated in my second favorite event of the Boston Weekend: the worship service at Old South Church. Later, out in race day’s epic weather, I would harken back to a highlighted scripture from the sermon – Job 23:10: “When God hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold.” The “Blessing of the Athletes” left me both humbled and exhilarated, but hopeful Boston Monday would be a race to remember for the rest of my life.
Sunday night I was really stewing about the increasingly ominous weather forecast for Patriots Day. What was I to wear? And how was I going to get through it? The answer came two-fold:
First, as a devoted member of the Boston Buddies Facebook group, I often come across inspiring posts by Tony Garcia. His Marathon Eve post was the most clarifying, if not the most inspiring, thing I could have read. As many of us kibitzed online about dealing with race conditions, Tony was very keen to point out, in order to be successful, the need “to accept the things you cannot control (like the weather) and embrace the things you can control (like mindset, clothing, and confidence in your preparation).”
Second, my husband, who handles my mental as well as my physical coaching (which often requires the use of kid gloves), reminded me how we had gotten through tougher weather than this many times on the Appalachian Trail. Over the course of 2184 miles, we learned again and again: “there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing choices.” We had learned to keep moving forward, both to cover ground and maintain a consistent body temperature. We stayed hydrated and fueled regularly. We embraced it then, I would embrace it now. I had all I needed. I held control in my hands. I was set to go.
I slept like a rock.
After a tearful goodbye and hug in the Sheraton hotel lobby, I mentally carried Woody with me from Hopkinton to Boylston. Especially his last words to me: “Keep moving forward. And don’t stop until you cross the finish line.”
On the bus ride out to Hopkinton, I sat between Corinth running friends Kenneth Williams and John Aikin. All of us chatting, cutting up, checking our Garmins and gear, but with the air filled with apprehension. Conditions outside the bus windows were anything but pleasant. At the last minute, John offered me some of his extra HotHands hand warmers. They lasted the whole 42 kilometers and in hindsight, I’m convinced they helped save my race. (“Control the things you can” …)
We said our goodbyes as we exited the bus, as I wanted to take care of business, find a spot in one of the tents, and quietly sit alone to gather myself as I waited to queue up for the starting line. In the strewn belongings of faster runners who had long since departed Athletes Village, I found a wool beanie. I snatched it up not quite sure I’d wear it in the race, but it kept me comfortably warm in the tent. With the hand warmers, it turned out to be the second last minute item that saw me through. (“Control the things you can” …)
The Athletes Village was a sea of mud! I had dry shoes and socks with me to change out before starting, but there was no way I was putting them on in the tent. I’d find a place on my way to the start. As I joined the crowd walking past the Hopkinton school, I spotted a wide covered double doorway, protected enough from the rain and wind to allow me to shift into my dry foot gear. However, to my surprise when I tried the handle, the door opened. I was standing inside the gym where elite runners queue up before starting! It was warm. It was dry. Rather than chase me out, a friendly volunteer greeted me and offered me a place to thoroughly dry my feet, get on my dry socks and shoes, and use a flush toilet! Neither Des or Shalane was treated any better (“Control the things you can” …)
All the pre-race positivity from volunteers, and more than adequate prep time left me buoyed as I strolled to the starting line. I wasn’t discouraged by the weather and I was in no hurry, as I feared waiting around for “go signal” at the start would leave me chilled. But as I approached the starting line, I could see there was absolutely no queue. No big crowd. By then, so few runners were starting the race, volunteers were allowing us to go on demand. I shed a long-sleeve cotton shirt, but kept on a Dollar General clear plastic rain jacket, its hood and my newly inherited wool beanie tucked under a ball cap. I had the HotHands in my woolen mittens, a long-sleeve tech shirt from the Rocket City Marathon (the only marathon I’d DNF’d. Today I was out for redemption!), my CWX compression tights, and DRY socks and shoes. (“Control the things you can” …)
I warmed up by stretching and dance-stepping, then walked up to the starting mat with a few other runners, hit my Garmin, and was racing the 2018 Boston Marathon!
Another lesson we learned hiking in the pouring rain on the AT (and by now the rain was coming down in sheets and the wind was fierce on the marathon course) was not to worry about keeping your feet, socks, and shoes dry, as there is nothing that works under those conditions. Just trundle on. Keep moving forward. You can always dry off at the end of the day, so don’t waste time and energy dodging puddles. Since I had plenty of running room I steered for high spots in the road, but didn’t worry if I had to splash through some places. I was cautious not to slip. I was picking my spots to go hard. I settled in. Oddly the first miles flew by. (“Control the things you can” …)
I never passed up an aid station, though going through them without stopping (“Keep moving forward”) and without taking off my mittens. My hands were toasty and I feared if the mittens came off, I’d have the devil’s own time getting my hands back in them. I didn’t want to mess with success. Somewhere, and a bit reluctantly, I doffed the wool beanie and the plastic poncho, worrying I might be giving up things I’d considered safety blankets. However, I was getting just a tad overheated. Inside my soaked mittens, the HotHands had morphed into baked potato-like globs, but my hands felt great.
Back when running the 2015 Outer Banks Marathon, I fell in with Maureen Knepp from New Hampshire as we circled the base of the Wright Brothers Memorial. We then went stride for stride for over ten miles. Discussion led us two extroverts to the AT, as she’s an avid hiker in addition to being a runner collecting a marathon in every state. As she checked North Carolina off her list that day, Maureen was a boost along my way to the finish line, and a perfect running companion. I cherish a professional photograph taken of us running lockstep and smiling broadly. I told her I was heading to my first Boston in April 2016; she told me to look for her before Wellesley, where her local running group had a longtime tradition of tending an aid station along the course. I saw her with great joy in 2016, and I was desperate to see her again in 2018! The reunion was warm and tearful, and her, “You got this!” is forever imprinted in my brain. (“Control the things you can” …)
Shout outs to the few, the proud, the wet -
The Wellesley College Scream Tunnel
I was perhaps one of the few who avoided reaching out to the spectators along the Scream Tunnel. While the cheers were very much appreciated, I was afraid I’d slow down or stop with too much frivolity, and quite frankly I was feeling the first signs of fatigue.
After Wellesley I noticed a rather large man running up ahead of me. I remembered some more of my husband’s advice: “If the wind gets too bad, find somebody tall to run behind.” Get bad? Why, the gales have been terrible ever since the start! As the wind was now coming full frontal, I decided to tuck in behind him, using him as a shield, and hopefully save some energy.
Being extremely careful not to trip up either of us, and trying not to be obvious about what I was doing, I matched him stride for stride. That took a bit of timing and coordination, but the next mile or so flew by. (“Control the things you can” …)
As I was approaching the Woodland train station (Mile 17) where I knew Woody and other folks from home would be waiting, I was faced with a dilemma. I needed to swoop in for a quick kiss and hug, but didn’t want to lose my “human wind break.”
Loud shouts of my name and raucous cheering helped me find my personal cheer squad among the crowd of spectators, and I left them energized, but determined to catch my new running companion. I found him a bit up the road and he was cracking up when I fell in beside him. “Did you know those people? And how did they know your name?” He hadn’t noticed my large printed nametag prominently pinned across my bib, a gift from Woody I thought a bit pretentious when given to me. Yes, I’d known those particular folks, but for the rest of the race NEVER was I happier to hear my name called out by so many total strangers brave enough to venture out on that wet day! (“Don’t stop until you cross the finish line.”)
As we ran along, he introduced himself as Brad and I confessed I had used him as a wind break. He seemed totally fine with that. We continued a conversation and he shared he was worrying about the upcoming Newton Hills, as he had now exceeded the longest distance he’d ever run while training.
As we ran towards the fire station turn, I encouraged him to relax, not take things too fast, and use gentle foot plants: Land quietly, don’t hear your feet slapping the pavement… The conversation was easy as we began the hills.
Brad told me he was running for Massachusetts Team Eye and Ear, a charity that supported his young son who had a degenerative eye anomaly. As we crested Heartbreak Hill, he was incredulous the landmark had come and gone so quickly. He was already over it: How in the world? I was glad 2016 had enabled me to pass along a basic knowledge of the course and tactics, but in truth Brad was as much help to me that day as I was to him.
And then there was Woody – out of the blue – and shouting my name. How’d he get here so fast? Somehow, he’d taken the Green Line back towards town, then cut cross country through rain swollen streets to cheer me at Boston College. Oh, my. What a reunion when I least expected it. Brad told me to catch up with him after the impromptu meet and greet with my husband. And I did.
By now we were heading downhill to Coolidge Corner and all those dreaded street car rail crossings. I told Brad to be really careful and to pick safe spots to put his feet. And to watch the painted lines on the streets. I know from watching road cycling races they can be extremely slippery when wet. By now we were in the last four miles of the race and a glance at my Garmin told me I was still working on an awesome BQ. How in the world?! With all the things going on that day? I told Brad “You got this!” but I needed to pick up my pace. I wished him well and set my sights on the CITGO sign. (“Keep moving forward. And don’t stop until you cross the finish line.”)
From there on, things that day are a blur. I was obsessed and laser-focused on the prospect of BQ’ing. At Boston. I had a shot.
Before I knew it, I was running under and up from the Mass Ave overpass. I lined up for the Right on Hereford. I jubilantly made the famous turn only to be met by – Holy Moly! – Poncho Canyon! Many of my fellow runners, primping for their finish line photos, had chosen the Hereford pavement as the place to jettison any remaining rain gear. All of that thoughtlessly abandoned plastic resulted in an entire street as slick as owl poop. Lord, I prayed, don’t let me break a leg before the final turn!
Beneath the hundreds of strewn ponchos, I was catching glimpses of the thin Blue Line. I jumped on it as best I could, knowing it would take me to the finish via the shortest tangent. Trying to stay upright, I tiptoed-navigated my way to Left on Boylston.
As I made that final turn and could see the finish line arch, my emotions were getting the best of me. Back in 2016, I had been impressed by a photo of a young lady at the Boston finish triumphantly clicking her heels ala Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music. After my Berlin race, I had a chance to visit many of the Salzburg filming sites from that movie, and got to practice that particular move “on location”! Three such combination finishing kicks now became my tradition for completing the world majors.
Through my tears, or maybe just more rain, who could tell, I crossed the finish line with an -8:30 BQ! I had not stopped since I left the starting line, all those miles now in my rear view.
A volunteer hung a cherished unicorn around my neck and I started to shiver uncontrollably. I wrapped up in mylar and shuffled toward the pedestrian skybridge I hoped would lead back to our hotel. Beginning to feel the effects of hypothermia, I was a little foggy on remembering our exact post-race meet-up plans. I just knew I had to get out of the elements, and that I loved escalators. Green Line congestion meant I beat Woody back to Boylston, but thankfully he appeared out of the crowd on the second story walkway. I almost collapsed in his arms.
Later, after a long, long, long (dare I say long) hot shower, we went with Bernie and Susan to celebrate at O’Leary’s, a quintessential Boston neighborhood bar in Brookline. I had run by there just a few hours before. I was dressed in my bright burnt-orange 2018 Boston celebration jacket and Boston ball cap, with my unicorn hanging from my neck. As we entered O’Leary’s, the crowd rose for a standing ovation, as they did for every finisher who stopped by that day. We were Boston Royalty! With a force like the hurricane wind I’d experienced all day long, the locals rose to welcome me as one of their own. I didn’t know these people, but they embraced me as one wicked runnah! I could not control it, but, Tony, I owned it. Like Des and Yuki way up ahead of me, I had just run the best race of my life!
Age – 64
Bib # 24870
How 2018 Boston Settled Bragging Rights at the Harrell Household:
After Boston 2018, I went on to run Chicago and New York in the fall, then completed Tokyo and London in the spring of 2019, averaging a BQ for my six world majors. It was an amazing 19 month period!
At age 65, I felt fortunate to have completed this goal before I got in a downhill duel with Father Time. And as COVID rocked the running world in the following year, cancelling all the world majors, I couldn’t have been more lucky in my timing!