Not Ready for the Kenyan JV Team – Steve Penrose (April 16, 2007)

It’s three days to the Patriots’ Day holiday, or more correctly, Marathon Day. I head down to the convention center to pick up my official number and information packet. There are about 23,000 people signed up to run, but few show up right at the opening and the volunteers process us smoothly and quickly. Naturally the exit from the number pick-up leads directly to a massive exposition where purveyors of everything associated with running—shoes, clothes, watches, energy foods—compete for attention.

Attractive young male and female salespeople assure me that just this one last item will allow me to challenge the Kenyans for victory on the big day. All participants no doubt scoff at these assurances, as every runner is schooled to understand it is idiotic, if not dangerous, to wear anything new and untested in a race. Thus educated and fortified against foolishness, I leave with only a new windbreaker, fleece pullover, tights, and watch with GPS locator and automatic pace alerts. Long lines of the equally unfoolish keep me from buying more.

Two days to marathon day, and the weather forecast is getting worse. The worst nor’easter in decades, heavy rains and flooding, high winds, plus wind chill puts the temperatures in the low 20’s. The Boston Athletic Association puts out a bulletin warning of the dangers of hypothermia, reminding each runner he/she assumes all risks of injury (they don’t mention frostbite or death, but it’s implicit), and advising everyone to wear clothing “appropriate to the conditions.” Responding to the warning against having wet shoes at the start, I visit a nearby sporting goods store and buy a pair of cheap basketball shoes to wear until that point.

One day to marathon day, and I decide that all the clothing I’ve brought and bought is still “inappropriate to the conditions.” I return to the expo, which is absolutely jammed with runners who have reached the same conclusion. I manage to buy a fleece skullcap to cover my head and ears, and retreat to the hotel in frustration and growing uneasiness. I try on various combinations of clothing, and find nothing which guarantees survival. It is raining buckets and coastal areas throughout southern New England are flooding. There is snow in western Massachusetts.

The Tufts team, of which I am a member, has an early dinner for participants and family in the university gymnasium. At the door we are given small packets containing blue plastic rain ponchos.  When I arrive, the first person I see is a fellow former ExxonMobil Treasurer’s retiree from Dallas, a surprise because his Yale affiliation is powerful and well-known. He is there because his daughter, currently at Yale, will accompany a Tufts friend in the marathon. The dinner is quite nice, though there is a noticeable undercurrent of nervousness. We hear an inspirational talk from a three-time winner of the Boston marathon who has been helping the team during training. We hear from Mim, a professor of nutrition who has also been extremely helpful in advising the team, who encourages us that “pain is not linear.” She explains some body part which starts to hurt won’t necessarily keep hurting or get worse—the pain might shift to some other part of the body or even go away entirely. The president of the university, who will be running with the team, tells us the real accomplishment is getting to the starting line, and that if we feel disoriented or suffer other symptoms of hypothermia, we should stop at one of the many Red Cross stations along the route and get help. Thanks, ever inadequate however eloquently expressed, are given to Coach Don and Mim. After the talks, we pose for a team photograph wearing our bright yellow Tufts Marathon Team singlets and blue hats. I leave wondering under what conditions there might be exceptions to the rule that pain is not linear.

Back at the hotel, I carefully pack the bag of extra clothes I will take with me to the starting line, and fill the two little bottles of energy-giving goo I will consume during the “race.” I fill out the form on the back of the official race number which asks for loved ones to contact in the event of emergency. I make sure my race number is firmly fastened to the Tufts Marathon Team singlet, and that the official timing chip is well-threaded through the laces of my running shoes. I decide against wearing the just-purchased fleece pullover, tights, or windbreaker, and opt for well-used attire. Throughout the night I check the clock every hour just to make sure it’s still working.

At 5:00am on marathon day I get out of bed as planned, put on my inappropriate clothes and basketball shoes, and struggle to swallow breakfast consisting of a peanut butter sandwich. Leaving the lobby, I find it is still pouring rain, and the taxi I was assured would be waiting is not there. I take the elevator back to my room to get the keys to my rental car, and return to the lobby—still no taxi. I suddenly remember I don’t have my driver’s license, so I take the elevator up to my room again to retrieve it. In the lobby once more with keys and license, I find a taxi has arrived. During the 20-minute ride to Medford, where I will catch the Tufts team bus, the taxi driver describes how he’s worried about flooding in his basement, because the awful weather will surely get worse throughout the day. On the bus into town, there is little conversation. I note I am the only one carrying my extra clothes in a Barnes & Noble bag instead of the official orange Boston Marathon bag issued to every runner.

The Tufts bus leaves us in the rain at the Boston Common, where the team, most wearing our blue plastic ponchos, joins one of many long lines of rather bedraggled runners winding over the field.  The lines, guided by volunteers in orange jackets and rain gear, ultimately deliver us very efficiently into one of what seems like the world’s largest collection of yellow school buses which move in an endless stream alongside the Common. A bit more than an hour later the bus arrives in Hopkinton, where the bus driver asks whether any of us knows how to get to the school where runners are to assemble. She pulls over to allow another bus to lead the way, and we eventually arrive at the school. We trudge along mud paths to find one very large white tent which is filled to bursting with earlier arrivals, and a comfortingly large number of port-a-potties, in front of which already are discouragingly long lines.  Past experience leads me to join a line immediately. It is still raining and windy, and I am shivering despite multiple layers. Most of my companions in line are wearing tights, but some are in shorts. Some have wrapped their shoes in plastic bags in an attempt to keep them dry. My basketball shoes attract some amused attention.

Eventually I get into the school gym, and find a small space—a very small space in the packed room—where I gradually sink to the floor and begin the ritual. The atmosphere is very collegial and, superficially at least, relaxed as each person puts on petroleum jelly or BodyGlide (“anything which can chafe, will chafe”), adds to or subtracts from her/his appropriate gear, munches on an energy bar, fiddles with an iPod, swallows Advil, and drinks lots of water. Hypothermia is not the only worry—there is dehydration to be avoided. I decide to leave the old fleece behind, and to rely on a long-sleeved shirt, wind vest, and windbreaker. The soaked and muddy basketball shoes, and socks, go into the Barnes & Noble bag for disposal. After a last visit to the port-a-potty line, I put on my gloves and recently-acquired skullcap, and join the river of runners heading down Grove Street for the starting line. I make sure my new running watch with GPS locator is operating. It is 10:15am. Miraculously, the rain stops.

The “elite” women runners—those for whom the event is really a race, and who actually have a chance of winning—started at 9:40. The elite men, and the other 10,000 fastest runners, left at 10:00. The rest of us, many of whom are raising money for schools or charities, are supposed to assemble in numbered “corrals” and then be released in sequence. By the time I am somewhere near the starting line, this bit of organization has evaporated and a stream of runners simply oozes forward. I am much too late for the starting gun, if there was one, but I know I have started when there is a chirp caused by the chip on my shoe as I cross the first of many official timing mats. Everyone ahead of me is starting to jog a bit, carefully because we are all still packed in. The sky is threatening, but it hasn’t started raining again. It is 10:42.

The first four miles are pretty steeply downhill, which encourages an unduly fast pace. I have been informed by every veteran this would guarantee later disaster, so I regularly consult my new watch with GPS locator and pace alerts. Control is aided by the fact the road is still very crowded. Also, entertainment is provided by the catcalls of the female runners directed at the men who failed to make last-minute stops at the port-a-potties and who are lined up behind what would be trees and shrubbery if it weren’t still winter. Since it is, their array of backs is in plain sight. When eventually the road flattens out and I reach the second water stop, I take off my windbreaker and tie it around my waist, the new skullcap tucked in a pocket. So much for hypothermia.

The road is reasonably straight, alternating between small towns and patches of woods. It is less crowded now as the real runners move ahead, and the next few miles are a very pleasant, if not particularly memorable jog. Despite the cold and wet conditions for anyone not running, there are a surprising number of people of all ages along the route, applauding and shouting encouragement. Many small kids are offering and hoping for high fives, and I and many others try to oblige. Blessings upon all of them. Also blessings upon the volunteers in their orange jackets at the water stops, carefully staged every two miles or so, and on each side of the road, so runners would not have to cross over and possibly trip over one another. My favorite is the man guiding runners around a barrier in the middle of the road, calling through a megaphone “RED SOX FANS TO THE RIGHT, ANGELS FANS TO THE LEFT, YANKEE FANS RUN IN PLACE!” The Red Sox later win their game with the Angels.

I reach Mile 9, where family and friends of the Tufts team have been gathered to cheer us all on. Coach Don is there, in shorts despite the cold, smiling and calling encouragement to us by name (actually, to me, since by the time I arrive most of my almost 200 teammates have long since passed by). It’s only a moment before they’re left behind, but a huge boost. I’m feeling pretty good, monitoring my pace. At the water stop near Mile 12, I’ve been running for not much more than two hours, and a volunteer calls out that a Kenyan has won again (Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot, win #3), so slowed by the conditions he could do no better than 2 hours, 14 minutes, well off the course record. I approach a large arch where photographers are perched to capture the moment for each runner, so we can be reminded of how we looked relatively early in the race. Everyone hams it up as though we were at the finish. I have been looking around at my companions, most of whom, like me, have their team or charity affiliation on their shirts, some also with their names, a picture of someone in whose honor they are running, or inspirational messages. One tall man has “KENYAN JV” on the back of his orange shirt. Two ladies are wearing pink boas, and another has an orange inner tube around her waist, over orange and white striped knee socks. Later I see a group of men wearing Viking horns, two in Elvis outfits and several wearing signs advertising they are members of a Korean marathon tour group. One of these carries a digital camera and periodically slows to snap shots of his teammates and fans along the road.

My new GPS watch shows I reach the midway point at Mile 13 in just under 2 ½ hours, at my planned slow pace, saving energy for a faster second half (every coach’s goal of a “negative split”). There are fewer runners in the road now but people are beginning to look familiar as we’re all running at close to the same pace. New faces appear and disappear whenever there’s an interruption like a water stop or the intermittent small aggregation of port-a-potties, each inevitably with a small line (mainly law-abiding females, as most men continue to take advantage of the occasional cluster of trees where they can pretend to be unseen). Runners compliment each other on outfits, and encourage the occasional team member who comes into view. It’s all very sociable.

Wellesley College, which is a mile or so past the midway point, is audible before it is visible. There is a tradition of Wellesley girls lining the route to cheer on the runners, and this year is no exception, despite the weather. As I reach the college buildings on the right of the road, I run past a wall of young women making all kinds of wonderful racket, some with signs inviting “KISS ME” with apparent sincerity. I am tempted but do not want to risk slowing my pace (even more) and possibly losing my lead over those few runners behind me. The wall and noise go on and on, and even when I’m past them I can hear the cheering for a good while. Then I’m in the town of Wellesley, which is very picturesque, and from here on the route is an almost unbroken succession of towns. Still lots of people cheering, though it’s now well into early afternoon and I had expected everyone to retire to warmer surroundings for lunch and to watch the Red Sox or replays of the Kenyans’ finish.

I pass a large orange sign for a Grossman’s home improvement store, and recognize we are about to enter Newton and encounter the dreaded hills, the first coming on a long overpass over Interstate 93. I’m still feeling pretty good. As predicted the night before, the occasional pain in ankle or toe or thigh isn’t linear and isn’t very noticeable, though I worry about a knee which has given me trouble before and shows fleeting signs of soreness. Nonetheless, the first hill goes fine. I find myself jogging by a thin line of people now walking, and relish my momentary supremacy though with full recognition it could be premature. This is confirmed on the second hill when I slow to a walk for a bit. My quadriceps are feeling a bit tight so I stop for a moment by a tree to stretch. Bad idea, as instantly my calf starts to cramp, and I move on, mostly jogging slowly but with the occasional walk, making steady progress.

I hear my name and glance to the right side of the road, where I see daughter Kate and friend Marisa and a large sign proclaiming “GO STEVE P./ WE LOVE YOU.” They have come out on the T and have just about concluded I must already have passed by. Thankfully not, and I cherish the hugs. I predict, correctly as it turns out, that I’m about 90 minutes from the finish even though it’s only about seven miles, and we arrange to meet then. Back on the road, the slow jog uphill is intermingled with the occasional walk. I reach Boston College, at the top of Heartbreak Hill. The rest of the route is downhill. It is still not raining, a miracle. The worst is over.

Oops. Aspiring marathoners are told there are two parts to a marathon: the first 20 miles, and the last six, when your body is pretty well fed up with what you’ve been doing to it, and begins to act up. I know this, and am prepared for the signs of incipient rebellion. I am not, however, fully prepared for the cold wind which strikes with a vengeance on the downhill side of Heartbreak Hill into Cleveland Circle, where the street acquires a streetcar line and a decidedly urban look. My windbreaker is still tied around my waist, but I don’t have the presence of mind to put it on. Nothing hurts, but my legs abruptly decide independently they prefer to walk, and the next few miles are mostly walk with occasional bursts of a sort of shuffle. A smiling grandmotherly woman of something less than my height and something more than my width, jogs by, zig-zagging across the road to give high-fives to cheering onlookers. I wonder how she can be smiling. I am helpless to insist my legs jog with any regularity, and am fearful if I try, they will simply respond by insisting upon sitting. No negative split in the cards for me. I am beyond feeling disappointment. Just keep walking, periodically breaking into a tentative shuffle, but unable to maintain anything like good running form. The wind is fierce and I am freezing. I think briefly of hypothermia, but merely academically, since it still doesn’t occur to me to take the windbreaker from around my waist and put it on. Onlookers cheer encouragement and I smile gratefully, but speed and time are no longer of the essence. Just keep walking.

After an underpass and several turns, into view comes the arch marking the finish line, downtown near Copley Square. Pride forces me to shift into my shuffle, and the timing chip prompts a chirp from the final rubber mat as I cross the finish line. The overwhelming emotion is not triumph, but gratitude that I don’t have to keep going. Any crowds are long since gone, since few runners are still finishing, but I am immediately met by Coach Don and Mim, who congratulate me and ask how I’m doing. I can’t say much sensible, but somehow try to communicate I am OK, and am grateful they accept at face value whatever I said, since their eyes reflect obvious uncertainty. I trudge forward, my windbreaker still around my waist, past a line of waiting orange-clad volunteers with wheelchairs ready to scoop up finishers needing medical attention. Other volunteers untie the chip from my shoe, give me my official finisher’s medal, wrap me in a silver foil-like thermal sheet, hand me a granola bar, and direct me to the family meeting area. We have not been rained on since before the start.

I find the sign for “P” by a building along the almost deserted street. The wind continues as I wait for Kate and Marisa. A twenty-something woman wrapped in an identical shiny sheet, sits clutching her knees in a corner nearby, trying to stay out of the wind. I finally unwrap my fingers from around the granola bar, struggle out of my gloves, slowly fumble my cell phone open, and call Kate to let her know where I am. She and Marisa arrive quickly, commenting on my homeless appearance, and help me into a dry fleece and my suddenly-recognized windbreaker. Kate checks to be sure the young woman is all right, and she assures us she’s fine. Convinced that taxis are unavailable, we head slowly for the nearest T stop. Thankfully, however, an empty taxi suddenly materializes, and after hugs I am folded into the back seat and the driver heads back to my hotel. After a quick look in the rear-view mirror, he mercifully attempts no conversation. I somehow locate the bills to pay him, and find the key to my hotel room. It is under my driver’s license and the keys to the rental car, which I stuffed in my carry belt a long, long time ago. It is 5:00pm.

Many experienced marathoners believe the best remedy for desperately tired leg muscles and soreness is an immediate ice bath. No doubt the physiology is sound. However at 62, self-indulgence may occasionally be allowed to trump science, and I retreat to a hot shower. It is wonderfully satisfying but also instantly identifies the few places which chafed despite all precautions. I stay in the shower for half an hour, less because it is so enjoyable than because the demands of actually turning the water off and getting dressed seem completely insurmountable. The obvious absurdity of being able to run a marathon but unable to turn off a shower is insufficiently motivating. Finally pruney fingers decide it’s time. I dress, then for some reason decide to pack immediately for the next day’s return home. I lay out the urgently-purchased but unused fleece pullover, jacket, and tights. Even greater care, however, is given to the official tee shirt received at registration days before, and to the rather ordinary but deeply cherished pewter medal which went to the 19,549th finisher in the 111th Boston Marathon.

Steve Penrose
Dallas, Texas

For more personal accounts of the 2007 Boston marathon, click here.

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