Two weeks after the 2015 Boston Marathon, I am finally finished with my thoughts about the entire experience. Those of you who know me are aware of the emotional challenge these last two years have been. They, of course, pale in comparison to the pain and heartache countless families have had to deal with in the wake of the tragedy in our city back on April 15th, 2013. I do not for a second pretend the depression I have gone through is anything like what others have had to deal with. But this has been my battle, and I will attempt to share some of my feelings as I tell what April 20, 2015, has meant to me personally.
There are SO MANY people I have to thank before I start. I know many wait until the end of a piece to list those who have helped, but I think it’s important to start first with my thank-you’s. Of course, none of this could have happened without the love and support of Sue and Owen. It goes without saying, you were at the finish line on Boylston in 2013 when everything started to happen and you had the courage to come back in 2014, when I wasn’t able to make it, and then again, this year.
I need to thank the Achilles-NYC Paratriathlon Team and Work-Live-Tri. My team and coaches have been amazing. Achilles invited me to join back in 2012 and they have supported and encouraged me to strive to do my best. They have helped me get to races, and I never feel happier racing then when I am in the BIG APPLE. Thank you to Kat, Ellie, Dick and all of the countless staff and guides. Thanks to Brian, my coach, for preparing me so well. I was able to qualify for Boston this past November at the NYC Marathon, thanks to his expert coaching.
I don’t know if I would be racing triathlons and marathons today if it weren’t for Dick and Rick Hoyt. When I first saw the video of them completing the Kona Ironman back in 2009, the seed was planted. Today I consider many members of Team Hoyt to be some of my closest friends: Dick, Rick, Kathy, Bryan, Dana, Meghan, Tammy, and countless others. And then my MVS family: You invited me to race the Feaster Five in 2011 and I haven’t left yet. Tom, Lyn, Denise, and SO MANY others, there are too many to name. Nothing like starting the Boston Marathon and getting hugged by the entire Human Chain!!!
After getting sick prior to the race last year I was trying to be really cautious this year about staying away from germs. A lot of good that does for a high school teacher and father of a 12 year old boy! About a week prior to race day this year, I got a pretty nasty cold. I tried everything short of going to the doctor. All sorts of cold medicine, EMERGEN-C, AIRBORNE, and though things were starting to feel a bit better, I was worried I was going to head into the race with a nasty cold and a lack of sleep.
Friday April 17th
I finished teaching and headed down to Boston for a talk put on by the Harvard Book Store at the Old South Church. Meb was going to be talking about his 2014 first place finish at Boston and also a bit about his new book. It was a chance to listen to him and at the same time get a copy of his book.
It was a nice evening and I got a chance to have a quick “catch-up” with David Willey, editor of Runner’s World magazine. Meb is a terrifice speaker who did an amazing job speaking from the heart.
I was also able to catch up and meet one of my local online friends in person. Christine runs in the area and is married to “BIG BIRD.” Runners in the area know exactly who I’m talking about. After the chat I took a quick run over to the hotel in Charlestown where the Achilles Freedom Team were staying. The Achilles team decided to pick up my packet and number at the expo. I was a little bummed as this is one of the FAV things to do prior to a race. I’ll make sure if I run again next year, I’ll ask that they leave my bib for me to get. This night would end up being my only good night sleep all week.
Saturday April 18th
I had planned to head into Boston early in the AM to watch the B.A.A. 5K and Invitational Mile races to support a lot of my friends. After chatting with my friend Ric from MVS, I knew being rested for the race on Monday was much more important. I can go in another year to watch (as I did last year), so I decided to rest at home in the morning. I was planning on heading down to the expo to pick up the finish line passes I managed to arrange for Sue and Owen, and to my pleasure, both Sue and Owen wanted to tag along. It was a beautiful afternoon for a trip into the city. Prior to heading into the expo we met up with a long-time online friend, Rachel Weeks. She is a visually-impaired Ironman-finisher and marathoner. She was there along with her guide, Brian Lane. It was a super quick visit, but I’m glad we got to finally meet in person.
We walked around the expo and made sure to head to the Team Hoyt booth. Sue and Owen have met Dick, Rick, and Kathy before, but got a treat today as my dear friend and runner, Dana was there with her boyfriend Giancarlo along with another friend Jennifer. Dana and I have known each other for a few years and try to connect every time I race in New York. Usually it’s on the race course for either the 1/2 or full marathons.
After looking around we headed back to the car, but managed a stop at the new Marathon Sports “Concept Store” on Boylston. We met up with the store manager Rusty, who is also a guide for a visually impaired runner, doing the marathon. Owen picked up a really cool 2015 Boston marathon t-shirt. We headed home and made a stop at one of our favorite restaurants along Route 1, the Border Cafe. At this point my head/chest cold seemed to be on the way out, but I was nowhere near 100%. I had a 60 minute ride on the trainer in the hope it might help and relax me. I tried to make it an early night, but things did not go well, and I did not have a good night’s sleep.
Sunday April 19th
Prior to heading off to church, I decided to do my last 20 minute run. It was a beautiful morning and all went well. It was a quick out and back from home making it almost all the way to downtown Salem. Church went well, and has been customary prior to my marathon races, Manny, our parish priest called me up to the front for a blessing. Again, it was a very humbling experience, but it helps me relax to know I will be cared for while running. Knowing others will be keeping me in their prayers during the long day goes a long way to helping me relax. After heading home, I needed to make one last trip down to the expo. I was to be checked over by the USTF in order to be considered classified to run for the US Paralympic Track Team. Well, I now have provisional standing and can compete at events if I like. The problem is, they don’t have any long distance events in my classification and I would never consider myself a sprinter. Before heading home, I had the pleasure of meeting up with Wes Harding and his family from Canada. He is an amazing athlete who runs for Team Hoyt. His daughters are the most amazing cheering section ever.
Once done, I headed back home to pick up Sue and come back for the Achilles Marathon Team dinner at the Constitution Inn in Charlestown. Owen was going to come along, but he had been involved in a play and chose to attend a cast party instead. Good choice for him, since no other children attended the dinner. We got to sit with my dear friend Ariel from NYC who was going to be a guide for “Backwards” Bill. He is an Achilles athlete from NYC who races in marathons pushing himself with his feet going backwards in a wheelchair.
We headed home soon after the meal and I started to finish getting everything ready for the EARLY morning trip down to the city. The weather forecast was calling for cool temps in the low 50’s with rain coming later in the afternoon. My hope would be to finish before the rain if all went well. Once Owen came home from his party, he had one very important job to do for me. It’s Owen’s tradition to put on my shoes to put “SPEED” in them. For bigger races he also puts on my singlet to put “HEART” in my jersey. I find it hard to race without Owen doing this. I had all my clothes ready, including my drop bag and the clothes I would dump at the start line prior to the race start. With the alarm set for 3:30am, I went to bed, but it would be quite a while until I finally fell asleep.
The alarm went off before I knew it and I was up. I headed downstairs to get dressed and try to get out the door by 4:00am. I had decided not to eat my breakfast, but instead take it with me and eat on the bus ride to Hopkinton. A quick look outside and the sky was actually partly cloudly, and then I looked at the weather forecast. They were calling for the rain to start much earlier then originally planned, along with some strong winds from the northeast. My immediate thoughts went to the winter of training I had just completed. Lots of snow and cold temps from the middle of January all the way until mid-March. I was ready for this! Once I was all ready to go, I went upstairs to wake up Sue and give her a gentle kiss and hug good-bye. We each said, “See you at the finish line”, and I headed out.
Of course, the drive to Boston was the quickest ever with no traffic on the roads. My plan was to drive down and park very close to the finish line and then head over to the Sheraton Hotel for the ride with the other mobility impaired (MI) athletes. If I got there quick enough, I would be able to see all my friends on Team Hoyt before they headed to Hopkinton. Once I parked the car on Clarendon, I started to make my way to the Sheraton.
Things were not looking good on a taxi as I started to walk to the hotel. According to GPS it would be about a 15 minute walk and I might miss Team Hoyt. All of a sudden a car pulls over and the driver leans over and says, “HI John. Where are you heading?” It was another athlete from Baystate Triathlon driving to his bus and he offered to give me a lift. I got to the Sheraton and headed upstairs to find Team Hoyt assembling. I made it!!! I managed to see all my friends and wish them well. These were all the charity runners for Team Hoyt who had all raised money for the foundation in exchange for their bib to run in the marathon.
I headed downstairs to wait for my bus. I had decided to see if I could ride with Dick and Rick Hoyt along with Bryan Lyons who would be pushing Rick in the marathon for the first time, and Kathy Boyer. Along with all the MI athletes we loaded up on the buses and then headed out to Hopkinton at about 6:15AM. The ride is really amazing as we have a police escort all the way to the starting line. I took the time on the ride to try and focus on the race and at the same time eat my breakfast. I had my usual pre-race breakfast of an English muffin with peanut butter, a banana, Gatorade and something special for today, one of Sue’s homemade chocolate chip cookies. I also had an apple sauce I would eat about an hour before the race start, which would go off at exactly 8:50am.
We arrived at the school near the starting line and there was some confusion as to where the MI athletes were to assemble, with some people were telling us to go the tent with the hand-cyclists, while others said we were to be in the gym of the school with the wheelchair athletes. Given the choice with the weather the way it was, I opted to go into the school. I found a spot on the floor to chill for a while and was able to spend some time chatting with some of my fellow MI athletes like Scott Rigsby, Richard Blalock, Kelly Luckett, Dahn Trang, and Cedric King, to name a few. I made my obligatory trip to the bathroom upon arrival at about 7:15am and later would realize I never went again until we were home after the race at about 5:30pm. I am SO LUCKY when it comes to the bathroom and racing!!!!
I took my usual ALEVE prior to race start and was itching to get outside to start stretching. And of course, the rain started far earlier than expected. I went back inside for a bit, but then decided there was no time like the present to get used to the rain. Prior to heading outside I lubed up my feet in preparation for the all the rain, and rubbed some Arnica creme on my legs and hips. The final step was to roll-on some BIO-FREEZE on my lower back. I quickly ditched my rain pants, tied up my drop bag, and headed outside. I was left with only one remaining piece of clothing to ditch, a hoodie I picked up from Savers. The other athletes headed outside a few minutes later, and then as a group we were lead to the starting line.
For the third year in a row, I was to be in the starting wave of the most amazing race in the world, the BOSTON MARATHON. One of the MANY amazing parts to the marathon for me, is the Human Chain that holds the runners at the start. I have been blessed to be a part of the Merrimack Valley Striders (MVS) for the last few years. The majority of the volunteers in the chain are from MVS. My dear friend Lyn, organizes this group of amazing people, so rather than list some of the names (you know who you are) and miss out on someone, I will simply say, seeing Lyn and all the others reassured me I was going to have an amazing day. I got a hug from my dear friend Dave (the race director) and even Tom Grilk, the CEO of the B.A.A. came over to wish me luck and remind me I had a job to do. This was HAMMER-TIME!!!!
The rain had stopped for the time being and I was well-dressed. I had shorts, three layers on the top (a short-sleeved compression shirt, long-sleeved shirt from a Feaster-five race, and my Achilles singlet), gloves, my MVS red headband to keep my ears warm, and my CAF visor. I had sun-glasses to help with the wind if needed, but I don’t think I ever used them.
At precisely 8:50am, the race was started and off we went. We were warned to keep to the right, but I knew we had a long while until the wheel-chairs would start, so I ran the tangents as long as I could. I was doing my best to keep to my planned splits and like my coach Brian had suggested, I was focusing on my 5K splits instead of each mile. The race is downhill at the beginning and I did my best to pull back and not go too fast. I was to hit the 5K at 39:12 and in fact, did so at 39:11, so all was well.
The first few miles are sparsely populated, with a large crowd though at a restaurant in Ashland. They had a live band again and the crowd was amazing. Once I got into Framingham, there is a bend to the left in the road at Waverly Place. There was a huge crowd of college students (guessing from Framingham State) on the right side, being held back by police. I was alone at this time, so I tried to get them to react, and so I ran over by them and stuck out my hand. They went crazy to try and slap my hand, so much so the police were asking me to move back towards the center of the road. It was awesome!!!
By this time the wheelies and hand-cycles had passed me, and then I was passed by the pro-women. I consider myself extremely lucky as very few marathon runners ever get the chance to be racing and then be passed by the fastest people in the world. Of course, when the women passed I yelled out encouragement to both Shalene and Desi. Before the men caught me, Bryan and Rick caught me. I got a hug from Bryan and a big smile from Rick. That really boosted my spirits. As the men soon passed I of course yelled out to MEB to stay strong.
Keeping track of my time, I was to hit the 10K at 1:21:39. According to the tracker, I hit it at 1:21:33. So far all was working to plan. Of course, then one of the downpours we were to experience happened, and for a few minutes we were in a huge soaker. It was at this point last year my stomach started to bother me. As many of you know, I only made it as far as Natick Center before being violently ill, only to have to withdraw. So wouldn’t you know it, for a moment my stomach started to feel a little weird. Was I getting sick again? I literally had to yell out loud, “You are NOT getting sick again. Suck it UP!!” Well, I started to slow down but made it through Natick and on towards Wellesley. My times were starting to slip though, and it was at this point I think I realized I might not make my BQ time of a sub six hour marathon.
I got through Natick, noticing the same group of firefighters who helped me, and I even waved at the med tent where I withdrew last year. But I was really starting to slow down now. Don’t know if it was the wind, rain, or something else, but at least I wasn’t feeling cold or getting the chills. At about mile 12, I came upon some friendly people, First, I saw Deb Jackson and she came over to give me a big hug. I told her things were not looking good for a fast race and she said not to worry about it. It was her late husband Jim Logan who first convinced me to do my first triathlon. I remember telling him I had never ran 5K before and he said so, “Walk if you have to.” Now here I am running the Boston Marathon six years later. Thanks, Jim. I would also see Neil Bernstein wearing his Pesky Pole. And then off I went to Wellesley.
The Scream tunnel came next and I managed to pick up my pace somewhat as I ran through and gave a few of the girls a “high-five.” I stopped and kissed one, totally picked by random, and then proceeded into Wellesley. I came upon the medical tent past the 13.1 marker. At this point my 1/2 time was a 3:08:56, a sure sign my race now was a quest to finish. One of Sue’s co-workers from Harvard Vanguard is a doctor who volunteers at the marathon. As I pulled up to the tent, I asked for Dr. Driscoll and David came running out. We had a quick chat, he snapped a picture and off I went. It was then that I saw Jason Carraro, a good friend from Wicked Running in Salem and we had a couple of quick words. Down through Newton Lower Falls, up over Highway 128, and onto the Newton Firehall, the first of only five turns in the race.
The next few miles were the Newton hills, culminating in Heartbreak Hill, just prior to Boston College. I saw lots of friendly faces along this part of the course, including Bill Pennington, all the Wicked Runners (Mike Fitzgerald for sure!!!) at the gel stop, Team Hoyt Support (thanks for the fig Newtons Corey!!!), my friends at Breakthrough Performance (Marty!!!), and Bill Burnett of Streamline Events at the water stop. If I’m leaving anyone else out, I’m sorry, as you all really helped get me up those hills!!!!
It was at this point where a mother approached me I realized WHY I continue to do this. She was a runner and as she passed me she turned around to tell me she has a 16 year old son who has achondroplasia, the same type of dwarfism I have. We hugged and I said to her, “He can do anything.” She nodded and I think we both started to cry, at least I know I did.
The Scream Tunnel at Wellesley is great, but I truly think the students at Boston College are more enthusiastic. Maybe it has something to do with the kegs of beer!!! As I reached the summit and started to head into Brookline, I knew I would finally be achieving our goal. I say our goal, because I consider Sue and Owen just as much a part of this journey. As I cruised down past the church at BC and down past the green line turn-around, the crowds were starting to really fill in. I think it was at this point my friend Scott Rigsby caught up to me, and asked if we could run together. In my mind, that would be the same as Wayne Gretzky asking if I wouldn’t mind having him skate with me for a bit. Scott was the first double amputee to finish the Kona Ironman and he has done it twice. He is truly a hero of mine.
I would now start to see a few familiar faces, I might be listing these out of order, but here goes. Melissa Gleaton from MVS, Dominic Fitzpatrick, a colleague from Pingree, two former students Jamie Berman and Caitlin Doherty, and Taylor Hartz. These friendly faces got me all the way to Charlesgate Road, where I was stopped back in 2013. I was hoping to finish the race with Scott but he had to make a pit-stop to use the bathroom and so I continued on my own. Maybe it was fitting I finished this last 3/4 of a mile alone, since unlike so many others, I was not able to finish my race back in 2014. The tears certainly started to flow on and off. Once I reached the Mass Ave bridge and truly realized I was now in uncharted waters on the course, I got an idea to raise 4 fingers in the air. This was not premeditated, but simply something I felt I should do to honor the lives of Martin, Krystle, Lingzi and Sean. I didn’t keep my hand up the whole way, but on and off as I ran that last mile I would hold those fingers up in the air. I made the right onto Hereford Street, and the crowds were still pretty big. I passed Newbury, ran up the slight incline, and took the left onto Bolyston.
And then I saw it, the finish line, about 2/5 of a mile away. I ran and cried holding up the hand at times, at other times outstretching both hands, not looking for cheers, but merely a release and an acceptance of what was waiting to complete. This was a 735 day quest, from April 15, 2013 to April 20, 2015. As I reached the grandstand, I looked and could not see Sue and Owen, but they were there. The final few steps were finally done. I walked along in a daze and then I saw Bill and Henry Richard cross the line and as I turned around a dear friend, Jackie also from Salem, was also finishing. I then saw my dear friend Tom from MVS.
I was lead away to the VIP tent where they kept all the MI bags. I called Sue to have her answer the phone cheering that they had seen me finish. e were done. My finish time, 6:39:52. The most important word being, FINISHED!!!