As I rode the bus from the Boston Common out the starting line for the 118th running of the Boston Marathon on the third Monday in April 2014, I thought how this journey had actually begun a full eight years earlier. I ran my first Boston Marathon in 2007, having qualified the prior May in my first marathon ever, in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
The 2007 Boston Marathon was the year of the epic Nor’easter, whose conditions were so severe the BAA actually considered cancelling the event for the first time in the race’s 111-year history. Following that effort (3:09) I began a ritual of training through each winter for a spring marathon, with a goal of one day going under three hours. I came close at the Flying Pig in Cincinnati in 2008 with a time of 3:01. My effort in 2009 in Nashville at the Country Music Marathon (3:13) was thwarted by unusually high temperatures for early April. I finally achieved my breakthrough in 2010 in Charlottesville, Virginia, and bettered that goal again in 2011 in Virginia Beach at the Shamrock. With that, I set my sights on going under three hours at Boston, a place where most would agree a PR is a challenge due to the huge number of people (27,000+) running the event.
I registered for the 2012 Boston Marathon in the fall and trained through the winter, arriving in Boston in the midst of a heat wave. My second time to enter Boston and once again, the BAA was seriously considering cancelling the event due to concerns over heat related illness and injury. More accurately, the decision as to whether the race will take place is left to the seven towns through which the race passes: Do these officials feel capable of managing the 27,000+ athletes passing through on their way to Boston.
So, as I toed the line in the 2nd corral of the first wave wearing bib number 2070 on that April morning, with the temperature already over 80 degrees at 10:00am, my strategy was to survive the run at a considerably slower pace, which I did in a satisfying, but grueling 3 hours and 17 minutes. After that weather setback, I vowed to return in 2013 to try again.
In 2013, due to my slow time from the prior year, I was placed seven groups back, in the 9th corral of the first wave, which was a distinct disadvantage if I was going to attempt to go sub three and a PR. Just before the 10:00am start, I decided to drop back to the 1st corral of the second wave, which started at 10:20. With perfect weather, I had clear sailing for the first 18 miles or so, and finished in a PR time of 2:56. Ninety minutes later, while en route to the Providence, Rhode Island, airport for my return flight home, I received word of the bombings at the finish line.
What originally had been a great feeling of accomplishment and elation as I crossed the finish line quickly turned into feelings of concern, fear, sadness, anger and confusion. Until that moment, I had no plans to return to Boston in the foreseeable future, having achieved my goal. Within a few weeks of returning home, I made up my mind to return and run again, more so to show my support for the event, and to express my gratitude to the scores of people who line the course and support us runners from Hopkinton all the way to Boston. Were it not for the crowd support in 2007 and 2012, I might not have finished and I certainly would not have gone sub three hours in 2013 without their full throated support. All of this brought me back to Boston in 2014 for the running of the 118th edition of the world’s greatest marathon.
One of my most vivid memories from my 2014 Boston was after I had picked up my bib and packet when I visited the area where the pressure cooker bombs had detonated. As usual, there were hundreds of people milling around, taking pictures, and making small talk. Amongst this crowd, I suddenly felt emotions welling up inside me from the enormity of the events from a year before. I called my wife back home in North Carolina, and talked through the tears about how I was feeling. As usual, she helped to settle me down.
I was staying with a cousin and his wife who lived a few blocks off of the Common in the Back Bay area, so the logistics of getting to the busses were fairly simple. My alarm sounded at 5:00am. I dressed quietly in the dark and began the walk through the Back Bay to the Boston Common. I had decided to wear the jersey and colors of the County Limerick Hurling team to honor my Irish ancestry. I am a dual citizen of Ireland and my grandfather immigrated to the USA through Boston from County Limerick in the late 1800s. The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) like the BAA, has a long and storied history.
My time from the prior year had resulted in a low bib number (2899), meaning I would be back in the 2nd corral of the first wave. Since 2012 and through connections with friends who ran that year, my routine in Hopkinton was to walk from the bus to a private residence located across the street from the school. There 20 to 30 of us would relax in the home of a local who graciously opened her house to friends of one of her sons. Watching the pre-race coverage on television, having access to coffee, snacks and bathrooms, and comparing stories from prior marathons became the norm leading up to the half mile walk down the street to the starting corrals in Hopkinton.
The weather at the start was just like the prior year, cool and clear. I knew it would likely warm quickly and the lack of shade along the way could be a challenge, especially entering Brookline and running the last few miles. My plan, like the previous year, was to run the first three 10K segments in 39 to 40 minutes each, and then hold on for the last 12K. I was feeling confident in my conditioning and training as I had run a PR of 1:18 at the Knoxville Half Marathon just three weeks prior.
The start went off without a hitch and the field began to spread out in front of me. I settled into a comfortable pace during the predominantly downhill starting miles, and was able to freely move along the way with the advantage of being so close to the front of the 1st wave. In Framingham, I passed the 10K mark in 38:57, which was right where I wanted to be. Approaching Wellesley at the 20K mark, I was still on pace at 1:18:55. Soon thereafter I began to hear the screams from the Wellesley College co-eds, and passed the 13.1 mark in 1:23.
The crowds along the way seemed to be larger than ever before, and they were getting even larger as we moved closer to Boston. As I ran along, I made a point to thank all of the law enforcement and military personnel who were stationed along the route, and they seemed genuinely appreciative of the gesture.
Approaching Newton at the 30K mark, I was 18 seconds under two hours, exactly where I had hoped to be. I was feeling pretty good, with the Johnny Kelley statue and Heartbreak Hill just ahead. I had always found Heartbreak Hill was not a difficult challenge, as I had trained on much longer and steeper hills in the mountains of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina. The real challenge was always the three-mile descent from the hills of Newton down to Coolidge Corner and Brookline at Mile 24. The relentless pounding from downhill running on tired quadriceps muscles for three miles could make or break any marathoner, and since my first Boston Marathon in 2007, I had incorporated a specific quad and hamstring weight training routine into my annual training program. As I approached Kenmore Square and the 40K mark, I could see the huge Citco sign in the near distance opposite Fenway Park.
As expected, my last 10K time had slowed by three minutes, but the end was in sight, and the crowds and noise were growing exponentially. I finally reached the underpass on Commonwealth Ave and climbed up the last, slight hill. Before I knew it, I was making the right turn on Hereford Street, and then the left onto Boylston with the finish line a quarter mile ahead. A number of the Boston police officers who I passed recognized the GAA/Sporting Limerick jersey and yelled out while giving a thumbs up as I passed by.
I crossed the finish line and stopping my watch, quickly glanced down at my wrist to see 2:52+. As I walked through the various stages of the finish line (medal, Mylar blanket, water, food) a feeling of overwhelming relief washed over me. The past year had been an emotional roller coaster for me personally, beginning with events at the finish of the 2013 Boston Marathon; then a bicycle accident in August while training for Ironman Florida that required hospitalization, surgery and lengthy rehabilitation of my left shoulder; the winding down and then retirement from a 35 year career with the National Park Service in December; and the difficult sale of our home in East Tennessee and relocation to Western North Carolina just three weeks prior to the marathon. With all that had occurred, I was thrilled to have run a personal best for a marathon in 2:52:35 (improving my previous best Boston time by over three and a half minutes), placing 1197 (out of 35,000+) overall and ninth in my 55 – 59 age group.
Kevin M. FitzGerald
Waynesville, North Carolina