I can run?
For the first 55 years of my life, I had no idea why people would want to run along roads when bikes and cars were available. OK, I admit it, I am a science geek. In grade school I was absolutely useless at sports. While classmates focused on ball games, a lazy eye meant I had no depth perception and no ability to know where a ball was in the air. Growing up in England, P.E. or gym was just a form of torture. When forced to bat in cricket, I still remember being terrified of that hard ball coming towards me, a target that would go anywhere apart from hitting my bat! It wasn’t until biology class when I thought the teacher was saying “by nocular vision,” but was actually talking about binocular vision, that I realized other people could see with both eyes at the same time! I was by no means a slouch and have always been active, and love the outdoors with gardening, camping, hiking, etc., so fortunately have no tendency to become overweight; but as I got older, my lifestyle was certainly becoming more sedentary.
As I approached my mid fifties, I was diagnosed with asthma, had to have a softball sized (at least according to the surgeon – how would I know?), (thankfully) benign growth removed from my appendix, and I was beginning to think my life was now on a downhill slide. At about this time, my son, who is much like me, had just started running track after having proved useless at ball sports (no eye troubles, so maybe I didn’t really have that excuse, after all). It turned out he was a pretty good runner and became his high school MVP at cross country. As a scientist, I realized part of this had to be genetic, so my wife (who was good at sports in grade school) started running to see who provided the good genetic material. Turns out I have the genes, but it was not immediately obvious.
In the spring of 2010, we set off to learn how to run, with a goal of running a 5k for our favorite charity, the B+ Foundation which provides funds to help children with cancer. I made all the typical rookie mistakes (bad shoes, too much running too soon, etc.), which led to an ankle injury within two weeks, requiring three months to recover. OK, this is not as easy as it looks. A visit to the Delaware Running Company to get shoes; and I started with three repeats of a slow one minute run/ six minute walk, three times a week. I then moved to a two minute run/ five minute walk, which led me to running for 21 minutes non-stop within six weeks. After that, it was increasing time so I could run 3.1 miles! My first 5k was in November in a race for parents at the New Castle County High School Championship on the Winterthur Point-to-Point race course. Going was heavy, but I finished in 27 minutes, exhausted but exhilarated!
In 2011, I started to run 5k’s regularly and even got to do a Parkrun or two in Leicester, England, while visiting my parents. In May my son ran his first marathon and later that year he challenged me to run a half marathon when he ran the same marathon in May of 2012. Fortunately the winter of 2011/12 was fairly mild in Delaware and I managed to train well for the Delaware Half Marathon. To my great surprise and delight, I won my age group AND set a new race age group record! (Up until this time, the 55-59 year old male record was slow, but nevertheless an incredible sense of achievement for me). So now it seemed not only am I able to run, but I am also quite good at it.
Obviously the next challenge was a marathon. Step 1: buy and read Born to Run; Step 2: back to the Delaware Running Co to get my first Brooks Pureflows and learn how to stop heel striking, Step 3: religiously follow a training program. That summer with the help of my wife as bicycle back-up coach (she had run the Philadelphia Broad Street Run but decided running was not for her), I trained for the Philadelphia Marathon held in November. I barely missed a training run, but it was tough going at times. I have since decided training runs longer than 20 miles are not necessary and you don’t have to run as fast as you can every time, but at the time, I toughed it out and was relieved to reach the taper as I was really worn out.
Come marathon day we had checked into a hotel two miles from the start and before dawn, wearing a jacket (35 F in Philly) and old sweat pants, I jogged over to the start. To this day I have never run with music, but in my head the Rocky theme song was playing and my fists were pumping as I ran through China Town towards the start. The marathon was honor system ranked and I had set a target of four hours. Due to hurricane Sandy, an additional 3,000 NYC marathon refugees had been placed in a coral ahead of me. I discarded the pants, but kept my jacket and gloves. The gloves were from my dad who had passed away earlier in the year; sad he would not know about this race, but happy he had gotten to see me at a parkrun earlier in the year and to congratulate me on my half marathon “win.”
Once the race started, I set off exactly as we are told not to do, dodging and weaving past the slower runners and under my breath cursing the refugees, but then reminding myself this was not their choice and there was a long way to go. Passing the hotel where I had been sleeping just a few hours before, I was able to pass my gloves and jacket to my wife and get down to the business of running. This was my first big city run and the crowd support was fantastic. As the half way mark approached back at the Art Museum, crowd noise was amazing. The half marathoners veered off to the right and to the finish while the marathoners went left and off towards Manayunk. 1:45! OK, this is going great, my BQ target (only mildly considered before now) was 3:40 so this was a real possibility! I’m taking my powergels every three to four miles and drinking water in sips, so everything is going smoothly. I look around for the pacesetters – I needed to be between 3:35 and 3:45 and had set off ahead of the 3:35 because I fully expected to slack off later on. A funky loop in the course let me see the 3:35 group was not far behind me. They passed at about mile 20 and there was no way I could keep up. OK, so I can only lose five minutes in six miles, so I dug deep and pushed as hard as I could. Mental math kept me going and with two miles to go I knew I could make it as long as I didn’t stop. Back at the Art Museum, the crowd is louder than ever. A quick look at my Timex (no Garmin here) and I have a BQ!
Hobble back to car (I had never previously thought a curb was a big step, and why are there so many of them?), and then rest and celebrate. As all Boston runners know, running a qualifying time does not mean you are in, and a fall marathon qualifies for Boston in 18 long months. Between qualifying and applying, lots can and did happen. In February I broke my arm slipping on ice while running at full speed and the tragedy at the 2013 Boston marathon were major downers, but in the spring I raised funds for the B+ Foundation running the Delaware Half again, and as September approached marathon fever had spread across the world to support Boston. This is when trepidation set in – was my BQ enough? I was training for the Marine Corps Marathon so decided to slip in the Lehigh Valley marathon in early September, as if my time improved it would count for the 2014 Boston marathon. More rookie mistakes – you can’t “squeeze in” an extra marathon before completing training, and a hiking vacation immediately before does not constitute a taper. No better time, but at least I did get to help a fellow runner achieve her BQ.
Nervous times and waiting until final cut off times were announced. -1:38 was announced as the cut off time and my 3:38:22 was not a second too much or too little – I was in at age 59! I soon discovered the “Doug White” Boston bus trip and signed up. Doug White is a Delaware legend who has run over 40 consecutive Bostons and started a bus trip about 30 years ago to take local runners to Boston.
Training for spring is never easy on the east coast, and the winter of 2013/14 was the snowiest winter for a long time. Not wanting to break any more bones, I was driven to the treadmill several times. I still can’t run on a treadmill for more than six miles, but it helped get through the most difficult patches of weather.
Early on the Saturday morning before the Boston Marathon we boarded the bus. Now I’m surrounded by BQ’ers, although none with a margin of error as slim as mine! First stop, number pickup and quick run around the expo before heading to the hotel in Natick. Next day some go back to the expo, but I latch onto some Boston vets who suggest mostly relaxing and a short run. I manage some decent sleep and we are all up at 5:30 to get on the bus to Hopkinton. New security arrangements meant we had to arrive early at our parking spot: a long-standing reservation at a gas station right near the starting corals! Now I felt like an elite; even more so when someone noticed the elites were warming up just across the road from us! Time to stroll up to the “it all starts here” board and take photos before the marshals are out and then back to the bus to await the call to the start. Warm bus, access to flush toilets, private access to start area – luxury!
So now I am lined up wave 3, coral 2. The sun is out, but it still a little chilly in my singlet and shorts. We’re off at an eight minute pace, down the hill and feeling good. The cheering starts almost immediately. Soon I’m hearing shouts of “GO DELAWARE” and I look around to see who else is from Delaware before realizing the shouts are for me in my Delaware Running Club shirt! Being in coral 2 and going out fast, there is soon lots of space around me, not the crowding I had expected; and there is little need to weave and bob around as in Philly. Everything was going great, food and water every three miles, and my pace indicated my target of 3:40 was within reach. Through Ashland, Framingham, Natick and into the deafening shrieks of Wellesley. Here runners are stopping to accept kisses from the girls but I’m sure that sign asking a runner to marry her is not aimed at me! Every now and then someone in the crowd shouts out “Thank you runners, Thanks for coming back.” Hey, we should be thanking them for wanting to bring us back – this city loves its marathon.
I take the dip at mile 16 in full stride but as soon as I start on the uphill part, my left calf starts to complain. I slow down and struggle up every single hill in Newton. This was actually a good thing as I could now forget about racing and start to really enjoy the event. Shouts of “GO DELAWARE” increase and when I cup my hand behind my ear, facing the crowd of drunken students at Boston College, the crowd roars! Wow, Bostonians made me feel like a rock star. Now I’m high fiving all of the way. As I turn into Boylston Street the crowds are overwhelming, and I realize it is almost over. But only if I cross the finish line. I walk to the side to wave to the crowd and am suddenly aware of how wide the street is and it is full of runners. I can’t get to the other side of the street but start to get out my phone that has been tracking my pace and sending my location back to my wife and supporters in Delaware. I try to take pictures and a selfie at the end, but I am so emotionally and physically drained. I am just unable to operate an iphone. After crossing the finish line and getting my medal and space blanket, I am suddenly struck by the quietness at the end. The “Doug White” special is just around the corner and I am sipping a victory beer. What an incredible event. You only get one first Boston, so enjoy it!
As I begin to taper for my second Boston, I still find it hard to believe less than five years ago I had no concept of how a life of running could be so much fun! I am still learning and always training, but am happy to have found so many fellow runners who are just as passionate about the lifestyle of running.