Mom Tried to Warn Me, but I Wouldn’t Listen

The slogan for the 2003 marathon was “Everything you ever needed to know about yourself you can learn in 26.2 miles.” I picked up a great poster with this slogan on it at the pre-race expo. This slogan has rung true for me for past marathons and I hope the account below will shed some meaning to it…

I was relatively well prepared for this marathon, my fifth Boston, and my seventh overall. I had secured an official number waiving the qualifying time: my number was 20903. Pat, his nephew’s friend Ryan and I arrived at Hopkinton at 11:00am, one hour prior to the race start. The following is a minute by minute, mile by mile diary, from what I can recall, of my journey to Boston, on Patriots Day, 2003.

Everything you ever needed to know…

11:30 – Pat, Ryan and myself have found our starting corral – it happens to be at the VERY back of the pack. I’ve got 20,000 people in front of me. Based on past years, I estimate it will take me ten minutes to cross the starting line. Ryan, 18 years old, is very nervous as this is his first marathon. I keep on expecting him to throw up. I didn’t help matters earlier when I met him and said, jokingly, “Is that what you are wearing today?!?!?.”

11:55 – F18 fly-over. Very cool, and very patriotic. I think they are F18’s – they are the triangular winged fighter jets, like in Top Gun. Race starts in five minutes.

12:15 – Race started 15 minutes ago. We have moved maybe, *maybe* ten feet. The weather is hot. I’m sweating already and am estimating the temperature to be in the 70’s. It’s probably in the 60’s, though.

12:20 – We’re moving, finally. I turn to Pat and say “Let’s Roll.” It seemed appropriate at the time. We’ve got about a mile to run before reaching the starting line. I’m surrounded by many charity runners – Dana Farber, the Liver Foundation, etc. Some of these runners don’t look like they could finish a five mile race, let alone a marathon. I’m frustrated the leaders are already three plus miles out. There goes my chance at catching the Kenyans.

12:30 – I cross the starting line. I’m happy. The starting area is lined with military men (army) in fatigues. Very cool. The crowd is huge and loud. I wave to a TV camera.

Running Boston before the Turn of the Century (circa 1998)
Running Boston before the Turn of the Century (circa 1998)

Mile 1: 7:56 pace. I’m weaving and dodging these charity runners. Many are running four or five abreast, forming a road block. I’m frustrated and expending a lot of energy. I need to find my own pace. I take a 30 second bathroom break behind a tree. So do 1,000 others.

Mile 2: 7:38 (15:34 elapsed). I’m running faster than expected. I should be running 8 minute miles. But I’ve just hear the theme from Rocky, a tradition that the same house always plays. Heck, that’s good for 20 seconds faster per mile. The weather is hot. Not cloudy. Not in the 50’s. Officially, the temperature clocks in at 71 degrees, about the same temperature as the Sahara desert. Tomorrow I delete from my web browser bookmarks, the hacks.

Mile 3: 7:49 (23:24). Still cruising, dodging, squishing. I forced my way between a Dana Farber road block, excusing myself, but I still got verbally accosted by the 15 minute/miler. I see a shirtless runner who has written his phone number in big black letters on his back. I make a mental note to try that someday and smile at the foolish thought. The guy’s an idiot, I think…

Mile 4: 7:33 (30:58). My pace is picking up. What gives? Evidently I’ve thrown all my running experience out the window for this race. But I still feel great, and go with it. I’m now running with the 18,000’s, having passed an estimated 2,000 people or so. I’m in Ashland, a nice part of the course.

Mile 5: 7:45 (38:43). My first watch screw-up. You think I’d know how to work it after all this time. This happens every race. I hit stop instead of lap, but quickly correct the error. I make eye contact with a cute woman at the water stop and get a “Woooo Hooooo!,” making me run even faster. The crowds are huge this year. Lots of music, and notably, lots of people playing live music (drums, bongos, etc) along the course. Framingham is next, a kinda lousy part of the course.

Mile 6: 7:37 (46:21). I continue to cruise, having found my pace. I’m hot and have been drinking at every water stop, alternating from water to Gatorade. Gatorade is sticky and leaves a lousy taste in my mouth. I see a band playing on the roof of a building, another tradition. Looking forward to Mile 10 where my mother and her friends await. I think I am getting a blister on my right foot and need to tighten my shoes. I’m still surrounded by Dana Farber and Liver folk. Lots of ’em.

Mile 7: 7:43 (54:05). This pace is crazy, I know, but I am in denial. I feel good. Hot, but good. I wonder how Pat and Ryan are doing. My right foot twinges. I hope it isn’t the sign of a future injury.

Mile 8: Watch screw up. I never get the split, I never see the marker. It must be because I was posing for an official picture. They have this crane/platform across the road and photographers are taking thousands of pictures. I smile for the shot and miss the split.

Mile 9: 16:08 for the last 2 miles (1:10:14 elapsed). Entering Natick. Mom is just ahead. Large and loud crowds. I notice every town has a very visible Army presence. Lots of tough looking Patriotic Army soldiers are standing at major intersections. I catch eye contact with one, and nod. He nods back. Cool. I see many runners who are carrying disposable cameras. At one point, I see a woman stop to get her picture taken with a spectator dressed as Santa. Boy, that guy must be hot in that Santa suit.

johnsmomMile 10: 10:17 (1:20:22). I find my mother and her friends easily, seeing the fantastic “J-O-H-N” sign. I stop for several minutes to tighten my shoes, wipe my face and get a drink and some chocolate. I complain to Mom about it taking over 20 minutes to cross the starting line, and tell her Pat will be coming soon. I also tell her I am hot and running too fast. She suggests I get back in there and slow down and run my proper pace. I shrug off the advice – what does she know about these things?!?!?

Mile 11: 8:19 (1:28:51). Finally, a regular pace mile. I’m not worried. 15 miles to go to the finish. I can do that in my sleep. Of course, at this point, I am running within myself, mentally. Usually this introverted process takes place around Mile 20. It concerns me, but hey, what the heck, I can gut this out.

Mile 12: 8:38 (1:37:30). I’m thinking if I can keep this pace up, I can do a sub-3:20 and qualify for next year’s marathon. Evidently I am still in denial at this point. I’ve run too fast too soon, and it is too hot. But I go with this thought for several miles. It feels good to think about it. And think about it I do. It isn’t till now, writing this report, that I realize my running math must have been way off. The numbers don’t add up now. Ahh, but everything adds up correctly when you are running.

Mile 13: 8:35 (1:46:05). Just passed Wellesley College. Amazing crowds. Wellesley College… I now wonder if the guy with the phone number on his back will score a few phone calls from these young Wellesley co-eds. Now the guy doesn’t seem like an idiot, I’m thinking.

Evidently I am running with the 10,000’s and 12,000’s now. A guy turned to me and said “You are in the 20,000’s? You are doing great!” I don’t disagree with him, preferring to keep to the comforting self-delusional belief. It took this guy 12 minutes to cross the starting line. I’ve made up some good time, I tell myself.

Mile 14: 8:45 (1:54:50). A thought has creeped into my mind I might be in trouble. I went out too fast and am paying for it now. Boy is it hot out. The Galloway Book of Running talks about finding your inner monster in times of need. Basically you dig deep and find a reservoir of strength you didn’t know you had, and this enables you to overcome obstacles, win races, etc. I look within me and I catch a fleeting glimpse of a geyko. No help there.

pie CollageMile 15: 8:47 (2:03:37). Steep downhill in Newton Lower-falls. I take it easy going down. At least there is some shade here. Jackie, Pat’s wife is supposed to be at Mile 16. I look forward to seeing her. A spectator is holding up a poster with a lot of numbers crossed out in black magic marker. I take a closer look. Blue Jays 11, Red Sox 6.

Mile 16: 9:37 (2:13:15). Big surprise awaits me at 16. I see Brian O’Halloran, Sean and Val Lindsay, and Jack Deignan. They spot me and yell. I stop to visit and mumble something about being in trouble. They offer me a towel (great!) for my face and a Snickers bar the size of a duraflame log. I politely refuse the candy bar by pushing it back to Jack, who claims I caused damage to his sternum. It’s so hot now, I feel like I am running on top of a duraflame fire. I see Jackie a couple of hundred yards up the road and get some water from her. I have just crossed Rt. 128. Ten miles to go. I think I can do the ten. I’m thinking I don’t ever want to run another marathon.

Mile 17: 9:15 (2:22:30). I’ve just spent the last mile looking for the CEO of EasyAsk, Bob Alperin. He was supposed to be at the corner of some road, between 128 and the fire station. I’m disappointed I don’t see him as I wanted to inform him I would be late getting in to work tomorrow.

Mile 18: 9:15 (2:31:46). As I turn at the fire station, with Heartbreak Hill facing me, I mumble “Bring it on!” Yes, I must be very delusional at this point, having settled into a pace over a minute slower than I should be at. At this point, I notice my left quad is sore. I ignore the pain as it really doesn’t matter at this point. I hear people yelling, but I realize I’ve started to tune out the crowd at this point.

Mile 19: 10:00 (2:41:46). I’ve run up a few hills. Slowly. I’ve got ice in my cap on my head. I see a very cool HP electronic Leader Board that tells me the wheelchair winners (USA rules this event, apparently). I’m surprised to see Kenyans have won the Boston Marathon for the millionth time in a row. Thankfully I don’t see any French or German finishers in the top 10. Maybe we refused their entries? Or better yet, perhaps they boycotted the race. Clearly I am thinking about other matters rather than facing the fact I have harder hills to climb momentarily. Some idiot spectator yells out “one more hill” Ha. There are at least t, I think to myself. I double back 20 feet to snag a wet sponge from little girl. She is psyched, I am psyched. I had missed a cherry ice pop 1/4 mile back and still regret it.

Mile 20: 11:01 (2:52:47). I stopped at a water stop to get a good drink. A harmless stop, I think. Ha. I stop at a medical tent to get water and some Vaseline to prevent some chafing. The explosive sound you heard that day was not a terrorist bomb, no, it was my race exploding around me. The wheels are falling off. I walk a block or two up the toughest hill. “The Wall” has been hit, but I don’t realize it (yet).

BC Super Fan
BC Super Fan

Mile 21: 9:45 (3:02:32). I’ve crested the hills, it’s great to see Boston College (signalling the end of the hills). Some idiot sprints by me all painted in red. A guy runs up to me and says to me something like “The f#%king idiot jumps in at 21 and sprints by us.” I concur. What this gentleman has just told me is very profound, funny, and true. I’m sure his statement contained the meaning of life as well. I just can recall exactly what he said. I know it had “f#%king” and “idiot.” The rest I just made up.

[Postscript – it turns out the painted guy is the BC Super Fan – he ran the whole race, finishing in an amazing 3:41 and change. He has his own website –]

Mile 22: 10:53 (3:13:36). I stop once to stretch my legs, and this gives me more energy. I stop to drink water and this gives me more energy. Above the screaming spectators, I hear laughing and someone saying “you ran too fast, now you are in trouble.” I block it out. I stop again half a mile later to stretch my left quad. As I pull my leg back, it coils up like a tight spring, in a major cramp. I quickly straighten it back out, it’s a bad idea to stretch that muscle, I conclude, and resume “running.”

I’ve begun battling cramps beneath my ribs. These are novice runner cramps and I am thinking perhaps I drank too much water. I vow to skip the next water stop, but I am still thirsty. I do skip the next water stop, but the cramps persist. Maybe I need to drink more?

Mile 23: 11:16 (3:24:42). 11:16 is a running pace I can’t normally maintain. I pull an 11:16 easily though, because I find my body telling me to walk. Two college guys start yelling at me at one point (ok, I was walking). One of the guys is waving this magazine page at me. I look closer. It is a beautiful, “semi-clad” woman. I start running at the sight of this and that gets me the strongest high-five I have ever received from one of the guys. I was almost knocked over. This stunt motivates me to run for five blocks or so.

Mile 24: 11:47 (3:36:31). Two miles to go. My legs are killing me. I am in run/walk/run mode now. I think I can do 2.2 miles in 20 minutes or so. I hope. I’m in bad shape. The cramps have not gone away. I try breathing deep to relieve them. It doesn’t help. I can see the Prudential tower now. My goal is to finish and avoid the medical tent. The crowds continue to be great and huge, at one point, pushing onto the course so the route is only 10 foot wide at points. I haven’t made eye contact in a while, the mental struggle, nee battle, continues.

Mile 25: 9:34 (3:46:05). I saw Ann Marie and Carlos (my sister and her husband) in Kenmore Square. I think I scowled at them as I ran by. One mile to go, I think I can run a mile without stopping. Ok, without stopping more than once. I find a piece of the Monster within, I dug deep, and managed a semi-respectable last mile.

Mile 26.2: I can finally stop. The last two tenths seemed like two miles. A guy next to me ran/walk/ran in. Not me, no way was I stopping until I crossed the finish, even though I was running 9:30 pace. Final time of 3:48:06. Boy am I glad that is over. It was Hell.

Ann Marie and Carlos make me walk five or so miles back to the car at Fenway Park. I think Carlos takes us the long (and wrong) way, and I don’t even know where the car is parked. Clearly I am still delusional. But it’s not only me. I ask a Pru security guard which way to Fenway Park. She looks at me confused. I repeat the question, and the guard mumbles something about Faneuil Hall. I’m serious. Ann Marie takes up the challenge as I walk way, but gives up moments later. Truly clueless…

On the way back to the car, near the Hynes Convention Center, I bump into Pat’s friend Christine. Christine says she was with Jackie and I looked great at Mile 16 (liar). She informs me Pat stopped at Mile 16 and won’t be finishing. He was feeling terrible. I can understand…

medal2Postscript: I looked up my official time on It seems my time was actual a horrid 3:56, not 3:48. OUCH! Somewhere along the 26.2, I lost eight minutes. If you’ve read the above, you will surely agree with me the timing error must be mine. Near as I can figure, I must have hit stop instead lap for one of my mile splits. Which one remains a mystery to me. While I prefer to think my time really was 3:48, I’ve got to believe, sadly, the timing chip and computer timing don’t lie. Wow, it was tough out there.

Damage Report, the day after: I’ve lost over five lbs. Mostly water, I guess. My legs are very sore, making going down (or up) stairs very hard and painful. I’ve got a bad sunburn on my elbows and calves (“cloudy”, yeah, right!) A bad blister on my right foot, should have tightened my shoes sooner. I don’t believe I will lose any toenails. Finally, my pride was dinged and humbled. I’ve run five Boston Marathons, the current score is: John 3, Boston 2.

Just another odd and whimsical afternoon where times mean nothing and breaking the tape is everything.” -John Powers, Boston Globe, April 23, 2003

John Piekos
Westford, Massachusetts
April 21, 2003
Age – 39
Bib # 20903


Winter training on the course
Winter training on the course