Imagine your first round of golf being at Augusta National, experiencing your first horse race at Churchill Downs or entering a stadium the first time at the Olympics. Then imagine actually taking part in the Masters, Kentucky Derby or Olympic Opening Ceremonies. That’s what it felt like for me to run the Boston Marathon on Patriots Day 2016. I’d never even run so much as a neighborhood 5K in my life. The first time I’d ever picked up a bib number was at the Hynes Convention Center on Sunday evening.
And after I willed myself through the final stretch of the 26.2-mile course on Monday, I experienced something completely different than winning national championships, a conference title or leading Mississippi State to No. 1 in the country for the first time in school history. Those are team accomplishments, and they are unbelievable feelings I was lucky enough to have in my career. But it’s a different blender of emotions when you cross that finish line—your body is drained and your mind is shot, but you are just so overcome with joy. My body was torn between wanting to jump up and celebrate and being physically depleted to the point where I was barely able to move.
When I finally crossed the finish line, I hugged my wife, Megan, got my medal and wrapped myself in the foil given to all the runners. A few hundred yards from the finish line, I lay down on my back for about 40 minutes, completely physically and emotionally exhausted from one of the most surreal and satisfying days of my life.
I entered the Boston Marathon to check something off my bucket list and raise money for the Mullen Family 36 Foundation, trying to run 26.2 miles to raise $36,000. (We exceeded that goal by over a third!). But after crossing the finish line in 4:28:35 on Monday, I’m still debating what I’ll remember as a bigger thrill—the sheer joy of finishing or the special communal experience of running the race. Out on the course, you see all the jerseys and names and it hits you that every runner has a story. Every one of the 30,000 runners has something or someone inspiring them, which creates a camaraderie that can’t be replicated.
My Boston Marathon began on Monday morning, waking up at 5:15 and eating a banana and a Clif Bar. The bus left around 7:00 from my hotel in downtown Boston and I’ll never forget driving for a while and seeing a sign that said Worcester was 25 miles away. I felt like a little kid in the backseat of the minivan on vacation: Are we there yet? Are we really closer to Worcester than Boston? Are we sure this is 26.2 miles?
I had to wait three hours to start the race. I even put down a garbage bag and took a nap to kill time. But it was worth the wait.
There’s a unique adrenaline rush when you’re a coach and you run out of the tunnel in your home stadium into a wall of a noise. It’s not only the excitement of the game, but also a moment where days of preparation meet the opportunity presented that day. I decided to run Boston on a whim after a conversation at the Adidas retreat last year. Adidas was nice enough to find me a sponsor’s exemption, and I began with four-mile daily runs during the season that grew to six. During the season it was hard to sneak in long runs, but I ran eight miles a day on our bye weeks, 13 on New Year’s Day after our bowl game and then 11 on Signing Day after the last fax came in. I eventually built to a 20.25-mile run on Easter Saturday before tapering back.
After all that training and the anxiety of anticipating the race, the first few miles felt like a big long run out of the tunnel. I was anxious to get going and filled with adrenaline, but there are so many runners in the first few miles you have to be patient and lay back. I thought one of the most memorable parts of the race was in the towns outside Boston—Hopkinton, Ashland and Framingham. At the start, there are families sitting on their front yards in lawn chairs, kids handing out water and high fives. These are families who have supported marathoners for years, passing the tradition down over the generations.
A few people recognized me along the way. I took pictures with Auburn and Alabama fans. I heard a lot of Mississippi State fans ringing cowbells to support me, and saw a lot of Bulldog game jerseys on the sideline, which was awesome. One guy even jumped on the course and took a selfie with me around mile 10.
Those were pleasant distractions, but nothing compared to the famous “Scream Tunnel” at Wellesley College around the race’s halfway point. About a mile away, you can hear a din of noise in the distance. The students from the all-girls school famously offer “motivational kisses” in the Scream Tunnel, which I refused. But you’re high-fiving everyone and feeling good about yourself from all the support. That was probably the fastest three-quarter mile I ran all day.
From that point on, the tenor of the race changes. When you get into Wellesley, the crowds thicken and there are spectators a few deep on each side of the road. That’s where I was able to stop quickly, steal a kiss from my wife and say hello to a few high school friends from New Hampshire who took the day to come down to support me, which meant so much. That was a needed boost at around Mile 16, as not long after leaving them I got to the hills and the race became one of endurance.
The Boston Marathon is known best for Heartbreak Hill, which comes around Mile 20. But there are actually three hills, and the first one comes in Newton around mile 18. To me, that was the toughest, as my heart rate really went up and I started to get winded. Then there’s a second hill, which in my mind I was like, “This is Heartbreak Hill.” I’m really starting to feel it. My feet and ankles are throbbing, I’m feeling dehydrated, pounding water and Gatorade. My body was starting to feel not right.
Then, I actually hit Heartbreak Hill around Mile 20. I thought I’d already done it. But once you get to the top of it, it’s fantastic. You run down and hit Boston College, around 21.5 miles in, and there’s a wild and loud scene and everyone is going crazy and rooting for you. And at that point, I just kept asking myself, “How do I finish?”
My normal morning run is about six miles, so I just told myself that’s all I had left. But my pace dropped way down (I ended up finishing with 10:15 mile pace). I stopped and walked through the water and Gatorade stations. From mile 21 to 25.5, I can’t imagine what my facial expression looked like. I was just trying to will myself to the finish. I walked a little bit between miles 22 and 24, but then I’d get mad at myself and start running again. I thought about our players at Mississippi State a lot at that time; they really helped push me through this. They’re going to have a hard time saying anything to me next year when I talk about mental toughness and finishing.
I ran the race with two of my brother-in-laws, Wally Zediker and John O’Sullivan. Wally is a race director by trade and this was his 20th Marathon, so he was a great resource. I went ahead of Wally (who is 49) around mile 2 and John and I ran the first 20 miles together before he ran ahead of me. (He’s 37, and I turn 44 next week). So for the end, I was alone with my thoughts. I had set up my music to play my four best juice songs on repeat for the end of the race: U2’s Beautiful Day, Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing, Coldplay’s Fix You and IZ’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow. But they just ended up being background noise, as I wanted to feed off the crowd and the energy. Eventually, around the 25-mile mark, I took my ear buds out and soaked it in.
I’ll never forget the feeling of taking the right turn onto Hereford Street during Mile 26 and then the left turn onto Boylston Street, where you can see the finish line. I started to run a little faster then, but had to slow down as it was further away than it looked.
When I finally crossed the finish line, there’s really no way to explain the emotion. They put the medal around your neck and there’s no way to articulate the feeling of accomplishment. have to admit that I felt some pressure heading into the race. I did a lot of media about running to raise money for the foundation, and there were so many unknowns considering it was my first-ever race. And to be honest, it was harder than I thought it would be. But in the end, the feeling I’ll take away from Boston is a dual thrill: the communal experience of the race itself being just as special as the deep satisfaction of finishing it. Thanks so much to everyone who supported me.
[Dan Mullen is believed to be the first active FBS football coach to run Boston. His account of the experience first appeared in “Campus Rush.”]