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Friday, April 24, 2009

Guest Blog from Rob Hancock about the Boston Marathon

My wonderful cousin ran the Boston Marathon a few days ago while raising money for the Young Survivor Coalition. He sent family a wonderful email outlining the experience of a lifetime. With his blessing, I share his journey and great story telling abilities with you. It is long, but well worth it - kinda like the Boston Marathon! :0) ENJOY!
Hello, family. Thought I'd take a moment to share my Boston race report with you. Hope it conveys the emotion and grandeur of the event. I had the time of my life. I get it now, this Boston thing.

Background:I’d run three marathons previously, the first a “just finish alive” effort of 3:59:21 in Los Angeles in 1998. I caught the racing bug again nine years later, dropped 30 pounds, and attempted to BQ in the 2007 City of Trees Marathon in Boise. I bonked horribly with a 3:35:38 and 17-minute positive split. Last year, I ramped up my training, and BQ’d at the same race with a 3:17:48, and 1:40 negative split. I followed the same training plan – Pfitz 18/70 – through the cold Idaho winter leading up to Boston. After much deliberation, I settled on an “A” goal of sub-3:10.

Pre-race:Kathi and I make it to Boston Saturday evening. I’m enormously relieved to be there, having mentally paraded all the horribles that could have conspired to thwart us, but all goes smoothly. We enjoy a tour through the posh Back Bay with a friendly cabbie from Moscow named Steve, who jokes he expects to see me in the lead pack, and will be waiting for me at the finish to cart me off to somewhere. A radio weather reporter grimly predicts “a raw day for the marathon on Monday.” Shrug.

Our hotel lobby teems with jittery, animated, fully tapered runners, most sporting the official garb of marathons past. As we’re heading to the elevator, a guy across the atrium points at my Boise State sweatshirt and yells “Go Broncos!” I smile and wave back. He approaches and introduces himself as Nate, who used to work at Bandanna Running in Boise -- a mere three blocks from my office, and where I buy my gear. Two more guys he’s with ride up the elevator with us. The older gentleman, who wears a suit and official-looking BAA badge with the strangely-familiar name “Jack Fultz” turns to me and politely asks, “So, Rob, is this your first Boston?” Why, yes sir, it is, and like an excited little boy, I gush all the things first-time Bostoners say. I very nearly ask him if he’s ever run it, but I stop myself -- this seems a silly question, given his stature. He wishes me well. A quick Wikipedia search later confirms Mr. Fultz, in fact, wonthe 1976 Boston Marathon in the infamous 100-degree “Run for the Hoses.” Man, am I glad I didn’t make a fool of myself.

Our room has a view of the finish, the Charles River, and MIT. We’re thrilled. Kathi and I were looking forward to some authentic local Boston cuisine, but we don’t feel like straying outside, so we enjoy a terrific dinner at Legal Sea Foods next door. Later, we shop at Filene’s Basement on Boylston.

Sunday morning – expo time! An older gentlemen, Don, hands me my bib with a hearty “Welcome to Boston!” Dick Beardsley and his wife are at the New Balance booth, preparing for a talk recounting the 1982 Duel in the Sun. Before I open my mouth, he asks if we’ve met before. Yes, I say, very surprised he’d remember. Five months ago during his appearance in Boise. He tells me how he enjoyed Idaho, and how much fun I am guaranteed to have the following day. Mrs. Beardsley takes pictures of the three of us, and takes my e-mail address. What a nice couple. My wife and I get breakfast at a local New England favorite, The Cheesecake Factory. (Lame!)

Sunday afternoon brings a call from my online nemesis (and sometimes chum) Marc. We meet at a Starbucks for a thoroughly-engaging hour-long chat about running, life and family. We also can’t resist trading a few gentle barbs about the race. In real life, as online, I find him a very funny, intelligent and likeable fellow. By way of one of those strange “six degrees of anyone” stories, he has access to a house in Hopkinton just a quick stroll from the starting corrals, and he graciously invited me to join him.

That evening, Kathi and I enjoy a “Duck Boat Tour,” amid some cold whipping east winds. The tour passes by City Hall Plaza, where an enormous line of runners is snaking toward the official pre-race dinner. It didn’t look like fun out there, so we decide to bag it. Of course, getting a dinner reservation the day before Marathon Monday is impossible, so we end up waiting 90 minutes to get our pasta fill at another venerable Boston treasure, California Pizza Kitchen. (Oh, we suck so bad.) I make it to bed by 10:30. Strangely, I’m calm.

Race Day: I wake up on my own at 4:30 (that’s 2:30 a.m. my time – gulp!). My first order of business is to check the weather. Still predicting high 30s to high 40s throughout -- that’s good. But the flag atop the adjacent Copley Square Hotel is flapping wildly and pointing directly west – a strong direct headwind. That’s bad. I eat a cold Belgian waffle with syrup and a Powerbar. I dress in layers and gloves. Kathi wakes to kiss me goodbye. I grab a large coffee at the lobby Starbucks and cab it the mile or so to the Common. I perch on the steps of the Park Street Church, my rendezvous point with Marc.

The organization and efficiency of the buses on Tremont is something to behold. A dozen or so line up next to the Common. They all load and depart in unison. A dozen more quickly take their place, on the orders of the traffic cops on the corner of Park and Tremont. And woe to the wayward motorist who fails to heed any instruction. More than once, the most vocal officer pointed and screamed “You! Don’t you move! You keep youah cah right theah!” Marc joins me, and we’re among the final three aboard our bus. My seatmate is James, a thirtysomething veteran local marathoner. Marc throws spitballs at me, and flicks my left ear from the seat behind.

We make a quick stop in Athlete’s Village to grab a snack, and head to our sanctuary, a quaint little home owned by a lady of advanced years. We’re the first to arrive. She greets us warmly and enthusiastically. Bear in mind, she’s never laid eyes on either of us. But, on race day, if you’re just a friend of a relative of someone who knows someone who knows her, then you’re okay in her book. She shows us to her family room, which has a television tuned to race coverage, and offers coffee cake and toasted bagels. We’re of course enchanted with this saint of a person. Others arrive. We decide to check our bags at the buses, and return for the half-hour before the race. Our host leaves for the start. We chat nervously, watch the start of the wheelchair and women’s races, pee eight or more times each, and walk the quarter mile to our corrals. I’m in #7. The seven thousand runners down the hill behind me are a sight to behold. Some nervouschatting with my corralmates. Flyover. National Anthem. Gun. Holy crap. I am running the Boston Marathon. I am alive.

Mile 1 – 7:39 (planned 7:40) -- Steep downhill, but the throng of runners keeps me from going out too fast. I’m grateful for that, and right on pace.

Mile 2 – 7:22 (planned 7:20) – Still moving generally downhill. I generally start slow in marathons, as it seems to take awhile for me to feel comfortable. I chat with a fellow from North Carolina for a minute before moving ahead. The trees on both sides of the narrow road shield us from most of the wind.

Miles 3 and 4 – 7:01 (7:08 planned), and 7:08 (7:05 planned) – Two downhill miles through Ashland. While we’re all moving pretty good, the course is still very thick with runners, and maneuvering is difficult. I notice that my Garmin recorded the 3-mile split about 8 seconds before I crossed the marker, and the 4-mile about 12 seconds before. I remember reading many a Boston race report where the athlete’s GPS is long by a quarter to half-mile. There are raging online arguments over whether this is due to a universal GPS error, or (as I believe) because the course meanders so much, it’s nearly impossible to run the tangent even when it isn’t crowded, let alone when it is, lengthening the distance traveled by an average of one or two hundredths of a mile per split. Whatever the case, no worries here. I’m running the Boston Marathon! Plus, I have a 30-second cushion built into my plan.

Mile 5 – 7:28 (7:18 planned) – I’m warm and uncomfortable, and can’t find my pace. I take off my brand-new white Nike dri-fit hat, which brings some relief. The gloves come off too, and I retire them to my shorts pockets. Now, what to do with the hat? I hate to kiss off $20, but I’m not carrying it for the next 21 either. I spy a lady with her young son on the left side of the road. I say “Here you go!” and throw it to them. Not sure if they picked it up, but they were smiling. I high-five another little guy while I’m in the area, and I hear his dad say “You’re slapping hands with people from all over the world!”

Miles 6, 7 and 8 – 7:13 (7:13); 7:14 (7:13); and 7:24 (7:20) – I’m back on pace through Framingham, but still uncomfortable. I get a boost from the huge crowds here. Of course, I’d heard how great the spectators were, but I was completely unprepared for their enthusiasm. I expected the usual polite applause and shouts of “Go runners!” or the occasional cowbell. Oh no, this is something entirely different. All you have to do is point at the crowd or raise your hands, and you’re greeted with this deafening roar more befitting a winning three-pointer or touchdown. I find this new power intoxicating, and I start using it frequently.

Miles 9 through 12 -- 7:10 (7:14); 7:11 (7:17); 7:14 (7:17) and 7:01 (7:07) – Finally, after nearly an hour, I’ve hit my groove. I pick up 19 seconds during this stretch. A nursing home on the right has wheeled out its residents and bundled them up to see us. I’m touched by this and run over to thank them for being there. The gel I took at mile 8 made an awful sticky mess on my right hand, and it’s driving me nuts. So, I spend some time during miles 10 and 11 furiously licking my palm. I think this disturbs a couple others into moving away from me, giving me a bit more room to run.

Mile 13 – 7:02 (7:16) – Wellesley College, which I can hear for a half-mile before I reach it. No kisses, but I high-five a whole bunch of ‘em. I worry that my pace there was too fast. Halfway – 1:35:36. 7:21 pace. Can I do a 3:10? With the hills looming? We’ll see.

Miles 14 and 15 – 7:03 (7:12); and 7:08 (7:14) – I continue ahead of my planned pace by 5-10 seconds per mile, and my Garmin continues to fall further behind. The crowds in the town of Wellesley are huge, loud and captivating. I have my name taped to my shirt, and I point directly at whoever yells it, usually drawing a squeal of delight. (From them, not me.) The wind is picking up, but it’s not bothering me much. At precisely 14.91 miles in, I quietly pass Marc.

Mile 16 – 6:54 (7:02) – The descent into Newton Lower Falls is long and steep, but not nearly as tough as I thought. I take it fast, and take back eight seconds.

Mile 17 – 7:17 (7:27) – First of four hills, a long and gentle upslope. I feel good, and take ten seconds from it. I down half a gel.

Mile 18 – 7:20 (7:23 planned) – I take it easy around the corner at the Newton Fire Station, in preparation for the short steep hill at the end of the split. I take it with short, quick strides, and win round two by three seconds.

Mile 19 – 7:07 (7:11) – I decide to conserve some energy on this leisurely, gently downhill mile through Newton. Two hills to go. Darn it, I miss the John Kelley statue.

Mile 20 – 7:02 (7:25) – The crowds continue to grow. As I’m approaching the third hill halfway through the split, and older gentlemen yells out. “Ya just gawt this little one, and then Hahtbreak, and then it’s awl downhill from theah!!” I bet he’s been doing this for years. This little bit of inspiration makes me pick up the pace, attack the hill with vigor, and log a split 23 seconds faster than I’d planned.

Mile 21 – 7:11 (7:33) – Heartbreak Hill. At the bottom, I draw close to the throng of spectators on the left-hand side, raise my arms and scream “Come on!” They respond with a cheer. I am drunk with endorphins, adrenaline and power. I move up the hill as quickly as I dare, passing many walkers along the way. At the crest, I’m nothing short of jubilant. This small-town Idaho guy has battled the famed Newton Hills, and won. At the marker I yell “Go Eagles!” and high-five a dozen moderately inebriated screaming Boston College students.

Miles 22, 23 and 24 – 6:46 (6:51) 6:44 (6:58 ); and 6:50 (6:56). No more clowning around. Here’s where I see what I’m made of. It’s downhill, and I can taste sub-3:10 and a negative split. Garmin is off by more than 90 seconds now, but I’m not worried. I am passing hundreds of shufflers and walkers, some look like they’re in real agony. As I do, I notice most of the bib numbers are in the 3000 and 4000 range, with some in the 2000s. And there’s me, wearing 7781. The wind is pretty strong, but I don’t care.

Mile 25 – 6:52 (7:07) -- Citgo sign and hill. Many walkers. The crowds are larger and louder still. I’m getting a little emotional.

Mile 26 – 6:59 (7:07) – Through Kenmore Square. I can’t resist a final fist pump to the crowd, which dutifully responds with a roar as always. The energy here is incredible.

Final .55 – 3:35 (6:35 pace) – Right on Hereford. Left on Boylston. As if the entire day wasn’t already an exercise in sensory overload, the sight and sounds of the finish leave me open-jawed. They’re five and six deep here. I want to be done, but I don't want it to end. I glance at the Garmin just as it turns from 3:07 to 3:08. I smile, knowing sub 3:10 is in the bag. But man, 3:08:xx sure sounds a lot better. I give it all that’s left, and cross in 3:08:53. I stop and grab my knees. A few paces past the line a guy next to me is doing the same thing. He makes eye contact and nods. I say “Man, wasn't that something?” “Unbelieveable,” he says with a thick accent. “Where you from?” I ask. “Holland.” We share a quick man-hug and high five. I’ll never see that guy again. But I’ll bet we remember each other forever.

I begin the long slow walk to get my blanket, food, medal and bag. I think about all that led up to this. All those winter training miles. The sacrifices my wife and boys have made to allow me this new passion. My folks, long gone, and how very proud they would be. And the baby my wife and I lost last month. Who I’m sure would have liked being a part of our little clan. I look around, relieved to see I’m not the only one choked up.

I collect my bag and call DW, who has been getting my 10K splits via text message. She picks up: “Holy crap! 3:08?!?!” Yep. A re-qualifying time at any age. I eventually find her on Boylston. We hug for a long while, and watch a bit more of the race. Other friends tracking me have left congratulatory voicemails. I call some back to share the experience. After cleaning up, we have a great meal at Skipjack's of Boston (Finally, authentic cuisine!) We have other plans, but Kathi doesn’t feel too well, so we turn in. I sleep soundly. On Tuesday, we check out the JFK Memorial Library and Presidential Museum before heading to the airport.

While I’m chatting up a couple other runners at Logan, one of them says she thinks she saw Kara Goucher, the top-finishing American woman, walk by a moment ago. Another guy, Mike, and I demand to know which way she went, and we run (yes, run) to try to catch a glimpse. Yep, she’s standing right there with her husband, Adam, readying to board a plane, talking with fans, and allowing pictures. My phone camera is full, but my new best friend Mike whips his out! He takes my picture with her, and I do the same for him. I tell Kara -- er, “Ms. Goucher” -- how proud she made the nation yesterday, and that I hope she keeps it up. She says she will. Mike e-mails me the picture immediately.

Whenever I hear other runners talk about Boston, it's always in superlatives: The best crowds, support, organization, course, etc. They say you won’t understand until you experience it. I wondered if all those veterans were just maybe a little loony. Could it possibly really be all that?
Oh, yes. It can. It is. That, and much more.

I get it now, this Boston thing.

Thanks for reading, everyone.


kannie said...

That ROCKS!!! Wow, to be a runner... what an utterly awesome story - thanks Rob & Jenn for sharing!!! :-)

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