Boston Marathon is legendary in the world of marathon running. 121 years old, the world’s oldest annual marathon and one of the six World Marathon Majors, it starts at Hopkinton in the west and finishes 26.2 miles later on Boylston Street in Central Boston. It is a ‘serious runner’s' marathon in a running mad city and notoriously difficult to qualify for with runners needing to exceed challenging qualification times by several minutes. This, coupled with a tough course, including the famous ‘Heartbreak Hill’, means that it is the ultimate ‘must do’ city marathon for many endurance runners. Run on Patriots Day Monday in the US, it draws huge crowds as swathes of Greater Boston come out to offer their vocal support to the 30,000 participants.
And so, five months, ten countries and 26,721km/16,597 miles later I arrived in Boston. There was a short moment after being pulled aside at passport control for the second time on my journey and subjected to more rude and aggressive questioning by US border officials that I thought perhaps I wasn’t going to make it any further. However, I have got used to remaining calm and polite in the face of some pretty unwelcoming officials and waited for them to do their thing before thanking them for another warm US reception and continuing my journey.
I took the shuttle from Boston Logan airport to the Seaport World Trade Center to collect my race number from the Expo, narrowly avoiding a knee-capping from a lady who was wildly swinging her luggage behind her in a quest to end several marathon runners weekends before they had begun. When I stepped out at the marathon expo and was knocked backward by a bitter wind gust and light snow, I knew that we were all in for a tough weekend.
I had been a little anxious about getting my huge backpack into the expo and carrying it around but I needn’t have worried as after a short queue, the security guys outside patiently checked the contents and the event was relatively quiet. It appeared that most people had visited the expo on Friday or Saturday - good news for all backpacking marathoners in attendance (which appeared to be only me).
Traditional race number collection steely shot
During the lead up to the event, I had discovered that Boston Marathon logistics are somewhat unique as there is no provision to drop baggage at the start (these bags are then normally transported to the finish line if that is in a different place). Due to increased security measures after the bombings in 2013, all belongings had to be dropped at the finish line or left with your support team. Given that my support team numbered a big fat zero, I was faced with the prospect of having to travel twenty miles into Boston from my airbnb in Framingham to drop a change of clothes (which was absolutely vital given the forecast) before the shuttle buses departed for Hopkinton at 06.45am. This meant I would need to leave for a train at 5am. Five hours before the race start. Good thing I don’t sleep the night before a race.
With the above in mind, I needed to make sure I had plenty of layers of warm clothing, something to help me stay dry for several hours and a packed breakfast as eating at 4.30am would be way too early. Fortunately, the organisers had given warning of the likelihood of inclement weather several days before so I had made a trip to goodwill and dollar stores during my time in Nova Scotia and purchased an oversized fleece, what appeared to be a pair of strippers pants with velcro/zips along the legs and a plastic poncho. As I sat in the warm and dry that evening, making breakfast bagels and preparing my kit, I was blissfully unaware of what was to come.
You can't say you weren't warned...
As with most nights before a big race, I had been suffering replays of the classic ‘you overslept and missed the race!’ dream and was checking my clock hourly from around 3am. At 4.30am, I gave up and went through my prep routine, taping or applying anti-chafe to any bits that stuck out. Including the bedside dresser and a lamp. I made for the door, concerned that I might miss the only train I could catch and eager to see just how bad the weather was. My breakfast bagels & biro for writing my race notes on my arm didn’t make it with me (mistake #1).
At 5am, I walked out into the freezing rain of Marathon Monday and my poncho was immediately blown over my head. That was the last time I was warm until I returned twelve hours later.
The next questionable decision I made was related to my shoes. The pre-race advice had been to wear an old pair of trainers that you could get wet and then discard for your dry pair of race shoes before the start. Given that I’d been on the road for five months and had no spare shoes or space in my luggage, this was not a goer. So, my plan was to use a couple of plastic bags to cover my race shoes, therefore keeping them dry as long as possible. My morning brain had decided that the walk to the station was only fifteen minutes and the best idea would be to wait until I got to Boston to cover the shoes with the bags so they weren’t destroyed early - how wet can you get in fifteen minutes, right? Well, as I stepped into a large puddle in the dimly lit street seconds after leaving, I realised that was potentially a bad move. I now had soaking wet feet five hours before the start (mistake #2).
There's a good reason why marathons aren't scheduled in winter. As runners started to appear in a dark and wet Boston, clad in all manner of layers and waterproof outfits, nervously clutching their transparent kit bags, there were knowing looks exchanged of "this isn’t good, but we’re not in this game because it’s a walk in the park on a sunny day". I heard one passer by (what on earth she was doing outside at 6am on a Monday morning I don’t know) exclaim to her friend "These people are made of STEEL".
the fact or power of enduring an unpleasant or difficult process or situation without giving way.
The baggage drop was the first sense I got of just how brilliant the volunteers are at Boston. At this dark and ridiculously early hour, as the rain tipped down and the temperature crept up to a balmy 2°C, they were loudly cheering every single athlete that walked alongside the tents. I felt a surge of gratitude rise through my body and a renewed energy that regardless of what the weather threw at me, it was going to be an incredible experience.
After dropping my dry clothing and already looking forward to seeing it again, I joined the shivering queue of plastic coated athletes waiting to board the multitude of yellow school buses that would take us on the 45 minute drive back to the start. Even at this point I was overjoyed to have somewhere dry to shelter for a while. I even managed to wangle an energy bar from a friendly runner to stave off my hunger - thanks Chris from St Louis!
Upon arrival at the athlete's village, it resembled what I imagine Glastonbury Festival would look like if it was held in deep winter. A dusting of snow nestled around the feet of the rows and rows of portaloos (American English: 'portapotty') and the fields holding several large gathering tents had started to gather water and turn to mud as thousands of athletes arrived. Runners had taken shelter anywhere they could, masses bunching together in the centre of the tents to try to maintain some body heat and work on innovative outfits to protect them from the conditions once they had to leave their refuge. In a relief to anyone who had forgotten their breakfast, more of those saintly volunteers were enthusiastically providing free bagels, fruit and coffee to raise spirits as it began to dawn on the runners what was about to happen. A rumour surfaced that the Clif Bar tent had a heater but it meant crossing a quagmire and most people opted to stay where they were until the announcement came for the first wave to make it to the start. Then the call came. The runners that had huddled together for the last hour comparing war stories looked each other in the eye with steely determination, wished each other well and trudged across the waterlogged fields en-masse as a polythene running army.
The masses made their way into the starting corrals. Looking around, I could see that some runners were already shivering and struggling with their body temperature. As the minutes counted down to the start, it was clear that many were planning to keep their extra layers on for as long as possible, perhaps for the entire race. I removed my (stripper) pants (limited space meant I didn’t make much of a show) and fleece but kept a t-shirt and poncho over my vest. Once the starting gun had fired and we were moving, I soon discarded the poncho as the winds made it like running with a sail. After around four miles of relaxed running, I finally started to warm up. I discarded my last protective layer and right on cue, a torrential shower broke out and the game was up, I was soaked to the skin and my legs had started to complain of the cold, all before I had passed ten miles.
With my water-heavy clothes clinging to my skin and now feeling the weight of my sodden socks and shoes, I started to worry about the outcome but these negative thoughts were instantly kept at bay with the excellent support from the thousands of Bostonians and visitors braving the weather to line the course. Countless shouts of 'good job!' along with more memorable ones that made me laugh out loud like 'YOU'RE ON FIRE MARK!' and 'YES MARK, YOU'RE ABSOLUTELY CRUSHING THIS'. I still think that one of the best things you can do when you're running a marathon and know you won't have anyone supporting you in person is writing your name on your vest. I'm always amazed at how many people will give encouragement if they know your name.
After a brief bathroom break which took slightly longer than planned due to not being able to feel my fingers, I passed the half way point and the ‘screaming tunnel’: the girls from Wellesley College who provide very vocal backing to the runners along with signs of support, hugs & kisses. I was trying to get warm again after my stop so kicked on. I had gone through the halfway point at 1.30.22 and knew with the second part of the course being far more difficult and my level of fatigue that any hope of running under three hours was gone. At this stage I was more concerned with just getting round at all.
I think I missed a feed station in the crowds and showers as I hadn’t taken any carbohydrates on and was starting to panic that I would run out of steam with the amount of energy that I was expending to stay warm. Another big shower arrived and the wind rattled through my ribcage. A gel station arrived just in time and I grabbed a couple in case I missed the next one, hurriedly ripping the packet of one with my teeth and stuffing the contents into my mouth.
And suddenly I was upon the Newton Hills, a series of climbs and descents from sixteen to twenty-one miles, my legs had long since started to complain but I consider hills my strong suite so was glad of the opportunity to get the arms and legs moving a little faster and raise the body temperature. If I could move through this section I was confident I had enough to get me to the finish line.
The support on the hills was absolutely brilliant. A spectator complimented me on my great running form, I think he must have been on the hip-flask to stay warm as I felt like I was swimming standing up at this stage. I had been really looking forward to seeing and taking on Heartbreak Hill and gave it a huge push, trying to speed up my cadence with what energy I had remaining knowing that I could just change into a shuffle at the top and try to coast home. I reached the top, people were shouting that it was downhill all the way to Boston (which isn’t entirely true but it helped) and I tried to tidy up my form and kick into cruise mode, knowing that if I could just keep it together for five more miles I’d be home and dry*.
* I wouldn't be dry for several hours
Whilst I knew I wasn’t anywhere my normal marathon pace, I managed to maintain a speed that was keeping me from crashing. I noticed that some people had started to swerve and stagger and needed to stay alert to zig-zag along the course and avoid colliding with them, thus making their task even more difficult than it already was.
I'd read about a short rise with a mile to go in the course notes and had saved a little for this. My legs were screaming at this point and starting to cramp so I just pumped my arms like a maniac to push me over the top and then gave it everything I had. I hit the famous ‘Citgo’ sign which signalled a mile to go and knew it would take something dramatic for me not to finish now. The crowds thickened and the noise was absolutely deafening, I could hear strangers screaming my name as though they had known me forever and I couldn’t stop grinning. I raised my arms as I crossed the legendary yellow and blue finish strip in 3.06.14, not what I had hoped for originally but my time had ceased to matter by then. I slowed to a halt and the exhaustion hit me, I felt dizzy and realised that I couldn’t walk in a straight line so focused on staying upright and making it to the medal and a space blanket.
Course profile: there be hills.
Boston has an excellent space blanket game. My body temperature was dropping like a stone and I think this garment, with it’s big hood and fastener probably saved me from a trip to the medics. I joined the throngs queuing in the rain for bag collection and could see this wait (which in normal temperatures would not be a problem) was causing more runners to need medical help. It was only ten minutes but a couple more and I think I would have joined them.
The volunteers were helpfully pointing runners to use the front of other baggage tents for later finishers so that they had some cover from the elements to change into dry clothes but as this was in the full sight of the public I decided not to share my white bits and found a portaloo. I smashed around in the limited space, struggling to remove the sodden clothing clinging to my body with numb fingers and change into dry, warm clothing. Fifteen minutes and two shoulder dislocations later, I was complete.
As I hobbled out of the finish area looking like some sort of wounded space hobbit, I searched for someplace to sit and shelter. I approached a police officer who gave me the piece of advice that probably kept me safe. He directed me to the Taj hotel and simply said "they’ll look after you".
And look after me they did. Once you walked through the doors of this four-star hotel, you were welcomed as their guest. Smiles, towels, hot cider and cookies as well as somewhere warm and dry to sit, recover and process what had just happened. I was (and remain) immensely grateful to these guys for their kindness, community spirit and love for the marathon and it’s runners.
Space blanket, dry clothes, hot cider and marathon cookies @ The Taj, Boston
And that was Boston 2018. Not at all what I had expected or hoped for but as the surprise Women’s winner Des Linden simply put it when asked afterward about running in those conditions: “It’s supposed to be hard”.
After all, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it.
My sincere thanks to all who helped organise the 2018 Boston Marathon and allow it to go ahead in such difficult circumstances. In particular, all of the amazing volunteers and supporters who kept my spirits up throughout.
I have a strong feeling I'll see you again in 2019 - anyone got a long-range weather forecast yet?