Monday, April 16, 2018

The Tempest

My medal and my bag of wet gear post-race as 
photographed with my fogged up cellphone camera.
When I recount this race in the future, I will either understate or grossly, grossly exaggerate the weather conditions that defined my first Boston Marathon. As I look out my hotel window, the race a few hours behind me, the screen remains clogged with the rain and the visibility limited.  The wind still howls with a reminder of what happened throughout the day. Chafing went to a new extreme on this one and my neck seems serrated by the rubbing of my shirts against my neck and the drawstring of my shorts had done the same to my waist.

My brother and I both had about two hours sleep and were up before the alarms struck at 4:30. While the weather proved daunting, the commitment of the racers and the community astounded me throughout the day as runners funnelled from our various hotels across the city to fill the busses that would take us west to Hopkinton to settle in and bide our time until we toed the start line for the return trip on foot. After decades of anticipation, and a few trying efforts to qualify, it was on.

I managed to keep the logistics of the day at arms' length throughout the day as my Boston vet brother guided me through the procedures of the day. The wet, windy weather had been forecast prior to heading to Boston, but the conditions were worse than even the most recent forecasts had anticipated.  As the hours ticked by and the tents in the starters' village filled with runners looking to bivouac through the morning with their creative uses of plastic bags to keep feet and body dry, the school field that we camped out on turned into a muddy bog. (Sorry, kids.) The conversations turned to other races and where people came from. While the puddles deepened, runners made comparisons to the rain in 2015 and the blistering heat of 2012. Some acknowledged their odysseys to beat the stormy weather to barely make it to Boston for the race and added that there were others who got stuck in old man winter's tight grip in April. The Floridian and Louisianan I met suggested I was accustomed to the weather, but since arriving in Boston I deepened my fondness for the dry cold of Calgary.

After my 2 1/2 hours of waiting passed, it was time to brace myself for the run. I stripped off my garbage bag raincoat and changed my shoes. At that point I was skeptical that I would shed any of the layers that I had.

The race started well for me. The route heads downhill for most of the first 16 miles before reaching The Newton Hills, which concluded with Heartbreak Hill. The cold weather made it difficult to feel my legs loosen up and give me a sense of settling into a rhythm after the first half hour of the race. All I could do was count on the gravity and hope that my legs would stay in the tight medium they were in rather than tightening up further.

It was a battle throughout the race to keep warm and to fend off the rain. The legs tightened further, however, but whenever I looked at the watch to see how I was managing, I was still on my goal pace for much of the race. Any edge I was going to gain in the race was going to have to come from the will and the heart alone with little chance of the legs responding enough to improve my race.

I pushed on, though as the race moved into the last third the effort was intermittent as the elements sapped the concentration needed to stay relatively fast. At the Wellesley Scream Tunnel, which I heard from about 500 metres out, I picked up the pace to push by and I did not take a detour to collect a few kisses from the student body. I suspect the turnout was smaller than more pleasant years, but I was impressed as I had been at several points already through the race at the commitment of the spectators who braved the elements to cheer us on. There was an aspect of the Boston Strong post-2013 spirit that buttressed that, but I sense that the interest in the run has been this strong for much, much longer.

With the Scream Tunnel passed, I found myself doing the math to determine how long it was going to be before I could get out of the rain. The Newton Hills loomed at the 16 mile mark and I managed well with them. Heartbreak, which began at the 20-mile mark rather than the 21-mile mark as I had long assumed turned into a lighter moment. Having finished the climb, there was an inflatable arch in the distance. At first I could only make out "Heartbreak" and I braced myself for the climb but as the arch became clearer I was able to read that Heartbreak was behind me. Route beaten.

With five miles to go, my will welled up to push me along. The route flattened out and gave me the chance to pick up the pace a bit. It felt like the 38th kilometre was the longest of the race and getting down to the last three and the last 15-16 minutes seemed all too long.  As I completed the 40th kilometre and I was met with a fierce squall of wind and rain to daunt me one last time.  I pushed through I kept my eyes peeled for the left turn onto Boylston Street for the homestretch. It occurred much later than I expected, but when I completed the turn with less than a kilometre to go, the blue arch of the finish loomed as close and as distant as any finish.

As the last few hundred metres relented to my finishing kick, I thought about the opposed insistences that did battle throughout the day. The weather -- which exceeded the bleak forecast for its headwinds, rain and cold -- versus my own insistence move forward and not let the race get to me. When the weather set in the night before, I thought about a half-marathon my brother and I did last May in similar, though far less severe, conditions. At the end of the race, however, I thought about the marathon I ran last May, under more summer-like conditions. Last May, when running the Calgary Marathon on a hot day with things just "off" in so many ways I had a tough mental battle, most significantly with the anticipation of people congratulating me for finishing a race that was less than satisfactory. There were times during that race last May when I dreaded having to accept congratulations for getting out there and doing it. From the outset of Boston, I was more flexible in the face of the conditions and the expectations I set. Even under these conditions, Boston was a goal and it remained a privilege to run, regardless of the circumstances. There was never a question of whether or not I would finish or if I had it in me to grind through to the end. The only aggravation was a wonky zipper on the jacket I wore for most of the race and discarded with about 10 minutes remaining.

Given the other results logged that day, my race was a decent one. The elite races featured upsets and much slower times than are typical for the race. When I surveyed the angels I had on my shoulder throughout the race, the people who would be most interested in the outcome and the results, I realized that they weren't going to give me grief about my result. Their response would be overwhelmingly positive, despite the queries about my sanity that running in those conditions ought to provoke. I am not sure if it was a matter of me having already slayed my white whale in qualifying for Boston or a new lasting contentment I had found over the last 11 months, but I was more open and accepting of what came my way during this race.  The weather conditions and the support were both, in their distinctive ways, unconditional. While the race unfolded, I checked in with the same guide posts that I cited during my better races. The distance and the time were manageable rather than daunting. The biggest distinction between Boston and the other marathons was the sheer mass of runners that were out there. Whenever I looked to the horizon, the road was clotted shoulder to shoulder with masses of runners and there were so many different races and paces being run that the people running closest to me changed constantly, there was no familiar pack to fall into step with or bond with. There was less a sense of competition with the other runners and the camaraderie was less tangible than it could become over a 10K stretch of conversation about life.

The steps that followed crossing the line blurred. I was bloody cold and the slowing of stride was bringing on hyperthermia. I was still overwhelmed with a sense of what the accomplishment was and the thoughts about those angels who have been on my shoulder and the gratitude I have toward them. I'm not sure when the next marathon is going to be. Next up is pacing a half-marathon group in late May, but for the time being there is a void somewhat akin to Inigo Montoya's when he realized he achieved his goal. I assure you though that I'm not pondering a life of piracy - my time in today's nor'easter cured me of any aspirations for a life at sea.

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