My First Boston Marathon (2019)

For years I didn't give any real thought to becoming a runner. Sure, I grew up in Rhode Island and remember going to my grandparent's house every Patriot's Day and seeing the Boston Marathon on TV. I saw the elites at the front of the field, Dick & Rick Hoyt year after year, and the mass of "regular runners".

I wrote the elites off as some kind of super humans born to run, the "regular runners" running only for various causes, and Dick & Rick Hoyt as some kind of remarkable exception overcoming a debilitating disease. Even as some of my classmates started running track or cross country as early as middle school, the thought never crossed my mind to really try it myself, aside from the "test" in Gym class of having to run a mile around a field, only because everyone had to.

The start of something? Well, maybe not.

As I wrote in The Road to Blue and Yellow Shoes, starting at Dynamic Network Services (formerly DynDNS, later Dyn) in 2008 was the first thing to change that at all. I ran the Cigna 5k with the company and couldn't walk for days. I did the same thing for the next couple of years, running just a little before that 5k. At some point my dad asked me if I was "training for the Boston Marathon" and I laughed, and laughed. I was focusing on not dying when I ran a little before (maybe a mile at a time) and during those 5ks, a marathon was impossible, let alone Boston.

Flash forward a couple of years, and buying a road bike had changed my fitness enough that I ran and realized it felt a lot better, and I wasn't so focused on just staying alive. I ended up running on our company's New Balance Reach the Beach team, and ran a half marathon a month later. While the half marathon seemed like a terrible idea during it, a couple weeks later I signed up for another the following spring, and eventually my first full marathon the following fall.

The Boston Bug

I ran that first full marathon (the Smuttynose Rockfest in Hampton, NH) trained well for a half marathon, but woefully undertrained for a full marathon, having never run more than 16 miles, ever.

I ran a half marathon PR for the first half of the race, breaking under 1:30 for the first time. I thought "wow, maybe I am capable of running a 3:05 to qualify for Boston". Of course, the wheels came off the wagon spectacularly in the second half, with rain adding insult to injury, and I didn't come close to qualifying. But, it put the idea in my head that maybe it was possible.

Attempts and Setbacks

I tried a couple more races without success, then my son was born which slowed training some, then I was injured pretty badly in an accident, and next thing you know I had run 10 marathons but still hadn't managed to qualify for Boston.

By this point I was "aging up" a group, and my qualifying time was 3:10. I decided to really aim for qualifying in 2017.

The Blue and Yellow Shoes

That year the brand of shoe I wear, Altra, came out with the same model of shoe I wore but in Boston Marathon colors for runners of the race that year. I thought that in order to qualify I needed to really focus and get my training right, and could use something to keep it on my mind. I ended up buying the shoes, but not wearing them. I left one of each of them on my desk at the office, and at home, so that whenever I was working or doing something else at home, I would see it, and think about what I needed to do.

My training went the best it ever has, running 50 miles a week pretty consistently, with mostly shorter runs, but some longer 20-22 mile ones as well. I realized at mile 22 of the Baystate Marathon that I felt the best I ever had at that point in a marathon, and was able to push through and qualify 4:54 under my qualifying time with a 3:05:06.

Since it was after registration for the 2018 Boston Marathon, I would have to wait until the following September to find out if it was enough. In the meantime, I decided I would wear the shoes. So, I wore them only for races, hoping to get into Boston.

The In Between

I did end up getting into Boston, though registration had the largest gap ever due to so many fast runners putting in applications, with the cut off being 4:52. I got in for Boston 2019 by 2 seconds. I've spent a lot of time thinking about how close that was, how heartbreaking it would be to have been 2 seconds on the other side of the cut off, but ultimately I think about how grateful I am to have had some friends unexpectedly cheering me on around mile 21, and the spring in my step they gave me that may have been the 2 seconds I needed in the end.

Until then, I wore the shoes for certain races. They were at IRONMAN Lake Placid, IRONMAN 70.3 Maine, the 2018 Chicago Marathon, and the Maine Coast 39.3 Challenge (a half marathon on Saturday, and a full on Sunday). They ended up racking up 263 miles over the course of that year and a half of races.

Injury, Stalling, & a Pandemic

I wrote this post up until this point within the month or so after Boston in 2019. At that point I was injured, I had been since 6 weeks before Boston, and with no clear progress towards healing I found it very difficult to write about an experience that at the time felt like it could be my last.

It's now April 20th, 2020, Marathon Monday, but the Boston Marathon isn't taking place though it's on the minds of so many runners. The COVID-19 pandemic has put nearly everything on hold this spring as society tries to get a handle on it and slow the spread to not overwhelm healthcare systems and end up with an even bigger disaster.

So, it seemed like the right day to pick this back up, and reflect on a past Boston experience.

First, the thing that has largely been occupying my mind and holding me up writing this. 6 weeks prior to Boston in 2019, I was out on a run, running down a windy hill at a fast (for me) pace. I remember a car coming around the bend, and moving over to the left side while keeping my eyes on the car. I landed awkwardly with my left foot on the edge of a pothole, twisting it down and to the outside with a stabbing pain in my heel.

Sometimes sudden things like that happen on a run, and you shake them off, and they fade away never to be given a second thought. I hobbled a few steps, I was a few miles from home, shortened up my stride and finished my run without giving it much more thought.

In hindsight, it was more than just landing in that pothole, and that was likely just the final straw. It felt worse in the following days, I took a week off, it was no better, I went to a podiatrist and he seemed to think I had damaged some connective tissue connecting my calf muscles to my foot, and that it wouldn't get better until I took likely months off of running, but that I wouldn't necessarily damage it by running so long as I didn't twist it again, though it wouldn't feel good.

Flash forward a year, and I'm still injured. It's really not much better than it was during the 2019 Boston Marathon. It sucks.

I've seen 3 different doctors, had ultrasounds, X-Rays, and MRIs, with no clear sign of what exactly is wrong. One wanted to do exploratory surgery, but can't because of the pandemic. My peroneal tendons (which connect the calf to the foot) look to have been damaged, but are healed and intact as far as an MRI can tell. I've taken months off, been in physical therapy for months trying different things, massaged and dry needled the heck out of it, but it just keeps coming back. Trying something new will often feel better for a couple of weeks, giving some false hope, only to crash back down without seemingly making any changes. Often just walking around much flares it up.

With that all in mind, I am starting to bike and run small amounts again. I'm largely having to relearn how to walk and run as some muscles on my left side were not firing, putting additional load on those peroneal muscles and tendons, and likely setting me up for the initial injury and flare ups. It's a long process, but we'll see where it goes. Hopefully it improves with those changes, hopefully I can run again, hopefully this wasn't my only Boston Marathon, and hopefully the pandemic gets under control to where Boston 2020 is able to safely happen this fall.

2019 Boston Marathon

So, it's been a year since I ran Boston, and with the 2020 edition not taking place today, it seems like a really good time to revisit and think through all that happened last year. While a lot of details don't come to mind right away, it was a memorable enough experience that as I start to replay the day in my head I'm sure a lot will come rushing back.

Betsy and Simon wanted to come cheer me on along the course, but I had to be down in Boston so early it wasn't really manageable for them, so I met up with my friend Sarah who was also running and her mom gave us a ride to Boston Common to get onto the buses to the start line and drop off our bags for after the race. Betsy and Simon planned to use the T to jump ahead of me and see me a few times along the course, using my Garmin Livetrack to know where I was.

It had been raining, and the forecast was for more rain and lightning. On the bus to the start it was really pouring off and on, and along the way the bus was radioed to pull over and wait for further instructions. This was because, I'd later find out, they were being redirected from the outdoor Athlete's Village location to dropping us off at a high school for shelter from the storm. Our bus driver really didn't understand that message.

He eventually dropped us off 0.75mi from Athlete's Village, and no where near the school. By the time we had walked to the village, the storm was starting to let up some and they were allowing some people in. On our way we saw the school where other buses were dropping off people at the front doors. Oops.

I tried to stay as dry as I could, and was wearing some clothes I intended to donate going to the start line. I waited in port-o-pottie lines and otherwise was focused on making sure I did all I needed to and got to where I needed to be at the right times. Once they cleared the first wave to start walking to the start line, and the rain had let up some, I took off my extra clothes and put them in the donation bags volunteers were collecting. I then stood lathering up in sunblock... in the rain... feeling a little silly, but knowing the forecast called for the sky to clear later in the race, and this pasty white guy doesn't do well without sunblock.

On the walk to the start I stopped like many did at one last port-o-pottie stop to be really sure things were good. Shortly after that, I felt like I had checked everything off by list of what I needed to do other than stand at the starting line. Just then the roar of fighter jets flew over as has become the tradition before the start of the race, and I walked into my corral thinking "Holy crap, I'm really about to run the Boston Marathon.".

That snapped me out of me focus of preparing and getting where I needed to be, and I stood in my corral just taking things in. Because of the qualifying time I had run in 2017, I was in the 1st wave, corral 8 with a lot of fast folks. Training over the winter in New England was tough compared to training for a fall race, along with my injury, so I knew I was not going to be nearly as fast as I had been then, and lined up at the back of my assigned corral.

By this point, everything was pretty wet, but it was only sprinkling if anything. I wasn't completely soaked to start, so things had gone pretty well. There were some announcements from the local announcer Andy Schachatand updates on the weather forecast, and then before I knew it the gun had gone off and we were starting to move forward. It really didn't take very long to get over the starting line from there, and I relaxed as now I knew all I had to do was do what I loved: run.

Well, sort of. I knew that my foot bothered me more the faster I ran, and also more on downhills, so I tried to be conservative and not really hurt it. The first 10 miles or so of Boston are mostly gradual downhill, and it steadily hurt more and more, so I was adjusting and shortening my stride and trying to make the best of it. I was probably one of the few runners who was looking forward to the hillier sections later in the race.

The plan to see Betsy and Simon along the route worked really well. Since I was wearing my phone behind me in a Flip Belt, they were seeing the Garmin Livetrack of where I was, and I was able to see messages from them on my watch. They would jump ahead of me on the T, and when I was getting close to where they were, Betsy would message me with what mile marker they were at and which side of the road. I think we saw each other 3 times, got some high fives and a kiss along the way.

The route was packed, it was like the busier parts of the Chicago Marathon basically for the entire distance. There were the iconic areas that were great to experience first hand, like what's called the Wellesley Scream Tunnel going past Wellesley College. You can really hear it from 3/4 of a mile away before you can see it.

My foot got steadily worse as the miles went on, and I kept making adjustments and shortening my stride considerably as that seemed to help. The sun came out around mile 13, and I was pretty glad after the race I had put on sun block, looking at some other folks who were pretty burned.

The Newton Hills were also a welcome relief to my foot, to be going up some and not extending my leg as much behind me. At some point around mile 18 or so, it leveled out and wasn't getting worse, and that was a pretty big win. I had been dreading it getting to the point where I was going to be stuck walking or hobbling to the finish, and that never happened. Honestly, with so much crowd support along the way and how iconic everything else is around you, it's incredibily motiviating to push through just about anything, for better or worse.

Speaking of landmarks, that Citgo sign as you head into the city? It really is such a hopeful sight to see at first, until you realize it really never gets closer. Seriously. I felt like miles it was still at the same distance. Around mile 22 or so I saw Betsy and Simon in their bright orange shirts one more time before heading in, after a high five and a hug, they were off to jump on the T to meet me after the finish line.

Making those last few turns and the volume of everything in the city is incredible. The left turn onto Boylston and the last straight away to the finish is unforgettable. I was almost 30 minutes slower than I had qualified at, but was able to run the whole thing, and the days after my foot/ankle wasn't really any worse than it had been before, so I regret nothing.

After finishing I made my way to meet up with Betsy and Simon, and felt quite a bit more normal after having some salt. We made our way to the T, which wasn't charging runners, back to Wellington Station, and home. It was a bit surreal how quickly it all went by.

After the race friends along the course told me of inspiring stories, like the visually impaired runner leaving her sick walking guide behind a mile from the finish to go on her own, or the veteran pushing himself while thinking of his lost friends and eventually crawling across the finish line.

My story wasn't anything like those, but I'm honored to have been there to experience the day with them.

The End of the Line

When I originally started writing this post, I titled it "The End of the Line" referring to the journey of the blue and yellow shoes, and intending not to use them again after running Boston.

As months went on and some days I could hardly walk after seemingly having done nothing to aggreviate my foot, let alone run, I questioned whether it was the end of the line for me running any kind of distance. I think that's a lot of the reason I've put off finishing writing this, with so much uncertainty looming over me.

At this point I've had a lot of tests, appointments, consults, and physical therapy. It doesn't seem like there's any obvious significant damage, and even if it stays exactly as it is, I can adjust and re-learn how I walk and run to likely work around aggrevating it.

With the pandemic in full swing, I'm thankful to have picked up a treadmill (the Technogym MYRUN) a couple of months ago to use rehabing my foot with an easy out to stop when needed. Now I'm shifting my focus to slowly rebuilding and reworking how my body operates, and I think that will end up being for focus for this year.

I hope come September I'm back to at least some modest running, the pandemic has gotten under control enough for Boston 2020 to take place, and I can go cheer along my friends -- while being able to honestly look ahead at possibly running it again in the future.