I was originally going to write two separate posts for each of the marathons I ran last month, but I felt it wouldn’t give the overall experience justice. After the day I had in Boston I was going to call that post “Digging Deep Way To Early!” or possibly “What the $h*T!”. I decided against that, because one week later things were totally different. Over the course of seven days I had two very different faces in each of my races, hence why I chos
e Janus as the overall theme. The Roman god of time had two faces, so he could always have an eye on the beginning and the ending of the day – the past and the future. For the race in Boston I was looking back – almost the entire time. The London Marathon I was optimistic for the future – almost the entire time. Two very juxtaposing feelings for marathons within the same week was strange, but also full of wonderful lessons.
The Boston Marathon of 2016 was the toughest race that I have run to date -period. I do hope that fact remains true, if not I will need to write the aforementioned post(s). When I arrived in Boston I had so many great feelings. Boston is one of my favorite races, and this would be my third time running it. The weekend of the race started off quite wonderfully.The weather was beautiful and I was full of excitement and anticipation for the beginning of an insane week. This was the week that I was going to run two marathons on two continents in six days. For some reason, however, things didn’t seem right when I arrived in Hopkington…
The Boston Marathon is a point to point race. That requires all the runners to travel out to the start of the race, which is Hopkington, Massachusetts. This is where 33,000 people hang out in athlete’s village, which is a large snack bar/porta-potty station at the local high school. My charity is lucky, as we get to hang out on a bus until it is time for runners to go to their respective starting corals. But, our bus leaves for Hopkington at 5am, and we have to wait until at least 10:15 until we go to the start. That is a long time to hang out before the race, so your fuel strategy needs to be different that most races. Before heading to the bus I usually have a few eggs, toast, and some coffee around 4 am. Then I usually eat little bits of carbs before the start. My day started a bit off because the hotel wouldn’t serve eggs until 6. Also, they did deliver a bagel for me, but that’s it! No shmear, no jelly, no peanut butter, no nothing! I tried to shrug it off, but it got me going on the wrong foot. I am no Prefontaine, but I do know how my body works and fuel is not something I play around with. Fast forward back to the bus, and I just wasn’t feeling it. I didn’t get my proper breakfast, so I was trying to make up for it with a protein bar and other replacements. Also, at 9:30 in the morning it was 68 degrees, and a bit muggy. I started to worry about the weather. The day seems picture perfect, but running when it is warm, muggy, and not a cloud in the sky can be hell. The air felt thick and there was an electricity in it that made it seem like a storm, but the sky was clear as glass. At this point I headed towards the village and thought that would energize me.
When I arrived at the village I realized I wasn’t the only one concerned with the weather. Runner’s of all type were noticing that they were already sweating. The volunteers handing out the water also were mentioning that bottles were going a little bit faster than they had remembered. But, I tried to keep my mind clear, as it literally is a marathon and not a sprint – a lot of things can change…and they did.
The half a mile walk up to the starting line was nice and I tried to continue to keep my head clear. The walk to the start was really sunny, and I did begin to worry again. I am not a worry-wort, but this was my 10th marathon in 40 months and something just didn’t seem right. Finally, my adrenaline kicked in when the announcer came on for our wave to start. We got the “National Anthem”, followed by the prerequisite “Born to Run” by the Boss. I finally felt psyched and all the worry went away. I was crossing the starting line of my 10th marathon, which was also my second in 6 weeks, and the first of two in one week. My quest for the six Abbott World Marathon Majors in one year was on its way again. The start of the Boston Marathon is pretty amazing to describe. All of the runners converge on this small new England town, and leave just as quickly. After you cross the starting line, you run around a small curve and begin a slow downhill for a few miles. This hill reminds me of when you get over the crest of a roller coaster, and there is that split second where time slows and you are staring down the hill that powers you through the rest of the track. All that I see are the backs in front of me, as well as heads bobbing at the bottom of the hill. It is very surreal, then as quickly as time slowed it comes rushing back to full speed. The roar of thousands reverberate through my ear, as the starting line crowds cheer every single runner on. I smile, because I am honored to be there. I feel humility, because I know this course will make you feel it. Then suddenly I feel a sense of foreboding, which I can’t quite describe – not yet, at least.
I get through the first few miles alright. I take it easy, as I know I will need to do this again in less than a week. I keep a consistent pace for the first six miles, but then something changes. I start to feel every single breath. I had to make myself inhale and exhale. I was acutely aware of every little thing my body was doing, as well as every major thing – which includes all steps. At that point in time I was so aware that I could have counted all my steps, breaths, blinks, and anything else you can think of. This is not a good place to be. I couldn’t focus, or I should say that I couldn’t not focus. This usually happens for the first few miles of a long run, but usually never over three miles. At this point in time I should be settled in to myself, my run, and just flying happily. But, I wasn’t . This was the start of time standing still, and every mile becoming a marathon in its own right.
As I trudged along I thought of everything possible to raise my energy level, but to no avail. I went to some great music to help me zone out, but that didn’t work. I then looked towards the crowd. Boston’s marathon fans are amazing, but I usually keep that energy in my back pocket until I really need it. Well, I needed it at mile seven – which is way to soon! It was also getting hotter with each mile, and I noticed that the volunteers at the water stations were having a difficult time keeping up with the amount that people were drinking so early. At this point my energy was fading, and I had to start digging deep. This was not the place I wanted to be an hour into a full marathon.
How would I describe digging deep?
“Brian, you got this!”
“Keep on going!”
“Brian, it’s only part of a day!”
“Just a little more to go!”
“Just keep swimming!”
These are just a few of the things that go through my mind. I say motivational things to change my emotions. My legs were fine, but I had to change what controlled them. But digging deep can only be done for so long. It’s effects wear off, and you have to go it on your own for a while until that power up recharges. I also only get a certain amount each race – which of course I don’t know that number. There is also another very motivating “dig deep”, but I try not to use it until the last few miles. That final one is thinking about my mother, and the reason why I started the races. As I have mentioned in other blogs, I started these races because of her, but I continue them because I love them. However, remembering the original reason gives me strength, because everything is easier than going through that sort of pain. I do use this sparingly, because it is emotionally powerful and can be as equally emotionally draining. I used it at mile 10, which got me to mile 16, then I crashed hard – physically and emotionally.
Mile 16 is where you enter the town of Newton. To marathoners Newton is famous for one thing- hills, four of them to be exact. The fourth of those hills is aptly named “Heartbreak Hill”. It is named that because in 1936 John Kelley was passing Ellison Brown on that hill, and he patted him on the back in a very cocky way, as he thought he was going to win. However, Ellison wouldn’t stand for it and he was energized by that pat, so he then went on to beat John Kelley in the race. That is where the heartbreak began. After losing around 475 feet in elevation during the first 16 miles of the race it is now time to gain it back in 5 miles. I usually look forward to the hills. Flat races tend to bore me, as it is constant repetition that fatigues me, so the hills are a great change. Moreover, they are a welcome challenge that I am normally psyched to handle, because at mile 21 is when I recharge. Five miles left in a marathon for me is the home stretch, but not today. My legs felt fresh, but forward motion was my enemy. To make matters worse the temperature dropped about 15 degrees and there was a pretty strong headwind that had begun. At this point I didn’t know how I was going to make it up the mountain. I had heard people talk about having bad race days, but I couldn’t relate. My NYC marathon last year wasn’t the best, because I had been sick, but I still enjoyed it. Now I knew what they had been talking about. There was no one reason why, but it just was.
I don’t remember how I made it to the top of Heartbreak Hill, but I know it seemed to take forever. There was a person with a sign at the top, so I decided to stop for a photo and rest rest for a bit. It was like I just climbed Mount Everest. I didn’t even stop on Heartbreak Hill my first Boston Marathon. In fact, even if I am drained in a race I never stop, but today I did. I really didn’t think I was going to finish the race at this point. I wasn’t injured, but I also didn’t know what I was. If I didn’t finish, then my goal for the entire year would be shot to hell. I had to finish and that became my saving grace. Instead of being present in the moment, for this race I had to look at the big picture of completing all six Abbott World Marathon Majors, as well as raising $50,000 for charity. So I started running again. It gave me some calm to think about my overall goal. I did visualize finishing the NYC Marathon, which would be my sixth race this year. I did visualize getting my Six Star Finisher Medal from Abbott World Marathon Majors. Finally, I did visualize the sense of accomplishment in a long-term goal that I have achieved. Yes, the big picture was helping.
At this point there isn’t much more to say about the race other than I finished. I sprinted down Beacon St., then made a right on Hereford and a left on Boylston for the finish. Before I cross the finish line, in Boston, I always look and gesture to the place where those innocent people’s lives changed forever – they deserve our respect. After I crossed the finish line I took pride in the fact that I finished. I truly was happy at that moment. I had just finished 2 marathons, on 2 continents, in 6 weeks. I also thought about how I used the big picture to get me through. Sometimes being present is important, but this time the big picture got me to my destination.
I didn’t enjoy this personal victory very long, as I had another marathon, on another continent, in 5 days time. After the day I had that Monday I had no clue how I was going to do it. How could do better if I was already so beaten? Looking at the past, recent as it was, I thought was going to be my downfall. How could I get past the past?
I got back to work the next day and already had a pretty busy week ahead. I tried to forget the difficulty of the day before, but it was really tough. The past kept calling. Four days later I was in London. Now was the time to be present. I was only going to be there for three days, and I had to make the most of it. I arrived late in the evening, so the only thing I did that day was eat a sandwich and go to bed. Saturday morning, the day before the race, I met up with a group from Abbott World Marathon Majors to have a meet and greet with Great Britain’s Olympic marathon runner, Liz Yelling. It was great to listed to her walk through the course with our group. Then we walked the portion over the Tower Bridge with her, which was a great experience. The Tower Bridge is almost the half marathon mark for the race, and I got chills when I thought I would be running on that very spot the next day, with thousands of people cheering me on. The rest of the day was pretty normal. I went to the expo, got my bib, and just took it easy.
The next morning went smoothly. I stayed at an AirBnB, which allowed me to cook my own breakfast. I got ready for the race, then made my way to Greenwich for the start. I was told by many to get on the trains early, because it becomes a bit of a nightmare with the crowds all getting on the same line. So I left early – way too early :)!! I have the dubious distinction of being the first person at the London Marathon in 2016. Upon arriving at the tube station I was promptly greeted with an “Oy! Wha ah you doin’ ere?”. At that moment there was a meeting of the Tube employees going over what will happen during the morning. So I made my way to a nice little cafe and had a cup of coffee. I read for a while and relaxed. That is the only negative thing that happened all day.
I won’t explain the race mile for mile, because there isn’t really a need. London is a beautiful course. It was cold at first with a bit of rain. It then got sunny, then rainy again, but that’s London. Running on the Tower Bridge so much more than what i had imagined. The bridge was so packed with spectators. They love all the runners and hang out until the last one goes by. There is also lots of beer on the course – but I refrained until I was finished. The last mile is going past parliment, Big Ben, the London Eye, and finally Buckingham Palace. That still gives me chills. Prince Harry was at the finish line watching people as they went by. I’ve never been seen by royalty – pretty cool. Overall it was an amazing race. Once the race started I didn’t look to the past, not once. My legs were fresh, and my mind kept them that way. I was very present and mindful, while also looking forward to what the race was going to bring me in the future. I did lose steam at 23/24, but that was ok. I took a few selfies before the finish, and enjoyed my time running on historic roadways. It was a true joy the entire way. Physically I felt good when I was finished, and never had any issue in the weeks after. However, I did notice that the mental drain from keeping the physical part going lasted for a few weeks. Our bodies are amazing, but as fine tuned of machines they can be, they still won’t function without the mind.
It is amazing how looking to the past can cause one emotion, being present can cause another, and looking at the future yet another. It reminds me of a story in The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho:
A merchant sent his son to learn the Secret of Happiness from the wisest of men. The young man wandered through the desert for forty days until he reached a beautiful castle at the top of a mountain. There lived the sage that the young man was looking for.
However, instead of finding a holy man, our hero entered a room and saw a great deal of activity; merchants coming and going, people chatting in the corners, a small orchestra playing sweet melodies, and there was a table laden with the most delectable dishes of that part of the world.
The wise man talked to everybody, and the young man had to wait for two hours until it was time for his audience.
The Sage listened attentively to the reason for the boy’s visit, but told him that at that moment he did not have the time to explain to him the Secret of Happiness.
He suggested that the young man take a stroll around his palace and come back in two hours’ time.
“However, I want to ask you a favor,” he added, handling the boy a teaspoon, in which he poured two drops of oil. “While you walk, carry this spoon and don’t let the oil spill.”
The young man began to climb up and down the palace staircases, always keeping his eyes fixed on the spoon. At the end of two hours he returned to the presence of the wise man.
“So,” asked the sage, “did you see the Persian tapestries hanging in my dining room? Did you see the garden that the Master of Gardeners took ten years to create? Did you notice the beautiful parchments in my library?”
Embarrassed, the young man confessed that he had seen nothing. His only concern was not to spill the drops of oil that the wise man had entrusted to him.
“So, go back and see the wonders of my world,” said the wise man. “You can’t trust a man if you don’t know his house.”
Now more at ease, the young man took the spoon and strolled again through the palace, this time paying attention to all the works of art that hung from the ceiling and walls.
He saw the gardens, the mountains all around the palace, the delicacy of the flowers, the taste with which each work of art was placed in its niche. Returning to the sage, he reported in detail all that he had seen.
“But where are the two drops of oil that I entrusted to you?” asked the sage.
Looking down at the spoon, the young man realized that he had spilled the oil.
“Well, that is the only advice I have to give you,” said the sage of sages.
“The Secret of Happiness lies in looking at all the wonders of the world and never forgetting the two drops of oil in the spoon.”
So being present is very important, but sometimes you have to look at the big picture to get through something. Also, learn from the past, but that doesn’t define your future. Yes it is just a race, but it is also an experience that has, and will, change me forever.
I have now completed 11 marathons. Three of those I have completed in the last two months, and two of those within a week. My body can get through anything, and as I experience more so can my mind.