If nostalgia is defined as a wistful or sentimental desire to relive the past, then no, I’m not nostalgic about my first time running the Boston Marathon. At the risk of understatement, it wasn’t an easy race for me. But thirty years on and watching all the preparations for the 2014 race, I’ve been thinking a lot about that cold, wet April day in 1984 and how it changed the whole trajectory of my running career, and changed me in other ways, too.
It’s surprising when I think back to those days and realize that I was already entering my second marathon even though I had been back running for only a year or so. Of course, I had run a lot in high school; track and cross country had meant the world to me, then. But after graduation I soon turned my attention to other things and left competitive running behind. It would be nearly seven years before I took it up again.
It wasn’t until late 1982, the year that Ann and I graduated from college and moved to our little apartment on Gordon Road in Brighton, that I started running again with any consistency. I had gotten my first real job working at a small electronics company in the Fort Point Channel area. One of my colleagues there was in the habit of running at lunch almost every day, and I started joining her for four-mile circuits of South Boston. I found the routine easy and agreeable.
In early 1983, Ann brought me a flyer for a 7-mile road race that would start and finish a block from our apartment. It seemed very exciting, and so I entered the race and put a crude calendar on the refrigerator to keep track of my daily runs. With five weeks to train for the race, I started doing longer runs on the weekend by myself. My cardiovascular system responded quickly to this training, and I noticed that I was doing all my runs a lot faster. Meanwhile, my colleague at the electronics firm had left the company, and I was now doing my lunchtime runs alone, heading down to South Boston, running along the ocean and out around Castle Island.
That first road race started and finished at the East End House on Allston Road in Brighton, with most of the course along the Charles River. I don’t know how I managed to pace myself, but the race went well. Although I finished several minutes behind the winner (a professional looking runner with a Saucony Racing Team singlet), I managed to crack the top ten, which seemed quite good to me. I think Ann expected that after this one race, the whole running thing would be out of my system, but of course it had the opposite effect. I couldn’t wait to race again.
I was also becoming more aware of what was happening in the wider world of road racing. I remember meeting Ann in Coolidge Corner to watch the 1983 Boston Marathon. 1983 was the year that Greg Meyer won in 2:09:00 (the last American to win Boston), and Joan Benoit ran a world best time of 2:22:43. The sight of Meyer and Benoit and all the other runners streaming down Beacon Street toward the finish at the Prudential was unforgettable and inspiring, and in a moment I had resolved to be part of the race the next year.
Running aside, the months that followed were an incredible time in our lives marked by a series of life-changing events over a very short time period. In July, I switched jobs and started working as a technical writer at a small but influential software company, a choice that would define the next twenty years of my career. In August, Ann and I were married. That fall we moved to an apartment in Newton. On January 4th, 1984, Joni was born.
And through this time, I kept running. I ran the morning of our wedding and on our honeymoon, getting up early so that I would be returning from my run when Ann was getting up. My runs got longer. My weekly mileage got higher. I was just making it up as I went along, but it was working for me. That fall I entered my first marathon, the long-since-forgotten Bostonfest Marathon that started and finished at Boston Common with loops out Storrow Drive and down past Jamaica Plain and the Arboretum. I was fairly terrified of the distance, and ran cautiously in the beginning. This turned out to be a good strategy, and in spite of my inexperience, I managed not to blow up much. Although wobbly-legged and dehydrated from not drinking enough during the race, I crossed the line in 2:36:00, well under the qualifying time needed to enter the Boston Marathon in the spring. I was elated.
When Joni arrived in January, I half expected that it would be the end of my running. I had no clue what it would mean to take care of a baby, but I knew that everything might change, including having the time to indulge my running hobby. A few days after Joni was born, I went for my first run since we had brought her home from the hospital. I remember the feeling of astonishment and relief that it was still possible to do such a thing. Now, thirty years later, it tickles me to think that Joni is the real marathoner in the family.
As I became more accustomed to being a dad, I also got back into training for Boston, and I started looking for opportunities to train with others similarly obsessed. At some point that winter I heard about a running club that did indoor track workouts at MIT, and that led me to join the Cambridge Sports Union. I did my first race for the club in February 1984 at the Amherst 10-miler, running around 54 minutes. A few weeks later, I ran the Boylston 30K and finished 4th overall, averaging about 5:30 per mile for 18.6 hilly miles. I didn’t know it then, but running that race five weeks before Boston was probably the first of a series of serious mistakes that would doom my marathon effort.