“It is good to live and learn.” – Cervantes, Don Quixote.
Everything I wrote in the first two parts of this story, I wrote from memory, without consulting old training logs, accounts of the race, or anything else. But when I sat down to write this final installment, I started wondering about some of the details, and I started looking for the artifacts I had kept that would help me fill in the gaps.
In an old photo album, I found the postcard that the BAA had sent me with my time, my overall place, and my age-group place. I also found the order forms for photos taken by the official race photographers (in those days, they would cut out rectangles from the proof sheets using an xacto knife, and then glue the pictures to an order form, a technique that seems incredibly primitive and labor-intensive now).
One of the proofs looks like it was taken in Newton on Comm Ave. In the picture, I’m the only runner, but in the background are several people holding umbrellas looking away from me, presumably at the next group of runners coming up the road. There are two other proofs, both taken on Boylston Street near the finish line. In both of these two, taken moments apart, I’m gritting my teeth and apparently trying to rally for a final sprint. But even when I recall how bad I felt, I have to admit that there’s nothing alarming in how I look — just another runner finishing a long race. Actually, what strikes me most about these pictures is how young that runner looks; he’s sporting a mustache and his face looks fresh and resilient. As I continue to examine the pictures and try to identify with that kid, my 2014 self begins to feel something like envy towards my 1984 self.
In the days after the 1984 Marathon, my life returned quickly to the normal cares and concerns of a job and a young family. I went back to work the next day, where I avoided stairs and continued to be embarrassed about my race. At work, I discovered how difficult it can be to talk to non-runners about the things that are important to runners. Even in casual conversation, I found it nearly impossible to hide my disappointment, but that was just confusing for my colleagues, who understood that I had run and that I had finished… what else mattered? I began avoiding these conversations, or having started one, found ways to cut it short with some cliché or other.
My running life also recovered, although it took longer and had some setbacks. It took me about a week before I was able to run again, and another week before I could run without my quads complaining. Once the pain had subsided, my desire to run more and faster returned with a vengeance. In May, I made my final mistake of the 1984 Boston Marathon. I began training hard again, way before my body was ready. After a few weeks I had messed up my calves, and would eventually have to take almost a month off to let them heal.
But that too would pass. By the end of that summer, all was well. By that fall, I started racing again with CSU, and I was as enthusiastic about running as ever, with one exception: where there had once been a burning desire to race Boston, there was now a gap. It was like the empty place on a wall where a painting has been taken down.
It’s funny: the next six or seven years would turn out to be the best years of my running life, at least as measured by times and places. Even though I was working hard in the volatile high-tech industry and our family was growing (Loren was born in 1986), running and training became ever-more deeply integrated into my life, and I kept improving.
But it would be seven years before I ran another marathon. I was 25 when I ran my first one, 26 when I ran Boston for the first time, and I would be 33 before I ran it again. Since that race in 1984, and despite having been embedded in an active running culture and living less than two miles from the course, I have run the Boston marathon only three other times. I have never threatened to become a Boston “streaker” — one of those runners who enter the race every year and, when their streak eventually reaches twenty or twenty-five or thirty years, have their stories told in a special pre-marathon section of the Boston Globe.
I think that “learning from experience” is an interesting phrase. It almost implies that once you’ve had the experience, you’ve also done the learning, but I don’t think that’s the case. It seems to me that simply having an experience doesn’t imply what you will or won’t learn from it. When an experience is particularly powerful or traumatic, the learning takes a long time and is a non-linear process that involves changing behaviors and thought patterns, remembering and forgetting, and occasionally getting a new insight. Old experiences are compared with new ones, and sometimes a new experience illuminates aspects of the old experience in a way that completely changes its original meaning.
I don’t know if my reluctance to throw myself back into marathons was because I had physically suffered from my 1984 race, or if the particular type of suffering had revealed something about what I did and didn’t want from running. I would eventually return to the marathon in 1991 and run 2:30 at Huntsville and 2:31 at Boston, but I didn’t consider myself a marathoner then, nor do I consider myself one now.
What, really, did I learn from Boston 1984?
I suppose I learned some practical lessons about preparing for and executing such a race. Over the years, in over a dozen marathons, I’ve never had a positive split of more than a few minutes. Was I too cautious in some of those races? It doesn’t matter; the question doesn’t really interest me.
I think that what I really learned was the very beginning of how to handle and process loss, how to grieve. It sounds so self-centered to put it that way, because I didn’t lose anything or anyone, except, perhaps an idealized version of myself. I hesitate to compare my personal experience of a bad race with others’ experiences losing loved ones. This year especially, it will be impossible to watch the Boston Marathon without thinking of that kind of ultimate loss and the road to recovery.
But maybe being humbled in my single-minded pursuit of a fast time was the necessary first step in becoming aware of other people’s grief. I wonder if that Boston race was a small but crucial point of reference that enabled me to be a more understanding person and a more compassionate mentor.
A couple of years ago, I coached a girl who had a really tough race at our league championships. It was the kind of race that a runner never really forgets. She had such high expectations going into it, took risks and ran harder than she ever had, and almost pulled it off, but faded badly in the final 600 meters and was passed by three other girls in the final 200. She collapsed in the chute, had to be helped to a place where she could recover, throw up, and cry. She had placed sixth — a relatively high finish that guaranteed her the honor of being a league all-star, but of course that didn’t begin to make up for her bitter disappointment. A few days later, we had a chance to really talk about the race, and without premeditation I found myself telling her the story of that Boston 1984 race, reliving it a little bit as I spoke.
I don’t think it made a huge impression, the story of the race I mean. But for perhaps the first time, I felt grateful for having had that experience so many years earlier, for having something other than platitudes to offer her as she began the long process of learning from her grief.