Two weeks have passed since the 122nd running of the Boston Marathon — two weeks of fickle spring weather — sunny one day, raining the next — but nothing to compare with that miserable Monday when cold, heavy rain pummeled the elite and the masses alike, sending some two thousand runners to the medical tents to be treated for hypothermia.
I was only a bystander at the marathon, and not a terribly useful one at that, but the day left a deep impression on me all the same. This is my attempt to find some meaning in all that suffering, something to take away from it before all the raw memories of the day dissolve into incoherent mumblings, like the troubled dreams of shipwrecked sailors.
A Senior Project
Back in November, Emily, a senior at Concord Academy who had run Cross Country since her freshman year, asked me if I would be an advisor for her senior project. I’m only a coach, not an actual teacher, and so I’d never been an advisor for an academic project before. However, Emily’s idea was to run the 2018 Boston Marathon as part of the team raising money for Boston Children’s Hospital. Her project would encompass the training, the fund-raising, and reflections on completing the preparations and the race itself. Fortunately for her plan, she would turn 18 just in time to meet the BAA’s age requirement for participation in the race.
After four years watching her handle all sorts of challenges, I had a lot of confidence in Emily. First of all, she is far more organized and a better project manager than me. She would be on top of every last detail, including the daunting task of meeting the ambitious fund-raising target. Second of all, when it came to endurance, Emily seemed more prepared than most high school kids to finish a marathon. It had been an annual tradition in her family to participate in the Boston Marathon Jimmy Fund walk, and although walking isn’t running, she had also made a habit of running half marathons out of season (or sometimes in-season, before I discouraged that). She thought of herself as slow, at least when it came to 5Ks, but she had persistence to run slowly for a very long time.
If I had any concerns, they were motivated by my own inexperience. I really wasn’t sure what an advisor should do. In the beginning, I was anxious for us to meet every couple of weeks, and I badgered her with questions about whether she had done this or that. After a few of these meetings, I realized that she was managing everything fine, was usually way ahead of me, and didn’t need me being paranoid. By December, she had been accepted on the CH team, and by January was attending their organized group runs and following their training plan, which seemed very reasonable to me. She had also started a journal, posted her web page with her story and appeal, and was well on her way to raising more than three times the minimum amount required for each runner.
Boston, the Documentary
On the Thursday before Patriot’s Day, a friend and I took the train into the city to see “Boston,” the feature-length documentary whose subject is the 120-year history – and especially recent history – of the Boston Marathon. It was a pleasant enough evening, so we chose to walk from North Station to the theater on Seaport Boulevard, remarking on how much new construction was taking place downtown and along the Greenway. It seemed fitting to be contemplating how the city has changed, on our way to a film about the changes of one of the most recognizable institutions of that city.
A couple of hours later we were retracing our steps, revisiting moments from the film that had left the strongest impressions. We had both liked it a lot, but found ourselves struggling to identify what it was all about. It wasn’t a chronological retelling of the 120-year history of the race, from the first one in 1897 to more recent years; nor was it a behind-the-scenes look at the logistics of staging such a difficult event; nor was it merely an inspirational redemption story about how the race and the city recovered from the bombings in 2013.
Somehow it was easier to say what it wasn’t, than to put our fingers on what held the movie together as a coherent whole.
On the Course
I’ve never had a particularly smart plan for watching the race. I find it a hard race to watch, as I waver between wanting to watch the elite races on TV and wanting to stand by the side of the road peering into a sea of runners looking for people I recognize. I usually end up doing some of both, and not enough of either. Maybe the only way to really see the race is to run it oneself and then watch the TV replays later.
In 2016 and 2017 I watched with Terry’s wife Sue at the 14-mile mark. Sue knows how to support the marathon, bringing with her a wagon’s worth of water and Gatorade that she delivers to runners on a schedule that would make the planners at the MBTA weep with envy. It was tempting to join her this year, too, but I decided on a more complicated scheme. After watching the first hour and a half of the women’s race on TV, I would make the short drive to West Newton, where I’d catch the leaders and the rest of Wave 1 at the 18-mile mark. I’d then hop back in the car, and drive to Wellesley, where, with a little ingenuity I could park a half mile from the course and jog over in plenty of time to see the runners from Wave 4, including my advisee.
Knowing I would be standing around for a long while in increasingly nasty weather, I tried to protect myself with layers and layers of insulation and waterproofing. Over the usual warm fabrics, I wore rain paints and a not-at-all-breathable rain jacket that was not at all breathable. I had on two pairs of gloves, two hats, and two pairs of socks. For good measure, I worse plastic bags on my feet, wrapping them around the first pair of socks and then pulling on the second pair over them. With my bright yellow outer garments, I resembled a very large, very uncoordinated duck, and when I moved, it was less a running stride and more a duck-like waddle.
At home, I watched the race develop, watched the women’s front pack make agonized progress towards Boston, watched the back and forth between Desi and Shalane and wondered whether Molly Huddle would win. I watched the men, shaking my head to see Kawauchi pushing the pace. Watching TV, I had too much distance from the actual conditions of the race, and I couldn’t tell what it was really like out there. At some point, I had to find out, so I tore myself away from the TV and waddled out o my car. Ten minutes later I was parking on a side street on West Newton Hill, and making my way towards Commonwealth Ave.
I was not in time to see the leaders women or men pass by. I was resigned to not knowing what was happening at the front of the races, but it turned out that near me there was a guy who was somehow able to keep his phone from drowning in the rain and was live-streaming the TV coverage. He was happy to give updates to anyone who would listen, which enabled me to follow, more-or-less, Desi’s move into the lead and her eventual emphatic win, and Kawuchi’s dramatic come-from-behind victory over Kirui.
At the same time, I was trying to spot my friends in the first wave. I saw Neil first, and he looked good – strong, smooth, and alert for this late in the race. I somehow missed Danny, although he must have passed by a few minutes later. And then I spotted Patrick, who looked haggard and cold. I yelled out a question to him, “do you need anything?” This was the wrong thing to do, and I regret it deeply. What I should have done was reach into my bag for the hand warmers and dry gloves I had packed for just this moment, darted under the ropes separating the bedraggled spectators from the even more bedraggled runners, and run or walked with him for as long as it took to take advantage of what little aid I had to give. Instead, my tentative question and lack of prompt action induced Patrick to offer a weak but brave reply that he just needed the finish line to arrive sooner, and in a moment he was past me, disappearing up the road.
I watched for another half hour or so, spotting many people I recognized, but not the two I most wanted to see. I had completely forgotten that Terry and Amory had started in the second wave, twenty-five minutes after Neil, Danny, and Patrick. Figuring I had missed them, I abandoned my post and waddle-jogged back to my car. My hands were white and stiff, and in spite of the layers, I was pretty well chilled. I started the car, turned the heat on full, and began driving in the general direction of Wellesley.
There’s no question that local knowledge of the back roads along the marathon course is a useful thing, but in a normal year, I would have had a hard time parking within a mile of Route 135. But this was not a normal year. Instead of the 1.5 million spectators that typically line the route, there were perhaps fewer than half that willing to wait for hours in conditions that were deteriorating every hour. As a result, I was able to park less than half a mile from the course, and it only took me a few minutes to jog from my car to a spot where I had an unimpeded view for 200 yards up the road.
I needed a good view, because it’s not so easy to pick out one runner in a crowd. Even though I knew that Emily would be wearing the distinctive vest of the Children’s Hospital charity team, there were many such vests. After ten or fifteen or twenty minutes scanning a river of runners for a familiar face, your mind can start playing tricks on you. The endless stream of runners becomes hypnotic; your attention wanders; you find it harder to convince yourself you haven’t missed a person entirely.
As I waited, I began noticing how many runners had their names written prominently on their outer garments. A little shyly at first, and then with increasing conviction I began encouraging these runners by name. “Good job, Stacey!” “Let’s go, Martin!” “That’s it, John!” And then, with runners whose names were nowhere to be seen, I began substituting the name on the singlet or windbreaker. “Great work, Dartmouth!” “You’ve got this, Central Park!” “Viva Columbia!”
I wondered, did any of this matter to the runners, this smattering of cheers, repeated all along the course by strangers? Did they derive some measure of comfort from having their names repeated mile after mile, or maybe shouted once when they were in a dark place and feeling forsaken? Or were these random, anonymous cheers like so many tissues in the rain, overmatched by the elements and the sheer immensity of the need?
Putting aside these thoughts, I re-focused on looking for a runner needle in a thousand-runner haystack. Thank goodness for live athlete tracking; without it, I’m sure I would have missed Emily and never known it until it was too late. But with it, I was able to estimate within a minute when she would arrive at where I stood by the side of the road approximately 14.3 miles from Hopkinton. Even with that accuracy, it wasn’t until she was a few dozen yards from me that I made positive identification, shouted her name, and saw the confident smile on her face that indicated that for now, at least, and in spite of the rotten weather, she was doing fine and making steady progress towards her goal. I told her I would see her again at 18 miles, and then, as soon as she had passed, hustled off to make good on that promise.
Her pace was so steady, that it was easy to do the math and figure out that I had thirty-seven minutes to get back to my previous station at the intersection of Exeter Street and Commonwealth Ave. in Newton. It took me about five minutes to get back to my car, fifteen to navigate the back roads out of Wellesley and back to West Newton Hill, and another five minutes to find a parking spot and walk down to where the race had been proceeding for the last three hours. I had twelve minutes to spare, and I used them to offer more gratuitous shouts of encouragement to the column of refugees making their weary way towards Boylston Street.
When I saw Emily for the second time that afternoon, she looked a lot less perky. She’d tell me later that, like so many others at Boston, she experienced increasing pain in her quads beginning on the long downhill into Newton Lower Falls near the 16-mile mark. She’d tell me that everyone asked her afterwards what it was like, and she couldn’t think of how to tell those people that it had been hard, really hard, the hardest thing she had ever done in her life.
A week later, talking to the Track and Field team at CA, she emphasized to her classmates that she didn’t consider herself to be a good runner. She wasn’t fast. She wasn’t elite. She wasn’t special. She was just determined to keep going, even though it had been really, really hard. I told her I thought that the qualities that make a good runner – determination, persistence, stubbornness, courage – aren’t always easy to spot in the crowd.
Seasons such as these
I hate to exceed my monthly allotment of King Lear quotes, but the weather on Monday made it inevitable that I would need to cite the unforgettable scene on the heath where Lear, Kent, and the Fool are beset by the storms of the century, maybe of the entire Middle Ages. Lear, who at that moment has an even worse storm raging inside his head, at first defies the weather, almost boasting that the cataracts are as nothing compared to his anguish at the betrayal he feels at the hands of his two ungrateful daughters. But then, somehow, the entreaties from Kent and the Fool pierce the blackness in his mind, and for perhaps the first time in his privileged life, Lear seems to realize for a moment that there might be others more unfortunate than he is.
Before finally agreeing to take shelter, he chokes out a prayer:
Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these?
In the days following the marathon, as the runners thawed out and were able to walk normally down stairs again, I found myself thinking of Lear, thinking of charity, and revisiting the documentary I had watched that Thursday before the face. It occurred to me that I had an answer for what the movie was about, what the race itself was about.
If there was any one theme that could encompass what Boston meant, and continues to mean in modern times, it is the relationship between the runners and those who come out to watch them run. It’s a complicated relationship, an important relationship, and one that flows back and forth in ways that make it hard to tell who is offering charity to whom.
With a lot of help along the way, Emily completed the Boston Marathon in 4:29:20 and raised over $20,000 for Children’s Hospital. She wasn’t alone out there. Children’s Hospital had 125 runners in the race, and Emily tells me they raised a total of 2.3 million dollars. But you didn’t have to be a charity runner to be running for someone else, nor did you have to be supporting a charity runner to be offering comfort to the afflicted. Thanks to the weather, there was no end of need.
In one retelling of the race, Emily, along with 30,000 other runners from professionals to
novices gave us a reason to venture out in the pitiless storm, doing what little we could to ease their suffering, knowing it couldn’t possibly be enough, but doing it anyway because in the end, we’re all poor naked wretches who need defending from seasons such as these.
Jon, reading this brings back all the joyful memories of Boston 2018! Uff Da! as we Norwegians would say in disgust. Thanks for getting out in the elements and to support us soggy runners! I found the lack of numbers was offset by the exuberance of the true and hardy fans like you who showed up.