“Rain, Snow, Winds of Storm –
Nought shall make me afraid.”
Flying east from the West Coast every third person seems to be a slim female heading for Boston. All of them blonde, all appear younger than their years, all wear the BAA jacket from a previous Boston Marathon. They bring their own health foods which they chew with religious solemnity; they have no truck with airline pap. Heading east with the same purpose I feel those Boston stirrings. We pilgrims know our Mecca.
I recall my previous Bostons. Amazingly, for a runner of no real distinction, I’ve managed to run four of them. Amazing because you have to qualify for Boston, a feat I’ve never quite managed. In1987 I completed the Application Forms and addressed a begging letter to the Race Director:
Dear Mr Morse,
You might not be aware that Australia celebrates its two-hundredth birthday this year. You might also be unaware that Melbourne – where I live and run, and Boston – where you live and run, are sister cities. As you will see from my application my ‘qualifying’ time of three hours and thirty-one minutes is not quite fast enough. I believe I can run a qualifying time but Melbourne has no recognised marathon for me to run before the cutoff date.
I write to appeal to you: here is your chance to cement the Australian-American alliance. If we wait until Australia’s three-hundredth anniversary, I’ll probably be too old. Please consider.
Weeks passed. Months passed and no word. I needed to know, so I rang the Boston Athletic association and asked to be connected to Mister Morse. A voice came through the phone: Who is this?
I’m an Australian runner, running as Pheidip…
Are you the guy who wrote that crazy letter?
You’re all set. You’re good to go!
So I went.
That was a day like they’re forecasting for Monday – cold, wet, miserable. And triumphant.
Some time after the event I began to wonder whether Melbourne and Boston are indeed
My brother-in-much-more-than-law, John, planned to run the one hundredth Boston with me. A member and regular runner with the New York Road Runners Club, he qualified easily. I planned to run Melbourne to qualify but the event clashed with the Festival of Shavuoth. I sure as shit don’t run on Shavuoth.
I approached the Melbourne people with a plan. I’d run the course one week early and they agreed to provide me with a certified time on presentation of a statutary declaration of my finishing time. They told me they’d mark the course one week early, and I couldn’t possibly get lost. I ran, I found no marks, and I did get lost – repeatedly. I ran with witnesses, doubling back whenever I took a wrong turning. We subtracted the time expended on
extra distance and came up with a net time of three hours and twenty-six minutes, comfortably inside the qualifying time. Boston honoured the Melbourne Marathon certificate and John and I ran together.
Although the arithmetic was scrupulous, it had to be wrong. In 1998 I wasn’t beating 3:30 by that margin. This time it was Boston’s birthday I honoured.
The third time I ran as a charity runner. I wrote to everyone I know, promising them an investment opportunity like no other. I offered an absolute no-risk guarantee: donor-investors would never get their money back. We raised over five thousand dollars to aid research at Boston Childrens Hospital, the great institution that saved the lives of my two nephews, and so many others. As usual in Boston, I ran poorly and felt fulfilled.
The fourth Boston I raised money for the Michael Lisnow Respite Center, yet another local institution where tragedy is transmuted.
That was in 2013, the year of the bombs. I was not permitted to finish.
Now once again I am a fundrunner, this time for ‘Stepping Strong’, the inspiring initiative of the parents of a lovely young woman whose horrific injuries almost took her life in 2013.
Five Bostons without a single dinkum qualifying time. The story of a fortunate man.
In Boston on race day I consult the weather forecast. Yesterday they predicted eleven degrees Celsius. Today they revise it down to eight.
American weather prophets express themselves in percentage probability. Today’s prophecy: one hundred percent likelihood of rain.
While I wait in the meagre shelter of the light rail station my body confirms the forecast. Hugging myself, clapping hands for warmth I wait glumly. The light rail ride is warm but all too brief.
I descend and hike to the bus that will take me to the Start at Hopkinton. Waiting in the line I shiver.
Once aboard the bus the old bloke next to me announces he comes from Nova Scotia. Stick thin, too tall to sit straight in the bus, he wears five layers including a windbreaker. Although he ran his last marathon in Dubai his body remembers the cold.
We introduce ourselves. He’s Robert. I extend a hand, he offers a collection of long bones: Glad to meet you, Howard.
Good to meet you, Robert.
Robert aims to finish under four and a half hours. What about you, Howard?
What about me? Unusually, I haven’t identified a target for myself. I know I want to finish, something they wouldn’t let me do in the year of the bombs. That DNF leaves a scar in a runner whose sole boast is persistence. More than pride suffered wounds that day: belief was harmed as little Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell and Lingzi Lu died at the Finish in Boylston Street.
Before that day ‘The Finish’ never carried a double meaning. After Boston 2013, every ‘Finish’ carries a doubt.
I jolt myself from reverie. Forced to consider times, I know I want at least to beat my last effort, a painful four and a half hours on an Arctic day in Melbourne.
Boston usually lifts my spirits. Even with the bombings two years ago the mood abroad of unity and amity redeemed the day.
But the clothes I wear this day are not equal to the cold. Near me another veteran grumbles: there are only three things I hate at a marathon – rain, cold and wind. And today we’re gonna get them all.
Only minutes after leaving the bus I start to shiver as drizzle fulfills the prophet’s one hundred percent confidence. Memories of bone chill in my last marathon in Melbourne gloom me up thoroughly.
But Boston, being Boston, doesn’t allow a stranger to shiver: Take this jacket, sir. The volunteer has collected the jacket from a runner, one of the fleet of foot whose race has already started. Volunteer lady, twenty years younger than I, mothers me into the jacket, pulls the hood over my ears. There you go sir. Wear it until it gets too hot for comfort, then hand it to any volunteer and we’ll make sure it goes to the homeless. I begin to defrost and Boston brightens within me.
The announcer introduces our Starter. Wave Four, the slowest and the last to start, includes the bent, the broken and us ten thousand fundrunners who’ve raised funds for various charities. The Boston Athletic Association honours our Starter in recognition of her service to this village where she has conducted her family grocery since 1943. Big it up for the Hopkinton family grocer, folks. Usually too insubordinate – too Australian – to big it up when ordered, somehow I join the clapping for the grocer lady.
At some signal that I cannot hear nor see, Wave Four is released for the 26.2 miles. Now I shuffle, then trot, now tread a wary path between speeding legs that weave about my prudent hypotenuse. After one kilometre we start to run. This running is too easy; the steep declines murder muscles.
Before a marathon most runners prepare their ‘splits’, calculated times for each section of the race. My calculation is simple: never run a mile faster than ten minutes: any faster than this, I’ll burn up and be forced to walk the route into the early evening.
For ten miles I stick to my splits. After that time carries no meaning as I interrogate slowing thighs that have thudded down hill after hill. This strange sensation in my quadriceps muscles must betoken something, something portentous. A marathoner is a practised hypochondriac, fuelled by fears, searching ever for signs of doom, teasing meaning from meaningless sensations. Faced with the alternatives of hope and fear I elect to hope: let this thick feeling, this heaviness in the thighs reflect muscles bursting with all that pasta I took on board last night.
In this time without time I run inwardly, communing with my constant companions, doubt and fear. A voice penetrates, the public address: The leading runners just passed Heartbreak Hill. They’ll finish in a half hour.
The fundrunners on every side run for cures. My group seeks to cure trauma. Named for Gillian Reny, a nineteen-year old whose training to become a professional dancer was shattered with her leg, the ‘Gillian Stepping Strong’ team is as inspiring as that young woman, who dances her life yet.
Around me run the Liver runners, the Dana Farbers (cancer), the Cystic Fibrosis team, the Melanomas, the Multiple Sclerotics, Boston Childrens, Miles for Miracles, MR8 (for Martin Richard, aged eight). MR8 – a statement, a protest. Who can forget the carefree image of Martin with his wide toothy grin? The child wrote: No more hurting. Peace.
I recall another image. Standing with his back to the wall, his backpack at his feet, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev gazes impassively at the scene near the Line. Only a few feet in front of him he must see Martin and his seven-year old sister. He sees, he walks away, leaving his bomb behind the children.
Boston is healing but a fresh agony tears at this liberal community – the question of the death sentence for the bomber. Survivors and their families are painfully divided on the question. The voices I hear are Boston voices, measured, sober, heavy with unmediated pain.
Boston the town whose largest hoarding tolls the dead. The text reads in part, AMERICANS KILLED BY ASSAULT WEAPONS SINCE SANDY HOOK: 73,835.
Every runner’s singlet seems to memorialise someone. For Dad. Nigel and Luke. Barbara. Nanna and Nick. So many names, so many stories. The rain falls thickly now, drawing a heavy grey curtain and I do not venture to ask.
But the crowds refuse all gloom. Small children reach out and up from beneath umbrellas, high-fiving us grownups. Women whoop, men roar, the air screams benediction. Gloom begone!
We’ve passed through Ashland, running now between dark woods that line both sides of the road. Men dart from the track, turn their backs and drain overstretched bladders. An enterprising woman chases the men from the road. Does she plan to join them? No, instead she pees discreetly in the lee of a conveniently parked car.
Descending alarmingly still we pass through Natick. A lot of big beards here, tattoos, big stomachs. Harleys line the road. Music booms, the air rocks to Born in the USA and we ascetic creatures lift our feet, energized, at one with all them good old boys.
Uphill at last, then down, we’ve reached the Wellesley Hills. Here sing the sirens, the students of Wellesley College. The young women scream and carry placards, some subtle, some nearly subtle:
Kiss me, I’m from China.
Kiss me, I’m size D.
Kiss me, I’m French.
Kiss me, I do tongue.
A very married man, I blush and turn away, suddenly shy. But my legs respond. Lighter now, they want to bolt up the hills until I rein them in, reminding them of my ten-minute rule.
Around the halfway mark my legs declare themselves: they are just tired. This makes sense as my training has been limited to the half distance. Doubts bellow now, in chorus: Will you keep running? Will your resolve evaporate? Do you have the ticker? When will you give up and walk?
A huddle in black moving slowly to my right distracts me. I read the name “Achilles Club” on the black jackets of a group of four people who surround a racing wheelchair. Seated – no not seated – he’s half recumbent, in the chair is a black man, tall, not young. Two helpers drag the chair backwards up the hill, two others push from the front. The man has one operating limb, a leg that extends to the asphalt and pushes against it, helping to propel the chair backwards. I know the Achilles people, named for Homer’s wounded hero; they help people with disabilities to participate as athletes.
The hero in the chair silences my chorus. Abruptly I know myself again. I’ll finish this, and finish it running. This is only fatigue. That, and an exaggerated belief in my own frailty. A life lesson learned: I need to learn to give Father Time his due, but not to pay him in advance.
This certain knowing doesn’t buoy me much. There’s a bloody long way to go, it’s bloody unpleasant in this cold and wet, every step is hard, and there are no excuses.
Labouring onward I am visited by a thought, a sparkling discovery: This is stupid. I am too old for this. This will be the last. And just to confirm the resolution I add, No more! This sort of thinking is not new. I have thought this way during every one of my forty-five marathons. This time the decision feels compelling.
At every milepost I pause and drink a cordial composed of sugars, electrolyte and urine. Or something. I wash it down with a splash of water. These respites of thirty seconds allow muscles to recharge. I pick up my legs and for a time the going feels easier. Perhaps I was hasty. Maybe I needn’t stop doing this. I just need to train properly instead.
We start to climb what must be the outliers of Heartbreak, a hill whose start is undefined and whose finish is a coronary. These undulations have defeated greats: in the 1970’s Bill Rodgers won Boston four times; but on two other occasions he had to stop around here and withdraw.
Refusing to look up, running now in my dour element, I know the drill. Steady and slow, plod, plod, up, up. Refusing to be lulled by the odd small decline, I remember and respect these hills. My wise legs, hardened on the granite grades of Wilsons Promontory, follow each other slowly, soberly, up, up.
My brain melts. Arithmetic fuddles me. Here’s the nineteen mile mark. The marathon is 26.2 miles. How many miles to go? Too hard!
Snatches of verse swim into my head: here in Emily Dickenson’s territory I seize upon:
I like a look of Agony
Because I know it’s true…
Blow, blow, thou winter wind
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude…
Tennyson speaks to my remnant resolve:
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are…
Scraps from the Song of Solomon:
My beloved skips over the mountains
He leaps the hills.
This last fragment runs and runs, spooling endlessly, following the rhythm and tempo of my footfalls. I spend a long time – is it a long time? – I cannot be sure – with Solomon.
A cry from across the road: Uncle Howard! Uncle Howard! The crier is Ziva, my sister’s firstborn. At her side, sucking an enviably warm-looking thumb, stands her younger son Akiva, holding a placard in primary colours. The placard informs the field of thirty-two thousand that Uncle Howard is a champion.
Akiva’s elder brother Elisha is not with us. He’s in hospital, recovering from a kick in the eye.
The injured brother is represented by Grade Seven classmates, showing solidarity with Elisha. Some neighbours of Ziva have been gathered to watch her grateful old wreck of an uncle gobble a banana, reject a waterproof (too late), ignore the Coke Zero he requested, instead bolting and slurping electrolyte gels.
The uncle says sentimental things, kisses the niece, tries to kiss the great-nephew (who ducks adroitly) and runs off greatly cheered. Ringing in his ears are Ziva’s fatuous words – You’re running great, Uncle! – words he finds entirely convincing.
It is a still cheerful uncle who looks ahead and sights the stiffest and last of the uphills. Today marks the new moon of the month of Iyar in the Jewish calendar. Psalms from the day’s liturgy visit me:
This is the day the Lord has made –
Let us rejoice in it and be happy!
And that’s what happens. The way is long, the body is tired, but the mind is reconciled. I run on rejoicing.
Time to boast. Throughout the race I’ve been working the downhills. Instead of coasting, I’ve lengthened my stride – it hurts when I do this now – grabbing what acceleration I can. I tell myself I’m running an honest race, the best I can run. Steadfastly ignoring my stopwatch, I am yet aware my marathon pace is funereal. But some dumb pride glows as I run on, relishing the minute achievement of my imperceptible accelerations. I will run a Personal Worst today, which will yet be my absolute best.
Another boast: I recall a conversation between a champion marathoner and a commoner.
Slowcoach: I cannot believe your speed – running that entire distance in half the time it takes me.
Champion: And I cannot believe your endurance – running your hardest for twice as long as I can.
Today I will run nearly two-and–a–half times as long as the winner.
Ahead of me runs a solitary figure in pink, a youngish woman, quite tall, strong looking. Powerful shoulders emerge from her singlet; is she a triathlete? Whatever she is or does – this island – she piques my curiosity. Her independence wins my respect.
I recognise another woman, running like a draft horse half a pace ahead of me, the same Dana Farber runner I saw earlier wearing ‘Barbara’ on her singlet. She’s another island, plodding, oblivious of spectators and runners alike who are now jiving and singing along to a pounding ‘Sweet Caroline.’
I’d like to hear about Barbara. I pull alongside, am about to ask, then pause. I don’t want to hurt or shock the lady by referring to Barbara in an inappropriate tense, whether present or past. Please excuse me. Would you like to tell me the story of Barbara?
Briefly startled, the woman smiles: Yes, yes, I’d like that very much.
She tells me Barbara had cancer, but hers is a happier story. Thirteen years ago Barbara received a diagnosis of an aggressive, inoperable brain tumour. She might hope to live six months. At the time her children were three and one. She underwent treatment and was free of cancer for eleven years before the disease returned. This time it was six months.
I am so glad you asked me. I want people to know.
Moved by the telling, I murmur, It’s a sacred remembering her, speaking her name…
Yes, yes, I feel that too.
A young woman runner darts across our path from the far left to the barriers on our right. Crying words I cannot make out she throws her arms around two young women who stand together at the barrier. Three heads clinch in close embrace. The women exchange fierce kisses, then hold each others’ faces for a long moment in searching silence. Something has happened. Perhaps here, at this precise spot. Something tells me they arranged to rendezvous at this point. Was it here they heard the news two years ago, of a fourth – a friend? – when the bombs went off.
Running along Commonwealth Avenue now, only four miles to go. Only. Here’s a smallish lady, female, whose raincoat reads, Baby on Board. I pull alongside and cast an obstetric eye over her belly. Yes, she is.
How many weeks are you?
She smiles: Thirty-one. The doctors say it’s quite OK so long as I don’t overdo it.
Running a marathon is overdoing it – by definition. That’s the point of running the event.
She runs slowly, steadily on, looking quite comfortable. Slow as I am I outpace her. I leave her behind and ruminate happily on a new baby, a new life, some sort of consolation. If they call for a doctor, I’ll be ready.
Another familiar Dana Farber, this the one who wore ‘Nigel’ and ‘Luke’. Emboldened I ask, Those names you wear – cancer?
Were Nigel and Nick twins?
Thud. No further questions asked, none required. The woman’s soft look must mirror my own; a sorrow shared.
Past the Citgo sign we turn. Soon we’ll see Boylston Street and journey’s end. But the 25 milepost forbids excitement. This is one subtraction I am equal to. The one mile that remains feels like a long sentence to serve. But the sentence is not solitary. I share it with the lame, the very elderly, the damaged runners, as well as quite a few who appear young and fit. We leave behind the tall pink girl, now walking, stolid still, and solitary.
From either side of the street the crowds hurl waves of noise, calling, cheering, praising us all in an ecstasy of joy. They love us. They love me. Our effort is theirs, our success their own.
Boston claims us, lives through us. Amazed, uplifted, I burn. And run steadily on. Down Hereford Street now, it’s roses, roses all the way. Here’s where they turned me back in 2013. I look around me. Police again are everywhere, but calm, calming, part of the Boston polity, our protectors.
The final turn. Three hundred metres to go. I can race this. I raise rusted knees, swing mechanical arms, rise up onto blistered toes and chase. No chance I’ll catch that young bloke five metres ahead and to my left; he’s racing too. That young woman just ahead has picked up speed as well. Bugger it: let’s go for gold! I sweep past the racing girl. I chase that young buck, knowing it’s futile, joyous in full-blooded pursuit. The feet beneath me fly over the wet roadway towards the Line, a royal blue slash just ahead. Ten metres out, I find a bit more. I lunge and vanquish Young Buck. We shake hands and I stagger a bit.
Medals, drinks, foods, fruit, Medical – all straight ahead! Keep going straight!
One hundred long metres further on a woman wraps me in an insulating foil robe. Ahh, that’s better. Another lady garlands me with the familiar Boston medallion, the weightiest trophy marathoners know. They are not young, not glamorous, just kindly, just volunteers – Bostonians. And we runners love every one of them, all nine thousands of them.
I turn around and sight Ms Pink, striding slowly across the Line. Her gaze nowhere, she’s mindless of completion. Her face is distorted and drenched. This is not rain, she is crying.
*For quite understandable reasons of security BAA requires a runner’s name to match that of the photo ID. Farewell, Pheidipides the brave, my hero since third grade!
I post this long report so a reader can feel the long slog of the marathon.
Additionally I offer and dedicate this post to the generous blog followers who donated to Stepping Strong.
If you missed out on the privilege of giving, please be aware the fund accepts donations until June 30. You can give soon and give often. https://www.crowdrise.com/brighamwomensboston2015/fundraiser/pheidipidesgoldenber