Runner reflects on dropping out — and the marathon journey
A couple hours before the Boston Marathon, in the staging area – among thousands of runners sitting on towels and waiting and wondering – I happened to recognize the runner next to me.
Less than two months ago, Mike Hensley and I had run together for a fairly long stretch of the national 15K championships in Jacksonville, Fla.
“You ran really well in Jacksonville,” I said. “What’s your plan?”
Hensley’s plan – to go through halfway in 1:17:30 – threw me off a bit. The reason it threw me off was because Hensley had in fact beaten me in Jacksonville. Yet my plan was to hit halfway in closer to 1:16, which I estimated to be three minutes slower than my target in better conditions.
Hensley then told me about his experience at the 2007 Chicago Marathon. That year, after temperatures rose to 88 degrees, at around 3-1/2 hours, the organizers shut down the course.
Early on in that race, Hensley thought about shutting it down himself.
But instead, he kept going. And later, when he crossed the line in 2:32:18, Hensley told me he was shocked when he heard his place.
He had finished 22nd in a major marathon.
The year before that, on a cold, blustery day, I had covered the same course in 2:29:06.
I finished 111th.
That’s a glimpse of what heat can do.
Why I do this
I run to race.
Sure, I do like running. I also particularly enjoy the company and the minds and the eccentricities of my training partners.
But the reason I rise fairly consistently before dawn to get out and train is rather simple: I know that if I fail to prepare I will fail in the race.
At the same time, the marathon offers zero guarantees. As soon as the race starts, anything can happen.
Sometimes running your best requires patience. Other times, it requires a calculated risk.
Heading into my first Boston Marathon, as forecasts called for record-breaking heat, I figured my best bet was to try patience. In fact, in the days before the race, as the weather reports rolled in and the Boston Athletic Association began issuing warnings, I scrapped the time goal I had trained for and readjusted. I figured if I could run 2:30 or 2:32 or 2:34 on a hot day, maybe I could finish even higher up in the field than if I ran 2:26 in good conditions.
Plus, this was Boston, America’s most storied marathon. It was the 30th anniversary of the epic “Duel in the Sun” between Dick Beardsley and Alberto Salazar. And to think, I would run the same course as Bill Rodgers, Johnny Kelley, Ryan Hall, Robert Cheruiyot, Geoffrey Mutai, Joan Benoit and Catherine Ndereba.
Even though I had no history of running well in hot weather to draw confidence from, I had convinced myself that I could finally triumph over it by running smarter than I had in the past.
If I could just keep something in reserve until late enough in the race, I thought, the realization would hit – you’re running a good race; it’s happening! – and I’d be running free.
That’s what I imagined.
The crowds. The scene. The spectacle.
I imagined all of that could carry me through.
In the opening mile, I tried to run easy, to exert as little effort as possible and settle into the flow.
Mile 1. 5:50. Good.
The pace was easy. It felt like a training run.
But it was also clear how difficult the conditions were — 80s in the shade, 90s in the sun.
I told myself: this is your pace.
This is not hard.
Just like this.
All the way to Heartbreak Hill.
But as I closed in on 15K, it felt like someone flipped a switch.
I was cooked.
My legs wobbled.
Everything — everything — was hard.
I was breathing – practically gasping.
My running club teammates, Patrick Murphy and Chris Bain, caught up to me shortly before 9 miles.
The hollow-eyed Bain was at that point the picture of the toughest runner you’ll ever see. He was already working hard. You could tell he was already in agony.
But you could also tell Bain was not about to let anything stop him.
This was his 15th Boston Marathon in a row.
And as he would tell the Washington Times, Bain had a streak to defend.
At mile 10, I stopped to drink a couple cups of water.
For maybe 20 seconds, I felt better. The feeling was short-lived.
On one hand, I wanted to see my sister and her fiance at Heartbreak Hill. I wanted to see Frank, a dear friend, and his wife Jen at the finish. I wanted to see my Aunt Deb and cousin Anna at mile 22.
But I also had never been this out of it – and in such duress – at any point in any of my 10 marathons. Yet I still had 25K to go.
At mile 14 I spotted my first fan.
“Sorry, mom,” I said. “I’m done. Let everyone know.”
Meanwhile, Washington, D.C.’s Stefan Kolata, 30 (the same age as me), was asking himself a lot of the same questions I was.
In last year’s Boston, in better-than-ideal conditions, Kolata had run 2:26:13, close to his personal best.
In recent months, we had pushed each through two tough Sunday runs.
But this year, around 10 miles, Kolata’s legs shut down, he said.
His parents were at 16 miles. He planned to drop out there.
Instead, he walked some, applied ice to his neck and drank a bottle of water.
He walked twice in the last 3 miles, but he did finish, in 2:54:14.
And like Bain, the main reason Kolata pushed on was, as he wrote, “to maintain a Boston streak.”
Six in a row.
Hensley, meantime, did not stick with his plan. He got out in 1:15:25 and held on for a time of 2:34:42. In good conditions, a runner of Hensley’s caliber would not be pleased with that kind of positive split. But in the 2012 Boston Marathon, this was the stuff of greatness.
He finished 40th overall.
In the lead pack, Mutai, who in the wonderfully ideal and wind-aided 2011 Boston Marathon ran the fastest marathon ever, dropped out around 30K. On the women’s side, the previous year’s winner, Caroline Kilel, failed to finish as well.
On both sides, the winning times of Wesley Korir and Sharon Cherop were nearly 10 minutes slower than in 2011.
As for me, I guess I’ve lived to fight another day. In other words, rather than enter a phase of planned rest as I typically would after a marathon, I’ve returned to training with my thoughts now set on the Cleveland Marathon.
But I will tell you, it doesn’t feel right. When I search through the top 300 bib numbers (I was 286), it’s clear that a lot of people dropped out and a lot of people found a way to get across the line.
I will always struggle with this.
Still, every runner has his or her own journey. And when it comes down to it, it’s just running.
Lately, though, before I run in the morning, I try to remind myself of what a privilege it is to be able to run at all and how lucky I am to have a healthy body and mind, not to mention an amazing wife, an amazing family, even amazing luck.
At Gettysburg College, where I ran cross-country and track and field, Head Coach Aubrey Shenk, prior to pointing his starter’s pistol before the annual cross-country invitational, often says, “Today is a beautiful day to enjoy your sport.”
I have heard him say this during rainstorms. I have heard him say this while standing in a course filled with water and mud.
But Coach Shenk’s right. Any opportunity to run should never be taken for granted. But maybe every opportunity needs to be kept in perspective, too.
The next time I’m hurting the way I was in Boston, and trust me, there will be a next time, hopefully I will have a better sense of what’s coming.
Hopefully, I’ll find a way to walk, jog, stagger … whatever it takes.