The thing I’ll remember most is the roar. Not just some encouraging background noise punctured by the occasional shouts of ‘well done’ or ‘almost there’ but a full-throated, undeniable wave of celebratory sound pushing the runners towards the finish line.
Hereford Street to Boylston Street is not far. When you cover the distance during the closing stages of the Boston Marathon, however, you come a long way.
There is nothing ordinary about the left turn you make which places you on the finishing straight of the world’s oldest marathon. I’m not ashamed to admit, my already weary legs went ever so slightly weak at the knees when I was hit by the sights and sounds of that final stretch.
Those steps will linger long in my mind. I had arrived in town a few days before the marathon and had seen the construction of the finish gantry being completed as race day approached. Ever since my race entry had been confirmed, the prospect of crossing that famous line was a real source of focus, of motivation, and now there it was. This was actually happening now. I was about to finish what I’d started some months ago and complete this journey from Balloch to the end of the Boston marathon.
There was just one problem. Even though the finish line was in view for some time – and I regularly checked that I was in fact still moving forward – it just wouldn’t get any closer. After one of the hottest, most challenging, runs of my life I was looking forward to it all being over. At the same time, however, I hoped it would never end. I was spent, dehydrated and travelling at a pace I was no longer allowed to dictate, but thankfully I still had enough wits about me to look up, to look around, to drink the whole wonderful scene in.
How often was I ever going to take part in something as remarkable as this? To get that glimpse, however brief, of what life must be like for the sportsmen and women who spend their working lives in front of substantial crowds. It’s quite something to be surrounded by so many people doing exactly the same thing as you but also feel like you are being singled out for special attention at the same time.
Then, as soon as I had decided to let the whole experience linger, the finish line was upon me all too quickly. The time I had been training and hoping to run had long since vanished as a possibility when the sun decided to shine so fiercely. But this had been some adventure so I raised a smile, held my arms aloft and doffed my sweat-stained cap to this incredible race. Job done.
Just as I’d hoped it would be, April 18 2016 was a day like none I have experienced before. I certainly don’t normally begin my day with a ride on a yellow American school bus for starters but, after a good breakfast and some pre-race coffee at my hotel, I wandered round to Boston Common in the early morning to join the thousands boarding the fleets of these distinctive vehicles laid on to provide an express service out to the start line in Hopkinton.
For those of you who may not know, the Boston Marathon doesn’t actually spend a lot of time in Boston itself. Runners are, in fact, transported 26.2 miles away and then run back into town. The route affords the chance to see some parts of smalltown America that might otherwise be missed – and the race is all the better for it. I read that each town the race passes through works in conjunction with the organisers (the Boston Athletic Association) to make sure ‘their’ section of the course is up to scratch and ready to welcome the world. The idea engenders a brilliant community feel to what is an enormous event and there is little doubt that each mile has its own personality, its own characteristics, its own story and its own fantastic levels of support.
Yes, there are some parts of the route more densely populated than others, but you are NEVER short of someone urging you on when you find yourself amidst the Boston Marathon throng.
I’ll be honest, I had hoped to run Boston quickly. Quicker than I had ever run another marathon before. As I stood on the start line, with the sun beating down, finding myself not yet moving but already sweating, I knew my work might well be seriously cut out however. For all I wanted to push hard, creeping further to the front of my mind was an experience I had had not so long ago at the London Marathon, in almost identical conditions, which resulted in me finishing the race but ending up a crumpled mess in a wheelchair.
Everyone I’d spoken to about Boston, including the lovely volunteer who happily chatted away and put this nervous foreigner at ease on the start line (all those who give up their time willingly out of love for the race are heroes, incidentally) said to take it easy and hold back in the early, downhill miles. So, after the Proclaimers song had finished blaring over the tannoy (making me feel even more at ease), and we were sent on our way, that’s exactly what I did.
This was the 120th staging of the Boston Marathon and the feeling of running in historic footsteps is unmistakeable, enveloping you as you make your way along the rolling roads towards the city.
The cries of ‘you got this’ after we’d completed roughly 300 yards of the course made me smile. I was wearing my Helensburgh AAC club vest and the regular shouts of ‘Go Helensborrow’ raised a grin too and helped rid that pre-race tension.
With so many sights, sounds and smells attacking the senses, the early miles simply flew by. I had heard about the ‘six-mile moment’, a festival held in the town of Framingham to honour the flood of runners as they pass through. Not for the last time that day, I was taken aback by the reception the locals afforded the field on their athletic endeavours.
I have a habit, particularly during marathons, of regularly ticking off a ‘systems check’ to help pass the time and also to help make judgements during the race. ‘Are my shoulders tight? Are my arms relaxed? Am I pushing too hard for this stage in the race? Is that calf niggle playing up yet?’. It was somewhere between mile 10 and 11 that this inventory brought the dawning realisation that I was going to have to change my gameplan. The sun was starting to take its toll.
I was still running reasonably well, and not pushing too hard, but after that London experience I knew what warning signs to looks out for. Despite pouring water down my throat and over my head at every water stop I was beginning to feel just a little thirsty. Not a good sign. I hadn’t expected the wind to be quite as fierce as it was either and I knew I was really going to be tested.
Approaching halfway and I knew that my dream finishing time was totally out of the question, especially when I was all too aware that the hilliest, hardest section of the course was lying in wait.
Before the famed Newton Hills played their hand, however, I first needed to run through Wellesley, another part of the route which I was told would be unforgettable. The women of Wellesley College have made it tradition to turn out in full force to distract, cheer, kiss and even propose to runners as they pass by. The students can be heard a long time before they can be seen, however. I was aware of the gathering sound storm some considerable time before I ran through ‘Scream Tunnel’ and witnessed first hand just what an effect they can on the suffering hordes!
Heartbreak Hill, at around mile 20, gets all the press but I’d argue that the steady climb which lasts around 3/4 of a mile between mile 16 and 17 is where your race is made or broken. That was certainly when I knew my top priority was no longer my finishing time and that getting round in one piece would in fact be a real achievement in itself. You come into this stretch, off a sharp downhill and the switch in the muscles you have to use really does have an impact.
On I ploughed though, at one point keeping things simple and concentrating purely on putting one foot in front the other. The multiple slopes of the latter part of the course began to merge into one and it was only when I spotted a big banner informing that Heartbreak Hill had now been ‘conquered’ that I realised I’d even been on that hallowed stretch of ground.
I knew it was (mostly) downnhill from there but, even when Newton was behind me, still the course rolled enough to never allow the runners t0 get properly comfortable. Not that comfort is ever expected at that stage of a marathon.
The profile of the Boston course is what makes the event such a tough proposition and simply adds to the feeling of taking on a substantial challenge. Respect is the watchword when it comes to the marathon distance – and most certainly when it comes to this course.
As the miles ticked by and the finish line edged closer, I simply could no longer stop the split times sliding. I have loved the excellent Garmin 230 I was given to use for this whole adventure, but I did curse its accuracy as it delivered news of my progress.
So there was nothing left but to soak it all in, cross
the finish line and savour the moment. I took delivery of a medal I will cherish and, in the end, I did have to speak to a few of the fabulous medics on hand. It did get to a point where a wheelchair appeared at my side and I was offered the chance ‘hop in’ and head for the medical tent. Thankfully, I didn’t need it this time and instead I was able to trudge, happily, back to my hotel.
The finish area of a marathon, particularly a big city marathon, is one of the most life affirming places in which you could ever wish to find yourself. Everywhere you look there is positivity, kindness, warmth of spirit, celebration. It makes the events which unfolded at the end of the 2013 Boston Marathon all the more gut-wrenching.
But, clearly, the people will not be stopped and the city’s new motto, Boston Strong, could not be more apt. It’s a wonderful place. It’s an amazing race and it was my privilege to be a part of it all.