Friday, April 26, 2013

Boston Marathon Under 3 Hours: So What?

     It was sunny when I finished the Boston Marathon. I stopped my watch and walked, congratulating runners around me. After a few yards, I saw one of my running role models being interviewed by TV. It meant I, a 39-year-old amateur, had finished the race just behind Joan Benoit Samuelson, two-time Boston Marathon winner (1979 and 1983) and first female marathon runner to win an Olympic gold medal (1984). Now 55, the marathon legend is still very fast. I was overwhelmed.
     ``She's my hero, my inspiration!" I told one the photographers at the back of the media crew surrounding her.
     About an hour later, none of this mattered. Two bombs killed three people, including an 8-year-old boy, and injured more than 260 who came to support runners at the finish line.
         A week later, I still struggle with guilt when I think about the race. The mere thought of running a marathon, let alone being proud of a personal record and brush with a running celebrity, feels selfish and inappropriate.
      For months, I had conditioned my body and my mind toward a single goal, making every detail of the preparation disproportionately important. Looking back at that morning of April 15, all of those details seem pointless.
     Consider my main concerns as I woke up at 5:30 a.m.: I dreaded about being cold while waiting for the 10 a.m. start. I agonized over what kind of arm sleeves I would wear. I fretted that my watch, which had been malfunctioning, would stop working altogether. I reflected on my goals for the race, my fourth Boston Marathon, visualizing each portion of the now-familiar course. I would try to run the first half in 1h27, a pace of 6:38 a mile (14.6 km/h), leaving me just under 1h33 for the second half to cover 26.2 miles (42.2 kilometers) under three hours. The plan was ambitious -- I had broken three hours only once, a 2h59m19 in New York in 2011 -- but still within reach since my record in Boston was 3h01.
     As I walked to the school buses that would take me to the start, a bottle of water mixed with Nuun -- a self-dissolving electrolyte tab -- exploded in my bag. All of the bag's contents got drenched, including the throw-away clothes that would have kept me warm before the race. I panicked. How absurd it now sounds.
    This year my qualifying time meant that I was closer to the front runners in the corrals that help stagger the 23,000 runners' start in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. I warmed up amid runners -- mostly men -- with numbers in the 1,000s. (Mine was 2,985: in Boston, the fastest your qualifying time, the lower the number.) I remembered the words from my husband and mental coach (``Don't let it get to your head"). There was no risk: I didn't seriously think I belonged. I was just a tourist.

Feeling like a tourist among triple-digit bib numbers
       I started faster than my goal, and probably paid for it with side stitches about 5 miles into the race. Stitches are new to me: They appeared during training this year and even forced me to walk during a session of speed work -- a first. But I decided to stick with my pace of about 6:30 a mile: I was now in the race and had to give everything I could. The people of Boston, as always, carried me in moments when I contemplated quitting: the crowds cheering the U.S.'s oldest marathon, in its 117th edition this year, are like professional supporters. A lot of them have more experience cheering than we have running in Boston. That makes the attack on a group that was out for others even more heart-breaking.
     I passed the half mark in a time matching my personal best on the distance, 1h25m47, knowing that I had yet to make my biggest effort. I always tell novices that the Boston marathon starts mile 16 with the first of a series of hills. But once again, I was wrong. The hills weren't the hardest part for me -- I had trained for them. The last 5 miles of downhill following the hills were the most grueling.

The face of grueling pace
     It’s hard to describe the amount of pain I inflicted on myself as I pushed through: Everybody's threshold is different. One sign that I started to reach my limits is that I got confused about my pace. The numbers on my watch weren't adding up in my head anymore. I felt a new sensation in my legs -- they were giving way -- but I wasn't clear-headed enough to recognize it as a possible sign of lack of fuel. I had forgotten to take a last gel and drink Gatorade for a boost of sugar in the last miles, as I usually do.
     Five miles for a trained runner is easy. But for a runner in pain and distress, it's more than half an hour of digging into resources that may not be there. I was slowing down, not sure I could make it. My pace dropped to about 6:50 a mile in the last 3 miles, and about 7 minutes in the last mile. No matter how hard I tried to keep the pace, my marshmallow legs weren't responding: my torso was getting ahead of them.
     The crowd at the finish line, in wild screams, transported me. I crossed the line in 2h54m21, surrounded by cheers that would turn to terror an hour later.
    I was 55 minutes faster than at my first marathon 11 years ago in Paris, and 67th woman overall. Ten women 39 or older ran faster than I did, all but one in their early forties. The exception was Joan Benoit Samuelson, 4 minutes ahead of me. I like to pour over numbers and statistics because I can handle facts. I can't handle emotion. All I feel about my race is: so what?

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Sunday, April 21, 2013

I'm Just a Boston Marathon Runner

                I'm just a runner. I don't know what it feels like to be a mother who loses a son, a friend who loses a best friend, a father who loses a daughter, an aunt who loses a nephew. I don't know what it feels like to lose a leg in a bombing, to bleed on the sidewalk nor to learn a family member is maimed in a hospital. I only know that I will be back running the Boston Marathon next year.
                I won't be back because I'm strong or because I want to show them -- the killers -- that I'm not scared. I won't be back because I'm tough and resilient after those grueling hours spent training for endurance races. I won’t be back to prove anything or send a message to anyone. I wouldn't know what kind of message to send or to whom. I won't be back to show life goes on, even though it does and must.
                I'll be back because it's the only way I can honor the victims of the April 15 bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon, and the city mourning them. On that sunny day, I was in the marathon. I did what runners do: I pushed my legs really hard, enjoyed the support of the cheering crowds, crossed the finish line happy about my time, retrieved my belongings and excitedly called my loved ones while walking back to my hotel. I was safe in my room when I heard the first explosion, then the second. I wasn't hurt nor was anyone I know. But just 200 yards (180 meters) away, an 8-year-old boy and two others lost their lives. More than 170 were injured and some will never walk again. I was close in distance and far in fate. I can't help the victims and their families. I can't console them. I can't save them. I can't undo their pain.
                I did know pain earlier that day, but a different kind:  the kind that I inflict on myself. Suffering is a choice when I run and train. I have the freedom to stop when it hurts. I can decide to push my body beyond its limits and then push harder. Choice is a luxury the victims and their families don’t have. No one can stop the unbearable pain inflicted by others.
           That's why I'll be back next year. I'll do what I can: run.

Happier times before the marathon's start with Tomas...
.. and Alex....
At the finish line, under the same clock that marked 4h09 when the first bomb exploded in images broadcast across the world. Same place, different fate. 

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