Last Friday, I was sitting at my desk and looked over at the calendar hanging on the wall. It was March 15. One month until the big day…Marathon Monday! It’s hard to believe that this will be my third time lining up at the starting line in Hopkinton with 26,895 other runners for the Boston Marathon. I can’t wait.
In the world of distance runners, running Boston is almost like a rite of passage for some and ends up on the “to do” lists of many individuals all over the world. The course is spectacular, crowd support is unmatched, and the energy is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Let’s not forget about one of the the biggest elements: in order to gain entry, participants have to run a qualifying time (or run it for a charity, of course). When it comes to most distance runners, this is like dangling a carrot in front of a rabbit. Oh yeah, and Addias is the merchandise sponsor for the race, so you walk away with some pretty sweet gear. I would be totally lying if I said I don’t proudly sport my Boston swag and rock my obligatory jacket with the best of them. I’ll be honest: I earned it, and it was never an easy feat for me.
My history with this historical race is somewhat rocky, so it often comes as a surprise when I say it’s my favorite marathon. My love for this renowned race has little to do with it’s reputation, and it’s not the [entire] reason this race holds a special place with me among all of the rest. Just like my daily ashtanga yoga practice, the Boston Marathon is another chapter in my life that continues to challenge me and teach me important life lessons.
My relationship with the Boston Marathon was never an easy one, and I hit numerous obstacles and road blocks along the way. Even when I decided to run my first full marathon, I had no idea what the significance of running Boston actually was – I just thought it was another marathon, like the New York or Chicago. It was after I crossed the finish line of my first marathon (Nike Women’s Marathon in San Francisco) just shy of five hours where I realized what it all meant. Before my first attempt at the daunting 26.2, I consistently ran decently paced shorter distance races and often placed in my age group at local events. My ego needed a good reality check because as the date of my first marathon grew closer, I trained very casually – almost arrogantly. Finishing with an overall pace around the 11 minute mile mark was humbling and motivating. Although Boston seemed like a joke to me at that point, improving my marathon time to be more consistent with my shorter distance races was my more immediate goal.
Boston still never crossed my mind as I signed up for my second marathon. When I crossed the finish line almost 45 minutes faster than my first full marathon, I thought, “Hmmmm. Well, that was better.” I ran my third marathon a month later in 3:46, which left me feeling as though Boston was a distant possibility. Since this was prior to the BAA (Boston Athletic Association) implementing new qualifying standards, I was only 6 minutes away from reaching the 3:40 finish time, so I set out to qualify at a fall marathon during 2009. I targeted the Baltimore Marathon as my potential BQ, but felt defeated when I crossed the finish line in 4:08. After training all summer, I ran slower. I could argue that the weather and how I felt that morning played a factor, but the bottom line is that though I was training hard, I wasn’t training smart. A month later, I headed to San Antonio and somehow qualified by the skin of my teeth. I was on cloud nine as I walked back to our hotel, grabbed my wallet and went directly to the BAA web site. It was November 15, 2009. Boston registration was closed because it sold out two days earlier.
There was a silver lining. Fortunately, your qualifying time is good for 18 months. Since I qualified in November, my time made me eligible to participate in the 2010 and 2011 events. On the day Boston registration opened for the 2011 race, I took the day off of work and registered. The moment the race registration opened everyone attempting to register was faced with another baffling situation: the link provided didn’t function properly and would reset your form instead of submitting it. Everyone trying to sign up was freaking out, and I was glued to my computer until they fixed it a few hours later. I’ll never regret my decision to stay home from work to sign up that day because the race was sold out by 3pm, which prompted the BAA to change the qualifying standards for future races.
During the fall of 2010, I started following an actual training plan rather than just winging it. I was already in training for several fall marathons in 2010 and ended up running another qualifying time in November at the Outer Banks Marathon, running a 3:37. Since the old qualifying times were still eligible for entry at this point, the race secured me a spot for the 2012 race. As the fall 2010 race season came to an end, so did my running. I was sidelined with a stress fracture in my right tibia. I was still able to get through some half assed training and run Boston for the first time, but my love for the sport faded in the process. So many things had gone wrong by the time I actually got to cross the finish line that I failed to appreciate what I’d accomplished. I loved the course and participating in the actual event, but my negative attitude put a damper on the experience. Instead, I felt defeated and burned out, rather than motivated and inspired.
I went an entire summer without lacing up my running shoes and swore I was done running. When Boston registration rolled around, I thought, “Whatever. I qualified. I guess I’ll sign up.” With my negative attitude, I didn’t deserve to get accepted into the 2012 race. I wasn’t even sure I’d get in because the BAA implemented a system where they accepted the faster runners first, but somehow I made the cut. I often wonder if I would have ever started running again had I been denied entry into the 2012 race. Being accepted into the 2012 field basically forced me to start running again, and prompted me to run the Lehigh Valley Half Marathon with a friend looking to complete her first race. It was a long process, but the very race that knocked me down and left me feeling defeated also restored my enthusiasm and love for running.
By the time Boston 2012 rolled around, I was starting to feel the excitement once again. I hadn’t trained too hard, but I was enjoying the simple act of running and building up my endurance. As I prepared for the race, I had no intention of ever qualifying or running the race again after 2012. On Marathon Monday, temperatures were soaring around 90 degrees, with uncharacteristically high humidity levels. Running that race in those conditions was one of the most challenging experiences, and it ended up being one of my slowest marathon times. It was also one of the most fun and memorable experiences to date. The race officials, spectators, and local community members were so accommodating and went to great lengths to ensure that runners had the resources necessary to cross the finish line. The camaraderie among runners is something that I love about the sport to begin with, but the way everyone supported each other on the course that day still brings tears to my eyes. My time was pretty ugly, but I felt excited, inspired, and restored. As I came through the finish line on Boyleston Street I thought, “I need one more shot here.” This meant I needed to hit a new qualifying time, a 3:35. And so I did, in September 2012 at the VIA Marathon, running a 3:33.
Which brings me to today. Less than a month to go. I don’t have a pace goal set for this race – my only goal is to finish strong and enjoy the experience from start to finish. There are too many variables that make Boston a poor choice for me to try to set a personal record or run a crazy fast race. Boston is my warm up for my spring races this year and will jump start my excitement for the races I’m registered for that follow it. Most importantly, I don’t care to set a PR in Boston because I want to enjoy every second on the course and appreciate the experience, especially in the event that it’s my last time there. I have yet to qualify for Boston #4…although it is something that’s already crossed my mind.
If I can keep my body strong and healthy, this year will be the most meaningful for me as I cross the finish line. Whether you ever run Boston (or even aspire to run it) doesn’t make you any more or less of a runner. It’s what you take away from the experience – really, it’s what you take away from any experience. To me, Boston began as a distant goal I chose to pursue that led to a series of obstacles and challenges that I had to overcome. It’s a race that caused me to face up to problems and situations in all aspects of my life, both physically and emotionally. Spending countless hours and miles training, calculating splits, and developing race strategies caused me to look deeper within myself and face up to my weaknesses. It reinforced the fact you can’t take shortcuts or slack off if you want to accomplish steep goals, and there are no substitutes for hard work. It tried my patience, put my ego in check and tested my love for running. For some, it’s just another race. For me, it’s an affirmation that anyone can accomplish anything they set out to do, if they want it badly enough. It’s how I learned that quitting is never an option, and there is always a way to overcome difficulties. Boston literally taught me that what doesn’t kill you not only makes you stronger, but it changes you for the better. Earning my jacket is an accomplishment that instills a sense of humility and pride all at the same time.
And that, my friends, is why I will always love good old Beantown.