Health and Wellness

On to Boston - The Boston Marathon
April 18, 2005

With the rapid posting of 5k split times on, anyone in the world can enjoy a runner's progress during this historic race. When I was running the Boston Marathon this April 18, I had no idea how much fun my family was having at the same time -- in NJ, NY, VA, LA, TX, and Washington DC.

Fig. 1. Wheel chair competitors down the first hill.
Some hours afterward, when my brother finally reached me in the family area after suffering downtown Boston's gridlock for almost an hour, I began learning about the email and telephone blizzard accompanying my marathon run. Work productivity plummeted. Some of them were running on their own -- a pool on when I would finish.

One of my nephews had his office colleagues crowding around the computer waiting for the next email, hitting the refresh button every 10 seconds. I have had great fun listening to different family members describe the circus. I really missed something in the family adventure online, but it was wonderful that they all had such fun. Congratulations to my daughter-in-law Sara for her winning prediction. One of my sons was plotting in real-time a computer graph of my progress. But of course I have my own very firmly implanted memories of the run itself, and these are the stuff of marathon stories, the runner's own peculiar advantage.

Fig. 2. Boylston Ave.

The most memorable point was the majestic view down the broadway of Boylston Street at the finish. As we turned on to Boylston, there was in the distance about 800 yards away a very large sign over the entire multilane width of the broadway, with the green lettering "BOSTON MARATHON."

The huge width of the broadway, and the size of the sign, were commensurate with the majestic history of this marathon. As the 109th running of this historic event sinks deeper into my soul, I enjoy its significance more and more. The Boston Marathon is by far the oldest marathon in the world.

The race starts in the tiny village of Hopkinton, far west of Boston, set on the top of a knob. The start line is set on the downward slope of the first drop. The course falls 150 feet in the first mile. Overall it drops 450 feet in the first 16 miles. Mile 16 is the bottom of the course before the infamous Newton Hills from mile 16 to mile 21. But because the countryside is rolling, there are hills nearly every mile. Up and down, up and down.

Fig. 3. Hopkinton town square.
Driving the course the day before left me intimidated. Since the infamous gorge at Cornell University during my college running days, I have never trained for hills very much, and I had certainly not trained for hills (and more hills) this time. The first problem is that Tidewater doesn't have any. Second, following the Shamrock marathon in Virginia Beach on March 20, I caught a two-week flu and didn't run at all the whole two weeks. That was the first time I ever got sick following a run. As a consquence of the flu, for an entire month before Boston I ran only 25 miles.

I couldn't gear back up to a long run so close to the race without doing damage, so my longest run after Shamrock was an easy 12 miles, 5 days before Boston. Obviously, flu-damage had already been done, but I hardly knew how much -- I didn't dare to find out. In Boston I expected not better than 4:30, maybe 4:15 if a super outcome occurred, but realistically, between 4:30 and 5:00 was a high probability given events the previous month. And most people do not run a second marathon very well only one month past the first.

Fig. 4. Before the start.
I had some concern over how I would finish -- what would my condition be? But I had perfect confidence that I would finish, unless something major occurred. And major things do happen -- a runner suddenly locked up utterly on Boylston Street in sight of the finish. I don't know if he made it to the finish mats or not.

In the changing tent after the race, I talked to a New Englander who has run Boston 25 years in a row. This time, he came with poor preparation owing to earlier sickness or schedule problems, and he said his wife told him he would be embarrassed by the outcome. His reply was that he would be shamed only if he didn't try. He got stomach trouble and had to quit at mile 20. So, he got on the subway and came to the finish to enjoy watching others complete the race. He wasn't embarrassed at all, and I congratulated him on his 25-year record.

The race booklet was handsome. It featured a lengthy resume of the running career of the legendary John A. Kelley, who ran Boston 61 times, finished 58 times, won 2 times, and finished second 7 times. This year was the first Boston Marathon in decades without his looming presence, as he died last October 6 at the age of 97. He last ran Boston in 1992 when he was 84. That means I have maybe 20 more years to run marathons.

Fig. 5. Loyal fan, brother Ted.
From all of the thoughts about flu and bombed-out training, I approached the start with both uncertainty and certainty, excitement and concern, joy and a little worry. The weather was a balmy low 60s. But as the crowd assembled, I relaxed with the thought that the day was a free day, to enjoy the run, stay alert, watch both runners and spectators, and make it to the finish for sure.

Some 18:54 after the gun, I crossed the start line. On the way down that first steep hill past the spectators, I determined to touch as many of the young children's hands as possible for the entire race. Somewhere past the middle of the race, I stopped to take an orange slice from a girl about 5 or 6, saying "Thank you, sweetheart." As I started up again, there was her mother about 5 yards away, and she said, "You have just made her entire day." How easily we can bring joy to children.

Fig. 6. John on Race day.
People from Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Weston, Newton, and Brookline along the way turned out to encourage and support the runners. Their enthusiasm was contagious. Oranges, ice cubes, cool wet paper towels, candies, grapes, cups of water, and more -- all from the spectators, in addition to the water stops every mile on both sides of the road and a gel pack at mile 16. You can't ask for any more.

The variation between natural scenery, residential areas, and business areas was enjoyable. With a mix of town centers, with woods and lakes between, along highways and railroad tracks, the number of people on the route varied, until we reached Newton where residential and business areas are continuous. In Wellesley near the College, the infamous crowds of cheering coeds could be heard from more than a quarter mile away. More than a runner or two availed himself of the offer in big signs, "Kiss Me." Aside from children along the way, it was the coeds who most held out their hands to touch.

Fig. 7. Commonwealth Ave.
Sharon's Photos 
One vignette might have been missed by some of the runners -- 20 yards off the road in a parking lot, 2 guys were majestically, rhythmically beating large floor drums, like Polynesian drummers. The sound was unmistakable for anyone who has visited Hawaii.

At one point a cheering squad was chanting, "On to Boston, Go Go Go!" It was there that the nature of this marathon really hit. My 6 other marathons except one (Chesapeake Bay Bridge) have all been inside city areas -- loops, essentially. Boston in contrast is a journey to a destination, from a country village to the city. A journey like the history of civilization. A journey that encapsulates the history of America. And of course, Boston and its region are steeped in our nation's history.

Fig. 8. Catherine Ndereba in
2nd Place at Mile 18.
This was dramatized all the more by the elevation profile of the race course. After the exponential decline from Hopkinton to mile 16, the course rises through the Newton Hills, culminating in Heartbreak Hill. According to the legend of this hill, the winner passed and taunted John Kelly, calling it "Kelley's heartbreak." After a reporter's story, the legend grew, making the hill appear far worse than it is.

But I have to admit that by this time, I was doing progressively more walking. I deliberately started a little walking after mile 14, when I could already tell that trying too hard, to press on continuously, would lock up my legs tight too early, and finishing would become impossible. Thus, by the higher regions of the Newton Hills, I was walking short stretches often. But the hills were not as steep as legend would suggest. In fact, the race booklet had a very detailed analysis of the elevation profile, with color-coded perspective maps, which showed the very uneven terrain over the entire course. Most runners were doing okay on the hills.

Fig. 9. The joy of finishing.
Boston Globe - Matthew J. Lee

At the start, in a corral, I talked to a guy who has run Boston 11 times, always as a charity organization "non-qualifier." This year he ran for the American Liver Foundation. He said he has never qualified at Boston for next-year's Boston. I certainly didn't either -- 4:43 is not 4:00. People remarked that Boston is not an easy course. But I did qualify at Shamrock. So I plan to go back to Boston next year, to conquer the course (in my own way), and run a piece of running history again. What a great life it is.

2005 John C. Munday Jr., revised from the Tidewater Striders Rundown,
a monthly magazine in Virginia.
Photos except for Figs. 2, 7, 8 and 9 courtesy of Ted Munday.