Monday 21st April 2014
By Alistair Urquhart
This was never going to be an ordinary race. The tragic events of 15th April 2013 guaranteed that the next staging of the oldest marathon in the world would take on an elevated significance. A city defined by its pride in this storied event became determined to reclaim the finish line, and in doing so, hope to accelerate the healing of deep distress. I landed in Boston on my 47th birthday, with emotion in the city beginning to build and unsure what the next few days would bring.
Part of that personal uncertainty was due to my preparation. Injury had restricted my running to less than 50 miles in the two months prior to the race. The quality of this training was poor and limited to short recovery paced runs to test progress. I had been forced instead to use deep water running, aerobic bike work and time on the physiotherapy table to preserve some conditioning. My goal had become a blend of avoiding long term injury balanced with utter determination to achieve my ambition and run this race. Not taking part was not something I seriously considered, regarding it as a privilege to have secured a starting place in these unique circumstances.
It was great to immediately meet up with a close friend who had travelled from Colorado to join the weekend in support. We had rented an apartment in Beacon Hill, which is close to the public parks and within walking distance of all the key events taking place over the weekend. We ran Saturday’s BAA 5k race together, visited the Expo, saw the Red Sox play at Fenway Park and took in some historic sights. The spring weather was perfect and it was easy to forget that there was a small matter of 26.2 miles to cover on Monday.
The city quickly became very crowded and at peak times this overwhelmed the organisation a little. Queues for race merchandise took on biblical proportions and we balked at the incredible wait lines for the official pasta party at Civic Hall the day before the race. I gifted our tickets to a couple of homeless dudes on the street nearby, I hope they enjoyed their carb load. This aspect was a bit of a shame, as the Boston Athletic Association make you feel very special in advance of this event. The briefing material, race packs and tone of communications are all centred around making your participation a premium experience, despite the elevated and necessary nature of security.
By race day I was relaxed and philosophical about my physical readiness. I set my stall out to run to half distance using only my heart rate monitor to help preserve resources, ignoring time splits. My lack of long runs gave me the greatest concern and being as fresh as possible heading into the closing stages seemed like my best chance of avoiding a meltdown. Literally in fact, as the forecast was for temperatures to rise steeply during the race. I had improved on my original qualification time in last autumn’s Yorkshire Marathon and had thereby secured a place in Wave 1, starting with the quicker paced participants and elite athletes. This worked in my favour, as the runners around and ahead of me eased (sprinted?) away steadily, making space for me to enjoy my surroundings in the early stages. The race is a single direction route originating in the leafy New England suburbs all the way to the centre of Boston. I have no real frame of reference for gauging the support, as this was my first major city marathon, but over one million spectators lined the route. The vocal support was immense, and charged with painful collective memories, became somewhat overwhelming during the closing stages. My steady pacing served its purpose. From halfway, I enjoyed a purple patch of strong form and confidence carrying me through to around 19 miles. This was partly buoyed by encountering my epic stateside support crew of JP and Eric at mile 17, armed with a Scottish flag and an air horn! The sun became increasingly hot. My lack of training miles and the Newton Hills took their toll on my effort and resilience beyond 21 miles. The downside of lowering risk and running at 85% of prior marathon effort is that the latter stages hurt just as much but last even longer! I was cramping badly in the last mile (again) and was forced to stretch against a barrier on Boylston St in sight of the finish line. I shuffled across the timing matt in an unsurprising personal worst time for the distance but relieved that the injury had held up and satisfied that in 6 weeks, I had found a way to go from unable to run 100 metres to Boston Marathon finisher.
All credit and appreciation to the BAA and its volunteers for placing participants centre stage, and retaining the integrity of the marathon in difficult circumstances. A personal thanks as ever to everyone who helped me with kind supportive words and encouragement throughout a somewhat troubled build up. Similar to many runners, I will press on with enjoyment of my sport in the pursuit of personal athletic milestones; but I don’t expect to participate in or experience a race quite on this collective emotional scale again. If you have it within you to qualify and the means to participate, stick it on your bucket list, you won’t regret it.