Monday, April 29, 2013

The Finish Line

Boylston Street, between Exeter and Dartmouth has been the location of some of the most intense and powerful emotions I have ever experienced.

In 1999, my Freshman year at BC, I opted to watch the marathon for one year (already knowing I'd be running it in future years).  I couldn't do it.  It hurt.  Every runner that ran by all I could think was 'That should be me!'  So I went back to my dorm room and put on my running shoes.  I ran a bit over 6 miles to the finish (along the local road, NOT in the race) and then back home.  When I was near the finish, I stopped for a bit to take it in.  I walked down Boylston behind the crowd, and stopped to cheer on a few runners myself.  Seeing so many runners cross that finish line in exhausted triumph… I was Inspired and driven.  I already couldn't wait to until the next marathon

One year later, I was a sophomore, and I was 'out of shape'.  I'd had some health issues that year.  Nothing major, but it prevented me from working out for a while - I believe most of January and February.  This eventually led (in part) to my quitting the crew team, and well over three months of doing very little by the time the race rolled around.  But I ran anyway, and raised a bit of money for the Boston College Campus School.  Despite advice to avoid it, I let the crowd energy get to me, and I went out too hard.  I ran all the way past Wellesley at a 7 min mile pace, before I reigned myself in and slowed down a bit.  The hills were coming up, and I just needed enough to get to BC.  Then I was home, and after that the last 5K, a distance I thought I could do in my sleep - or so I figured.  I was so wrong.  My legs were on fire those last three miles.  They were bricks.  I ran down Beacon towards the finish as fast as I could.  I managed 9, 12 and finally 15min mile pace on my last three miles.  Running. As. Hard. As. I. Could!  I finished at 3:23:32 by my watch.  Not bad for my first marathon.  It took every last ounce of emotional and physical strength to cross that finish line as those last few miles were brutal.  It wasn't until 5 minutes later that it hit me.  I did it!!!  I ran the Boston Marathon!  I cried, sort of… I didn't even have the strength left for that.  I called my parents and a high school cross country buddy from the finish chute - I still remember Nextel had a booth there.  I've never been that proud of myself.  Although finishing every year is emotional, nothing has ever compared to that sense of accomplishment and fulfillment

2003 came before I knew it.  My days of traveling with BC teams, painting my face (and body) had drawn to a close.  I had but one last hurrah.  For my fourth Boston, I would run the whole race painted.  That would get the crowd fired up.  I called it the Retirement Run, and it was bittersweet.  At the time, I thought it was the last time I would ever wear the body paint, and the gold cross on my otherwise red face, which had become my trademark at BC games.  When I crossed the finish line that year it was over, a new era had begun.  I'm not sure how to best describe that feeling.  It was a mix of post marathon accomplishment and emptiness.  Boylston Street marked the end of something that had been so much a part of me for four great years.  It was a transition to something new and unknown.  In hindsight, I was wrong… I got such a positive reaction out of running the race red, I decided to do it the next year as well.  I called that the Retirement Sucks Run.  It has since become my (almost) annual tradition

In 2008, I returned after a one year hiatus.  The previous year (and I am still kicking myself for this) I had backed out due to weather.  Having just acclimated to Miami heat, and not trained yet again, I convinced myself that it was ok to miss it.  What was I thinking?  Upon my return, for my 8th Boston (5th painted red) I was shocked as many runners, volunteers and spectators welcomed me back.  I couldn't believe how many people *noticed* I was missing.  I was a bandit for all but one of my runs, I didn't matter.  I just ran to have fun and do what I do best by firing up the crowd.  In the process I'd developed a small part in many peoples Boston Marathon experience.  A very small and inconsequential part, but still a part in one of the biggest events in sports.  I had fans… and an excuse to keep painting for years to come!  It was an incredible feeling as I embraced my role in this incredible event.  A conversation with one of the medical volunteers who had seen me almost annually in the finish area really made that hit home.  Wow, there are no words for how that felt!  This was the Boston Marathon, and now I had a special part in it

As the years had passed, it had gotten harder to get a finishers medal (although they are always available on eBay).  After one of the more recent marathons I'd run, I was pleading with a volunteer for a medal.  He did his job, and turned me down.  What happened next was one of my greatest honors ever.  Another runner, a registered runner who had just gotten his medal from another volunteer turned to me.  He patted me on the back (now covered by a heat sheet) and said something along the lines of 'Here.  You deserve this.  Thank you.'… and handed me HIS medal!  I've always been that crazy guy screaming and yelling at sporting events in part because I enjoy it, but also because I know it makes a difference.  Crowd energy is something many, many athletes thrive off of.  The crowd energy along the Boston course is one of the things that makes the race so special.  And that crazy lunatic running by in red body paint yelling at the crowd to make some noise… that energy gets the crowd going, which in turn gets me and every other runner nearby going.  Its always an honor when other runners reach out with words of encouragement and thanks.  Knowing that I helped give them the lift they needed makes it all worthwhile.  When I was given a medal by a runner who had earned it himself…I was at a loss for words.  That act made that medal and every other Boston finishers medal I will ever earn mean so much more

I had another medal related emotional motion too, but this one was not so good.  A volunteer had either not noticed that I had no bib, or decided to give me a medal anyway.  A medal was placed around my neck and I felt the familiar rush of pride.  A feeling which never gets old!  Seconds later as I walked away another volunteer walked over.  "You can't have that" she said.  In shock and with nothing left to resist, I could do nothing as she lifted the medal off me.  I'm sure that medal got thrown out, as it was now covered in red paint.  Was it really necessary to strip me of that token of my achievement?  I had worked just as hard as the official runners to earn it.  And while I completely understand volunteers refusing to give me a medal, this woman went overboard.  It was the most insulting and demeaning experience I have ever had

In 2010 I ran it to raise money and awareness for the BC Chapter of Uplifting Athletes, founded that year as Mark Herzlich battled and beat Ewing's sarcoma.  To celebrate this, and all those who had fought similar battles, I ran with "94 Beat Cancer" painted on my chest and back.  Before, during and after the race cancer survivors and the loved ones of those who had fought valiantly against the disease approached me to share their story,  I heard so many moving stories that day.  Runners who during their battle vowed they would recover and run Boston.  Runners who were pounding the pavement for a loved one who couldn’t.  I wasn’t exactly in very good shape for that marathon, but if all those survivors could fight those battles, surely I could finish for the sake of those who couldn’t.  Someone gave me a hug after the finish line, and I nearly cried.  Once again, words can’t describe how powerful this was

Two years later, with absolutely no running in over a year leading up to it (I'd missed the 2011 race due to an injury), I struggled through my 11th marathon.  I had to stop running at mile 8!  I forced myself to walk the rest of the way in.  Crossing the finish line last year was strange.  I felt almost like I didn't deserve it, yet I had still pushed my way through those 26.2 miles.  This was a feeling I never wanted again, a wakeup call to return to my passion of running, and another chapter in the sequence of powerful emotions in that famed finish chute

This year was something totally different.  I had just finished my 12th Boston, my 9th as the Red Runner.  I'd started running again, so my goal of running a sub 4 hour marathon again was actually an easy goal.  It felt great to say that.  I hadn't run more than 13 miles in 3 years, and I hadn't run a sub 4 hour marathon since 2006!  This year I did so relatively easily, coming in just under 3:50 on my watch!  It felt great.  The excessive leg pain (a result of poor training) was gone from Boston.  The glory and the joy of the race were stronger.  I felt great.  I was just starting to soak in the awesomeness of the situation when it happened.  After the first I was confused.  What in the world were they celebrating?  Was it a cannon?  Subconsciously I forced out the other option.  It couldn't be!  After the second I knew something was very wrong.  The joy vanished.  It was instantly replaced by the most overwhelming feeling of helplessness.  As I saw others rushing to help in any way they could, I was powerless.  I had just finished the race, and had left everything on the course.  I didn't have the strength left to lift or move anything.  I had more paint in my eye than had ever been an issue before and so my vision was blurred, plus that paint while fine on the skin I was sure was not good for what I knew was behind me.  I was worthless at that moment.  I could do nothing positive.  I was a liability to myself and everyone while I stayed.  So I walked away, helpless, shocked, pissed.  This was my city, my race, my day.  This was Boston.  Nobody messes with my city, my race.  But I was helpless.  What could I do?  Temporarily defeated, I could do nothing.  Why was I here if I couldn't help?  I can never allow myself to feel that way again.  It was, and is, devastating to me

Despite all the incredible highs and devastating lows Boylston has already given me, I know that next time is going to be magical.  When I finish next year, in celebration of all that Boston and the Marathon stand for, and in honor of those most effected by this years tragedy… I get goosebumps just thinking about it.  This city, this race, this street somehow now means even more to me than I ever thought possible

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