My 2013 Boston Marathon experience: irreplaceable highs & unfathomable lows

It was shortly before 1 p.m. on a sun-soaked, and perfectly vernal, Patriot’s Day in Boston.  I had just wrapped up a post-race massage and was making the short walk from the finish line area over to the Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel.  Thirty minutes earlier, I was busy putting the finishing touches on what was about to become the best race of my running career.  As I rounded the corner on Hereford Street, making the historic left-hand turn onto Boylston Street, these were the five thoughts bouncing around in my head:

  • I am already at mile 26?  Damn! That was the quickest 2-hour run ever.
  • I can’t believe I am at mile 26 and feel this good.  My hamstrings are still functioning!
  • The crowds are really big and really loud.
  • I wonder what place I am in, anyway?
  • This is the most fun I have ever had running.  I wish anyone who has ever run a step in his or her life could experience finishing the Boston marathon like this.  I can’t believe I get paid to do this!

The official Boston Marathon program will forever show that I finished in 10th place, with a time of 2:14:38, at the 117th rendition of America’s oldest footrace.  Not too shabby for a kid who couldn’t even crack the top-10 of Ohio’s division 2 state championships his senior year (I finished 11th place in both cross country and track – 3200m) and for a guy who left college with a 10k PR north of 30:00 (I ran 30:0x three times).

However, the 2013 Boston Marathon will forever be remembered for reasons far greater than a finishing place or time of anyone who ran that day.  The lives of innocent spectators, individuals who may or may not have known anyone personally running the marathon that day but decided to join alongside so many others to cheer on the masses, were forever changed by the malevolent acts of two deranged men.

For me, that has been the hardest thing to try and comprehend, and process, about the events that took place on Boylston Street that afternoon.  Running is such a shared experience.  In the months leading up to this year’s Boston Marathon, thousands of runners spent their time doing exactly what I did everyday – training – with the hope of reaching whatever goal they had set for themselves.  The winner of the race and the last person to cross the finish line share similar experiences.  That communal experience is transferred over to the spectators who show up at races to cheer on complete strangers.  As runners, we rely on those uplifting cheers of encouragement to help bring out the best in us.  The folks at LetsRun.com acknowledged the reciprocity between runner and spectator in their race recap:

“One unintended consequence of the bombings was they just reinforced and reminded us what a wonderful event Boston is.  Hundreds of thousands of people go and line the streets to cheer for loved ones and people they do not even know who have spent months of their lives training for this day. A marathon is a celebration of community, and the Boston marathon is such a celebration on a grand scale.”

It has taken me a few weeks, along with an impromptu trip home to Ohio, to finally begin separating all of the positive moments of the weekend from the senseless events of Monday afternoon.  Although I don’t feel like I will ever truly be able to celebrate my accomplishment without there being some sort of void, I am thankful to have received some many congratulatory and concerned messages.  Every phone call, voicemail, text, email, tweet, and message has helped me arrive at a point where I now feel like sitting down and writing about my experience, and all the positives that I will take from a weekend in Boston that will not be soon forgotten.

Pre-Race

I arrived in Boston on a cold and rainy Friday night.  My first thought when I stepped off the plane?  Glad we won’t be running in this crap!  It was shortly after midnight when I arrived at the hotel and I was starving.  Pizza sounded good, but after eight unsuccessfully placed phone calls, I gave up on that plan.  I opted for the next quickest thing: the 24-hour hotel room service.  After perusing the menu, I decided on a bowl of clam chowder – I was in New England, after all.  Ten minutes later, my long-sought-after dinner was delivered right to my door.  How much does that kind of service run you in downtown Boston, you ask?  That’ll be $20, sir: $15 for the chowder and $5 for the delivery charge.  Woof.

After sleeping in a bit on Saturday, in an attempt to keep some normalcy with my routine, I woke up just in time to throw on my running attire and rush down the stairs to meet my running mate for the morning.  The last thing I wanted to do is keep the fastest American to have ever run the Boston Marathon waiting for my sleepy butt.  Ryan Hall and I made our way over to the Charles River bike path for our easy run.  It was a cold, but clear, morning in Boston and the bike path was crowded with runners – fast and slow – going through some of their final tune-ups before Monday’s race.  I spent most of the 40 minute run with Ryan picking his brain about the nuances of the Boston course.  I figured if I’m going to get some advice, getting it from the 4th fastest marathoner in Boston history isn’t a bad place to start.

When I returned to the hotel, my boss at Mizuno was already patiently waiting in the lobby for me.  We had just under an hour before opening pitch of that afternoon’s Red Sox-Rays game, and as a die-hard Red Sox fan, Ron was itching to get over to Fenway Park.  I had just enough time to take a washcloth shower, throw on some warmer clothes, and devour a sandwich from the hospitality suite.  We made the short walk over to Fenway through the hustle and bustle of the marathon weekend crowds.  Upon entering the ballpark, one thing stood out to me: the traditional crimson colors worn by IMG_1040Red Sox fans had been replaced by the blue and gold colors of the Boston marathon.  Apparently, a few thousand other marathon runners had the same Saturday afternoon plans as Ron and I.  The game ended up as a pitcher’s dual between two of the MLB’s best: Jon Lester and David Price.  With the score tied at 1-1, nine innings weren’t enough and fans were treated to some free baseball.  The Red Sox would eventually score the winning run in the bottom of the 10th inning, much to the delight of Ron.

Saturday night ended with a first-class dinner.  I joined all of the Mizuno employees in town for Marathon weekend, many of whom had just spent the past 10 hours at the expo working to spread the good word about Mizuno product.  Needless to say, they had worked up an appetite.  My meal on Saturday night was infinitely better than my “dinner” on Friday night – swordfish, some grilled vegetables, mashed potatoes, some brown rice and a glass of pinot noir.  The price was better, too!

Now operating on East coast time, my Sunday morning wake-up call was a little earlier, and a little easier.  I headed back to the Charles River path for what has become my customary day-before-marathon workout: 12 minute easy and light warmup jog, 2 x 1 mile @ marathon goal pace, followed by 4-6 striders and a 10 minute cooldown jog.  There are probably some who think that I’m crazy to do that kind of volume the day before a marathon, but after almost a week of easy running/tapering, I like to wake my legs up a little bit.  And hey, it seems to be working well.

Aside from the morning workout, there isn’t really a whole lot to report on from the rest of Sunday.  The elites are required to attend a technical meeting to go over race-day logistics and after that concluded, I went back to my room to watch the Masters/take a nap.  After dropping off my fluid bottles, I joined a group of Ohio friends for a pre-race pasta dinner in the venerable Boston Italian district.  I have been asked before to describe the feelings I have the day before a marathon.  It’s always a mixed bag of emotions ranging from laziness to anxiousness, and everything in between, which is usually why I sleep very little the night before a marathon.  Sunday night was no different.

Race Day

If you think I needed an alarm to wake up on Monday morning, well you could not be more wrong.  I was wide awake before the sun had risen, already playing the race out in mind as I laid in bed.  The 10 a.m. start time of the Boston Marathon actually gives runners a chance to “sleep in”, which was a welcomed change of pace from the traditional 3 a.m. wake up calls of most marathon race mornings.  The middle-of-the-night alarms are overrated – even on race day.

My habitual race-day morning routine consists of three essential tasks: 1) a check of the weather 2) a long, hot shower, and 3) breakfast.  I had to have all three tasks completed by our 7 a.m. A.I.S. (ass in seat) bus departure from the Copley Plaza hotel.  The race-day experience of an elite runner at the Boston Marathon is very different than that of the other 27,000 runners; we all make it from Boston to Hopkinton via bus, but that is probably where the similarities end.  We don’t have to wake up crazy early, wait in long lines to board school buses that drop us off in a field, exposed to whatever elements Mother Nature provides.  Quite the opposite, really.  Our charter buses are waiting right outside the hotel doors.  We then get a precisely choreographed police escort from the hotel to Hopkinton, where they drop us off yards from the start line at the Korean Presbyterian church.  Inside, the runners have access to food, beverages, and other essential pre-race needs, including the all-important, wait-free bathroom facilities.

For the next hour, I posted up against the wall of the church’s gym and observed the melting pot of cultures and languages that were assembled for the race.  As a kid growing up in homogenous Northwest Ohio – and that might be understating it – I don’t think I could have ever imagined being around such a diverse group of people.  Stimulation overload, people!  It was like people-watching at the airport, times 100.

After what seemed like an eternity, it was finally time to begin warming up.  Not that there is much of a warmup before a marathon race, but the 150m stretch of alley-way we were provided made for a “mouse-in-a-lab” kind of feel.  When we arrived at the church, I was trying to piece together why they had the alley roped off with tape, but when we went back outside to warmup, I understood why.  People actually showed up to watch warmups!  The whole atmosphere in Hopkinton was pretty wild.  A few hundred feet away, there were thousands of runners crammed into starting corrals, waiting anxiously for the start.  Spectators were frantically searching for an ideal spot to watch, and a few kids feigned interest in the posted signs to keep clear of the warmup area for a chance at a few autographs.  I can’t speak for everyone else, but I was just trying to keep my excitement level contained for a little bit longer.  This is why you run the Boston Marathon!

Final warm ups.

Final warm ups.

Once the wheelchair and female athletes got underway, they lined up all of the elite men and walked us out to the start.  We were escorted through a thick artery of humans – runners on our right, spectators on our left – directly to the start line.  What was I thinking at the time?  “Shit!  This just got real.”  When we got to the start line and I took my first strider towards Boston, I was stunned by the major downhill looming 50 feet in front of me.  You hear everyone tell you about the downhill start, but it doesn’t hit home until you actually see the dang thing.  They allowed us another minute or so of warmups, before they lined everyone up for introductions.  As we stood on the start line, a human-chain of retired Massachusetts track officials formed in front of us to keep us at bay.  So there I am, a minute away from the biggest race of my life staring right into the eyes of a 80-something-year-old.  And you know what his parting advice was to me?  A handshake, and a reminder that “Bahston’s thataway!” (pointing over his shoulder to the East).  30-seconds later, we were off.

Down the hill, we lead the charge out of Hopkinton.  The fear at Boston is that you will tear through the first mile, but I was surprised how relaxed and easy I felt as we approached the first mile marker.  Then I saw our time – 5:15 – direct feedback as to why I felt so good, we were crawling!  Everyone was still bunched together, feeling each other out.  Boston, unlike many of the major marathons, is run without pace-makers, which changes the entire complexion of the race.  The top runners cannot simply tuck in behind their designated “rabbits” and run; they have to race.

After plodding our way through the first mile and a half, things began to settle in as everyone approached the 5k.  At this point, a few of the top American runners – Jason Hartmann and Fernando Cabada, along with Candian Rob Watson – decided they were going to disregard what the pack was doing and run their own pace; they were out ahead of our chase pack by about 30 seconds or so.  I was surprised to see the African runners hang back like they were, and knew it would not be long before they made a hard push to catch up with Jason, Fernando, and Rob.  The thing that worried me was who else from our group would try to go with them.  When the break did happen, I was happy to see that all of the other American runners were content with letting the Kenyans and Ethiopians go.  By 10k, we had established a pack of 4-5 runners and had settled into a good rhythm.  Mile after mile flew by as we made our way through the different towns along route 135.

Our group, mid-race.

Our group, mid-race.

Shortly before the half marathon mark, a few more guys came up from behind us and joined our group.  All of the sudden we were 7-9 strong, feeding off each other and the crowd, tearing through the streets towards Boston.  Our group really got a jolt when we descended upon Wellseley.  The all-girls college has earned the reputation of loudest, and craziest, fans along the Boston Marathon course, and they did nothing to dissuade that theory as we rolled through; my ears were ringing!  I remember telling Daniel Tapia after we passed, “that was awesome.”  He looked at me, smiled, and agreed.  This is why you run the Boston Marathon!

We were entering the critical juncture of the race: miles 16-21.  The Newton Hills, followed by Heartbreak Hill.  I remember telling myself around mile 15 to stay focused and hang with the pack these next 5 miles, and then reassess where things stood at 21.  There were probably a half-dozen guys still a part of the the group as we made our way up the first hill.  To my surprise, by the time we crested that initial hill, our group was more or less cut in half.  The reason for surprise was because I felt like we didn’t push real hard on that hill, so it was a bit shocking – and at the same time, encouraging – to see some of the guys fall back.  I kept with my pre-race strategy for each hill – there are 4 in all – which was to not press too hard on the uphills and take advantage of the downhills on the other side.  When I crested the top of Heartbreak, I was out in front of the two guys who were still around, and at this point, I could finally see some of the guys up ahead in the distance.  That was all I needed to be re-energized!

I had made it through the hills, my legs were still very much underneath me and feeling good, and I had some targets out ahead to chase after.  This was exactly what I had trained for and imagined.  Rarely in sport do you get the opportunity to close the door on a plan-A, so I wasn’t about to miss that chance.  At this point, I knew I was having a good day, but it really came to a head when I started creeping up on Deriba Merga.  The Ethiopian has a rather impressive resume, including 4th at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2009 Boston Marathon champion – the year I went out to watch.  Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined a scenario where I would be passing Deriba Merga, but it was inevitable now; I was going to pass him.  So what was my reaction?  Well, I about put a log in my shorts!  I have no business passing a guy like Merga, and for whatever reason, I was afraid of actually doing it.  So I moved all the way to the left side of the road (at the time, he was running on the right side of the road) and I ran like hell until I knew I was in the clear.  This is why you want to run the Boston Marathon!

By this time, I was rapidly approaching downtown Boston, the crowds were growing in number with each passing kilometer, and I had things dialed in.  I was running side by side with Daniel as we approached the 40k mark, our final fluid station before the finish.  As I pulled off to the right side of the road to pick up my bottle, I spotted one of the race volunteers who I had met the previous day.  When our eyes met, we shared a symbiotic smile, he gave me a thumbs up, and I was on my way.  It was a small gesture, but to me, that man represented all of the people who have helped me along this journey.  That moment will stick with me for the rest of my life.  This is why I ran the Boston Marathon!

IMG_1116Daniel and I went back and forth over the last 2k, but he had a little more in the tank over that final stretch.  I have never been more okay with getting beat by someone at the end of a race.  Without having Daniel to run with over that last 10k, I know I probably would not have finished as well as I did .  Sure, I hope the next time we race against each other I can beat him, but I wouldn’t mind running the first 26 miles with him again!

Post Race

I knew when I crossed the line that I had run a new personal best.  Despite this, my initial reaction upon finishing was that I had left too much in the tank; I felt too good for just finishing a marathon.  Sure, I had run 2:14, but I was a little surprised it wasn’t faster.  I can’t speak for him, but Daniel seemed to indicate the same thing when we talked afterwards.  Of course, when I finally picked up my bag, grabbed my phone, and realized that I finished 10th overall, my mood changed a bit.

BH6YcltCQAAv8OA.jpg_largeIf you saw me walking from the finish line tent to the hotel, you probably would not have guessed I just ran a marathon.  I was moving around surprisingly well and focused on one thing: food.  Once I re-entered the hotel, I went straight for the buffet line in the media room, loaded up my plate and headed back up the stairs to my room.  I plopped down on my bed, flipped on the tv to watch the marathon coverage, and just enjoyed a few moments alone.  Eventually, I walked back down to the lobby for some post-race interviews (see below) and that’s where I was when the bombings took place.

Some of you may want to know more about my experience with the bombings.  Sorry, but enough has been written and reported on that part of the story and I don’t really have anything new to add or share.  I do want to acknowledge all of the people who were on Boylston Street that afternoon.  Of the images that will forever be engrained in my memory, the most vivid ones are of the overwhelming number of people who, when the bombs detonated, ran to and not from.  I can’t begin to imagine what was going through their minds in that instance, but their response made me incredibly proud to call myself a distance runner and be associated with the running community, because they saved many lives.  I have long suspected that the qualities shared by distance runners make us unique and special people, and the real heroes from that day only strengthened this belief of mine.

Final Thoughts

Prior ever completing the Boston Marathon, the event had such a profound draw to me.  Finishing 10th in my Boston Marathon debut, made the event even more special.  But in light of what happened later that afternoon, I now feel like I share an inseparable bond with the race.  The marathon is such an emotional event because you become so invested in your one chance.  I knew going into this year’s race that I had a once-in-a-career-opportunity, especially when a few of the top American men withdrew with injuries, and when you get those chances, you have to be ready to capitalize.  Sure, I’m a little fortunate with how things played themselves out, but I wouldn’t have had the chance if I failed to adequately prepare myself.  And that’s what I am most proud of.  The race itself was good, but I did everything I could from a physical and mental standpoint to prepare.  Whether it’s in running or every day life, you have to be ready for when those opportunities arise!  It doesn’t hurt that I got some amazing help along the way, especially from my coach, Ian Dobson.

I hope to be back racing again in a few weeks, with some shorter stuff, as I build towards the US Half Marathon Championships in Duluth, MN.  Over the next month, I’ll also be working on plans for a fall marathon; I know there’s a 2:12 floating around inside me if I find the right race.  And as for next year’s Boston Marathon, I hope to be invited back, because I want to be a part of what will be a very special event!

Boston Marathon Mile Splits (powered by Garmin)

Mile 1 – 512
Mile 2 – 502
Mile 3 – 509
Mile 4 – 455
Mile 5 – 459
Mile 6 – 458
Mile 7 – 505
Mile 8 – 509
Mile 9 – 508
Mile 10 – 508
Mile 11 – 510
Mile 12 – 501
Mile 13 – 504
Mile 14 – 502
Mile 15 – 508
Mile 16 – 458
Mile 17 – 508
Mile 18 – 515
Mile 19 – 507
Mile 20 – 515
Mile 21 – 525
Mile 22 – 502
Mile 23 – 514
Mile 24 – 509
Mile 25 – 518
Mile 26 – 516
Last . 2 – 109

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Comments (12)

  • Avatar

    Gary Moneysmith

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    Great race report, Craig! You might be as good a writer as you are a runner. I bet the Boston experience was even beyond your daydreams as you pounded the pavement (errr, bricks) in Athens, Ohio just a few years ago. I’ll be in Duluth, too (Grandma’s Marathon) so perhaps we can meet up that weekend for a quick hello. Best, G$

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Jim Covey

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    Thanks for the great summary Craig! Sorry we missed you when you were home. Ain’t home a great place to settle your thoughts and emotions. Jake and Jenna said they were both glad to see you. They think you and Brett are just about it. We’re proud of you!

    Jim and Ruth Ann

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Tony Mollica

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    Congratulations again Craig on a fantastic race! I really enjoyed the details of your RR. It was very interesting. I am sure you will be invited back to Boston next year. Why wouldn’t they?

    I am very comfortable speaking for the Athens and Ohio University community and saying that we are very proud of what you have accomplished and are looking forward to seeing what is next!

    God Bless,
    Tony Mollica

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Tony Mollica

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    I just got a chance to watch the interview. It was very interesting and you did a good job!

    Reply

  • Avatar

    jamesrstahler

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    Craig,

    Great article. Great interview. Great to see you excel at what you love. Thanks for sharing the experience with us. Count me in for TEAM LEON!

    Jamie

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Frank and Polly Youngwerth

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    Craig;
    Congratulations, once again on your outstanding race in Boston. You made all of your family’s friends very proud of you. As someone else commented on, you are also an outstanding writer. Your blogs should be kept for further publication after your upcoming Olympic success. Bless you, Craig, and good luck as you progress in your career.

    Frank and Polly Youngwerth, Hudson, Ohio
    Ohio University ’59

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Sandy Luu

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    Craig, thanks for sharing your experiences with us. The class of 2008 MA Ohio Bobcats are proud of you!

    Sandy Luu
    (Fellow Oregonian as well!)

    Reply

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  • The Chicago Marathon: A Run for Martin | www.craigleonrunning.com

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    […] few hours, I had the incredible fortune of experiencing the highest of runner’s highs – a 10th place finish at the grand daddy of all marathons.  That elation, however, was soon replaced by chaos and terror.  Bombs.  Blood.  Sirens.  SWAT […]

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  • It’s GO! Time | Craig Leon – Professional Runner

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    […] that a year has already passed since the 2013 Boston Marathon.  As I wrote last year, that Monday included irreplaceable highs and unfathomable lows.  I’m glad, in a way, that this year’s race comes 371 days after the events of 2013.  […]

    Reply

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