Once again, I was about half an hour behind my champion.
Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France winner, and I were among the 25,000 runners lining up at the start of the race at 10:00 a.m. April 21, 2008, in cool, sunny weather. The magnitude of what was coming sunk in when one of the rope holders who keep runners in the right place before the gun said he had nine Boston marathons under his belt. Boston is the world’s oldest annual city marathon and among the most prestigious, a prize coveted by long-distance runners.
There are no beginners in Boston, no first-time marathon runners. Almost all participants earned the right to run 26.2 miles (42.2 km) from Hopkinton to Boston by finishing another marathon under a tough qualifying time. They put on in hours of training in the winter, at dawn or night, or on the treadmill when it was snowing or too dark outside. In the school bus that took us to the start at 6 a.m., I looked for runners who might look a bit out of shape, to reassure myself. All I saw were the hollow cheeks and thin legs of long-distance runners.
I struggled from the start, even though the first half of the course is downhill. Running is an equalizer. Anything can happen in a marathon, to the elite athlete and the amateur, no matter how hard they trained. My legs just didn’t feel right for the first 10 miles (16 km), hurt by a succession of downhill and small hills. I couldn’t find a cruising pace. I focused on short-term goals — drinking water every two miles, taking food at mile 8 and 16 — to keep me going. I wrapped up the first half in 1 hour 36 minutes 43 seconds, knowing the worst was yet to come: the uphill part of the course and 13.1 more miles.
The crowd of about 500,000 spectators, according to the Boston Marathon’s Web site, picked me up in Natick and carried me through the end. Boston’s spectators are the loudest I’ve ever heard. And the 2,400 students from the all-girl Wellesley College mile 12 are the loudest of the Boston Marathon. Their screams can be heard more than 500 yards ahead. It felt like approaching a gigantic beehive. The crowds made me feel special, like a champion. They made me forget about a blister that I felt popping at mile 21 (34 km), just as I finished the “Heartbreak Hill” near Boston College.
I actually missed the “Heartbreak Hill,” which earned its nickname for being the last of a succession of hills over 5 miles at a crucial part of race where many of us are running out of steam. I trained for that hill. I was ready to conquer it. Yet I didn’t notice I was on it until after I reached the top. There are so many rises between mile 16 and 21 that I didn’t know which one was the last, the heart breaker. At the top of each hill, I just braced for the next.
I finished in 3 hours 18 minutes and 45 seconds, one minute and 9 seconds more than my personal record in New York City, in November last year. Robert Cheruiyot, who won his third straight Boston marathon and fourth overall in 2 hours 07 minutes and 46 seconds, said in an interview with a special edition of the Boston Globe before the race that his training had been disrupted by violence in his country, Kenya. Ethnic fighting left more than 1,000 dead and displaced 500,000 in December. The worst that happened to me during the race was a bloody blister, plugged ears from mile 22, feeling legs near cramping on a couple of hills and nauseated toward the finish.
Growing up at the foot of mountains near Grenoble in the French Alps, I have vivid memories of the Tour de France and those heroes climbing up hills after hills on their bikes. One of my first crushes was Bernard Hinault, a five-time winner of the Tour, starting in 1978 when I wasn’t yet 5 years old. As an adult, I biked up some of the mythical passes of the race, at speed as slow as almost a third the Tour would.
When Armstrong picked up running as a hobby after retiring from professional cycling in 2005, I was one marathon ahead of him: my first, Paris 2002. He finished the 2006 New York City marathon in 2 hours 59 minutes 36 seconds, saying, “for the level of condition that I have now, that was without a doubt the hardest physical thing I have ever done,” according to the Associated Press. Five months later, I ran Austin, Texas, Armstrong’s hometown, in 3 hours 33 minutes 44 seconds, or 34 minutes 8 seconds more than the champion.
In November 2007, I followed him by 30 minutes 53 seconds in the New York City ING marathon.
With Boston, I feel like I’m closing the gap.