Boston Marathon Under 3 Hours: So What?

     It was sunny when I finished the Boston Marathon. I stopped my watch and walked, congratulating runners around me. After a few yards, I saw one of my running role models being interviewed by TV. It meant I, a 39-year-old amateur, had finished the race just behind Joan Benoit Samuelson, two-time Boston Marathon winner (1979 and 1983) and first female marathon runner to win an Olympic gold medal (1984). Now 55, the marathon legend is still very fast. I was overwhelmed.
     “She’s my hero, my inspiration!” I told one the photographers at the back of the media crew surrounding her.
     About an hour later, none of this mattered. Two bombs killed three people, including an 8-year-old boy, and injured more than 260 who came to support runners at the finish line.
         A week later, I still struggle with guilt when I think about the race. The mere thought of running a marathon, let alone being proud of a personal record and brush with a running celebrity, feels selfish and inappropriate.

      For months, I had conditioned my body and my mind toward a single goal, making every detail of the preparation disproportionately important. Looking back at that morning of April 15, all of those details seem pointless.

     Consider my main concerns as I woke up at 5:30 a.m.: I dreaded about being cold while waiting for the 10 a.m. start. I agonized over what kind of arm sleeves I would wear. I fretted that my watch, which had been malfunctioning, would stop working altogether. I reflected on my goals for the race, my fourth Boston Marathon, visualizing each portion of the now-familiar course. I would try to run the first half in 1h27, a pace of 6:38 a mile (14.6 km/h), leaving me just under 1h33 for the second half to cover 26.2 miles (42.2 kilometers) under three hours. The plan was ambitious — I had broken three hours only once, a 2h59m19 in New York in 2011 — but still within reach since my record in Boston was 3h01.
     As I walked to the school buses that would take me to the start, a bottle of water mixed with Nuun — a self-dissolving electrolyte tab — exploded in my bag. All of the bag’s contents got drenched, including the throw-away clothes that would have kept me warm before the race. I panicked. How absurd it now sounds.
    This year my qualifying time meant that I was closer to the front runners in the corrals that help stagger the 23,000 runners’ start in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. I warmed up amid runners — mostly men — with numbers in the 1,000s. (Mine was 2,985: in Boston, the fastest your qualifying time, the lower the number.) I remembered the words from my husband and mental coach (“Don’t let it get to your head”). There was no risk: I didn’t seriously think I belonged. I was just a tourist.

Feeling like a tourist among triple-digit bib numbers

       I started faster than my goal, and probably paid for it with side stitches about 5 miles into the race. Stitches are new to me: They appeared during training this year and even forced me to walk during a session of speed work — a first. But I decided to stick with my pace of about 6:30 a mile: I was now in the race and had to give everything I could. The people of Boston, as always, carried me in moments when I contemplated quitting: the crowds cheering the U.S.’s oldest marathon, in its 117th edition this year, are like professional supporters. A lot of them have more experience cheering than we have running in Boston. That makes the attack on a group that was out for others even more heart-breaking.

     I passed the half mark in a time matching my personal best on the distance, 1h25m47, knowing that I had yet to make my biggest effort. I always tell novices that the Boston marathon starts mile 16 with the first of a series of hills. But once again, I was wrong. The hills weren’t the hardest part for me — I had trained for them. The last 5 miles of downhill following the hills were the most grueling.

The face of grueling pace
     It’s hard to describe the amount of pain I inflicted on myself as I pushed through: Everybody’s threshold is different. One sign that I started to reach my limits is that I got confused about my pace. The numbers on my watch weren’t adding up in my head anymore. I felt a new sensation in my legs — they were giving way — but I wasn’t clear-headed enough to recognize it as a possible sign of lack of fuel. I had forgotten to take a last gel and drink Gatorade for a boost of sugar in the last miles, as I usually do.
     Five miles for a trained runner is easy. But for a runner in pain and distress, it’s more than half an hour of digging into resources that may not be there. I was slowing down, not sure I could make it. My pace dropped to about 6:50 a mile in the last 3 miles, and about 7 minutes in the last mile. No matter how hard I tried to keep the pace, my marshmallow legs weren’t responding: my torso was getting ahead of them.
     The crowd at the finish line, in wild screams, transported me. I crossed the line in 2h54m21, surrounded by cheers that would turn to terror an hour later.
    I was 55 minutes faster than at my first marathon 11 years ago in Paris, and 67th woman overall. Ten women 39 or older ran faster than I did, all but one in their early forties. The exception was Joan Benoit Samuelson, 4 minutes ahead of me. I like to pour over numbers and statistics because I can handle facts. I can’t handle emotion. All I feel about my race is: so what?

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