That’s a sentence I never thought I would write. The key in the sentence is not that Bill Rodgers beat me, but that he crossed the finish line on Boylston Street only 13 minutes ahead of my time.
You see, Bill Rodgers and I are the same age. (Actually, I’m a day older.) Back in the 1970s when Bill Rodgers was the king of marathoning, I was married and a father of young children, held a demanding job and ran very little. Tennis was my only consistent exercise. The idea of me becoming a marathoner was not extant. To put marathon and me and Bill Rodgers in a comparative sentence was unimaginable.
Billy subsequently did his part to make the unimaginable happen. He got older, injured, and ill, and did not train like he used to.
For my part, I took up speed skating and then resumed competitive running 26 years after my last high school cross country meet. I subsequently found the long-distance runner and triathlete in me, ran 32 marathons and 11 Ironman races leading up to the 2009 Boston Marathon, and, this year, trained well and hard (including eight or so runs of 18-22 miles in length on our hilly Morton Arboretum course) before a very sore butt (piriformis syndrome, which involves nerve impingement) stalled my training three weeks before the race.
With my injury, after running three miles the pain rose. Until just days before the race I could not get beyond four miles without stopping. But then I was helped by rest and then a wonderful hip-opening yoga stretch given to me by triathlete/runner friend and coach Debi Bernardes when she trained with us when in town from Virginia the week before the race. I ran five miles at marathon pace at track practice on Thursday before the race and could tolerate the soreness at least through that distance. But I was concerned that when going farther the pain would rise and I would have to pull off the course, have a beer and find a ride back to downtown Boston.
The good part about not knowing if I could get beyond 10K is I felt no pressure to perform and no anxiety before the race. I was a model of calmness and spread this calm to those around me as the race approached. I could enjoy everything wonderful around the build-up to the race rather than withdraw into myself to stare at what was ahead, as is the tendency before a big competition.
My wife Sherry and I flew into Manchester, NH, on Friday evening before the race and stayed with “the good cousins” in Salem, MA, deciding in this economically challenged year to forgo the great expense of a downtown hotel. Mastering the confused Boston area roads proved a challenge, but the decision was a good one for the ease of using the T to get into and around Boston and the low stress/great hospitality environment that staying with relatives in Salem provided.
On Saturday morning I took the commuter railroad from Salem to South Station and the Green Line to Hynes Convention Center, where I hooked up with Jim Spivey Running Club buddies John Duffy and Margaret Ford. We had a great time cruising the expo, not buying much but making connections. I renewed acquaintances with Rich Benyo, editor of Marathon & Beyond, and highly literate author and runner Roger Robinson. John and I chatted with Josh Cox, who several years earlier I had witnessed setting the world treadmill marathon record at the very same expo. I also met the head of special events for ASICS, who when learning I was coached by three-time Olympian, former ASICS runner and now ASICS employee Jim Spivey called Jim “a great ambassador for the sport.” Absolutely true!
This is when Bill Rodgers first became part of my Boston 2009 story. John Duffy was determined to talk to Bill and get a photo with him to give to his Dad, a great Rodgers fan. John stood line for what seemed like an hour and eventually got the chance he wanted, having a long talk with Bill, getting an autograph and photos taken to send to his Dad. I witnessed this and marveled how free Bill was with his time and how much of a “normal guy” he was in his conversation. My age-mate still looked in runner shape, but a bit worn. Afterwards John told me that, yes, Bill had said that he was going to run the race for the first time in a number of years, but also that he hoped to break four hours.
What? Tell me that again? Bill Rodgers hopes to break four hours? The man who according to Wikipedia “is best known for his victories in the Boston Marathon and the New York City Marathon in the late 1970s who won both races four times each between 1975 and 1980, twice breaking the American record at Boston with a time of 2:09:55 in 1975 and a 2:09:27 in 1979”? The man who “Track & Field News ranked #1 in the world in the marathon in 1975, 1977 and 1979”? The man who ran “28 of the 59 marathons” he had run to date “under 2:15”? The man who “won 22 marathons in his career”?
My mind tried to wrap around the fact that uninjured I had a decent shot at beating Bill Rodgers in his marathon… Wow!
After the expo we parted with Margaret, and John and I got back to Salem, enjoyed a great dinner of lobster and steamers and got a good night’s sleep. The next day we drove into Boston, picked up Margaret and went to a pre-race bagel brunch thrown by runners/triathletes Joe Bator (shooting for sub 3 hours in the race) and Julia Kim (hostess extraordinaire and a Boston 2009 charity runner), who live a few blocks from the marathon course in Brookline. I was invited to the brunch because I am a Triathlete of the Dead Runners Society, more commonly called a “Tri Dead” or “Dead.” Tri Deads are an internet group of more than 300 triathletes around the world who stay connected digitally and every once in a while meet up in person.
The athletic experience and confidence evident at the Bators was overflowing. I reconnected with Deads Leslie and Drew Holton (she currently doing 17 hour bike rides in preparation for eventually doing the Race Across America and he a wicked fast runner) whom I had dinner with in Colorado several years ago when I ran the Denver Marathon, and Steve Dragoni, fellow Dead from Britain now living in Boston who did Ironman Canada with me in 2004. I met Mary Arnold, a Dead who has just started managing the new Jack Rabbit Sports running/triathlon store on Lexington Avenue in New York City.
Another thing about the Deads: We have a Tri Deads dog tag that makes the rounds among us: It’s been worn in races worldwide. It is accompanied by very inspiring race reports, notes and memorabilia from the races where is has been worn. It was my turn to wear the dog tag for Boston 2009 and then I was to ship it ASAP to London so Dead Jason Cordingly could wear it in the London Marathon the following Sunday. Given my injury, I really needed whatever luck and inspiration it could bring me and I was privileged to wear it.
In the afternoon we toured the spectacular Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, where cousin Penny is on staff, and that night we ate a simple spaghetti dinner thanks to Sherry and organized our race gear. Race morning I was up at 4:00 a.m. and John and I found encouraging notes from Sherry and the cousins on the bathroom mirror. We left home at 4:30 a.m. and after several logistical challenges got to the T, rode into Boston, changed trains, walked across Boston Common to the Boston Park Plaza to drop off John’s travel bag that he would grab after the race for the trip home, and walked back to the Common to the buses lined up to take runners to the start in Hopkinton. John the Chicago south side Irishman is great company and the time flew by. But at one point I was suddenly alarmed when I realized my cell phone was not in my pocket. How would I communicate with Sherry after the race?
Next thing I knew we stepped off the bus and found a great place to sit under the tent at the school grounds to await the start of the race. I ate, used the porta-potty and stretched. We used John’s phone to call my relatives to let them know I was sans phone and that we hoped it was in the car at the T station.
We talked with fellow marathoners and enjoyed the sight of thousands of runners preparing for the race. John and I discussed what to wear – shorts for sure, but would I wear a long or short-sleeved shirt? I had a firm line from experience: At 39 degrees or lower I wear tights and a long sleeved shirt. Above that I wear shorts, with long sleeves, short sleeves or singlet being the upper body choice depending on conditions. With the wind the choice between long and short sleeves was marginal and difficult to make. Duffy said short sleeves and pushed me over that edge. For him at least it proved to be the wrong choice.
Soon enough after John had jogged a bit and found a remote porta-potty he was off for his 10:00 a.m. first wave start; he was feeling good, unlike the previous year when he had digestive issues. I could have used the porta-potty again and stood in a couple of lines, but the lines had grown to immense length, so eventually I stripped down to running shorts, socks, ASICS DS Trainers, and a short-sleeved technical Boston 2006 shirt, with four gels pinned on and tucked into my waist band and the Tri Deads dog tag hanging off my neck. I handed in my gear bag at my gear bus and joined the happy but anxious throng walking to the starting pens on the road we would run out of Hopkinton toward Boston.
The weather forecast before the race had been concerning, with rain and strong northeast winds in the mix. Luckily, the rain had held off and the day proved to be a mix of sun and clouds, with temperatures in the mid 40s to low 50s. The wind remained a negative.
I pushed up the race street through the hordes of runners and spectators to my pen, which was for runners with numbers from 20000 to 20999: My number was 20518. I was standing surrounded by runners who had roughly equaled my 3:59 qualifying time, waiting and talking, as usual, when a shout came from behind me – Lee! – and Margaret and another running friend pushed through the crowd and joined me. The company was welcome in the waning minutes before the start and I was happy to see Margaret calm and focused, determined not to go out too fast, which was why she had jumped into my pen rather than hers a bit up the road where the opening pace might have lured her into running too hard to start. I was not anxious at all.
Then the ropes separating the pens were dropped, we were shuffling ahead and then running, across the finish line to cheers, applause and chip-induced timing beeps. My sixth Boston was underway! How far could I get?
Before I could find out, there was unfinished business to tend to. At the bottom of the first long hill a path led to the right into the woods and I ran down it to the tree line, relieved myself and then ran back up the hill and rejoined the race. Much better!
The Boston course is perverse in several ways, the first of which is that much of the first five miles is significantly downhill. This can be troublesome for two reasons – first, because it lures one into running way too fast and expending too much energy in the beginning of the race and can result in being burnt out by mid-course. Second, because downhill running is hard on the quads and can lead to dead legs and cramping. I had made a point to train as much as possible on hills in mostly flatland Illinois, so I was as prepared as ever for the downhills. The trick, as I had finally executed in 2008, was to run the extra-steep first mile slowly and not overrun the down hills in general.
The first mile marker appeared and my watch said 10:14. I was running 9 minute pace, subtracting the pee break, what I had hoped I could run for my race average with my injury. My butt was not yet sore, but the race was young. We’ll see, I thought.
I was passing and being passed in equal measure, not pushing but trying to pick it up a bit to eventually erase the time for the pit stop. As always, many of the runners were running for one or another charity and had the names of those who were ill or who had died or were survivors on their shirts. Or the runners’ shirts proclaimed their own names or nicknames or a funny slogan, such as “I’m 20! Now why did I want to run this race?” and “I’m single. Call [phone number here] for a date!”, on their bodies or clothing, or they were dressed like a banana or a crab, or they were carrying a Marine flag in tribute to Iraq war dead, or they were couples (pick the sex) holding hands, or they were bearing shirts with Korean or Japanese letters, or their shirts bore the names of a multitude of races and running clubs. I took in this visual cacophony with a continuing smile, as I did the tremendous cheering and clapping crowds and the emerging New England spring unfolding as we ran through wooded areas and then business and residential settings from Hopkinton through Ashland.
Mile 2 was 8:50, on target. But that was as fast I could run with my injury. I was feeling great despite a dull ache starting beneath my left buttocks. As I had learned to do over the years, I ran near the side of the road, allowing me to easily shift over to the edge to pass the slower runners with least interference, get maximum enjoyment from viewing and interacting with the enthusiastic spectators and high-fiving kids, and making grabbing liquids at the water stations easiest. I only changed this as the race went on to vary the road slant I was running on to avoid always canting right and to follow the tangents on turns to run a straighter line. But Boston is generally straight, has relatively few turns compared with most courses and has roads that generally don’t have much cant, so running the road edge generally works well here.
Mile 3, which had some uphill, was 9:06. Hmm. On target but no progress on deleting the time for the break. We passed the biker bar in Ashland where the hard rock music was booming and the big party was already underway. This was my first bail-out point, but there was no biker bar melee in store for me today – my colorful moving running celebration would continue, it seemed.
Mile 4 was more downhill, 8:54. Better, but little progress on erasing the restroom break.
Mile 5 again had more uphill – 9:06. Is this a pattern, I wondered? – subtract, add, subtract, add? We ran into Framingham.
What followed mile five would be telling – this was as far as I had dared run in the lead-up to the race to foster healing. So far the pain had grown a little, but it was not debilitating. I could run a nine minutes a mile pace, but not much faster it seemed. I certainly was not interested in seeing how much worse running faster would feel, in any case. Just try to hold 9s, I told myself.
This was the time to take my first Power Gel. I did a good job of following my hydration and fueling strategy worked out over many years of marathoning for a race that was not run in hot weather: Alternate drinking Gatorade and water every two miles and eat a gel every five miles. The twist at Boston (as at Chicago) is that Power Gel is handed out later on the course, at mile 17 at Boston, so I ate the gels I carried at 5, 10, 15 and 23 miles and picked up one which I consumed at 17 miles. Energy and hydration were never an issue for me in the 2009 race. (If it had been hotter I would have hydrated more often with Gatorade and added taking salt tablets, which I had along but did not take.)
Mile 6, 9:02. OK but no progress on whittling away the excess. The spacing between runners began to increase, and the need to avoid and run around slower runners lessened.
10K passed in 57:09 and as I crossed the timing mats I knew those tracking me would see that I had made it that far. Good! We passed through downtown Framingham, crossing the railroad tracks. I thought of the many-decade longitudinal health study to which Framingham residents had contributed the data. Hats off to you, Framingham, for improving the health of our nation!
Mile 7, 8:59. One second cut off. The pain had not grown and I could maintain pace. Wow!
I missed the mile 8 marker. At mile 9 my watch showed a split of 17:59, another second clawed away over two miles. I was eking out progress and now realizing that maybe I could finish the race, pending how I felt on the Newton Hills and afterward, but that a four hour or better finish, which would requalify me for Boston next year, was unlikely. This was not upsetting as I was previously resigned to not even getting this far down the road!
Mile 10, 9:01. This was an uphill section and I worked it, feeling relatively strong. Not too shabby! Along the way I passed an Elvis runner in sun glasses, wig, cape and black straight tights. “Don’t be cruel,” I sang as I passed. Then a little later on a riser on the side of the road an even better Elvis imitator lip-synched the long-gone star’s hits. Weird!
Mile 11, 9:16. This continued the hilly section. Looking ahead, I saw masses of runners flowing into the distance. I was falling off pace and my affliction limited me from pushing up the hills or running down the hills as hard as I wanted to. I was starting to feel the effects of the downhill pounding on my quads; I did not feel as fresh as before.
Mile 12, 9:04. I was back on pace but this mile was clearly downhill, so the gain was illusory.
Mile 13, 9:38. This was a hillier harder stretch, but it offered the diversion of the Wellesley girls (and some guys) shouting their lungs out on the right side of the road along the college and holding up signs with various messages offering kisses to runners. I had learned that despite the allure of kissing a coed (gee, did I ever do that in the race?), loss of hearing and race focus were a price I did not want to pay. I enjoyed the din and watching young guys get kissed as I soldiered by. The half marathon mark passed after the coed interlude; my watch showed 1:59. OK!
Mile 14, 9:05. My split showed this was an easier section.
Mile 15, 9:46. Now I was slowing at the same effort level. The pain had dulled and presented a continuing but manageable issue. I was running at whatever pace I was capable of running. This was it!
Mile 16, 9:51. This was a big downhill, the steepest one, to the lowest point on the course before the Newton Hills. I felt a little ungainly. I remembered Debi Bernardes’ admonition to not push it here. Running hard downhill did not feel good anyway, so I took it easy.
Miles 17 and 18, 21:22. This is the inflection point of the Boston Marathon, what for me signals that this is a special course. I grabbed a gel and then we turned onto Commonwealth Avenue at the fire station and ran up the first two Newton Hills. They were long and steep, considerably longer than the hills I run in Illinois but not steeper. I had no problem running uphill and preferred that to the downhill running, but I was not very fast. Nonetheless, the folks walking grew in numbers. Clearly the course was wearing on my fellow competitors.
Mile 19, 10:43. My time did not reflect it, but this was an easier section with a little downhill to the base of Heartbreak Hill. Showtime ahead!
Mile 20, 10:56. This was the first portion of Heartbreak Hill, essentially a false flat at the end, which was not a problem. I passed more walkers as I cruised up, enjoying the spectator support.
Mile 21, 11:27. Mile 21 is the crux of Heartbreak Hill. I ran up it all without a problem, passing many, many walking and slower runners. The crowd support was thrilling, with families and kids in depth on either side of the narrow road. How wonderful it is to run up Heartbreak and not die or cramp and have to walk, as had been the case in most of my Boston races! I tried to check my heart rate monitor to see how hard I was working, but I was jumping from the high 130s to the high 150s because of the crosstalk from other competitors’ Polar monitors. In any case, I was certainly working hard in the context of my soreness but not to the point of burning myself out.
Mile 22, 10:40. I crested the top of the hill with the buildings of Boston College visible through the tree line. Yes! This was the start of three miles of downhill, hard on the quads but great for the soul! The wild crowds of BC College students were incredible! Wow! Even in my hurting state I was so inspired that I began pumping my fist and saying “All right! Way to go Boston College!” Each fist pump received an outpouring of cheers. This was Cemetery Mile (which Margaret had noted had an old cemetery alongside just in case we died coming over Heartbreak Hill). I certainly was not fast at this point and a chilling wind gusted very hard in our faces, further slowing our descent.
Mile 23, 10:56, 5K to go! We turned left at Cleveland Circle onto Beacon Street, heading to Boston through Brookline. The street was rolling – on our pre-race tour Margaret and John had noted the uphills and said we would cuss them on the way up for the unfairness of their being placed after Heartbreak Hill, but they were not a problem for me. I hung on, with the mantra that I only had the equivalent of four laps of Lake Ellyn to go, something I had run many, many times in my hometown.
Mile 24, 10:30. The course flattened out and I kept pushing at my slowed pace, enjoying the cheering spectators but much more interested in spotting the mile marker in the distance and closing the gap to it..
Mile 25, 10:56. This road goes on forever, I thought, but then I spotted the famed, huge Citgo sign ahead, which signaled one mile from the finish. Great news, even if it was brought to me by a Venezuelan dictator.
The last 1.2 miles: 13:53. Ouch, twinges of cramping in my inner quad. I kept running, changing stride and hoping I would not lock up entirely. The road dipped here into an underpass and then up again. As I entered the underpass, ahead of me I saw a “leaner” fall off the road to the right, roll and get right back up. This guy did not look all there. Another runner in front of me ran up and tried to grab The Leaner to steady him, but The Leaner pushed The Good Samaritan away. Minutes later I passed The Leaner as he was pushing the side of his head with his right hand to keep from veering right off the road again! More weird!
The uphill in the underpass was successfully navigated without further cramping. This was very hopeful! Two blocks later we took a right turn and then ran uphill for two more hard blocks to Boylston Street. Several years earlier a company of National Guardsman running in formation in boots with full packs had passed me here in their successful quest to run the entire course. This year I was passed by some runners, but none with backpacks and I was passing as well – a terrific feeling I had only felt once before – as the adrenaline rose with the din from thousands of spectators overwhelming all senses.
I made the turn onto Boylston, knowing I would see the legendary finish banner in the distance. Too many times I had started to try to sprint here only to realize that the finish was many blocks away. No early sprint this year! I floated, noting the shouting hordes aganst the fencing on either side of the street and drawn magnetically to the finish. No faltering this year, either. The yellow finish grew and grew and I ran as hard as I could up to and across the timing mats, arms thrust in the air with a huge grin on my face.
I stopped my watch and it said 4:19.22. Not near my 3:27 marathon PR nor my 4:01.59 Boston requalifying time nor my 3:48 Boston personal record, but wonderful for a race I didn’t think I could even run! I was elated!
As we all shuffled through the finish area I congratulated and chatted with other finishers, thanked all the volunteers I could for coming out, had the chip removed from my shoe, got my medal and space blanket, grabbed a bottle of water and a bag of food and made my way to my gear bus parked behind the finish area. After changing I walked slowly to Margaret’s hotel room where she, John and I traded race tales. John had become hypothermic – he started feeling chilled mid race and by the end was shivering uncontrollably. He finished in a very slow (for him) 3:38 and spent an hour and a half warming up in the medical tent after the race. Margaret, on the other hand, ran 3:46, a great time for her, and she requalified for next year. I showered in Margaret’s cool B&B room, giving rise to great jokes about all of us showering together, and walked to McCormick & Schmick to meet Sherry, relatives and friends for a hard-won dinner. A steak never tasted better! We laughed and celebrated, joined eventually by John and Margaret.
I’m still amazed that I finished within 13 minutes of Bill Rodgers’ time.
Now to run a qualifier sometime this year and beat Bill’s time by at least 13 minutes…