Boston Strong

I have been struggling to write about my experience running the 2017 Boston Marathon.  There are so many different emotions swirling around in my head that it has been difficult to distill it down into a post of under 1000 words.  I could write a book about that race.  Today I realized the theme that most describes my Boston Marathon experience.  It is a cliche but it fits:  It took a village.

It took a village to get me to the start line.  In mid-February – 8 weeks before the race – I couldn’t run more than 6 miles before my ankle started to scream at me.  I knew I needed to address the issue or I wasn’t going to be able to run the race.  I went to a physical therapist, Jessica, and a rehabilitation fitness trainer, Carrie, who helped me work on ankle strength and flexibility.  Carrie identified issues with my gait.  She gave me a mantra to say as I ran, words that help my brain focus on proper form.  I kept my running coach, Jenny, informed of my issues and she made adjustments based on feedback on my runs.  Jennifer, my massage therapist, dedicated hours to ensuring the muscles in my ankle, foot, calf, and quads were loose.  Through their collective efforts my 6-mile ankle was ready for 26.2 miles.  Each of them was instrumental in getting me to the start line.

It took a village – a very large village – of race organizers, volunteers, police, and emergency responders to put on this race.  The logistics for a race through 8 different cities and towns over a distance of 26.2 miles are more than you can imagine.  They spend a year on organizing the event, coordinating resources and planning for every possible issue.  I bet the race director was monitoring the weather forecasts all week like I was.   Every time I looked it seemed the race day temperatures were predicted to be higher than the last forecast.  On race day it was in the 70s – warm for any race and particularly warm for someone like me with Transverse Myelitis.  Ever since my experience at the 2015 Rock ’n’ Roll Half in Savannah, Georgia, I am always concerned they will run out of water on the course.  That would be disastrous.  But the race organizers had that all covered and there was no shortage of hydration for the runners.  Security was never a concern either.  The course was lined with local, state, and military police, on foot and on bicycles.   This was one of the best organized races I have ever had the privilege to run.

It was not exactly the top of the hill but close enough

The number of volunteers was incredible – 9,500 – that translates to one volunteer for every 3 runners.  The only other race that I recall having as many volunteers was the 2015 Tokyo Marathon.  The volunteers stood for hours, on an unseasonably warm April day, handing out water, Gatorade, and Clif gels.  And they were the friendliest bunch of people too.

In case you forgot something, you could get it on the way to the corrals at the start line in Hopkinton

The last two turns before the finish line

I felt an incredible sense of community as I ran.  The people along the course came together to celebrate with the runners.  This is their race, a source of pride for Bostonians.  Many people who lived along the course handed out water, candy, oranges, and ice.  Some even played music to entertain the runners as they passed by.  The runners were welcomed.

Because I am not a Boston Qualifier, I participated in the race as a member of a charity team benefitting the Charlestown Boys & Girls Club.  Most of the kids in the club come from disadvantaged and even harsh circumstances.  Hillary Clinton once wrote that it takes a village to raise a child.  The kids in Charlestown need a village to provide guidance as they navigate all the challenges facing kids today. The money the team raised will help them support an increasing number of kids who participate in the club activities.  Another member of the Charlestown Boys & Girls Club team put it so eloquently: “kids are 25% of our population but they are 100% of our future.”

I wish I was as fast as a shooting star

I have run for several charities before but none has touched me the way this one did.  Enclosed with my team singlet were notes and drawings from the kids, thanking me for running for them as well as providing words of encouragement.  In their minds I was doing something very challenging to help them.  For one day I was their hero.  What they didn’t know is that they were inspiration to me.  When I had doubts on race day about finishing the marathon, I only needed to think about those notes to keep going.

Yes, I would have liked to be a Boston Qualifier and entered the race without a fundraising obligation.  But I never would have made a connection to a community of kids who need my help.  They made my race about more than a medal.  This race is a cherished memory for me because of them.

Over $36 million was raised for the various charities participating in the Boston Marathon charity program.  The charity runners included many first time marathoners too.  I encourage anyone who wants to run the Boston Marathon – both runners who qualify and those like myself who don’t – to participate on a charity team like the Charlestown Boys & Girls Club.  Boston puts on a great race.  Fundraising for their community is a terrific way to show appreciation for their hospitality.  Because it really does take a village.

Contact me if you would like to donate to the Charlestown Boys & Girls Club Boston Marathon team.  The kids would appreciate anything you can do to help them.

Running Away From the Finish Line

Frequently people I meet will tell me about races they think I have never heard about, races they think I would want to run.  Last fall someone told me about the Wings for Life World Run.  When I heard how the race is organized, I knew immediately it is one I have to add to my “to-run” list.

The Wings for Life World Run was started in 2014 to raise awareness of the physical and medical challenges faced by paraplegic people and raise funds to help find cures for spinal cord injuries.  This race is held the first weekend in May.  It is unique for several reasons.  First, the race, which is held in 24 countries all over the world, starts exactly at the same moment, 11AM UTC (Coordinated Universal Time).  For some locations it is the middle of the night; for others it maybe be the middle of the day or early morning.  Regardless of location, everyone is running at the same time throughout the world.

Source: Wings for Life World Run website

Next, there is no finish line in the traditional sense.  Instead there are “Catcher Cars” that start out a half hour after the race starts.  The cars travel initially at 15 km per hour and slowly increase their speed.  Global satellite navigation is used to ensure that the Catcher Cars around the world are synchronized. When a Catcher Car overtakes a runner, the race is over for them and they have to board a bus back to the start area.  In essence, the runners are not running to a finish line.  The runners are trying to run away from a mobile finish line that is trying to catch them.

Finally, the distance a given runner completes is determined by how fast and fit they are as runners.  For each race, a 100 km course is prepared.  Slow runners may only be able to complete a 10 km distance (or 6.2 miles) before the Catcher Car ends their race.  Faster runners may be able to complete a marathon distance (about 42 km).  The current record for the furthest distance a runner covered before the Catcher Car caught them is an amazing 88.44 KM (almost 55 miles).

The winners are the male and female runners who are able to run the furthest before being the Catcher Car gets to them.  There are winners for each location as well as overall global winners.  Remember Michael Wardian, the winner of the 7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 days?  It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Michael has been the overall global winner of the Wings for Life World Run – twice!

I definitely plan to run the Wings for Life World Run.  I might not get very far before the Catcher Car passes me.  But until it does, it will be exciting to be part of a global running event, happening across the world at exactly the same moment.

Interested in participating in the Wings for Life World Run?   Check out their website for more information.  Can’t get to one of the race locations?  There is a virtual app to enable runners to participate wherever they may be.  There is also a goal calculator to help you determine your expected time and distance.

Why We Run

I remember when I first started running many people questioned why I wanted to do something they thought was a waste of time.  From their perspective a marathoner runs for hours and hours and the only reward they receive at the end is a piece of medal on some ribbon, a banana or bagel, and very sore muscles.  I guess when you put it in that context, running seems a bit silly.  As someone pointed out to me, that is why they invented fossil fuels – so we didn’t have to run everywhere.

I was reading the obituaries one day and one caught my eye.  It was for Wendy Bailey, a woman who passed away from breast cancer at the young age of 47.  In her photo she had a beautiful smile, the kind that would welcome anyone she would meet.  As I read about her life, I realized she was the kind of warm friendly person you would love to know.  There was a quote in her obituary that struck a chord with me.  “When you constantly challenge yourself, you discover a lot about who you are.”  Marathon runners understand how true that is.
screen-shot-2016-11-15-at-10-11-41-pmI can tell you from my own experience there is something that happens to you when you finish your first marathon.  You are not the same person who started the race.  Crossing the finish line transforms you like a butterfly coming out of its cocoon.  Before my first marathon, I was intimidated by many things.   I was not an athlete and the thought of running a marathon was frightening.   But after I crossed the finish line of my first marathon, I was never afraid of anything again.  Along with my medal came a big dose of self-confidence.  Hey, if I can run 26.2 miles and not die, I must be much stronger than I thought.

There are plenty of reasons why people decide to take on the marathon.   They may be running to raise awareness and funds for a cause that holds deep meaning for them.   People run to fund research to find cures for diseases like breast cancer, Crohn’s disease, or neuroblastoma, or for social causes like clean water in Africa.  I ran my first marathon in honor of a friend who was battling an incurable form of lymphoma, fundraising in the process.

Other people may be striking back at something that has taken away their own ability to move such as wounded warriors.  They prove to themselves the strength they still have.  In some cases, people are striking back at abilities that they never had.  A good example is Tatyana McFadden who was born with spina bifida and has not known anything other than a wheelchair.  Tatyana has won 11 marathons.  I have watched Tatyana compete and she is an amazing young athlete.

As for me, I was healthy when I started running until Transverse Myelitis changed my life five years ago.  While I started running to show support for my friend, now I run for myself.  I don’t know what the future holds for me.  If the music is going to stop some day, I want to make sure I cram in everything I want to do while I can do it.  I won’t let TM run my life.

Kathrine Switzer said once “If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.”  Running a marathon takes courage, determination and strength (both mental and physical).  When you watch a marathon, you will see all kinds of people.  They all have one thing in common – they had the courage to show up at the start line and challenge themselves.  And at the finish line, as Wendy said, they will have discovered much more about who they are.

One in A Million

You might think that every marathon is the same.  Same race, just different place.  I can tell you from my experience that they are not.  This past weekend I ran my twelfth marathon, the Virgin Money London Marathon.   It was very different than any other I have run.  Someone said the London Marathon is “so much more than a race.”  Truer words have never been spoken.

This was a special year for the race.  The London Marathon started in 1981 with a mere 7,000 or so runners.  This year over 39,000 runners were entered.  At some point during the race, the one-millionth runner was going to cross the finish line.   To generate excitement before the race, the organizers started the #oneinamillion campaign about this remarkable milestone.  As of today, they are still trying to determine who the one-millionth runner was.  I might not be that one-millionth runner but I am hoping I crossed the finish line before them.

There are runners who have completed every London Marathon since it started.  They call them “Ever Presents”.  They started tracking the Ever Presents in 1995 when there were 42.  This year the number of Ever Presents was down to 12, all male runners between the ages of 57 and 79.  I can’t imagine running the same race for 36 years in a row.  I have to take my hat off to these gentlemen.  They are committed.

The race among the elite runners was full of excitement. The overall male winner, Eliud Kipchoge, finished in 2:03:05 – the fastest London Marathon finish and the second fastest men’s marathon record – only 8 seconds off the current world record of 2:02:57.  The overall female winner, Jemima Sumgong, fell at Mile 21 when another runner clipped her heels.  She went down hard, striking her head on the pavement.  But she got back up and kept going despite a gash on her head.  Jemima worked her way back into the lead and finished in 2:22:58.

Officials from Guinness World Records at the finish line

Officials from Guinness World Records at the finish line

The race partners with the Guinness World Records (GWR) folks so that amateur runners attempting world records can get record verification immediately after completing the race.   Anyone who planned to attempt to break a record during the race had to apply to GWR prior to the race.  They also wore special signs on their backs indicating they were working on a GWR attempt.  There were 55 record attempts during the 2016 London Marathon.  I saw several of them during the race.  Of these, 31 were successful.  Here are a few of the new records for fastest marathons set at the 2016 London Marathon:

Fastest four-man costume

Fastest four-man costume

  • In a four-person costume achieved by four real life firemen who ran wearing a fire engine.  They completed the race in 5:25:02.
  • By a man wearing chainmail in 5:45:51.
  • Wearing a full body dinosaur costume (man) in 3:08:34.
  • Dressed as a plant (a man dressed as a forget me not in a flower pot) in 3:02:43.  This runner also is the current record holder for the fastest marathon in a wedding dress.
  • Dressed as an organ (prostate) in 3:13:20.
  • Dressed as a bottle (in this case, a bottle of Wimbledon Brewery beer) in 3:09:37.
  • Dressed as a crustacean (a lobster) in 3:17:57.  My biggest fear realized – I was beaten by a guy dressed as a lobster.
  • Dressed as a fast food item (hotdog) in 3:57:17.
  • A woman dressed in a full-body animal costume (polar bear) in 4:22:08.
  • Two person costume (horse and jockey) in 4:21:21.  They must have beaten the two runners I saw dressed as Native Americans wearing a canoe.

    Two man costume attempt

    Two man costume attempt by runners dressed as Native Americans and wearing a canoe

Major Tim Peake, a British astronaut ran the fastest marathon in orbit by running the marathon on a treadmill in the International Space Station while we ran through London.  As he ran, Tim watched a video of the route on his iPad.  He had to use a harness to keep himself on the treadmill while he ran.  Tim finished his “London Marathon” in 3:35:21, only 16 minutes slower than his time running the 1999 London Marathon.  If there is a record for someone running the same race on Earth and in space, he should get that one too.  While Tim ran in orbit, Martin Hewlett ran in London and set the record for the fastest marathon dressed as an astronaut in 3:06:26.

One of the most amazing records is the one set by three men for fastest four-legged marathon.  They finished in 4:44:19.  I can’t imagine the amount of coordination that it took to keep them all in synch for 26.2 miles, especially for the runner in the middle who had each of his legs tied to one of the other runners.

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 7.19.17 PMI was most impressed by the number of charity runners.  The London Marathon had more charity runners than any other race I ever have run.  Approximately 3/4 of the runners were raising money for one of the over 80 charities associated with the race.  For the “have-a-go” runners (as one newspaper referred to first time marathoners), entry through a charity guaranteed them a spot in a very popular race plus a way to support a cause that was important to them.   By raising money for a charity, they have a way to honor a loved one who was lost to cancer or a stroke, or show support for a family member or friend suffering from diseases like Colitis or mental illness, or help raise awareness about various social causes.   They become someone’s hero.  Not surprising that the world record for fundraising through a marathon was set at the 2011 London Marathon by Steve Chalke who raised £2.32 million (nearly $3.4 million by today’s exchange rates).

One of the many runners dressed as a rhino

One of the many runners dressed as a rhino

Many of the charity runners wear costumes to help raise money for their cause.  I saw runners dressed as Star Wars Storm Troopers, Paddington Bear, Sponge Bob, film and book characters, full body dinosaur costumes, an old fashioned desk telephone.  As I passed a man dressed as a toilet (who was running for water.org), I teased him by saying I disliked when a toilet runs.  He laughed and replied that he would be flush when he finished.  There was a large number of runners dressed as rhinoceros (for Save the Rhino).

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 7.19.05 PMShortly after the race, I learned that a runner had collapsed at Mile 23.  It was David Seath, a 31 year old Green Beret in the British Army who was running for Help for Heroes, a charity that provides support to wounded service members.  He had set a modest fund raising goal of £250 ($365).   He died later at a hospital.  News of his death shocked everyone and his fundraising web site was flooded with donations.  As of today, people have donated over £69,500 ($101,000).  One of David’s friends created another fundraising web site in his memory also to benefit Help the Heroes.  That web site has raised over £93,000 ($135,813).  Between the two fundraising web sites, over £162,500 ($236,00) has been raised for Help for Heroes – all because of David.  From such a terrible tragedy came more money than David could ever have imagined raising to help an organization that was important to him.

Of all the races I have done, the London Marathon is right up there at the top of the list.  It is a celebration, a chance for runners to test their limits and possibly set new world records, and an opportunity to be heroes to the charitable organizations many of them were supporting.  Yes, it was much more than just another marathon.

Although I am running faster these days, I ended up finishing about 15 minutes behind my personal record (PR) for the marathon. My husband was disappointed that I didn’t push myself more and go for a PR.  But I had decided before the start that this race was special, one that I needed to savor.  Along the course, I took time to stop and take pictures, to capture some of the excitement.  As I neared the finish line, I didn’t want the race to end.  I paused for a few moments between Miles 25 and 26 to look around and soak it all in.  It was a fabulous race.  I was one in a million.

Here is a link to the press release listing all of the new Guinness World Records set at the 2016 London Marathon.

Do you want to run the London Marathon?  Travel partners like Marathon Tours can get you in the race.  I have travelled to several races with this company and I have never been disappointed in them.  They know the races, provide the most convenient accommodations, and help ensure you have a pleasant running vacation.  Check them out!