My heart doesn’t even know how to process this, or where to begin. All of my Wellesley sisters know what I’m talking about. So does everyone else who’s ever gone to school in or near, or lived in or near, Boston. This day, so inextricably linked to who we are as a college, and to who I am as a runner. Who I am as a person.
I’ve long said Patriot’s Day – Marathon Monday – is my favorite day of the year. For 21 years it has been the brightest spot of the spring, the turning of mud season into spring, a day of celebration, and, once I moved westward, of internet tracking and fond memories, and finally, goals met and success.
In 1992, Marathon Day was the day after Easter. It followed Wellesley’s spring open campus weekend, when I decided, aw, hell, yeah, I’ll go to a women’s college. From the second I set foot on campus in June 1991, I knew I belonged there; it just took me ten months to accept it. I’d been running since I was 8, and the excitement of Boston and all its surrounding towns was palpable.
In 1993, my friend Karen and I ran our first half marathon together at Boston, as part of a college organized bandit plan. We took a van out to Hopkinton and ran back, ending just past Thunder Sports in the ‘Vil. At the time I didn’t think I’d done anything harder. Or cooler. And I’d yet to learn about writing up race reports, but how I wish I had documentation of what our emotions were that day! We thought we’d climbed Mount Everest, and we rewarded ourselves with ice cream. This was the epitome of “seemed like a good idea at the time.” My body, only vaguely prepared to run those 13.1 downhill miles, did not see dairy as a welcome introduction. I was savagely ill, stopping in bathrooms in Munger and Pomeroy on the long slog back up to Claflin, Whitney carrying my belongings all the way. I haven’t felt the same about ice cream again.
In 1994, I trained on icy roads with my friend Oana, my first running soulmate. Over miles and through a cold, cold winter, we poured out our hearts and deepened our friendship. While we knew each other well, how little we knew about training. Coolmax hadn’t been invented. We put on layers of sweatshirts, sweatpants, and socks. All cotton. We’d do our long runs westward, reversing the course, towards Natick and beyond, stopping at 7-11 to buy more water. Gels? Had gels been invented? I’ve no idea what, if anything, we ate. Race day came and again we took the van to Hopkinton, and ran back. No ice cream. Better experience.
Many friends know I struggled with an eating disorder for years, from late junior high through the middle of Wellesley. The summer of 1994, living at dear old Theta Chi on Beacon Street, with Oana as my roommate and a bevy of MIT boys as housemates, and a kick-ass therapist who finally had my number, marked the beginning of my recovery. Oana and I commuted to Wellesley together daily for our summer jobs. We continued to run, and she taught me to lift weights. I admired her, this strong, proud volleyball player who was not afraid of food in the way that I was, who was proud of her body and what it could achieve. The Theta Chis with whom we lived, who didn’t give food any emotional weight, and who ate whatever without a second thought, they taught me, too. I ran along the Charles, I ran on the course. I walked to Star Market in the Prudential and bought groceries and tried to comprehend how they wouldn’t kill me.
My recovery and Boston? Linked. You can do a lot on nothing, as I did slumming through high school cross-country races, running somehow just fast enough to get by and not kicked off the team out of Coach Bugg’s pity. But you cannot run a marathon on nothing. You have to feed your body, and without fuel, you can’t do it. I often wonder what kind of runner I might have been in high school, if only I’d eaten.
1995 marked Oana’s graduation year, and we resolved to run the entire marathon. We continued our runs together. I surrounded myself with strong, proud, athletic friends, and continued to learn how to trust my body and to eat. Six weeks prior to race day, I was diagnosed with a stress fracture. Of my femur, the largest bone in the body. (If you’re gonna do it, go big. I guess.) Though I’d been eating “normally” again for almost eight months, my body was not ready for the kind of pounding that 16-, 18-, 20- mile training runs produce. Into the water I went, doing long, boring aqua-jogs alone in Wellelsey’s pool while Oana slogged along alone on the roads through the rest of a dreadful winter. Two weeks before race day, I went back to Newton-Wellesley Hospital for a follow-up visit, where I asked my orthopedist if I could run. I’ll never forget his reply: “Maureen, I’m a medical professional. I’m not going to tell you it’s ok to run.” I countered (always a bargainer, me): “But will I do permanent medical damage if I run?” And he finally allowed that no, I would not.
So I ran. But I didn’t run the whole thing. I “compromised” and ran the last twelve miles, meeting Oana and Regan at the Boston Chicken in Wellesley Hills, just before the steep steep downslope to the Newton-Wellesley line. We passed Newton-Wellesley Hospital. Oana struggled up the hills. I ran on adrenaline steps in front of her, holding out my hand behind me, telling her to grab it, to follow me. We crossed the line on Boylston, bandits but still treated with unbelievable care, given our mylars and carefully shifted out of the lines, away from the medals. It was my first Boston finish line and I knew I’d be back, with a real number that I’d earned. We lay on Boylston Street, feet in the air, as my mom and aunt fetched us bagels and coffee.
1996 was my own graduation year, and marked the 100th running of the race. There was a lottery, allowing in a people who hadn’t qualified, and tripling the size of the field. I entered the lottery, but wasn’t selected. So for the first time, I didn’t bandit. I volunteered, earning my first Boston jacket as I served pasta to the masses at the Hynes Convention Center. I was honored to attend a weekend lunch hosted by Wellesley with the top women elite, from Uta Pippig to Tegla Loroupe, joining the captains of Wellesley’s varsity teams. On race day I stood on the sidelines for the first time, part of Wellesley’s storied tunnel, cheering the masses and tearing up at Dick Hoyt as he ran past, pushing his son Rick.
1997, was I there? Probably. 1998, I was working at Wellesley and living in Boston. My friend Julie was marking her own Wellesley graduation with the marathon. I ran from my apartment near Boston College and met her at the top of Heartbreak Hill, running her in to the end, using the same “grab my hand-behind me” technique of three years earlier.
I was weeks away from my own watershed, the core-shattering suicide of my dear friend Matt. I left Boston that summer, moving first to Colorado, then later on to California. I didn’t set foot on the course again until 2007.
I ran my first full marathon in December 2000, 6,000 miles away from Boston in Honolulu, finishing nearly an hour and 30 minutes slower than the necessary qualifying time. On my 9th marathon, on a cold, rainy day in Napa in March 2006, I finally qualified. On Monday, Ezra Klein’s excellent article gave it a name: I was a “squeaker,” sneaking in with just 58 seconds to spare. Just weeks away from that year’s Boston, I’d missed the window, and waited over a year to make my way to the official starting line.
A nor’easter meant the 2007 race was nearly cancelled for the first time in its 111-year history. My training buddy Kim and I laughed and shrugged and struggled through the day. It was far from pretty, but we did it, and (to her chagrin, I must imagine), I relived my college glory days over every passing mile. I was met along the way by friends Ryan and Ilse and my mom, all three of whom traveled just to support me. My aunts and cousins lined the course as well.
That fall I requalified at CIM with Ilse, shoring up my squeak by over two minutes in Sacramento, celebrating with Minnie, Jon, and Diana. I went back to Boston to run again in 2008, watched the Olympic trials, met one of my (then) heroes at a bar, and celebrated with my parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends.
It still wasn’t pretty. It’s harder than Ironman. But I was still living my dream.
That December I adopted my Turkey, love of my life, and chose the official Patriot’s Day for her made-up birthday; I only chose the “official” since “observed” marathon day changes year-to-year, and the vet needed a date for her chart.
In 2009, I could’ve gone back, my qualifying time still “good” for another use. But grad school and an empty bank account had the better of me, and I opted to do the Krispy Kreme Challenge instead. A fall and a torn tendon that November kept me out of the marathon scene. Surgery in 2012 and a slow recovery meant it was almost 5 years between Boston 2008 and my next marathon, the one for which I’ve yet to write a race report, Myrtle Beach 2013. I didn’t requalify at Myrtle Beach, but that wasn’t my goal. At almost 5 years out, I was happy to finish with my still tendon intact and standing upright.
When I saw a Wellesley friend post “prayers for Boston,” I was confused. I’d been tracking friends, and random blogger acquaintances all day, feeling sad I wasn’t there, but prayers? Had it gotten hot? A snowstorm? Why prayers? Boston.com was down, but the NY Times had enough of a snippet that I turned on the TV. I gasped in disbelief, and frantically started trying to reach my friends. It felt vaguely reminiscent of the early minutes of 9/11, trying to figure out if those we knew and loved were in harms’ way or safe. I sobbed as I dialed Minnie, and then her husband Jon. My own phone began lighting up with texts from friends near and far wondering if I was there, too. All the while I kept seeing more and more Facebook posts from friends I hadn’t even realized were there.
I’d wanted to go to Boston this year, to cheer on Minnie and Diana and celebrate their success with them, when they’ve given so much to me for the 12 years since we met. Instead I was diverted to “dog camp,” springing LizzieDog from the kennel for a week while my parents are gone for three. I knew relatively quickly that Minnie was ok, but no news of Diana for over two hours made my heart ache. I revisited her time splits, and studied the map of the final mile, trying to calculate how close she would have been. I know absolutely nothing of what it must have felt like to be there yesterday, to have been in a place celebrating joys and accomplishments, and have it taken away. When Minnie and I finally spoke live this morning, my heart broke for her pain, but it was also uplifted by her stories of the outpouring of generosity she, Diana, and everyone around them experienced.
How to describe what Boston means? The deep friendships formed while training, running, traveling and racing? The postcards of Wellesley and images of friends in the newspaper I’ve saved from our student days? The closest I’ll ever feel or be to feeling like a “champion,” high-fiving kids and drunken college students the entire way? The recovery and celebration of my body and soul from a soul-sucking and body-draining mental illness? The celebration and joy of humanity on perfect spring days? Every memory I have of this race, and this place, is so deeply intertwined with my closest friends, my family, and everything that I know and love. Boston isn’t the name of a city, or a race, or a course, to me. Boston is everything.
My first legal Boston in 2007 was the same day as the shootings at Virginia Tech, and afterwards, my friend Sarah – a Tech alum – shared with me her sadness that a place she loved so much and was such a big part of her life and so many happy memories would now be always associated with such grief.
Now I understand what she meant on such a different level. I have loved this place since I was born, and this race since 1992. My friend Jen said it well on Facebook, and I’m stealing part of it here: “Patriots Day remains to me the one day each year when everyone in Boston is just…happy. I love Boston, but it’s a city more often associated with the cold and gruff than the warm and fuzzy. Marathon Day is the exception. Everyone is your friend, everyone has a smile, and there’s a sense of all being part of something together.”
I don’t have the words. Those are the words.
Pray, run, peace. My memories are all about me, but for every one of me, there are hundreds of thousands more. The race will be run again. Boston will be ok again. The outpouring of support and warmth is wonderful. But the happiness, the unadulterated joy I felt for this race, and everything that Boston has been to me, those have been changed. Pray. Run. Peace.
Other excellent posts from some of my favorite writers that begin to capture what I want to say, in far fewer and far more poignant words: