Sunday, May 6, 2007

Boston Marathon Post #3: Sports star for a day

I know it's been weeks since I ran the Boston Marathon, but I promised a post on the atmosphere and experience of the race without all the nerdy, technical, runner-oriented stats and details. And I have wanted to write about this, too, because for those of you who aren't runners, or aren't marathoners, I want to evangelize a bit about Boston and marathons in general.

I got into road running about eight years ago, when I was approaching 30 and realized that I could no longer rely on simply walking everywhere to keep from having to buy a new set of clothes in a bigger size every year or two (important for a graduate student's budget and not just for vanity). And I wanted to be healthier. And I lived in a sunny climate without outdoor activity potential year round, which I wanted to make more use of. I also had a friend who ran and wanted a female running partner (her boyfriend, also my friend, was too fast for her), and who had a sorority-sister tendency towards enthusiastic cheerleading, which comes in handy when you're trying to go from couch potato to runner. (The irony of this story, in brief, is that once I was in shape, I realized I was a more appropriate running partner for the boyfriend than for her, and that when they broke up, he got me in the divorce.) Anyway, she also encouraged me to join a local running club that trained for the city's marathon. Once I built up to running 30 minutes at a time, over the course of a couple of months, and then started running 4-5 times a week, I joined this club. It was set up for beginnners and had a training program of about 6 months -- two for building up a "base" and for those who still had to work up to running an hour or more at a time, and four for the real training. These days I do 16 week marathon training programs.

I tell you all this because I want you to know that I didn't always run marathons. And it wasn't long after I started running at all that I started making marathons my goal. There was only about a year between being a complete couch potato to completing my first marathon (and coming in the top 400 women out of thousands and getting my name on the sports page of a major city paper -- how cool is that?!). I point this all out because anyone who is physically able can take up running and can train for long-distance running. It takes time and perseverance, but no special talent. If you can walk, you can run.

What's more, running is a great exercise activity for grad students and academics because it's relatively cheap. A pair of real running shoes will cost $80-120 (and there are discount outlets available, but everyone should initially be fit by an expert in a specialty running store), and you need socks, clothing that wicks sweat (though I spent my first few years in cotton and didn't really suffer all that much) and, if you're a woman, the right sports bra. (I don't know if the men need special support for their manly parts, but I imagine they might. Fizzy?) There are no gym fees, no expensive equipment -- though the clothing can add up, especially in the winter -- and if you do local races where you don't need a hotel room, the race fees are generally not very much (plus you get free stuff, and a lot of races are now doing t-shirts in wicking material, so you get new running gear for the price of entry).

And running is a great way to be a tourist. I've run all sorts of footpaths and trails all over the UK and Ireland, along waterfronts and through scenic neighborhoods in cities in North America and Europe, and in parks and preserves everywhere I've lived and a lot of places I've traveled. Even when I travel, I pack at least one set of running clothes to take a break from a conference or a family visit or whatever. And when I'm in my own city, I often use running as a way to explore neighborhoods, get landscaping ideas, enjoy seasonal decorations, and gawk at houses for sale.

And then there are the health benefits -- cardiovascular health, weight control, strength and general fitness. But note I put those last. Honestly, these days I think of them as a side-effect. If I made them my main reason for running, I'd think of running in the way one thinks of dieting -- as onerous and hard to maintain.

So, back to Boston and marathons in general. I've given you all this background, because when I joined the marathon training group back in 1999, I did so because I wanted to meet new people and learn how to train for a marathon. Having running buddies for the long runs each week was essential to me then. Over time, though, I started training by myself for various marathons, and once I knew what to expect of a 20-mile training run, I was perfectly happy to do it on my own, especially back in grad school city, where I ran a route frequented by other runners. And I think one of the reasons why I finally hit that qualifying time at the Columbus Marathon is because I ran with a pace group, instead of by myself, and chatted with them the whole way, until I fell behind a bit around mile 22. Forget what you've heard about the loneliness of the long-distance runner -- running can be really social.

That's where big races can actually help, if you're not concerned about losing time running in a large, tight pack for the first few miles. My best experiences have been in races that felt social in some way, where I was running with someone -- even someone met in the process of running, as in my hometown race that gave me my second best time and made me realize I could qualify for Boston -- or, in the case of Boston, where the crowds were so mighty you never felt alone.

I think the crowds of spectators are what set Boston apart. Sure, most runners there had to qualify, so you're in an elite crowd of serious runners, and there's an instant comaraderie among the runners because of that. And it's a big field -- 20,0000+ runners -- so unless you're way out front, you spend the entire race surrounded by people to observe and eavesdrop on, which is always entertaining. (My favorite oddballs were the three women who ran with tails attached to their shorts and signs on their backs that said "Chasing Tail?") But the specators are what make Boston better than any race I've been in despite its difficulties (though granted, I haven't run NY or Chicago, so I don't know if those mega-races compare). The specators are what make it so much fun, even if, like me, you're running your worst time ever.

When I'm well trained, a marathon usually doesn't get hard for me until about mile 22. I tend not to run at speeds that are hard work -- even when I was gunning for that qualifying time -- so the only hard part is the endurance in those last few miles, since the longest training run I ever do is 22 miles. For me, the hardest part is the training, especially speedwork (I loathe speedwork the way I hated practicing the piano when I was a kid). I run the race at a convesational pace -- which varies between 8:25 and 9:00 minutes per mile, depending on the intensity of my training -- and don't really want to work any harder. Then it's not fun for me, because I'm really not that competitive. But no matter what, the race will get hard at some point, and then I have to rely on will power. That's when the spectators matter. But for some stupid reason, so many races I've run go through less inhabited areas just when it starts to get tough, and thus have sparse crowds. Race directors really need to think more about this.

But Boston gets it right. The first half of the race has fewer spectators, but that's the easy part -- it's early in the race and there are lots of downhills, plus it's often pretty scenery and you're surrounded by other excited runners. The crowds start to pick up just when you need them and get bigger and louder and more intense the closer you get to Boston.

The first really huge crowd consists of the women of Wellesley just before the half-way point. (Although there are few other big gatherings of people before that.) I swear to god you really can hear them a mile away -- that's not just a cliched turn of phrase. We hit mile 12 and in the distance I heard something that sounded like an orchestra playing a continuously held high C. And then when you pass them, it's not just their screaming that makes them a high point -- half of them are holding signs that say "Kiss a Wellesley Girl." I was so grateful for their spirit and enthusiasm, *I* almost kissed one (and I'm sure there were some of them who would've been happy for my kiss rather than a guy's kiss, but my guess is that it was mostly the het women holding the signs).

And between Wellesley and Boston, there are all sorts of people along the route, since most of it is accessible by commuter train. For the most part it's people cheering on their friends and family, but they cheer everyone else as well. (Thanks again, Kate, for the sign. I'm sorry I missed it, but the thought of it alone buoyed me.) My favorite was a recurring sign for a runner named Polly (she must have had a lot of friends and family, or else they moved along the route) which quoted A Midsummer Night's Dream: "Though she be but little, she is fierce." As you reach the hardest parts in Newton -- the hills leading up to and including Heartbreak Hill -- there are all sorts of people offering you treats, cheers, support, and encouragement. And they seemed to be practiced at it: no one said "You're looking great!" as I walked up Heartbreak Hill. Instead they said things like "Look, you can still do this. Just get over this hill and you'll make it" -- a sentiment that's realistic and pretty much true. Boston Marathon spectators are veteran marathon spectators.

And after that, as you start getting closer and closer to Boston, the crowds get freaking crazy. I think it starts in Brookline, maybe a bit before. By then you're in an urban space, and bars and pubs are walking distance from the route. Since the race is run on Patriot's Day -- a holiday for most people -- lots of people make it a holiday event to have a few beers (or not -- but since many of them have beers in hand, and sometimes offer them to the runners, it's easy to tell that drinking is involved) and cheer on the runners, all of them, whether they know you or not. And my god, are they loud. The last few miles are absolutely deafening. Part of the reason I picked up the pace in the last two miles was joining up with Jody, a runner I'd met at the pasta dinner the night before, who buoyed my spirits and kept me going, even when it was hard. But the other part were the crowds. How can you not run hard when thousands upon thousands of people are screaming joyfully at you? I can only imagine what the crowds might have been like in good weather! Rain and wind like that chased most of the crowds away in my first marathon (wussy sun worshippers!) but not in Boston, where neither rain nor wind nor snow can keep a Boston sports fan from cheering on a bunch of strangers in a long-running (ha!) local sports tradition.

I've always known that Boston is a big sports town with intense attachments to their hometown teams (and the equivalent hatred for longtime rivals), but I had no idea that they're so enthusiastic for any local sports tradition. After all, here I was running really slowly relative to the other runners in this race (I came in the bottom quartile of the women runners, for god's sake) and yet when I and all the other people running at my pace came through, the screams were just as loud as I imagine they'd been for the elite runners, and would continue to go on for the runners behind me. (Indeed, when I got back to my hotel at mile 24, and there were still people running and mostly walking, there were still crowds cheering them on.) They're the reason the Boston Marathon is so much fun. I worked for my qualifying time because of the prestige and eliteness of that achievement, but if I ever try again, it will be because of those incredible crowds.

And that is what's so amazing about marathon running in general. All races have some eager spectators -- Boston just has more of them, and they're exponentially louder -- and they're as happy to cheer on strangers as they are their friends. Many spectators make a day of it, bringing camp chairs, coolers, music, etc. And if you write your name on your shirt, they'll call it out. If you don't sometimes they'll call out your bib number (as in, "Go number 2435! You can do it!"). What the heck other sport is there where an ordinary, unexceptional, non-gifted, non-celebrity athlete gets to have people cheering for them? What other sport could I possibly take up at age 29 and have fans, however temporary?

Running marathons -- and epsecially running the Boston Marathon -- gives an ordinary person a chance to feel like a sports idol for the day. And that's the real reason why it's worth the time and effort and training, because adulation is addictive.


Anonymous said...

I LOVE the Boston Marathon - I've been one of those cheering crowds a number of times, and it's just about as much fun in the crowd as running (I'd imagine - I'd have a hard time running if bears were chasing me, so I can't speak from experience!). It's just such a good time - Patriot's Day is a great holiday. We were usually around Newton cheering on a friend of the family who ran the marathon well into his 60s. So glad you could enjoy it!

Dr. Virago said...

New Kid, you and the thousands like you are exactly why the Boston is so damn fun to run -- even when you're in pain! I'm sure there's a number of people like you in other cities, but nowhere near the critical mass there is in the Boston Marathon. For instance, I have a friend who grew up in an area hedged in by the marathon route in the first marathon I ran, and she gleefully tells me, every year, how her family got up at dawn to get *out* and *escape* the marathon. (Sadly, that's probably typical of that particular city. Granted, their marathon is only about 20 years old now.)

Boston is just magical in comparison to the other marathon's I've run.

Anonymous said...

The crowds at Boston were great, but I ran NYC first so that made a greater impression on me. Running up 1st Ave and through Central Park at the finish are as good as it gets. Plus, 40% of the runners in NY are Europeans which makes it feel like a foreign city marathon. Chicago is third on my list. The crowds were thin between miles 18 - 24.

And yes I wear a jock.

Dr. Virago said...

Chicago is third on my list. The crowds were thin between miles 18 - 24.

See, that's the problem with many of the races that end in downtowns -- just as the race is hardest, the crowds are thinest. Boo!

But I figured New York was another story, since *all* of the city is densely populated. Speaking of which, did you decide if you were going to run it this year?

And thanks for mentioning European and other foreign runners -- I was delighted and amazed to hear so many languages among the runners at Boston. I even got to eavesdrop on some French while running!