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Boston Marathon 2018: Squishy-Shoe Running

A week before the 2018 Boston Marathon, I started checking the weather forecast for Boston: 100% chance of rain the morning of the race. “Come on,” I said to my lovely wife Jen, “how can weatherpeople be 100% certain of rain a whole week out? They can’t even predict the next day’s temperature correctly, amirite?” Jen said, “Still, you might want to pack your rain jacket for the day of the race.” (Editor’s note: Stop with the blatant foreshadowing!)

Leading into Boston, I had an amazing streak of my first 14 marathons without having bad weather. “Bad weather” being a relative term: I’d run in extreme heat, wind, cold, and slight drizzle, but never rain. Every marathon, I’d prepare for rain but hope for sun. Actually, clouds; for me, the perfect race conditions are about 40 degrees with a cloud cover.

This would be my third Boston Marathon. My first, in 2013, was all kinds of bad, namely because of the horrific bombings. My second, in 2016, was relatively uneventful as big-city marathons go. Jen’s brother had moved to Cambridge, just across the Charles River from Boston, so we stayed near him and had a good visit.

A little background on Boston: It’s the oldest continuously run marathon in the world, dating back to 1897, and also the hardest to get into. You have to run a qualifying time, based on your age and gender, that works out to about the top 10 percent of marathoners in your age group. Then, you have to get an entry: over the last few years (especially since 2013), the entry standard is actually stricter than the qualifying times because so many people are trying to get those entries. This year, for example, you had to run 4:52 or faster than your qualifying time. That’s ridiculous. It’s getting harder and harder, so they just moved the bar and tightened the standards for 2020 by 5 minutes.

Some other unique things about Boston: It’s run on a Monday, specifically, Patriots Day, celebrating the beginning of the American Revolution and a Massachusetts state holiday. It’s a good thing schools are closed that day, because all those yellow school buses are needed to transport the runners on race morning: the Boston course is basically a west-to-east line, starting in the suburb of Hopkinton and going through several other towns (Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Newton, and Brookline) before getting to Boston. The Boston Marathon only spends 2 miles in the city of Boston. Consequently, runners board school buses in Boston Common to be bussed out to Hopkinton, where they camp out on the high school football fields at the “Athletes’ Village” and have free snacks and drinks.

Because of the logistical challenges of getting everyone out there, the buses start leaving at 6 a.m. Another strange thing about Boston: the race starts at 10 a.m. and the runners get sent in waves every 20 minutes or so. Potentially, you could arrive at the athletes’ village 4 hours before your start time. (Also, the athletes’ village is a 0.7-mile walk to the starting line, so have fun with that extra distance!)

Are you following so far? Monday 10 a.m. start, 26-mile bus ride several hours before you race, athletes’ village quite a distance from the starting line. Oh, and it’s a really hilly course.

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My Boston Marathon “celebration jacket,” from the 2013 edition. Note that I had the other two years I ran embroidered onto the jacket. Fancy!

Jen and I flew in on the Saturday before the race and were taking the free public bus to the marathon expo (the place where runners have to pick up their race packets; they make you wade through literally hundreds of sponsor/vendor booths to get to the packet pickup, so I always end up buying extra commemorative gear). Boston is famous for its celebration jackets, issued every year in different colors. It’s common for someone to buy one in their first year and then embroider subsequent years onto the breast and back of the jacket, so people can see how many times they have run it at a glance.

I was wearing my 2013 jacket (in its garish blue-and-yellow color scheme) when a guy on the bus gave me a head nod. It was a safe bet that most of the people on this bus were going to the expo, so he introduced himself as Allan and struck up a conversation with us. The typical “how many have you run,” “where you you coming from” questions. He mentioned that he was returning from a work conference but lived in Cambridge. We said, “Oh, really? We are staying in Cambridge, at a bed and breakfast.” Allan said, “Which one?” We told him, and he said, “I live half a block from it!” It turned out he was a professor at Harvard, in a field that we were familiar with, and Jen and I had all kinds of questions for him. (I also dropped my little “my 10-times-great-grandfather Thomas Dudley was a founder of Harvard College” tidbit on him; that went over better with him than it does with most people.)

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Here we are at the marathon expo! Let’s go spend some money! (Question: Does this photo make my nose look big?)

We went to the expo together and waited in line to go through security. Just before we entered, Allan wished us luck and whipped out his business card. He said, “My wife and I usually host a few other runners at my house on Monday morning, and then we catch a cab to the starting line. We’d love to have you. If you are interested, give me a call.” Then we parted ways.

“Wow!” I said to Jen, “that was generous of him!” She said, “Or creepy. Let’s check this guy out to see if he’s legit before you commit to going to his house.”

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The dreaded Porter Square escalator. The trip to the top takes approximately 17 hours.

We took the Boston subway system (the “T”) Red Line up to Cambridge to check into our bed and breakfast. We exited at the Porter station, which at 105 feet below ground is the deepest in the T system; there’s a frighteningly long escalator ride to the top, wherein when you get on at the bottom, you can’t see the top of it. It’s scary; it’s common to see whimpering little toddlers clinging to an adult’s hand with their eyes closed the whole escalator ride up. (And by “whimpering little toddlers,” I mean “me.”)

We walked to our B&B. It had your typical B&B features: whimsical yellow exterior, creaky floors, antique doorknobs, excessively large and heavy keychains, cramped rooms. One exception to the rules of B&Bs at this one, though, was the unusual number of children running the halls. And at breakfast the next morning, we found out that most of the guests were European. Ooh-la-lah! (Actually, they were from Belgium and Germany. Ich lieben!)

We crashed in our rooms for most of the rest of Saturday, venturing out only for food (it was cold). Checking on the forecast, they were now calling for 100% chance of rain the morning and afternoon of the race. Aw, come on!

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This must be a sign!

On Sunday, it started raining. Jen said, “So, let’s see that raincoat you are going to wear for the race.” I said, “Um, I didn’t bring it.” “What?!?” I explained that I was so focused on packing the celebration jacket and the gear that I had used for the previous 14 marathons, which I would like to remind everyone included no heavy rain, that I didn’t think it would be necessary. I also had my trusty black baseball cap that would keep my head dry. Jen about went through the roof. (Which wasn’t hard; the B&B’s ceilings were low.) So we turned on the TV to check the local Boston weather folks. Now they were calling for 100% chance of heavy, driving rain from midnight Sunday to midnight Monday (remember, the race is run on Monday morning), sustained 30-mph headwinds with gusts of 40 mph (remember, we run in one direction the whole time, which in this case would be “into the wind”), temps in the upper 30s, and generally dangerous running conditions. I believe the words “squall,” “monsoon,” and “historic in a bad way” were bandied about.

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Our room at the B&B had the coveted blowhole. Hang on, my editor tells me the word I am looking for is “porthole.”

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I believe the correct architectural term for the interior floor plan of the B&B is “hodgepodge.”

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I roam from city to city, running races and drinking smoothies. They call me Nomad. (Incredibly, this store called “Nomad” had a sign in the window that said, “We’ve moved 2 blocks north.”)

We had noticed a Goodwill store a few blocks away, so we went to look for throwaway clothes that I could wear to the starting line. It’s traditional at big-city races to wear extra clothes/jackets to keep warm before the race, and it’s especially important at Boston if you are sitting on the football field for 4 hours. When we got there, it was packed with like-minded runners. We picked through the men’s, women’s, and children’s sections (I have no shame) and cobbled together an outfit that included an outer layer ski jacket that would keep me dry and warm, a vest for extra warmth, another light jacket, and a pair of relatively water-repellent pants to cover my legs before the race.

The only thing we couldn’t find was a pair of tights; even though I’d never run in them, Jen thought they would be useful in the cold and that they would shed moisture in the moments when the rain would let up. We headed over to Jen’s brother’s place, and he happened to have a pair of UnderArmour tights that he was looking to jettison. “You’re kidding,” I said. “No, why?” he asked. “Well, for starters, you are 1 foot taller than me.” Jen said, “Just try them on.” So I did, and amazingly, they weren’t completely ridiculous.

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Getting ready at 5 a.m. on race morning! This would be the first of what I assumed would be many pictures Jen would take of me throughout the day, as she traveled the course getting action shots of me.

Jen added one last item to my gear: her lime-green women’s lightweight rain jacket. I really didn’t want to wear it, but she insisted. One reason I had always hesitated to bring a running jacket to a race is that you have to wear the race bib on the outermost layer, which would mean zipping up a jacket and then pinning the bib over the front, which would mean I wouldn’t be able to easily remove the jacket in case of rain. We solved the problem on the morning of the race: I also had a lime-green tank top, so we put the bib on the tank top and then pulled it over the outside of the raincoat. I looked strange, but it would (hopefully) keep me dry.

That afternoon, I decided to call my new friend Allan. I told him that I was in and that Jen would come with me to his house for the prerace visit. (We had Googled him and saw that he was quite well-known in his field and in the running community, so Jen wanted to chat with him some more.) Allan said that we were welcome but that now it turned out that perhaps only one other runner would show. Also, his wife wouldn’t be there. Neither, it seemed, would his college-age daughter. In addition, I’d be welcome to look through his closet for any clothes that I needed. We set a time and commiserated about the weather; he assured me that we’d be fine. “I’ve run it for the last 8 years; the 2015 race had rain, so it will be manageable.”

I got off the phone and filled Jen and her brother in on the next morning’s plans. Jen said something like, “Aww, look who’s got a new best friend. Do I need to walk you to your playdate?” Also, she did not want me to raid his closet.

That night, we chilled and had my usual prerace pasta dinner. Jen’s morning plans were to walk me to Allan’s by 6 and then go back and have breakfast (the “&B” part of our B&B that I would unfortunately miss out on). Then her brother and she would watch for me at Heartbreak Hill (about 20 or 21 miles into the race; there’s a convenient T stop near it) and at the finish line. When we went to bed, it was pouring hard.

When we woke up at 5 a.m. on Marathon Monday, it was pouring hard. Things did not look good. I got dressed and decided at the last minute to wear a throwaway pair of running shoes that I had brought instead of my nicer, newer ones. The race organizers had announced that everyone could bring a pair of shoes to the starting line to change into, but I figured whatever shoes I had would be soaked within 5 minutes of stepping outside, so having dry shoes at the start really wouldn’t matter. (As it happened, I was off by about 4 minutes and 45 seconds; it took 15 seconds outside for my shoes and socks to get drenched.)

As we walked down the block to Allan’s, I told Jen that I was really nervous. I don’t like surprises on race weekends. I have a system that seems to work: same clothes, same meals and snacks, same waking and arriving times, etc. This was all new: unusual clothes, unusual weather, and now I was about to go to a stranger’s house and meet other strangers instead of just relaxing and thinking about the race. (Boston is already a routine disrupter with the bus rides, but at least I had done those twice before.)

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Actual photo of how Jen spent the rainy, windy, freezing marathon day. Remember, at this exact moment I was braving 30-mph winds, torrential downpours, and bitter cold. I understand tea and snacks were consumed while I was gone, too.

When we got to Allan’s, it was just him. I turned out that all his other friends decided not to do the early-morning meet-up routine at his place. So he offered us food and drinks and we chatted while he got ready. He showed me his triple-tying method for his shoelaces; guaranteed not to untie, he said. He told me that a student of his would be meeting us at the bus, and that he had a friend in Hopkinton whose house we could hang at before the race. This is one of those mythical things about the Boston Marathon: you gather in the sleepy New England town of Hopkinton, which comes alive one weekend a year for this race, and if you are lucky enough to know someone in town, you can go to their house for prerace festivities. I couldn’t believe my luck!

Allan had called us a taxi ahead of time (yes, some people still haven’t transitioned to rideshare apps), and we said goodbye to Jen. We got into the cab from Allan’s home; he reiterated, “In 2015, we ran in the rain. This is doable.” He told me not to worry about the cab fare; it was his treat. (Which was convenient because I didn’t have any money or credit cards on me.)

It was a quick ride from Cambridge to Boston Common; when we got there, however, traffic was a mess. We kept trying to get the cabbie to just let us out anywhere, but he had a particular stop in mind in front of a hotel. Finally, when we got there, the fare was only $5 or something. Allan handed the cabbie a twenty. “Oh,” the cabbie said, “I don’t have any change.” What?!? He said he could leave us in the cab and step inside to make change. After discussing with me (the guy with no money), Allan just decided to give him a big tip and leave. The cabbie was overly thankful and promised to name his firstborn after Allan.

As we walked over to the buses, Allan said, “Eh, not bad; in 2015…” We met up with his student, Gus, at the bus. Gus was 20 and had run only one previous marathon; his time, 2:59, was about 25 minutes faster than Allan’s and mine. Gus said that he would stick with us for most of the race, but Allan made him promise not to drag himself down by hanging back with us two middle-aged guys. Gus was nice enough (or concerned about his grade in Allan’s class enough, one or the other) to say he didn’t plan to drop us too soon. Allan admonished Gus and me to triple-tie our shoes; he was worried that our shoes would come undone and slow us all down.

The bus ride was uneventful. The most common topic on that 45-minute ride to Hopkinton is how many marathons people have run. Even at 14, I was on the low end of the scale. (My first Boston was only my third marathon ever, and the people around me on that bus had run 50, 100, and even 150+ marathons; there’s definitely a little OCD in marathoners.) The driving rain continued all the way down the highway to Hopkinton.

When we got to Hopkinton, the buses let all of us runners out behind a fenced-off area around the high school. When we stepped off the bus, the rain was so hard that I could barely keep my eyes open, and it was so loud that I could hardly hear what anyone was saying. I had been living and dying on Allan’s assurances to me that everything would be fine because of how everyone handled it in 2015. After standing in the rain for 15 seconds, he turned to Gus and me and said, “Oh, this is much worse than 2015!” Crap.

We entered the Athletes’ Village because they wouldn’t let us walk back out the bus entrance to get to Allan’s friend’s house in town. There are two football fields that each have massive tents that cover half the field, so runners can gather (on sunny years) in shade or in the grass if they want, while they wait for their starting waves to be called. This year, everyone was crammed under the tents. The fields were complete mud; just to traverse the 10 yards from the paved path to the tents would have meant instantly caking our shoes in mud. People were packed like sardines against each other; the unlucky ones on the edges of the tents were still being drenched by the rain. It looked like Woodstock without the music. Or drugs.

There was no way we were going to wait in the tents with the masses. We went all “Hogan’s Heroes” and looked along the fence line for places we could slip through to get to Allan’s friend’s house, without luck. “Come on,” Allan yelled, “let’s go to the exit.” The way it works is, you can’t leave the village to walk the 0.7 mile to the starting line until your wave is called. Allan and I were in the second wave; Gus was in the first, but he was going to start with us. As we walked toward the exit, there were all kinds of volunteers telling people to show them their bibs; if your bib wasn’t the color of the wave being allowed to exit, you had to stay back.”How are we going to get through?” I yelled to Allan. “Don’t worry!” he said. When we got to the exit, he gave me a grin and covered his bib, and I realized that his plan was to just hope that the driving rain would allow us to sneak past the hundred volunteers trying to prevent this very thing. Bizarrely, it worked. We just bent over as if the rain was so heavy that we could hardly stand up (which it was) and plowed through.

Of course, there was a fence the whole walk to the starting line, but we just found an amenable volunteer to let us out along the way. We walked another half mile to Allan’s friend’s house. As we approached the house, Allan said, “I hope they are here.” “What do you mean?” Gus and I asked. “You see, I don’t actually know the people who live here, but some friends of mine told me to come here and they’d be here.” Hmm…

When we knocked, an elderly man answered. “Is Bob here?” Allan asked. “You just missed him,” the man said. Dejected, we turned to leave, but then the man said, “Come on in and get out of your wet clothes and warm up a while, guys.”

The man and his wife were well prepared for the conditions and had towels laid out on all their furniture. We stripped off our shoes and socks and outer layers and relaxed for a half hour while they plied us with hot drinks and snacks. It was the strangest prelude to a marathon that I had ever experienced. Then, too soon, we put on our soaked gear (Allan triple-tying his shoes) and headed out for the start.

When we got to the start, Gus, who was wearing short-shorts, said, “Can I ask you a weird favor?” I said, “It depends. How weird is it?” He explained that his hands were frozen already and that he couldn’t get his phone to fit back into his (really tiny) fanny pack over his shorts, and would I mind pushing it in for him? So I struggled mightily pushing his phone into his groin to get it into the pack. After a few minutes, he said, “Another favor. My fingers aren’t working and I can’t press play on the phone. Can you press against my fanny pack?” So I got intimate with Gus’s groin area again to get his playlist started.

Then the race began. It was as bad out there as the forecasters predicted. If you have seen “The Perfect Storm,” you know what I’m talking about. Have you ever been driving and it starts raining so hard that you have the windshield wipers on full blast and you still can’t see, so you have to lean forward to look out the windshield, and you think “it can’t possibly rain harder than this”? Well, it would do that, and then rain harder. The whole race. Every step of the 26.2 miles. Amazingly, Jenny was right about the tights; they would get soaked, somehow feel as if they were wicking moisture away, and then get soaked again. And her lime-green jacket worked like a charm.

About 2 miles into the race, Allan said, “My shoes are untied! I have to stop and re-tie them.” Oh, the triple-tied irony! Gus and I couldn’t believe it. Also, I had rocks in my shoes, so we went to some random person’s driveway and fixed our shoe situations. Gus said, “Are we seriously stopping this early in the race?” I told him, “If you’re going to take a trip with two middle-aged men, be prepared for frequent stops!”

I was surprised at how many spectators there were along the course. Boston is famous for its vibe: people put their grills in their front yards and have parties while the runners pass. It’s not uncommon to be offered food, drinks (alcoholic and otherwise), and other random things along the course. And there they were, a little wet but still cheering us on.

About 5 or 6 miles in, I noticed that Gus was having a problem with his short-shorts. It seems that he couldn’t tie the drawstring tight enough to keep them from falling down. Periodically, he would have to use both hands to pull them up (like, literally pull them up because they were sliding down his waist and legs). By mile 10, he was in full-blown crisis mode and ran the last 16 miles of the race, I kid you not, with his right hand clinging to the waistband of his short-shorts. I do not recommend this one-armed running stride.

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Racing up Boylston Street to the finish line in Jen’s jacket, soon-to-be-discarded shoes, my brother-in-law’s tights, and a ridiculous grin on my face.

Finally, we arrived in Newton, the suburb that is home to the “hills of Newton,” a series of gradually larger hills from mile 16 to mile 21, leading up to the infamous Heartbreak Hill, the longest and steepest. At the top of each hill, Allan and I would regroup, look back, find Gus, and forge on. When we got to the bottom of Heartbreak Hill, I said, “I can’t see Gus!” Allan said, “I’m afraid we’re going to have to leave him and his falling-down pants behind.” So regretfully, we moved on. I looked on the sidelines for Jen and her brother, but I never saw them, which is common in these big races.

The last 5 miles were a soggy slog. We didn’t talk but continued side by side. That last stretch is always half a physical battle and half a mental battle. Physically, you are destroyed, so the only thing that is going to get you to the end is your mind. You just have to keep positive thoughts, which in this case for me was, “When I am done, I can get out of these clothes!” repeated over and over in my head. Allan and I crossed the finish line near each other, at about 3:42, not bad considering the conditions. Then we got to meet up with the medical director of the whole race, who was a friend of Allan’s. We were not surprised to hear that they were seeing a higher-than-usual rate of hypothermic runners. About 2,500 runners, including 25 elite athletes, had to seek medical treatment.

Allan and I waded to the gear check area, where he had a change of clothes. There was an insane crush of runners at the gear check; I was pinned against a security fence waiting for Allan for a long time. At one point, Gus stumbled past me in a daze; he had finished about 15 minutes after us. Allan and I said goodbye, with the promise to meet up if I ever run Boston again, and I went to find Jen and her brother.

They were standing under umbrellas at Boston Common. “Where were you at Heartbreak Hill?” I asked. They both looked at each other sheepishly. Jen said, “We decided to stay in and watch it on TV.” Oh well. I couldn’t blame them; I would have done the same.

I Frankenstein-walked back to the nearest T stop and we headed back to our B&B. After a quick shower, Jen’s brother picked us up and took us out for pizza. Getting into his car, it was raining so hard that we got soaked. Of course.

A month later, I ran another marathon, the Chicagoland Spring Marathon, and the start was delayed by 30 minutes as we huddled in a parking garage to avoid the heavy rains. It rained on and off during the race. Later that year, I ran on a flooded course at the Des Plaines River Trail Marathon. What I’m saying is, I’m prepared for the rain now. But I still don’t bring my raincoat.