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‘You’ve Put a Huge Smile on Boston’s Face’

(This is part 2 of my story about the 2014 Boston Marathon. The 2015 race is Monday, April 20.)

Read Part 1

It began with the invitational entry four-time Boston Marathon champion Bill Rodgers transferred to me. It ended with a scrumptious lobster pie dinner hosted by my family.

The King and I: With Bill Rodgers at 2014 Boston Marathon, after he gave me his invitational entry so I could run the most important Boston ever.

The King and I: With Bill Rodgers at 2014 Boston Marathon, after he gave me his invitational entry so I could run the most important Boston ever.

In between was the most meaningful race of my life, and the lives of most others in the field: the 2014 Boston Marathon. As we all know, the 2013 Boston Marathon ended in the horrible bombing tragedy. For months, the status of the 2014 race was in doubt, though my status was certain: I wouldn’t be going. A nagging ankle injury, sustained during qualifying season in 2013, sealed my fate.

Two things happened to change all that. BOSTON STRONG came alive and, to speak bluntly, shoved it right up the you-know-what of all would-be terrorists; and Boston Billy gave me the gift of a lifetime.

I showed up in Boston in shellshock after Bill arranged for his race slot to end up on my lap. Immediately, I felt a different vibe than the other three times I’d raced. Everywhere, people talked about it. The media devoted most of their news coverage to it. My relatives, who had seen my previous races, were beside themselves that this family member was running (as well as my cousin, Bryan Widmann).Unknown While I wasn’t yet in full marathon form (that would come six weeks later, in San Diego’s Rock & Roll Marathon), it didn’t matter. When you get an invite from a Boston legend, you go.

It’s safe to say several million runners worldwide wanted to toe the starting line at the 2014 Boston, to be a part of history, something beyond ourselves. To be among the 35,000 who got in?

As I write this, nearly a year later, I’m getting tears and goose bumps. That’s how much it meant.

I first understood the scope two days prior to the race, when I drove downtown and picked up my number and swag bag. The race expo was packed, beyond anything I’d ever seen. So was the entire Boston Back Bay area, especially Boylston Street, the site of so much carnage just a year before. My friend, Kathryn Van Artsdall, was also racing for the fourth time. Her husband, my longtime buddy Mitch Varnes, and I were trying to meet up. Good luck with that: too many people.images-1

I then sought out Bill Rodgers, my hero when I was in high school and he was the world’s greatest marathoner. We’ve had a number of runs, get-togethers and good times during our friendship that began in 2008 (including a fabulous run at Walden Woods and Walden Pond, 25 miles to the west), but this was different. “Just run the best you can,” he whispered in my ear. “You’re starting in back since you’re a last-minute entry, so you won’t run your normal time. Forget about it. Soak up what goes on out there. You will never have an experience like this.”

How right he was. Here are a few of those experiences:

Starting line, Hopkinton: While standing in my corral, a drone flew overhead, huge snowplows blocking side streets, and law enforcement stood everywhere. They were scanning the throng like Secret Service agents while openly thanking we, the runners, for having the courage to return. I had never thought of us being courageous; it was more like, “What do I have to do to get in this race?” As for those who were running down Boylston Street when the bombs hit in 2013 and were back again? Now they were courageous.

Starting line, Hopkinton, part 2: The crowds. Wow. They were massive, loud, rowdy, and ready to uncork a year of pent-up agony and rage with a street celebration for the ages. We were the headliners. I’d like to say this scene was repeated intermittently during the next 26.2 miles, but that’s grossly understating it. This was the scene on the entire course.

Mile 3, Ashland: The start was tough for me, because I was a 3:30 marathoner running in a 5-to 6-hour crowd due to the late entry. While trying to find space to run, I jogged shoulder-to-shoulder with two men wearing NYPD shirts. “So you came up from New York?” I asked.

“Yeah. Great day, isn’t it?” one replied.

I smiled. “Like your shirt.” Normally, I wouldn’t look twice at a police T-shirt, but on this day, it felt good to see one next to me.

“Well, I’m NYPD.”

“That’s cool you took the day off to run,” I said.

“I’m on duty,” he smiled. “So is my friend. We’ve got 20 officers in the pack.”

How impressive was that? No stone unturned,” I said.

“Not this year. Everyone in this race, and crowd, is going to have a great time.”

P.S. Out of 1 million spectators, one was arrested, and that for public drunkenness.

Mile 8, Framingham: Unbelievable crowds. Unbelievable noise. People are shouting, “You’re our heroes!” “You make Boston great!” “Thanks for coming out!” They’re surging onto the road to slap fives and bump fists, to touch us, to feel a part of it. At points, they constrict the already narrow roads so much that we feel like we’re running in single file. I look at two women running next to me. All three of us have tears in our eyes. It feels like the most incredible dream, except that it’s very real.

Mile 12, Wellesley: This is where the famous Wellesley Girls line the course, a half-mile of crazy, brainy co-eds toting signs that say, well, some pretty inviting things. We could hear their screams from a half-mile away – literally. I’ve seen more men cause runner jam-ups on this section of the course by crossing to the right side to get their hugs and kisses. This was even more insane. A couple of girls hopped the barricade and teamed up to hug and kiss a 60-year-old, right in front of me.

Mile 14, Wellesley: Where you at, family? I reach the gas station just past the halfway point, where I usually stopped to see family members, grab my drink bottle, shoot photos, and change shoes (if necessary). Normally on race day, about 30 people hang out in this little “quiet spot”. This time, there were at least 500. I needed to change shoes, but I couldn’t find my family. They were there, but swallowed in the crowd. I also needed to put the Velcro wearable holding my cell phone and money onto my other arm, but was fumbling with it while trying to run at the same time. A spectator stepped out and, without saying a word, stopped me, and switched the wearable to my other arm. Then she disappeared into the crowd. Just like that.

Mile 21, Heartbreak Hill: I was spent, my goal time long since evaporated, but I wanted to run – and not walk – up the four Newton hills. Mission accomplished. At the top, three Boston College co-eds saw me and held out pints of beer. “You rock, dude!” one yelled. Another said, “Can you imagine our parents kicking ass like this guy?” They laughed and offered me a chug. I’ve not had a beer since Reagan was president, but that was tempting.

Mile 24, Brookline: The greatest ten seconds of a week full of amazing moments. I was broken down for the first time since my first marathon in 2003, relegated to the “marathon shuffle”, just trying to move one foot in front of the other. The crowds were so massive that the barricades extended several feet onto the road. As I struggled to keep going, a uniformed Brookline police officer stepped in front of the barricades and yelled, “35870! You’re my f****** hero! Go get that medal for all of us!” I’ll never forget that cop. He helped get me to the finish line.

Post-Race, Alewife Subway Station, Cambridge: I had just taken a cab to the subway station, awaiting my Aunt Judy, who was crawling through traffic to pick me up. While I was slumped outside on a café patio chair, my medal around my neck, a diner came up to me. “Did you just run the Marathon?” she asked. “Yes… it was awesome, but I’m happy it’s over.” “All of you are heroes. You’ve put a huge smile on Boston’s face, honey. Can my husband and I buy you an iced tea? Lunch?” How many times had each of us 35,000 runners been called heroes over the past few days? Ten? Fifteen? More? It was overwhelming.

Evening, at dinner: My aunts Janet and Judy, Uncle Brian, and I enjoyed a luscious lobster pie dinner. To be more precise, I ate two dinners while they each had one. My legs were vice-gripped, but my smile was wide and fixed. As was our family custom in 2005, 2007, and 2009, I wore my accumulated medals to the post-race meal, so I had all four on.

An older couple came over to us. The woman said, “I am very proud of you.” Her husband added, “I’m even more proud to be a Bostonian tonight.”

My family sat there, as slack-jawed as me.

Since I’m not running Boston this year (though I requalified at the 2014 Rock & Roll Marathon in San Diego), I will observe my tradition for non-Boston years — running 15 miles in the early morning and then watching part of the race online. I will think about my friends (and my cousin, Bryan, who will be shooting for a sub-2:50), remember last year, and run in silence to remember the victims of 2013. I will thank God for giving me the good fortune to run in four Bostons.

I will also call Bill Rodgers and thank him, again, for putting me into a race like no other. The Marathon starts at 10 a.m. EDT. Go onto www.baa.org for live coverage. Hope you’ll check it out. I know I will. 2014-04-28 05.58.09

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Why Boston Rules The World: Musing on My Run in the Marathon

(This blog also posted today on the Innovation & Tech Today magazine website; I serve as the editor of the magazine.)

UnknownSome quick thoughts on the convergence of running, technology, and one of the greatest and most inspiring sports events to ever take place …

I just returned to San Diego from Boston, where I ran in my fourth Boston Marathon. This year, the 26.2-mile journey from Hopkinton to Boston’s Back Bay took on far more meaning, gravitas and stature than any previous marathon, here or anywhere else in the world.

When April began, I was planning to run Boston – in 2015. I was eight weeks into a 16-week training plan that would culminate in re-qualifying at the Rock & Roll Marathon on June 1. So, my intention was to be race-ready and to peak on June 1. Not that I had time to do it any other way. I’ve spent this month finishing the rewrite of one book (Just Add Water, the biography of Clay Marzo to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Spring 2015); proofing the galleys of another (When We Were The Boys, Stevie Salas’ memoir [which I co-authored] of his days as Rod Stewart’s lead guitarist on the 1988 Out of Order Tour, to be published by Rowman Littlefield in September); and lining up the Summer issue of Innovation & Tech Today.

However, an amazing email came my way that proves, again, the absolute power of networking in business and in life: four-time Boston champion Bill Rodgers, who is a friend, offered me his invitational entry. So, with 12 days’ notice, I switched gears and flew back east, taking my not-quite-ready-for-prime-time legs with me.2014-04-21 09.17.35

Thanks to last year’s tragic bombings, the entire world watched to see what would happen in Boston. More than 1,000 media outlets were on hand, along with 36,000 registered runners and a crowd exceeding 1 million. They came to honor the survivors who were running or walking, to take that glorious run to the finish line down Boylston Street themselves, and/or to celebrate determination and resilience – and to stare down those cowards who would try to disrupt our way of life. In this case, a massive celebration of fitness at the world’s oldest footrace, one that poured an estimated $200 million into Boston. Not bad for a three-day Patriot’s Day weekend.

I ran Boston before large crowds in 2005, 2007 and 2009. Never has the crowd approached the fever pitch we experienced in 2014. “For a few hours, we got to feel like rock stars,” I told my friend, Stevie Salas, who is a rock star. We were treated like rock stars, too, from police who high-fived and thanked us for coming, to strangers in cafes and restaurants who saw the distinctive medals around our tired necks and bought us meals or drinks.

images-1Along with runners, media and spectators came one of the largest rollouts of law enforcement and surveillance technology ever presented at a public event. More than 3,500 uniformed and undercover officers from a dozen agencies (including the FBI, DEA, ATF and Homeland Security) were on hand. They were vigilant, their eyes always scanning the streets; they reminded me of Secret Service agents. A few locals even questioned the massive police presence (really?). However, the police were not only very friendly, but also openly thanked us for coming to Boston to run, then started asking individual questions about our race. In their eyes, we were all in this together.

The cops’ sincerity and welcoming attitude amidst incredible security goes on from there. As we pushed toward the finish line, many high-fived us and cheered as loudly as the spectators. A Brookline cop leaned toward me at mile 24, when I was visibly struggling, and yelled, “You’re f****** awesome! Keep pushing! Own the finish line!” Talk about being caught up in the moment. (BTW, thanks to that officer for getting me going again…)

I’ve been to a lot of sports events. I’ve never seen anything like it. They were over-the-top accommodating. My spine is tingling just writing this — one of many times it’s tingled as the enormity of the journey into Boston starts to open up each and every little experience as the days pass.

Early in the race, I ran next to two of about fifteen NYPD officers in the field. Before passing them (one of the things you can do on a race course, if not on the road!), I mentioned how cool it was that they were running. “We’re also on duty,” one told me. How smart is that, to have fifteen on-duty officers in the middle of the pack?

The technology was impressive. Drones, streetlight-mounted cameras, scanners, robots and the latest in law enforcement equipment covered every bit of the course. Before we boarded shuttle busses to the start, we runners were scanned, too. So sensitive was the scanning that I was questioned about a tube of chapstick and two packs of energy gels. Normally, one might think, “over reach”. Not in Boston. Not this time.

Consequently, out of one million people who poured into the Boston area and along the course, one person was arrested. For public drunkenness. And only two unattended bags were picked up (neither harmful). That is a mind-boggling statistic.images

The other bit of eye-catching technology came from the running shoes themselves. If you ever want to see the very latest in shoe technology, go to the staging area or starting line of a marathon. Especially a prestigious race like Boston.  Every new shoe from every major manufacturer was on the line. You would think marathon shoes would carry some weight, since you need cushion, heel and arch support, side stabilizers and aeration to cover 26 miles, right? Not five years ago, the lightest halfway decent marathon racing flat was about eight ounces. Well, I showed up with 5-ounce Mizuno Wave Sayonaras… and didn’t suffer so much as a blister on the hot, dry day.

However, the shoe story of the day came from a company not normally considered a player among running shoes. It was Skechers, more popular for their Joe Montana-endorsed (and very good) walking shoes. A few years ago, Skechers made an interesting move when they signed then 35-year-old Olympic medalist and New York Marathon winner Meb Keflezighi to an endorsement deal. Meb, a San Diego resident, was a household name to millions of runners but seemingly past his prime, a good way for Skechers to make an imprint in a very lucrative market with plenty of turnover. Let’s face it: runners go through shoes almost as fast as Lady Gaga switches hairstyles and outfits.

Unknown-1 A funny thing happened in Boston: Meb made the largest imprint U.S. marathoning has experienced since Alberto Salazar broke the world record in 1982 and Joan Benoit Samuelson won the inaugural women’s Olympic marathon in LA in 1984. Now 38, Meb became the first American in 31 years to win Boston, a victory magnified by the significance of this year’s race. Now everyone in the sports world is asking themselves, “What technology did Skechers build into those shoes to make someone as esteemed as Meb feel comfortable enough to race in them?” (And no, it wasn’t just about the money side of his endorsement deal; ask golfer Rory McIlroy what happens when the new equipment doesn’t work right.)

That’s the beauty of running shoe technology: just when you think it’s tapped out, something new happens. Just three years ago, Newton was known as a town on the Boston course, the place where a fig bar was invented, and the last name of a mathematician who was clunked on the head with an apple. Now, it’s one of the three top-selling brands.

It’s going to take awhile to recollect every moment of the six days I spent in Boston, and the events surrounding the Marathon itself. Thank God I’m a writer: I can write down the moments and then unfurl the scenes as they happened, and how I felt.  I can recollect all the conversations with runners, officials, fans, media and cops, and turn on my memoir writing afterburners to make some sense and order of them. On second thought, maybe I don’t want to, at least not yet. It’s like picking stars out of the universe. Right now, best to immerse in that universe where, for one day, everyone came together and joy and positivity ruled.

2014-04-28 05.58.09

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The Morning After … From This Boston Marathoner

Normally, the morning after running a Boston Marathon looks and feels like this: a smile that no one can wipe off your face, an appetite that keeps crying for more food, fresh memories of the faces and sights of the past 26.2 miles, a phone that won’t stop ringing or pinging with text messages, and stiff legs that would protest very much if they saw stairs, or any uphill or especially downhill grade.

Most of all, there is the sense of achievement and satisfaction that a dream of years or decades, backed by months of hard, lonely miles on roads and tracks, came true at the most storied of all marathons. I can’t tell you how many great conversations I’ve had on the Boston course along these lines, before the Newton hills quickly took the wind out of our talking moods.

Running_01I’ve rejoiced in the Boston “morning after” on three different occasions – 2005, 2007, and 2009 – and I plan to experience it again in 2014.

But right now, like the rest of America and the running world, I have a different feeling this morning. One of sadness. Shock. Anger. Disgust.

This is not how it is supposed to feel. It is supposed to feel like it did yesterday morning, when I watched the Boston Marathon elite race online, saw the parts of the course I’ve come to know well, and marveled at how Rita Jeptoo made up a 90-second gap in the span of three miles to win her second women’s title going away; or how Lelisa Desisa waited until 800 meters from the finish, before outkicking his two pursuers to win the men’s title by just five seconds.

It’s supposed to feel like it did in 2005, 2007 and 2009, when I turned onto Boylston Street, pushed the throttle one more time with the last of my energy, smiling and hurting all at once, and drove 600 meters to the finish. Like the other runners, I was privileged to run the ultimate gauntlet – tens of thousands of cheering spectators packed like sardines on the sidewalks and viewing stands. In 2005, those fans included my mother, brother and sister-in-law, whose birthday we celebrated beforehand. They cheered me in from the exact spot where the first bomb went off, twenty yards from the finish line, after I’d seen them 10 miles earlier at Newton Lower Falls.

From the exact spot where the first bomb went off. I can only pretend to imagine what the 4:10 marathoners felt when, so close to achieving their dream, they heard the concussive blasts and saw the smoke – and in some cases, were blown to the side as by a hard wind. It’s not supposed to feel like this.

I watched this year’s race with memories and pride, a Boston Marathon t-shirt on to mark the occasion, hoping the ten friends or so in the race would have great days. The thing about Boston is this: The hardest work is in qualifying to get there. If you don’t run a qualifying time, you don’t go, unless you’re a superb fund-raiser. I’ve raced Boston hard, all three times, setting my personal best in 2009, but it’s always felt as much a celebration as a race. So I knew my friends were welling up inside, so happy to be there, thrilled to see spectators along all 26.2 miles spanning eight towns, maybe snapping photos with their smartphones. The guys would be thoroughly stoked when they came upon the Wellesley girls at the 12-mile mark, the co-eds more than happy to bestow everything from a hand-slap and scream of support to a fat kiss. All would be thrilled when they crested Heartbreak Hill and came upon the Boston College co-eds, who might even run up and naively but good-naturedly offer a beer to a passing runner (as one did to me in 2007).

Now, my friends and 24,000 others have to head home with a different picture in their minds, one that I pray and hope will be erased in time by their achievement. It’s not supposed to be like this.

I also watched yesterday’s race with building anticipation. After three years of dealing with injuries and an on-again, off-again attitude toward my own running (thanks, in part, to focusing on the many great high school and middle school kids I coached), I’m marathon training again. I just ran 18 miles Sunday, my personal homage to the Boston field, my longest run in two years, and felt the engine really roar yesterday. With my qualifier in Montana still three months away, a 20-minute 5K under my belt, and early long workout paces tracking below the 3:35 I have to run to get back in, I’m licking my chops.

So this morning, I planned to begin the visualization process for the 2014 Boston, to start bringing the reality of the race home. Marathon racing is 80% mental, and it starts well before race day. When you race a marathon, the last things you want to deal with are surprises – or any major changes to how you planned out and visualized the race.

Instead, on the suggestion of fellow Boston Marathoner and good friend Kathryn Van Arsdall, I found myself running an 8.26-mile memorial run in my black Boston Marathon windbreaker – 8 miles for Martin Richard, the 8-year-old boy who died yesterday, and .26 to commemorate the length of the marathon. One friend, Southern Indiana running ace Tim Roman, did the same – and added two steps at the end for the final two-tenths of a mile. It is not supposed to be this way.

Yesterday was four years since my last Boston – which happened to be my last marathon. I’m now committed to having one last flurry of races, and have even coaxed my great high school track and cross-country coach, Brad Roy (who ran Boston in a near world-class time of 2:22 in 1979), into coaching me. Seems things have changed the past four years – starting with recovery time and foot speed – and Brad’s guidance is already proving huge. After the Missoula Marathon in July, I will race my hometown run, the Carlsbad Marathon, in January. Then, next April, one year from now, Lord willing, I’ll be feeling the exquisite joy of another completed Boston, just outside my 55th birthday.

But when the 25,000 other runners and I gather in our corrals in Hopkinton on Patriot’s Day 2014, the mood will not be quite as festive. We’ll have our race strategies, ways of celebrating on the course, levels of excitement, and joys and feelings of achievement. However, if I know the running community, I know hearts will still be heavy and prayers will be plentiful.

Then, when we head into Boston a few hours later, we will smile, laugh and cry as we charge down Boylston Street, hear the cheers, cross the line and receive our unicorn medals. We will walk to our designated buses to grab the gear bags we left behind in Hopkinton. In my case, I will then hop the fence (cramps and all), and find my sweetheart, Martha, amidst the throng. She knows the feeling; she competed in the 2002 Dublin Marathon. I’ll indulge in my favorite post-race drink – a Starbucks hot black tea. After that, we’ll head on to a celebratory dinner with family members who live in the Boston area and New England — a few of whom might meet up with me earlier for another Boston Marathon tradition, our 30-second photo session, as I run up to the Exxon station just beyond the halfway point in Wellesley.

That’s how it’s supposed to feel. And when it does, we can begin to erase the horror all of us are now feeling.

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