(This is the first of two stories on the Boston Marathon, which takes place Monday, April 20.)
For the past ten years of my life, the third week of April has featured one event: the Boston Marathon — or, as they say in New England, “The Marathon,” as if everything else is secondary. While I won’t be toeing the starting line in Hopkinton, MA on Patriot’s Day this Monday, the memories of my four Bostons will flood in as 25,000 runners take to the narrow New England streets for the 26.2-mile journey to downtown Boston. To be more specific, my love affair with this race will carry on.
Most of all, the course came to life. I’d read about it, watched several Bostons (including a scouting mission in 2003), and heard the stories. I’d even run part of it in 1975, while staying with my grandparents in nearby Arlington. Now, I wore the telltale blue and yellow unicorn medal around my neck. I also found out the difference between identifying as a marathoner and a Boston marathoner. I rarely made the distinction, but when I did, others turned to me with a different expression on their faces. Why? Because Boston is one of only two marathons that require you hit qualifying time standards (unless you’re raising funds for charity). The other? The U.S. Olympic Trials.
My second Boston was 2007, when a cold Nor’easter storm ripped through Massachusetts on race day and turned the course into a rainy wind tunnel. We ran into head winds sometimes topping 35 mph. As if 26.2 miles under perfect conditions wasn’t enough! It remains the only race in my life I ran entirely in a jacket (and I’ve run races at temperatures as cold as 15 degrees). However, I now knew something about pacing on this course, and re-qualified with a 3:27. The 2007 Boston had added significance, in that it was my mother’s second and final time watching the race. She and my aunts, Janet and Judy, and my cousin, Sister Louise, met me at the halfway point, where I quickly changed shoes, grabbed my special drink concoction, and shot photos before I resumed.
In 2009, I came back for more — and set a lifetime best of 3:09.33 at age 50. The first realization was almost surreal, running so much faster despite my age. I wore my “Team Heidi” shirt, in honor of my mother, who died in 2008. So did the fifteen or so family members stretched along the course. It was my one perfect marathon, with half-marathon splits of 1:36 and 1:33. I still had enough left to charge the final 600 meters down Boylston Street to the finish line, in front of a massive gauntlet of fans that screamed and cheered. For any recreational marathoner, chugging down Boylston is the ultimate finish — especially when it ends with a lifetime best. Four years later, Boston took on a much deeper meaning when the bombs went off — including one in front of Marathon Sports, where my brother and sister-in-law were standing when I finished in 2005. What a sad, tragic day.
Which is why, to me, nothing compares to last year, 2014. Four-time Boston champion and distance running legend Bill Rodgers emailed me out of the blue two weeks before the race and offered me his invitational entry. Billy and I had met in 2008, shared some good times and excellent runs, and become friends. He made the ultimate friendship gesture, handing me the keys to racing heaven for the most important Boston in its nearly 120-year history. I wanted to run so badly, but due to an ankle injury the previous summer, had been unable to qualify despite being in my best shape since 2009. My prime condition was helped greatly by Brad Roy, my high school track and cross-country coach, who gave me the workouts and tutelage that led me to a 1:33 half-marathon at age 54. Then I hurt my ankle. Oh well… Bill took care of that problem. I showed up not quite in marathon race shape, as I was aiming for the Rock and Roll Marathon in San Diego six weeks later (in which I qualified for Boston for the sixth time, including 2015, though I won’t be making the trip this time). It didn’t matter. For the 35,000 of us runners, this race carried far more meaning than posting a good time. (Next: A closer look at the 2014 Boston Marathon, when a city could cheer and smile again [and did they ever!])