Lesson in Survival
The forecast called for cold temperatures, constant rain, and high winds. We knew it was gonna suck. Nothing could have prepared us for the brutal reality of the conditions for the 2018 Boston Marathon. I can still barely believe it all myself.
We were warned to layer up, wear a bunch of items that we could peel off and abandon at the start, and to wear some old shoes we were willing to throw out, so we could change into a clean & dry pair at the start. Sounded like a good plan. I got on my layers, donned a decrepit old pair of running shoes, packed up my gear-check bag, and headed out the door.
It’s about 3 blocks from my hotel to the T station where I planned to grab the metro to the loading area (they bus everyone from the Boston Commons out to the starting line in Hopkinton, 26 miles away.) I got about 10 steps outside my hotel door when a wind gust blew me up against the building and my face was pelted with icy rain. I immediately had two thoughts: 1. I should just go back to my room, this is insane, no one should try to run a marathon in this. 2. They’re probably going to call off the race - this is really insane, really. And then I had a third thought - ‘well, I'll just head up to the check-in and see what’s going on, what the hell…”
Over the course of the remaining 2.5 blocks to the T station, I managed to get completely soaked to the bone from head to toe. The driving rain had filled my shoes, my “water-proof” jacket and hat and gloves were useless. It was so cold I started shivering uncontrollably. I have a condition known as Reynaud’s syndrome, in which my fingers go painfully numb when exposed to cold, damp conditions - basically anything under 55 degrees. It was 34 when I started out. My fingers turned purple, then black, then white, and swelled up to three times their normal size. They were so numb I couldn’t feel inside my pocket for my train pass. I wasn’t even to the train yet and I was in deep shit.
The train provided a few minutes of respite from the weather, and then I emerged onto Boylston Street into winds and rain that had seemingly intensified already. I dropped my gear-check bag, filled with dry clothes to change into at the end, and boarded the bus for the start line - still not really believing the race was actually going to happen.
It took about an hour to get to the “Athlete’s Village” - the staging area for runners prior to the start. It’s on athletic fields at a local high school, and the fields were surrounded by snow, merging into a sea of mud in all directions. The rain poured, the wind howled, and I started shaking uncontrollably once again. It was so cold, I was so miserable (as was everyone else, visibly so), and still in denial that this was actually going to happen. I went to the porta-potty and could not undo my pants, my hands were so frozen. I managed to take care of business somehow, and then set about to try and change my shoes and strip off my throw-away layers. The mud and the muck and the refuse of 30,000 runners was everywhere. It was raining and blowing so hard it was raining INSIDE the tented areas. I peeled off my track pants, sat down on an abandoned trash bag in the mud, and changed shoes. We were then called to start the .7 mile march to the start line. About 100 yards into the march my “clean and dry race shoes” were completely soaked through and covered with mud. Oh well…
I tried to put in my earphones, but the pounding rain and gusts of wind blew them right out of my ears. I opted to stick them inside my shirt, figuring I would try again further down the road if the weather let up. We finally made it up to the start line, the gun went off, and I suddenly realized we were actually going to do this. And we were off. Only one problem - my fingers were so numb I could not start my running watch, so I would have no idea of what pace I was running the entire day. No matter, it quickly became apparent that this was going to be a race of survival, not speed. No watch, no earphones - I just smiled and decided I had no choice but to roll with it.
Fortunately the early miles of Boston are mostly downhill, so it was relatively easy to settle into something resembling a normal running rhythm despite the weather. As we started, I realized that my shoes, socks and feet were so soaked through and cold that my feet had gone numb. I couldn’t really feel my feet until about mile 3 or so. My hands were just absolutely gone. My gloves seemed to make it worse, so I abandoned them early on and just pulled my hands into the sleeves of my running jacket to try and keep them from further exposure.
I was immediately struck by the amazing crowds of people who came out to cheer on the runners. There were 30,000 runners, and must’ve been over a 100,000 supporters out there lining the course every inch of the way, and screaming support and encouragement like nothing I’ve ever witnessed. It is truly amazing - old people, kids, everybody everywhere - I found myself smiling almost non-stop, it was so inspirational. I later learned from locals and Boston veterans that the crowd this year was perhaps even larger than usual - they really came out to support us on this savagely difficult day.
The rain was absolutely relentless. At times it would kick up several notches and rain so hard and the winds would blow us sideways - it was almost comical. I screamed out loud “you’ve got to be kidding” on a number of occasions. It was as if nature was saying “you think this is bad - try this!”
At about mile 12 or so, I decided to try again to put in my earphones. On long runs I usually listen to podcasts - I find that having something to focus on besides the run helps me lock-in to cruise-control mode, and I knew the daunting Newton Hills were looming a few miles ahead. I stopped at the water station and reached into my shirt for my Bose wireless earphones, only to find that they were gone. Merde! Must’ve fallen out somewhere along the course. Oh well. Keep on pounding, as my coach always reminds me.
Somehow, the conditions were so biblically bad that I was able to ignore them for long stretches at a time and just get into a good rhythm, inspired by the amazing support from the crowds. It turns out the hills - there’s a series of four of them from mile 16-21 - are not as bad as I had led myself to believe. The last one, Heartbreak Hill, is not so steep but it is agonizingly long. And of course the wind gusted up to a 40mph headwind about halfway up. I shouted out loud at Mother Nature yet again, and really had to laugh. It was so off-the-charts brutal that it started getting funny.
After the hills, it was just survival mode. That finisher’s medal at the end was the lure that pulled me on. That and the crowds. Boston - you people rock! When I turned left onto Boylston to head the last half-mile to the finish, I felt like I was winning the Olympics. The crowd was so loud - deafening - it was deeply moving and inspirational and a feeling and a sound I will never forget as long as I live. As neared the finish line I raised both hands in exultation, pumped my fist and screamed out a “Fuck Yes!” in honor of Shalane Flanagan (her husband Steve is my running coach), and hobbled my way through the water and food and medal and blanket stations.
On the way to pick up my gear-check bag, I saw a line about 3 blocks long for the Changing Tents, so opted to just stay in my soaked togs and hop on the train back to the hotel. it was on the train I leaned that Desiree Linden had won the women’s race, and that the top US male marathoner, Galen Rupp, had dropped out mid-race due to hypothermia. I later learned that the medical tents had treated over a thousand runners for severe hypothermia - I’m sure I made it thought by the skin of my teeth. I was shaking and spasming by the time I got back to my hotel room. It must’ve been quite a sight, me trying to wriggle out of my soaked and destroyed garments. I’m glad there’s no video of that. The good news - I found my earphones - they had crawled down my back and were trapped in my wet shirt!
I took a hot shower, put on warm dry layers, and collapsed. I had worked for years trying to qualify for Boston, finally made it, and of course it had to be THIS year, the most bizarre ever! It was my worst marathon in years, time-wise, but that seemed beside the point yesterday. The wining times by the elite runners yesterday were the slowest in over 40 years. I survived Boston 2018, and I have learned this - I can do anything I put my mind to, and if 30,000 people can put themselves through a test like this, the human race is truly capable of amazing feats. We are Boston Strong!
Now, onto some Burgers, Beer and Donuts…