This is a first person piece by M. Nicole Nazzaro, a long time freelancer for American Track & Field magazine. Nicole ran her twelfth marathon this past Monday, in the hot and humid conditions of Boston. Here is how she experienced the day:
The 2011 Boston Finish, much cooler than the 2012 version, photo by PhotoRun.net
Endurance Test: The author runs the 116th Boston Marathon –
with a little help from the whole city.
By M. Nicole Nazzaro
Marathoners love numbers. We live by our strategies and
training plans: mile paces, 400-meter repeat times, 5K race pace, 10K race
pace. Those numbers help us create a plan to be at the top of our game on
marathon day. For most of us, we only get one or two shots at that magic
distance each year. And of course, the one race we all want to peak for most
intently is the granddaddy of them all: Boston.
So when the early weather reports came out last week for
Marathon Monday, I cringed. “High: 87.” That’s the one number a marathoner
doesn’t ever want to see. Because running makes you feel like it’s something
like 20 degrees warmer than it really is (that’s why even us midpackers can don
shorts and singlets for a 55-degree marathon), an 87-degree day feels like an
So while the 116th Boston Marathon led to
stirring performances among the elites, for the other 22,000 or so of us who
started behind them, race day was about something other than personal bests.
For many of us in the pack, it came to be about humanity.
I ran Boston this year – my 12th marathon – as a
member of Mass General Hospital’s pediatric oncology charitable fundraising
program. I’d barely missed a Boston qualifying standard at the California
International Marathon in December, but I’d already committed to MGH’s team. I
was running in memory of a dear friend and coach who had run 40 consecutive
Boston Marathons before being treated for cancer at MGH. He lost his battle in
November 2010; this would be my second consecutive Boston, the beginning of a quest
to replicate that 40-year streak in his honor and raise funds for the hospital
that treated him so well during his illness.
What struck me at the beginning of the race was how many
charity runners showed up, even after the Boston Athletic Association sent out
strongly-worded directives advising runners who had not met the Boston
qualifying standard to defer their race until next year. That directive
specifically called out the “charity runners” – but in reality the charity
runners may be more prepared than most runners to complete the distance.
Charity runners normally meet for group workouts every week
and have coaching available at all times. We have the benefit of a team
atmosphere during the race: matching race singlets, cheer squads along the
course, and the name recognition that leads spectators to call us out. If you
spent time on the course yesterday, you doubtless heard cheers like “Go Dana
Farber!” or “Go Bruins!” all afternoon. (That’s the Dana-Farber Cancer Center
and the Boston Bruins Foundation, both of which sponsor charity teams at Boston.)
One notable singlet read “My sanity may be debatable, but my impact is not.”
That was the team singlet for the Boston Debate League charitable program. Of
But I’m getting ahead of myself, because even with all the
camaraderie afforded to us charity runners, there was still a race to be run.
Or walked. Or crawled.
Running a marathon in 87-degree heat in bright sunshine
feels like running on a treadmill in a sauna – a roofless sauna with a blacktop
floor and the sun beating down on it. Unless you’ve been training in a
similarly hot place – say, Death Valley, or at least Miami or Honolulu – there is
just no way to prepare for the heat.
I had a game plan for about ten minutes. What started out as
a modest effort (“try for 9:30’s for the first ten miles and see how you feel
after that”) quickly became a triage situation. It was searingly hot just
standing in the corrals waiting to be funneled to the starting line in
Hopkinton. Within two miles, I knew this race would be an endurance test only –
there would be no impressive race time on this day. It physically hurts to run
a race minutes per mile slower than you’ve trained to run it, but my heart rate
raced to near-sprint levels when I tried to get anywhere close to my intended
pace. So I turned my Garmin to the heart-rate setting and ran by keeping that
number as close to my effort for my December marathon as I could.
“I’ve made peace with the fact that I’m going to have to
walk every water stop in this race,” said one runner to her racing partner
yesterday. We might have been around mile 7 or 8 at the time – ridiculously early
to be resigning oneself to anything in a marathon on a normal day. But this was
anything but normal. I’d resigned myself to exactly the same thing at least ten
minutes before I overheard their conversation.
Instead, I focused on the people who had gathered to watch
us. And there were so many of them. Kids (and even some adults) offered
high-fives. Spectators brought bags of ice from local convenience stores out to
the runners (BAA, take notice: ice stops would have helped us tremendously in
the heat). Many sprayed us with garden hoses. Others brought out orange slices,
frozen popsicles, and even (thanks to one intrepid fan on Boylston Street) a
beer for one lucky runner.
And they cheered like mad all afternoon. By the time I
reached the final turn towards Boston at Cleveland Circle, the elite races had
been over for hours. But the fans stayed out there – with more bags of ice,
more cups of water, and more words of encouragement. And the sun was beating
down on them just as much as it was on us. In the Mass General athlete’s tent
in Hopkinton, I’d had the good sense to put my name on my singlet in big felt
letters – and miraculously, they stayed stuck to my singlet the whole way, and
the screams of “Go Nicole!” kept me taking the next step.
(Speaking of singlets, our Mass General singlets were bright
yellow – did you see the sea of yellow shirts at our support stop at Mile 20?
How could you miss them? I can’t wait to see how the photos they took of me
came out, by the way. By that point I was drenched with water from countless
spray stations, counting the steps until Boylston Street.)
Here are two incredible numbers to ponder from the day. Ninety-six
percent of the people who started the race finished the race (according to
published stats from the Boston Athletic Association). And some of them
persevered for almost eight hours in the scorching sun to do it.
Marathons are always a testament to the human spirit. But the
116th Boston Marathon became a testament to what people can do
together when united in a single goal.
miraculously, I stumbled to the finish line, having
run (read: run very, very slowly) for all of the last two miles. I like
Boylston Street the best 600 meters in the marathon world. It’s a
and it seemed only appropriate that I run it as best I could, even
legs were reduced to shuffling toothpicks by that point. A volunteer at
finish line thanked me for raising money for MGH. Another handed me a
blessedly cold bottle of water. A third handed me a bag of food – I
scarfed down the
potato chips (read: sodium and potassium) as soon as my stomach had
from the effort of the day.
And slowly, finisher’s medal around my neck, I made my way home, amazed at the sea of humanity
around us. It was 4:00 p.m. I had been running in the scorching heat for over
five hours – almost an hour and twenty minutes slower than my marathon PR. And
I had just completed one of the hottest Boston Marathons on record.
What did I take away from the experience?
Life is good. Train
for a marathon. Support a cause you care about.
And please pray to the weather gods that the 117th
Boston Marathon Monday dawns overcast with a slight tailwind coming out of
Hopkinton – and a projected high of about 50 degrees.
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