I don't even know where to begin. This was the hardest blog post I've ever written. I'm usually able to sit down after a race and hammer out my thoughts, but this time is different. I needed time. Time to rest. Time to recover. Time to reflect. Time to clear my mind and get back to normal. This race took a lot out of me, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. It was hard - the hardest thing I've ever done, and I'm just now wrapping my head around it all.
Let's cut to the chase
Okay, last Monday I ran the Boston Marathon. Ever since I ran my first marathon in the spring of 2013, Boston has been my ultimate goal. For the last 3 years I trained my ass off, learned from my mistakes, had some highs and some lows. With every run I ran, every gruelling workout at my gym Greco, every time I skipped out on a late night with friends, every calculated carb-filled meal, it was always about Boston. Boston was my Everest. And I finally did it.
3 hours 10 minutes and 36 seconds.
2,972nd place out of about 30,000 runners. That's the short story.
The Long Story
After a gorgeous and chill weekend in Boston that saw us explore the city, cheer on the Blue Jays at Fenway, pick up my race kit at the expo and eat some amazing food, it was finally race day.
Up at 5AM, I was feeling great. Armed with 2 bagels, a banana and a coffee, Katie, her Dad John, and I left the rental house where we were staying to head towards the buses. We arrived at the Boston Commons to find dozens of buses lining the streets, packed full of anxious racers. I got my final pep talk and well wishes from Katie and John and I was on my way.
I found my way onto a bus and snagged a seat in the back. I chatted briefly with the two guys in front of me to pass the time. Our bus ride to the start line in Hopkington took an hour. We just kept going and going and going. The nerves grew as I thought to myself "Oh my god, I have to run this whole way back."
The Waiting Game
We finally arrived in Athlete's Village, which is essentially a gated in field at a middle school in Hopkington. I was one of the first buses there. It was cool and quiet. I grabbed another bagel and a coffee, and found a quiet spot in the cool grass under the early morning sun. Now I had to play the waiting game. It was 7:30AM and the race didn't start until 10:00. I passed the time by going over my strategy and visualizing the race. Finally, it was 9:05AM and my wave was called over the loud speaker to begin to make our way to the start line, which was about a 10-15 minute walk away. It had warmed up considerably by this point, and I had ditched my sweater, pants and gloves into the donation bins. I joined thousands of other runners, shuffling our way to the start line. You could already feel that it was going to be a warm day. The sun beated down on my pale winter skin, and I loaded on the sun block.
The Start Line
9:50 AM. I was finally in my starting corral with a few thousand other runners. These last 10 minutes are always the longest. Everyone is nervous. Everyone is excited. A few people even squat down in the crowded corral and pee one last time on the street. No shame. After the American National Anthem played, two giant black hawks flew over top - and then the gun went off. It was go time.
The first 8km of the race is down hill, which is actually quite tricky. Many people take advantage of this downhill by going fast and banking time. That's a dangerous game to play. Even though you're able to get out to a quick start, you actually over burn your energy too early and you wear out your quads - a problem that most runners realize once they hit the famous hills of Newton. (I'll get to those.) My strategy was different. Hold back those first 8km. Don't go too fast. Hold steady at a 4:14 pace. And that's what I did. After the downhill, the course flattens out for the most part, although it does have some small, subtle rolling hills. This is where you can really work into your race pace and find your groove. By the 15km mark, I was right on target. My first three 5km splits were almost identical - 21:13, 21:15, 21:17. That steady consistency felt great.
As I cruised along, I was feeling strong. Everything was going according to plan. There was one small problem. Remember that sun I was talking about earlier? It kept getting stronger, and hotter, with the temperature rising all the way up to 19°C . I'm not much of a heat and sun guy, being a ginger and all. To add to it, I had just spent the last 4 and a half months training in the horribly frigid Ottawa winter. And then, all of a sudden, it hit me. The curve ball. As I crossed the 18km mark, I puked. I didn't see it coming and it totally threw me for a loop. "What the hell just happened?" I wondered. I shook it off as a fluke, drank some water, and kept trucking along.
Still bewildered by what had just happened to me, I was trying to regain my focus as I approached the 20km mark, the site of Wellesley College. This is a famous point in the race as the "Girls of Wellesley" line the right side of the course, screaming at the top of their lungs, holding "Kiss Me" signs (and some other not so appropriate signs.) You can hear them shrieking from a half mile away, before you can even see the college. It was crazy. Several runners stopped and actually kissed the girls. It was hilarious, but deafening. I imagined that this is what the first Beatles concert in the US was like. Just mayhem. Not long after the college, I crossed the half way mark. Despite my brief hiccup, I managed to come in right on pace - 1:29:49. With plans to run a negative split (the second half faster than the first), I was in great shape.
And then it happened again. A burp-turned-vomit knocked be down a peg or two. What was happening? Again, I got myself a good deal of water and carried on. As the kilometres ticked by at this point, the mini vomits didn't stop. Every couple of kilometres, it would build up and come out, no matter how hard I tried to keep it down. This was a bad trend. The sun had gotten to me, and my body was not reacting to it well. I knew I was in trouble. Not only is puking not a pleasant experience, but my body was running out of fuel. All the water and energy gels that I had been consuming were not staying in my body - and my body began to react negatively to that
The Newton Hills
Ah yes, the famous hills of Newton. You've probably heard of Heartbreak Hill - the infamous hill that has taken so many runners victim over the years, is the last in a series of four difficult hills in the town of Newton between kilometre 28 and 35. I had trained well for these. I was ready. Despite my body slowly breaking down due to lack of water and energy, I persevered for the hills. I wasn't going to let them break my heart, even though the heat already had.
I must admit, there were several points of the hills where I considered stopping. I was in a lot of pain, and very dehydrated despite drinking water twice at every station. I thought to myself "Maybe if I take a short break, I can drink some water and keep it down." That was the angel on my left shoulder. The devil, on the opposite shoulder, interjected "Stop? Are you kidding me? You've worked too damn hard for this to stop now. If you stop, you're done." He was right. I was here to run the Boston Marathon, not walk the thing - or even worse, DNF. Right then and there, despite the exhaustion and pain, and knowing that I wasn't going to reach my time goal, I decided that I was going to run to the finish. No stopping. No way. No matter what it took. I had worked too damn hard for this. I was here. It was happening, right now.
Next Stop, Citgo
All aboard the pain train. As I finally crested Heartbreak, I felt a sense of relief. I had survived that battle, now on to complete the war. 7km to go! Oh god, that felt daunting. I knew my entire family was posted up at the famous Citgo sign, right next to Fenway Park, at kilometre 40. So that was my next goal. Put your head down, grind it out, and get yourself to Citgo. I knew that if I got there and saw them that they would give me the extra boost I needed to get to the finish. Just in case you were wondering, I was still puking every 2-3km at this point. That never stopped.
After a few gruelling and fuzzy kilometres, the course bended around a corner and I finally saw that Citgo sign in the distance. I felt like a person stranded in the desert, and the Citgo sign was my oasis. But as it turns out, it felt more like a mirage. It never seemed to get any closer. All I needed was to see their faces, hear their voices, and get some high fives. Water wasn't doing the trick for me, but I knew that they would carry me through to the finish
The rest is pretty hazy. I did eventually see my family, although I don't remember it. From their account, I was cruising along the right side of the course, and upon spotting them, I jolted across the street to greet them. "You looked strong" they told me afterwards. I certainly didn't feel strong. All I felt was pain and agony. Even though I have no memory of it, I know that they were the much needed wind in my sails that brought me through to to finish.
I don't remember much about the last 3km of the race. I certainly don't remember taking the right hand turn onto Hereford Street, but I do remember taking that final left onto Boylston, and looking up towards the finish line in the distance and thinking "Oh my god, that is the furthest 600 metres I have ever seen." Head down. Teeth gritted. Legs in motion. The crowds were beyond incredible at this point. I so badly wanted to look around and take it all in. Enjoy the moment. But I couldn't. I didn't have it in me. I felt so close to totally crumbling - physically, mentally, and emotionally. I feared that my legs and entire body would give out at any second and that I wouldn't get my chance to run across that finish line. I dug deep for that extra something and somehow found it. I crossed the finish line, running.
As I crossed the finish line, I remember thinking 3 things. First, thank god that painful adventure was finally over. Second, get me some water. And third, get me some shade. The problem was that the pain wasn't over - it was settling in even more. And there was no shade to be found. As I received my medal, I found myself stockpiling water bottles that were being handed out. I had one in each hand, and my pockets were overflowing. I could barely stand, let alone walk. I kept stumbling over, 5 or 6 feet side to side as I tried to walk. My brain hurt and my eyesight was fuzzy. I later told my family that I felt like "the drunkest man in the world." Several paramedics, noticing my obvious disillusioned state, asked me if I was okay. "Yeah yeah yeah" I brushed them off "I just need some water." Most of them reluctantly let me stumble away, until I heard a concerned voice.
"Do You Want To Sit Down?"
I looked over towards to voice to find a paramedic with her hand on my shoulder. I then looked down to see that she was holding a wheel chair in front of her. "Yeah...that's probably a good idea" I said and I let my body fall limp into the chair. As she wheeled me to the medical tent, she advised me to drink some of my collection of water. I did. I then advised her to watch out for the right hand side of the chair, because that's where I was about to be sick again. As they found me a cot in the tent, they took down my name, age, and home town. "What's wrong" they asked. "Everything." I responded. "Everything hurts". I couldn't see straight, my legs, back and core were in horrible pain, and I was sweating profusely. As it turns out, I had heat stroke and dehydration. A team of 6 (SIX!) paramedics took care of me. I had a paramedic massaging each leg, Sarah brought me 4 bags of ice, Lily took down all my information, Julie took my temperature and blood pressure, and Tony offered up his phone for me to call my family. My mind was such a mess that I couldn't remember anyone's phone number, not even my own. They had to pull my registration records to get Katie's phone number and I left her a quick, nonchalant voice mail saying "Hey, I'm fine, I'm in the medial tent, everything's okay, I'm just a bit dehydrated, I'm fine."
Drink this, drink that
Their main goal was to cool me down and get me hydrated. I had water in one hand, Gatorade in the next, going back and forth between the two. Then Sarah the paramedic came back with a tiny cup and said "I have something yummy for you! Just kidding, it will taste horrible, but it will make you feel better." It was a bouillon cube, diluted in 2 ounces of water. She wasn't lying. It was horrible. But I slammed it back anyway. I had already gone through so much agony and discomfort - what was one more awful thing? Like magic, the bouillon concoction brought me back to life. My vision cleared, my head felt normal, and I could finally have a coherent conversation. By this time, the mounds of ice packs had cooled me down and I had been cleared to check out after almost an hour. I thanked everyone profusely for helping me in my dire time of need and before I left, I had one final question: "Am I allowed to go drink beer now?" Sarah laughed and said "Yes, of course. You've earned it. Drink 2 litres of water first, though, and keep drinking lots of water for the next couple of days." Roger. I can do that.
I exited the tent, not really knowing what to do next. Almost immediately, I heard Katie's voice. "JAY!" I looked up to see her beautiful face, filled with with a mixture of emotions - worry, relief, and pride. I hobbled over to her, looked her in the eye and said "that was the hardest thing I've ever done", then let me head fall on her shoulder where I finally cried.
Let's go home
We cried it out for a bit, and then we started to make our way back to house where our family and friends awaited us. I told her my war story along the way, to her total disbelief. She knew I had struggled out there. She had seen my second half split times and knows what I'm like in the sun. But she never thought it was that bad. She was so proud and so worried about me all at the same time.
Can we just take a moment to recognize how amazing this woman is? Katie is my rock, my biggest fan, and literally the shoulder that I cry on. She supports me in every way imaginable and has taken such a keen interest in my hobby turned passion turned thing that almost killed me. I am so grateful and thankful to have her in my life. Looking at you babe. Love you.
By the time we had gotten back to the house, my spirits were back up. Holy shit, I had just run the Boston Marathon. My greatest life achievement. When the treacherous circumstances reared their ugly head, I stared it right in the eyes and overcame it. I had to dig deep into my heart and soul to find something that I didn't know I had in me. I gave everything I had, and left it all out on the course. And it nearly killed me. But hey, I did it.
Beer, Burger, and more beer
It was celebration time. I reunited with the family for hugs and high fives - and then burgers and beers.
I was so happy that it was all over, and that I could finally say that I was a Boston Marathoner. We later met up with my good friend Chelsea who had completed her second Boston Marathon. What an absolute champ, that girl is an inspiration. My family and friends are so amazingly supportive. Not just on race day, but throughout my training and over the last 3 years. No one ever doubted me and everyone always showed so much interest in what I was doing. The love and support was overwhelming. Thank you, everyone.
I felt pretty horrible on Tuesday. I could barely walk. I tried to relax and stretch out in the car while Katie drove the 7 hours home to Ottawa, but I just cramped up. Wednesday was worse - physically and emotionally. I was in a ton of pain and my mind was a mess. I wasn't feeling like myself. Katie could tell, and probed me "Are you okay? What's wrong?" She was right, something was wrong, but I couldn't put my finger on it. It was more than just sore legs. It was something else. I needed more time.
By Friday, most of the pain had subsided and I had taken some much needed time to reflect on what was a whirlwind of a weekend. We spent Friday evening chatting it out. I had gone into race weekend full of confidence and excitement. I was in great shape and I couldn't wait to take on Boston. I had done all the training and preparation. I was ready. So I thought.
Now, let's be clear about something. My overly-ambitious plan going into the weekend was to run a sub 3 hour marathon and a personal best. I knew I was in good shape and I knew how hard the course was. What I didn't know was how hard the heat would hit me. My time of 3 hours and 10 minutes was pretty far off my goal - but that's not what was bothering me. I came to terms with that time pretty quickly. Let's face it, 3 hour and 10 minutes at the Boston Marathon in the heat while I'm puking for 24km isn't so bad - it's actually pretty great. I was extremely proud. I proved to myself that I had grit. I had heart. I had determination. I had perseverance.
But there was definitely something missing. I thought it all over in my head as I looked down and admired my medal. Why wasn't I feeling overjoyed with my accomplishment? Well, for the first few days, I was flat out exhausted. I had nothing left in the tank. I needed to recharge. And when I did, I realized why I was so bummed out. Now this is something that not everyone will understand, but hear me out.
First and foremost, I know that marathons are extremely difficult. Every time I run one I am reminded at kilometre 34 of the pure pain that you've got to endure to get through it. But this one was different. I don't think I was prepared for the level of pain I was about to experience, or how long I had to experience it. It really beat me up.
But it was more than that. I was genuinely bummed. I was bummed because I didn't get to truly experience my marathon - mostly the last stretch. There's something about the final stretch of a marathon that is completely amazing and unique. It's something that you can't get anywhere else - at least, I haven't found it yet. You get an incredible lift when you see your family cheering you on. The screaming fans super-charge you and make you feel like an elite athlete. You get butterflies as you grind out the final stretch. And you experience and overwhelming sense of elation, satisfaction, and triumph when you finally cross that finish line. It's phenomenal.
But I didn't get that. All I had was pain, and blacked out memories.
I don't remember seeing my wonderful family. I didn't thrive off the energy of the Boylston crowds. I didn't fist pump and scream with joy when I crossed the finish line. I didn't soak in those precious post-race moments when you get that medal placed around your neck. All I felt was pain, and my memories were blurry at best. I wasn't even really in my body at that point. I had pushed myself beyond the point of what I thought was possible to get me over that line, and I wasn't present to enjoy it. I was partially pissed off for putting myself in that position. Why did I do that to myself? Why did I rob myself of that experience? But on the other hand, if I hadn't pushed myself like that, I wouldn't have done myself justice. I did what I needed to do given the circumstances. I know that all of this might sound selfish, or even short-sighted. Maybe it is, and I'm okay with that. I just feel like I kind of got ripped off. But that's between me, and running. And after all, life can be like that sometimes.
This isn't a pity party. I'm not looking for sympathy. I'm just hoping that you understand where I'm at with all of this. At the end of the day, I am extraordinarily proud of what I did, and am beyond grateful that I have the health and support to experience such things. If you take one thing away form my story, it's to go after your dreams, whatever they are. Go get what you want in life. It won't always be easy, but if you work your ass off, you'll get there.
As my good buddy Rob Watson always says, "Marathons are hard." You said it, pal. They really, really are. But I love them. And I'll do it again. And again. And yes, in case you're wondering, I plan on going back to Boston to get what I left behind.
Thanks again to my friends and family that came down to Boston to support me - Katie, Mom, Dad, Karen, John, Rachel, AI, Deanna, Brett, Jill, Mike, Emily, Sarah, Shannon, Brad, and Chels.
I love you all.