Posted by Patrick McCartney on 16th April 2007
Last January, I ran my first official road marathon in Houston, Texas, in an attempt to qualify for this year’s Boston Marathon. It was during this race that I gained an appreciation for how difficult running a marathon can be. I was on track to run a time near 3-hours, but the last 5-6 miles became increasingly tough, both physically and mentally. I managed to finish with a time of 3:14:15, which was just 45 seconds faster than what was required for Boston, but shortly after crossing the finish line, I was overcome with hypothermia. The weather wasn’t particularly cold, but I was wet, standing in an air-conditioned room, and somewhat dehydrated. I realize now that this is a perfect recipe for trouble after the stress of running 26.2-miles.
Last week, the Boston Marathon organizers sent out a weather advisory stating that we should expect cold temperatures, heavy rain, and wind gusts of up to 50-miles/hour on race day. For those of you not familiar with the Boston course, it is a point-to-point run straight east from the town of Hopkinton into downtown Boston. Since this bad weather would be caused by a rare late-season nor’easter, those strong winds would be in our face for the entire marathon. Based on my experience in Houston, I understood the risks of hypothermia and believed I would be able to be fully prepared for the worst. I was also confident that I would be able to run a faster time than I did in Houston. Even though the Houston course is extremely flat and the Boston course is notoriously difficult, I still felt like I was in better shape and could conquer the hills of New England.
I woke up early this morning (race day in Boston) after sleeping very little last night. That nor’easter hit full force after going to bed, and the thought of running a marathon in those conditions was not very comforting. After arriving in Boston at about 6am, I walked to Boston Common where we would board the buses to Hopkinton. For some reason I imagined there would be large, comfortable, and warm charter busses waiting for us. I was wrong. With all the prestige of the Boston Marathon, the preferred method of transit is the school bus. It took a while to load more than 20,000 runners on school buses in downtown Boston. Did I mention it was cold, windy, and rainy?
After an hour bus ride to Hopkinton, we were dropped off at “Athlete’s Village”, i.e., a makeshift swamp at the local middle school. The ground was completely saturated and flooded, so I quickly gave up on the idea of having dry shoes at the start. I’ve heard from veterans of the race that the time in Hopkinton is usually a pretty fun party. Not so this year. It was two hours of wind and driving rain while standing in near-freezing water trying to stay warm. It was a huge relief when the announcement finally came for us to begin the almost 1-mile walk to the starting line.
It felt great to finally start running. The rain was lightening up, the temperature was warming, and the first 4-5 miles of the course are downhill. The spectacle of the race was immediately evident and it was difficult not to get caught up in the moment. Running by the screaming girls of Wellesley College was likely the most impressive part of the day when it comes to Boston Marathon traditions. I was even on track to beat my Houston time when I passed the halfway point.
Enter mile marker 18, the hills of Newton, leg cramps, side cramps, and a big “wall”. Apparently, the constant rolling hills on the course and the extra energy expended to keep warm while soaked through and running in the cold wind was more than my training prepared me for. Moving forward became increasingly difficult, even with several walking breaks. My right hamstring was cramped up, but when I would try to stretch it, my right quad would cramp up. I somehow managed to continue on until I reached the 24-mile marker. My hands went numb, my face was tingling, my lips were gray, and I began to become nauseous and disoriented. Hypothermia had once again reared its ugly head.
The decision to obtain medical assistance with only 2-miles to go was not an easy one. If it wouldn’t have been for my experience in Houston, I’m sure I would have gutted it out to the finish and then ended up in the hospital. The good news was that I had done quite a bit of research and knew exactly what I needed at that point. I spent more than 1/2-hour on a heated bus, wrapped in a fleece blanket, drinking hot sugar water and hot chocholate, and eating whatever my stomach could tolerate. With the prospect of an impressive time long gone, I exited the medical station with the sole motivation of completing the race and at least having a finisher’s medal to take home from Boston.
My wife, Lais, was waiting at the 25-mile marker with dry gloves and a hat so that I would be able to tolerate the cold once I actually stopped running at the finish line. I should also mention that she was able to master the Boston transit system enough to meet me at three other places along the course to provide support and encouragement. I originally thought that I could have come to Boston and run this race alone, but now I realize that I would have never made it to the finish without her here today.
At the end of the day, I am again humbled by how difficult a marathon can actually be. Someday, I hope to be able to do one of these without becoming hypothermic, but I am encouraged by the fact that I was able to work through it and ultimately finish. In addition, it was cool to be part of the one and only Boston Marathon run in a nor’easter. Even though it took me more than an hour longer than it did in Houston, finishing the world’s most prestigious marathon never felt so good.
Finally warm and dry in Boston,