The music is so powerful, that to this day if I hear the right song my feet automatically tap out the beat. Doesn’t matter if it’s on a run, at my desk, or in the car, the energy wrapped in those songs sit like kinetic fuel ready to explode with the first chord of a guitar or banjo. They sleep in wait on a playlist on my iPod simply titled, “Boston.” It’s April, and the third Monday in April is Patriots’ Day, the day of the Boston Marathon.
Boston’s elite field, this year, features the fastest and most competitive grouping in the history of the event. According to the race website, this includes eight men under 2:07 and ten women under 2:24. The minutes-per-mile paces at those times are a staggering 4:50 for the men and 5:30 for the women.
At last year’s race, with ideal conditions and a 15mph tailwind, Geoffrey Mutai ran the fastest marathon ever, anywhere, in 2:03:02. He’s back this year to defend his title and must out kick Robert Kiprono Cheriout, the 2010 champion, and Gebre Gebremariam, the 2010 New York City Marathon champion.
Women’s defending champion Caroline Kilel, who out-dueled American Desiree Davila by 3 seconds last year, is back to defend her title and will be chased by Ethiopian teammates Firehiwot Dado and Buzinesh Deba, first and second place finishers, respectively, in the 2010 New York City marathon.
The American elite field will be lean this year with top runners coming off of the Olympic trials. The familiar names will be recovering, training, or both instead of participating so the likelihood of the American winner’s drought ending this year is small. But, surprises happen, and with such a fast field, the outcome will be wide open. Who will be this year’s Desiree Davila?
The real stories lie mid-pack far behind the elite runners, where thousands of dedicated runner’s will reap the rewards of training, nutrition, and commitment. To enter Boston, runner’s not only have to beat age-graded qualifying times but also have to be fast enough, dedicated enough, or lucky enough to find a slot available through the BAA’s time-graded entry process. Since faster runners can register earlier, simply having a qualifying time is not assurance of entry. With qualified runners exceeding available entries, a Boston Marathon bib is one of the most coveted to runners. Everyone has their own path to Boston, the ultimate reward for all the hard work.
Once you’re registered, the build up and race weekend are almost as inspirational as the tens of thousands of spectators that line the course. At the race expo, you can meet legends – like Jack Fultz, the 1976 winner, who will urge runners to “pull the trigger” at the top of Heartbreak Hill, or Dick Beardsley who will wax nostalgic about the famous 1982 Duel in the Sun with Alberto Salazar. You can meet Boston Billy or defending Olympic medalists like Shalane Flanagan.
Race day morning starts early, even though the race, en masse, itself starts at a late 10:00 am. While most runners are comfortable getting up early to run long, the point-to-point race starts in Hopkinton and finishes in Boston, so runners need shuttle service to the start line. Yellow school busses packed with runners leave Boston in the wee hours of the morning and deposit runners on the football fields of Hopkinton High. After a half-mile walk, runners enter the corrals and cross the start line.
And that’s where it hit me. I stood in corral 26, wave 2, waiting for the start to the Boston Marathon looking at the church and shops that lined the quintessential New England town. The announcer, in heavy Boston accent, announced the start as an Air Force flyover went over our heads. My eyes misted as the announcer congratulated us on the early mornings and sacrifice of training for a marathon. As my corralmates and I shuffled to the start, my adrenaline surged and heart pounded.
I was off. I ran the first five downhill miles slowly, comfortably, holding back for the four Newton hills. I settled into a groove and studied the trees along the road wondering if Paul Revere fired shots in the same groves where folks were stopping to pee. I plodded my charity-entry pace, knowing that 99% of the field would best my time, self conscious of my speed and what lied ahead.
I ran through Ashland, Framingham, Natick and Wellesley and instead of hearing taunts about my slow feet from the crowd, I heard nothing but encouragement and cheers. My shirt, festooned with my name in big black letters, drew the crowd’s attention, many of which chanted ‘Rick, Rick, Rick!” over and over.
I continued my conservative pace, slapping kids’ hands, eating oranges, and waving to partygoers along the course. My energy began to crescendo as I approached Heartbreak Hill, tired, yet engaged. I even laughed at the guy in the Speedo who ran in front of me directly to a frat house next to the course and popped a keg stand.
I collected myself at Cleveland Circle, ready to pull the trigger for the last 10K of the race. With sagging energy, despite brownstone-after-brownstone of Boston University students screaming my name, I felt the fatigue of the race finally set in at mile 23.
So, I pulled out my secret weapon.
I adjusted my iPod to Boston’s Dropkick Murphy’s and felt adrenaline and enthusiasm wash through me. With headphones as loud as they would go, I ran harder than I had all day, passing people who had left me in their wake. I approached miles 24 and 25, lined with Patriot’s Day Game Fenway Park fans 10-plus deep along both sides of the street. The huge crowd swelled to a frenzy screaming my name so loud that my ears rang and my body hemorrhaged energy and joy.
In “Tarzan” fashion, I flexed my pipes and yelled so loud to the crowd, I saw stars. Their faces, filled with passion, reflected shock at my spectacle as a reciprocated sonic boom discharged from them as I, a common suburban dad living the dream, passed to the mile 25 marker. This is Boston!
Mile 25 to the finish was quiet with most spectators long gone after shepherding their faster runners back to the hotels. I shed tears on Boylston, rounding the final turn towards the finish line. I had conquered Boston. And while I’m no Boston Billy or Dick Beardsley, I had created my own personal legend – a memory so bright and enduring that each time I run and listen to the same songs that played in my headphones that morning, I feel the same surge and hear the same crowd yelling my name, loving the effort, loving the day, loving the run.
Rick Czaplewski is a one-time Boston Marathon finisher,2009, whose name is listed on the final page of the official race results book.