But I am happy to say - it has a happy ending. Really. And just like everything in this training cycle, the ending was far different than what I imagined.
Miraculously, I slept well the night before the race. A solid 8 hours - from 10pm until 6am. I can't remember this ever happening before.
It felt wonderful.
I got ready quietly, sipping on coffee and munching on yet another Honey Stinger waffle. Those things are incredible. It's like a giant soft cookie. So tasty. If you are looking to carbo-load the easy way, I highly recommend these. I have a hard time not eating them for breakfast on regular, non-racing days. Dip it in your coffee...mmm...
I knew 75% of my race prep involved priming my leg. Much thought had been put into how exactly I was going to get through all 26.2 miles. For all my hope and prayers, my PT strongly advised me to not get too ahead of myself: this was not a tendon or ligament. This is a muscle, a very important one, and prone to fatigue. Running with a calf strain would only get harder as the miles ticked off. I was well-aware of what a full marathon does to the body on a good day. He, along with the masses, said it was best to go out as slowly as possible. I briefly wondered if I could just borrow a scooter, but realized any kind of wheels were not allowed (for obvious reasons). What about crutches? A walking stick?
I had been using KT tape in the days before to give the muscle structure, but on race day, I busted out the good stuff: Spider-Tech tape. This stuff is amazing. Four "legs" stretched up my calf, giving it twice as much support. I was so excited about this bad boy I drew a bad ass spider right on the heel. Power up, leg!
I donned a brand-new pair of Zensah compression sleeves, mainly because I wanted them as tight as possible. Then I put on my brand new Lululemon speed shorts, never worn a day in their life. I shunned my usual French braid-race-day-hair and just opted for a regular ponytail. And then - probably most surprising - I added some waterproof mascara and a bit of lip gloss. I almost never wear makeup when running, but today was different. If I was going to flame out spectacularly, well, I wanted to look good doing it.
I should have gotten a spray tan, too. I mean, why not?
I gave Brian and Judy a quick kiss before I left, and with that, my Boston Marathon experience had officially begun.
First, the entire lot of runners, all 27,00 of us, are divided into waves and corrals. There are a total of four waves, around 7,000 people each, and eight corrals per wave, about 1,000 people. You know what wave you are in based on your bib color. It starts with red, then white, blue, and yellow. With seeding based on qualifying times, red bibs are the first wave - the fastest runners. If you are a red bib, there's a good chance you have cheetah DNA and/or ran a sub 3 qualifier. Fun fact: both Alex and Reinier were red bibs!
Picture a marathon where the first 8,000 people are running 5:30 - 6:30 minute miles. It's like the best runners from every state and country, the people who usually win their local races, all in one place. That's insane.
That's Boston, my friends.
I don't think anyone would have been impressed with my 21:18 5K.
(I stayed very quiet.)
More interestingly, every red bib I saw, I thought, "I don't look anything like him/her." (It's okay, this actually made me laugh). They were all lean ecto-morph dudes like Alex, or super-muscly guys like Reinier. The red-bibbed women appeared to be either tiny bird-like creatures or professional beach volleyball players.
Of note: on race day, I did not see a single red bib eating waffles. Maybe I should revise my fueling strategy next time around.
Next, Boston is a late morning marathon. This is the complete opposite of everything I've experienced; usually the alarm clock goes off at 3:30am and you are done well before lunchtime. Not in Boston. Each wave had a different loading and start time, with the elite women starting first at 9:30am. My Wave/Corral loaded at 10:05am with a start time of 10:50. That's CRAZY late. Many people ate a full breakfast at 7am, knowing it would digest by the time they toed the start line. I had not practiced a full breakfast, so I just kept eating waffles. I threw in a half of a banana around 9:45 and called it good. Depending on my leg, I reasoned a finish time sometime around late afternoon.
It was a process just to get to the starting line. Lululemon graciously rented luxury buses for us that would take us to a drop stop in Hopkinton. From there, we boarded another bus (sadly, a school bus, not nearly as nice) to the Athlete's Village. Once there, it was a long walk to the starting line...but before all of that, I made sure to find my favorite seatmate for the trip from the city into the country.
And there he was, red bib and all. Standing outside the hotel as we waited to board the first bus, Reinier whispered to me that he had forgotten his running shoes. I immediately looked down at his feet. He was wearing racing flats - good for about seven miles, but not a lot of cushion after that. There was a shared look of mutual horror, and we burst into giggles. I mean, what could you do other than laugh?
He leaned over and continued, "You know what I am really worried about?" I shook my head, having no idea what he was about to say. I leaned closer.
"Tonight at the party, how am I going to dance the robot if my feet are hurting me?"
Oh RG. You will always have a special place in my heart.
The bus out was full of humor, waffles and water. A quick transition on South Street and the journey continued. As we finally approached thge the Athlete's Village, a hush fell over the group. All of us were looking at the same spot on the roof of the high school directly in front of us. Clearly visible: two men in full military garb with what appeared to be very long rifles. Snipers. It suddenly hit home that bad people may want to...hurt us. And the good people of Boston were not going to let this happen.
Sh*t just got very real.
We made our way into the Village. Interestingly, there is no gear check at the starting line. Whatever you take with you to Hopkinton, you either leave there or run with it. Everyone clutched little clear baggies full of snacks (read: all the waffles I could pack), water, gels, sunscreen. Most people had throw-away clothing with them but very few were actually wearing them. It was too warm. In fact, by the time we arrived in the Village, most people were already stripped down to just their running clothes. Most made a bee-line for the large tents to stake a claim for some precious shaded real estate, away from the unforgiving glare of the relentless sun.
Let's talk about the weather for a second...it was hot. And getting hotter. All the weather forecasters had issued dire warnings on Easter Sunday. We also had received an email from the BAA warning of us "unseasonably warm weather," urging us to go slowly and listen to our bodies. Yeah, yeah, this was like LA 2015 all over again. I was so preoccupied with my leg, I gave very little credence to any heat warning. I knew the drill - salt capsules early, taking one every 4-5 miles, and water on is better than water in. It was going to be hot, wet one out there, especially with the humidity.
Temps at 9am were already hovering around 65 degrees, with a high of 75 expected. Doesn't sound like a lot, but it is. For running, always add 15 degrees. I's not the actual temperature that matters, it how it feels. A high of 75 feels like 90 degrees. Add some sun and you have very challenging racing conditions. (This is why most world records are set when the temp hovers around 50-55 degrees under cloudy skies). When I ran LA in 2015, it was 88 at that finish. And let me tell you, it felt all of 103 degrees by the time I completed that course.
**helpful runner tip: this is how to determine your running gear. Look at the predicted temperature, add 15, and then dress accordingly.
But before we grabbed a piece of shaded goodness, I used the bathroom. Like, 5 times. So. Much. Water.
...and long it was. By the time we got to the next staging area, my Garmin told me I had walked approximately 1.7 miles. Wait, what? Panic, cry, or laugh? Again, I just laughed. It was going to be a long, hot day with a lot of miles - might as well laugh about it, right? My mind briefly flashed to Reinier in his running flats. Ouch.
At this staging area, people fluttered about like butterflies. More potty breaks. A Sharpie was passed around. When it came to me, I grabbed it and wrote my name on both arms. Probably one of the best decisions I made all day. I drank my Hot Shot nervously, swishing it around in my mouth like the directions said. Had I ever practiced with this before? Nah. Does it matter this point? Nope!
Another walk commenced, this time, to the starting line. I looked around and realized, gone were the ectomorphs and pro volleyball players. Everyone here looked like me: mostly women, mid 20s to late 30s. Most likely, they were moms of elementary school-aged children. Yesssss. But not your typical playground fare: this was one serious group of mother runners. Visors pulled low, hands on hips, eyes narrowed. They looked like lean, mean moms, ones who handle tired husbands, piles of laundry, naughty pets and overscheduled children on a daily basis. These are my people. I imagine we honed our mental toughness out on the road and at school pickup. Let's do this, ladies.
As I stood there, I wish I could say the enormity of the situation hit me, but really, I just said a silent prayer for everyone out there. Heat was dangerous; I just wanted everyone to be okay. I happened to look to my left and saw two guys in uniform watching me. More security, yikes. I waved hi. They waved back. I gave them the thumbs up sign. They signaled back. I bowed, in kind of a "thank you for keeping us safe" manner. I don't know if they understood, but they bowed back. We were all grinning.
This was all so silly and weird. I have no idea why I was miming things; they were only 4 ft away. Yet the power of speech eluded me so I just made hand gestures. Yeah, I wasn't nervous at all.
And with that, we started.
Next goal: get to the finish line.
My race strategy: run as many miles on two legs before resorting to walking, hopping, limping, or crawling. Seriously. I wish I could say the plan was more sophisticated, but I was in complete survival mode. I wanted to finish, period. And I had exactly seven hours and ten minutes to make it happen.
The first five miles breezed by. The only thing I could think was, "I AM RUNNING THE BOSTON MARATHON! This is IT!"
The leg felt fine - completely and totally fine. Not a twinge, peep, or even a tiny "eek." My spider-wrap and compression sleeve were working. That 800mg of Advil I downed 20 minutes before the start was working, too. Had I ever practiced with that? No way, haha. I was throwing ALL caution to the wind.
First five splits: 8:34, 8:39, 8:41, 8:33, and 8:59.
Mind you, these miles are mostly downhill. I was pleased to take them so slowly. Hundreds of people passed me. Word on the street referenced going out too fast in the first half of Boston is what destroys most people's race plan. I wasn't "breaking" on the downhill, but I certainly wasn't pushing myself. I simply set the legs to cruise control and high-fived every child I saw.
On mile 6, I noticed something not related to my leg or small children: the sun. It was out in full force now. It was in that mile that I could feel energy draining from me in a way that only heat can do. I've run enough in the desert to know and appreciate the power of the sun: it zaps your life force quickly and without warning. I started grabbing two cups of water at every station. As I poured that first cup on my ponytail, I felt the cool water on my scalp...and then warm water sloshing down my back. Oh gross. That warmth was the sweat I had just sluiced off. Uuuuugh. Cold on, warm down. This pattern would repeat itself for the next 20 miles.
Miles 6-11: 8:50, 8:50, 9:05, 9:05, 9:09, and 9:22. Definitely not marathon pace, but my leg was holding strong. I can do this! Eleven miles in, fifteen to go. Anyone can crawl fifteen miles, right? I had only been running for about an hour and thirty-seven minutes. A bit of marathon math put me at just over 12:15 EST, which meant I still had close to six hours to finish the course before it closed.
Miles 12 and 13 were fun: it was the famed Wellesley Scream Tunnel. Those girls are nuts. The course was lined with the signs they had made and many of them held signs of their own. They were literally screaming. I mean, screaming-screaming. How they kept this up for hours on end, I have no idea. I have never laughed so hard while running. It was just all so bizarre and funny and uplifting. I watched guys stop and kiss the co-eds, which made me laugh harder. Earlier this year, when Johnny found out about this part of the race, his raging case BQ-itis only intensified. "I get to kiss college girls?" he exclaimed happily.
Yes, yes you do.
I opted to not kiss anyone, just more high-fives. Miles 12-13: 9:03 and 9:21.
I was cruising along and just enjoying myself. This was going to be the easiest marathon I'd ever run. Fuel-wise, I felt perfect. The sun was annoying, yes, and I felt drained, but the full extent of the heat had yet to hit me. I felt like I could run forever at this point. My leg was holding up nicely with this relaxed pace. I had plenty left in the tank. Halfway there! 1:58 with no problems. This is fantastic! I've got this!
I hit mile 15 and thought..hmm...it is a bit toasty. Uncomfortably so. It was well above 70 degrees with humidity cresting around 70%. A look at other runners told me they were feeling it too. Lots of sweat and red faces. My pack's pace seemed to slow. A lot of people started walking.
And right at that moment, sadly, the downhill/flat portion of the course ended abruptly. The real work had just started. An even worse realization hit: my leg was holding up because I was not pushing off it. The downhill gave me enough of a boost to allow less weight on the right leg. On mile 15, the course curved up and that awful feeling in my leg returned.
You may remember an older entry when I said, "There is no 'easy' way to run hills. It forces you to concentrate on good form, drive forward, and use your arms." This is a very true statement. I had no idea it would come back to haunt me in this way. Hills are challenging on two good legs. But on one leg? No bueno.
I pushed forward. The leg screamed. By mile 16, it - and I - were in agony. This was not going to work.
Time to revise the race plan, yet again. I was close to 17 miles in and had been running for two hours and twenty-five minutes. I had approximately four miles of hills coming up. I could accelerate on the hills, ignore the pain, and pray nothing pops. Or, I could scamper up the hills using the heel of my right foot, take the pressure off my calf, and shuffle down in an attempt to make up lost time.
Time for more marathon math. It was a high-risk, high-reward situation: if nothing popped and I continued to push, I could probably come in under four hours. If it did pop...well, I'm looking at six hours or more. If I employed the second idea, the walk/run approach, I was probably closer to a 4:30 finish.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood...
I took the safer option.
And it made all the difference.
For four miles, I power-walked the hills, hopping at times, to keep the pressure off my leg. I swung my arms as much as possible for added momentum. I called upon every single ab muscle I could recruit, pulling the weight off of my leg. As soon as I hit the top of each hill, I shuffled down, kicking my right leg out.
It wasn't pretty - but my plan appeared to be working. It pained me to think of my time. Gahh...I couldn't look at my watch. I just couldn't. I didn't want to see those numbers. All that work...the early mornings, the fight to get my diet on track, the bloodwork, overheating... Everything I had done and sacrificed for two and a half years only to be walking the Boston Marathon. Gahhhhhh...
As frustrated as I was, the crowd was not going to let me fight alone. Remember how I had written my name on my arms? Well, for the next forty-some minutes of my life, all I heard were encouraging shouts and cheers in that fantastic, famous accent. "Pow-AH Hou-AH! Kim from Pow-AH Hou-AH! You got this hill, Kim! Pow-AH up!"
It was the weirdest feeling - I was so mad but couldn't stop laughing. I was in so much pain but having the time of my life. These people were crazy! Just like the Wellesley girls, the crowds around Newton were just nutty. The whole course was, really. The spectators are just as much a part of the Boston Marathon as the runners are, and their support was incredible. The signs, the screaming, the cups of ice and orange slices - it never stopped. I've never taken anything from a spectator before - I've never even interacted with the crowd, really, but since I was going so slowly, now seemed like the perfect time. I laughed, talked, and high-fived with reckless abandon. Screw my time - I had mourned a good marathon time weeks ago. So instead, I accepted a cups of ice and crunched merrily on it. A lady behind me took an Otter pop and I whirled around, bummed I didn't get one too. Man, that sounded delicious. Anyone who yelled my name, I flashed them a very grateful thumbs up.
Right around the Boston College area, past Heartbreak Hill (which in reality, would not be very much to traverse with two working legs on a cooler day), I started the search for my family. Looking...looking...trying to ignore the very prevalent smell of marijuana in the air...oh wait, maybe that would help with pain management. I took large gulps of oxygen. I don't think it worked. But! I did manage to find Brian's head poking out of an impossible thick crowd of people. MY FAMILY!
And for the upteenth time that weekend, despite the fatigue, dehydration, heat, pain in my leg, and overall exhaustion, I started crying. Like, big hiccuping sobs. My mom frantically shook her sign that said, "Run Buttercup Run" and screamed my name. Did she really glue fake flowers to it? Now I was laughing and crying. This was incredible. I love my family.
The crowd parted so I could give everyone a quick hug and kiss. "Do you need anything?" Brian asked. I know they were all looking at me, trying to access the damage. "Mile 17," I told them. I shook my head. "Not good. I'm just trying to get to the finish line at this point." They were now screaming for me to run again, so I gave Scotty another kiss on the head and started up again.
Splits for miles 15-22: 9:51, 9:42, 10:40, 11:33, 9:54, 10:35 and 11:52.
I haven't clocked a mile over 11 minutes since the ultra in the summer of 2014. Whoops. But again, it could always be worse.
Time to concentrate on the last part of the race, which was yet another gradual downhill. Miles 22 and 23 flew by - 9:41 and 9:37. I could just barely make out the famed Citgo sign in the distance. The only thing I could think was "You are so close! You are SO CLOSE!"
This is the part of the story where I start crying (again). It's hard to think back to those last few miles of the Boston Marathon without feeling incredibly grateful. Yeah, everything hurt. Yes, I wanted to be done. I was OVER running at that point, so over it. But the people of Boston...the roar of the crowd...it was insane. It felt like an out of body experience. Like, who was I to deserve this? What did I do to justify this kind of reception? I felt big and small at the same time. For a few minutes, I knew my exact place in this giant universe. I was someone and nobody all at once.
I was exactly where I needed to be and exactly where I wanted to be.
That, friends, is a beautiful feeling.
The roar was so loud that I was having trouble concentrating. I found Hereford. In the last ten minutes, my leg had completely detached from my body. People say all the time, adrenaline has its benefits...and it's true. I felt nothing. No pain. I couldn't feel any below the waist. I only felt pure exhilaration and joy. I could see Boyleston...I could see it...
I made the most famous left turn in the history of marathons. Then I saw it: the finish line. Oh my god, this is really happening. I sprinted - or at least, tried to. It felt like I was running through peanut butter - very thick, gooey peanut butter. I have no idea what I looked like, slogging along, soaking wet, legs buckling with every step.
But I know how I felt. I felt invincible.
I AM GOING TO FINISH THE BOSTON MARATHON.
Short of childbirth, that four hours and twelve minutes was the hardest physical endeavor of my life. But also like childbirth - and this didn't occur to me until well after the race - was at no point did I ever think about giving up. Not once.
And that is the real success.
If running is our purest form of freedom, then injury is a prison sentence. In the weeks leading up to the race, I was held captive by my body, to my negative thoughts. It was awful, a punishment I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. But regardless of what is happening to our physical bodies, we can still maintain control over our thoughts. I have learned: this is a skill, an important one, and one that does not come easily.
April 2017 will always go down as one of the hardest and best months of my life, right behind August 2009 and June 2011.
Boston was not my best marathon...but it was truly my greatest mental win.
I finally figured it out...if you can't run fast, than run happy.
So I did.
Thank you, Boston. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I get it now. I will be one of your most ardent supporters. For such a little city, you have the biggest heart.
Want to hear the most ironic part of all of this? As frustrating as that calf injury was...I think it saved my race. Seriously. It held me back. In that kind of heat, the only way to run a marathon is to go out slowly. I can't tell you how many people I spoke with after the race who said they just blew up in the last half because of the soaring temps. A friend sent this article, which describes the affect of heat on runners perfectly. So many people had a tough day out there on Monday, and yes, mine was less than ideal. But when I finished, not only did I have plenty of gas still in the tank, but all it took was two bottles of water and a half a bottle of warm Coke to get me up and running (metaphorically speaking) again. Without the calf injury...who knows. Maybe I would have burst out of my corral faster than marathon pace and really blown up...
...I don't remember what mile it was on, but I saw a guy on the side of the road. Red bib. He was in agony. I have no idea what was going on, but I took note of his number. I can't believe I remembered the number, in my marathon stupor, but when I looked it up, it said he finished in six hours and fifty-two minutes. A red bib. 6:52. Ouch. I don't know that guy, but that takes guts. Seriously guts. My hat goes off to him. That heat was killer.
As for me, I am doing okay. I probably shouldn't have two glasses of wine on the plane the next day. Marathons + wine = challenging to remain upright.
My mom said it best. She wrote this to me in a card she gave me on Sunday night, but I think it applies to all of us:
"You are braver than you believe,
Stronger than you seem,
Smarter than you think,
And more loved than you'll ever know. "
(A.A. Milne, from Winne the Pooh)
On Monday night, amid the revelry and raw oysters, she and I offered a quiet cheers to my dad with a little 'tink' of our champagne glasses. Without him, we wouldn't be here. I know that, I recognize it. We both miss him and always will. But when life hands you lemons, consider running the Boston Marathon dressed in a lemon suit. If that doesn't work, do the best you can.
Six years ago, I had no idea that the worst thing in my life was going to lead to one of the best things. Like the quote Johnny posted on one of our first runs together - "Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass, it's about learning to dance in the rain." So very true.
Boston 2017 taught me 1) I cannot control everything, 2) there is power in acceptance and 3) for crying out loud, slow down, Kim! Enjoy the journey for once.
Easy words to say, hard ones to practice.
Thank you, Boston.
Now go out there and slay your own dragons; I'll be eating cookie butter in the whirlpool.