Wednesday, June 18, 2014

April 21, 2014 - At the finish line, nothing left but pure joy and pride

Kelly Swan Taylor
Looking back at this year’s Boston Marathon, I can honestly say it was both the easiest and most difficult thing I have ever done. The love and support from the crowd, volunteers, and fellow runners, especially while approaching the Finish Line, certainly made this race easy. And at the same time, completing the Boston Marathon is truly a difficult endeavor.

This year’s race started out a little more organized and, much later in the morning thanks to our decision to drive to Hopkinton, instead of venturing into Boston for the long bus excursion to Athletes’ Village (allowing me more sleep and a good breakfast of a bagel and banana). The ride went pretty smoothly until we encountered an accident around Hopkinton, which cleared up fairly quickly. Unfortunately, by that time my marathon hydration preparation started to get to me and I had to stop by a bathroom. Of course, my family was more interested in finding parking and was totally ignoring my requests. I had to explain I certainly could not wait until Athletes’ Village, seeing I probably would have to wait another 45 minutes just for the port-a-potty line. But, we turned around and finally found a Dunkin’ Donuts (like that is a tough thing in Massachusetts!). The funny thing was that I still ended up waiting in line behind -you guessed it - six other runners!

This year, in addition to my regular race bib, and in honor of last year’s events, on my back I also wore last year’s bib and some writing dedicated to some special people (Jon “Blazeman” Blais, Celeste Corcoran, and Meg Cross Menzies). After some photos and good wishes (and a quick frisk by the security personnel), I loaded a bus and was off to the Village! The ride was so much better than last year, and I felt more relaxed. Of course, my concerned thoughts focused on those Newton Hills and Heartbreak. It really is the toughest part of the course, and I hoped my training was enough to make it through.

The excitement started as I entered Athletes’ Village, under the large blue banners. I tried to take more photos this year, although this would prove to be difficult with the strong sun blocking my view of my phone. I could barely move as I entered the Village and I could not believe how much more crowded it seemed this year. I had trouble finding food and water, but found a small spot to relax and stretch. I did find I was anxious to start and, with very little room to move, this became more apparent as time progressed. But, finally, after a phone call from my Newton friends who helped me last year, some texts from my husband, and a bathroom break, we took the long walk to the start line.

For those who have never run Boston, I cannot reiterate enough how long the walk is to the starting line. The joke is that Boston actually is 27 miles, because of this distance. As you are walking to the Start you feel like you are five years old again on a road trip asking “Are we there yet?” But, the crowds were so supportive and I tried to push aside my impatience to enjoy the whole trip. Along the way I did see some strange things, including some spectators passing out donuts and even beer (which one guy in front of me pounded like a frat boy, and even crushed the can). I knew this was going to be quite a day.

Meg's Shoe Tree
When we got close to the Starting Line, the volunteers on the sidelines, collecting clothes and directing traffic, looked excited and wished us all good luck. I was making sure to stay to the left side of the course because I had a special task on Mile 1. I was going to stop, view, and take photos of the shoe tree memorial, set up and dedicated to a high school classmate of mine, Meg Cross Menzies, who was tragically killed by a drunk driver, while training for this race. Her husband was running in her honor, with her bib tucked under his shirt.

As we crossed the Starting Line, it was exciting to see the crowds, as I was stuffed into the pack and could not see them last year. My family was taking great pictures and saw me start off. I did make one mistake with my Garmin, and in the excitement of the start, forgot to set it for “satellite search” and ended up looking for one for a good part of a mile. That proved to be tough for the rest of the race. But, at Mile 1, I saw it, the shoe tree memorial erected in the honor of Meg. I stopped running, pulled off to the side, and starting taking photographs. Trying to get back on the course was tough and even though I waited for an opening, a foreign runner probably did not understand my apologies as he almost ran over me.

I progressed through the first couple of miles, and eventually knew the heat was going to slow me down and I would not get the time I had hoped. So, instead, I decided to enjoy the race and just get to the finish strong. I remembered from last year that Boston really is an interactive race. You interact with the people of Massachusetts and they love it. So, I tried to high-five as many people as I could, especially the children. I remember one child giving me a high-five and saying "thank you for running today." That chocked me up a bit. This race does mean as much to them as it does to the runners, and they really appreciate what we are doing. Of course there were signs throughout the race, although because of the expanse of the crowds, some of them were difficult to see. I enjoyed the “Channing Tatum is At the Finish” sign (too bad it wasn’t true). And I really needed those signs that say “Push for Energy Button.” But, the sign that meant the most to me was one that said "Today, You Are A Hero."

I was looking forward to the girls at the Wellesley Scream Tunnel and hoped they were louder and greater in numbers than last year. Well, they did not disappoint. They were amazing with more signs than I had ever seen! It went on and on and I again tried to high-five all of them. Everyone knows the Wellesley girls especially appreciate the female runners, so I love this section of the course. My run turned into a walk as I wanted to interact with all the girls and finally told them "You are making me forget I am running a marathon, thank you." I saw an older man kiss a younger Wellesley girl, and her face was priceless. It is a cautionary tale for those holding the “Kiss Me” signs. It was a great part of the course, especially since I really was getting tired at this point.

I felt this twinge of anxiety as we started to enter the Newton Hills (I knew what was coming). The sun and the heat really were beating down on us. I saw many runners step to the side, bend over, and just rest for a bit. A girl in front of me quickly grabbed her leg and hobbled to the side. I asked if she was okay, but medical personnel had already gotten to her. I wonder if she was able to finish.

Unfortunately, you could tell who was new to the course by how they adapted to Newton. I knew what was coming and that this was the tough part, but some runners looked, frankly, pretty bad off at this point. I tried to keep my pace, slow down on the hills, and speed up on the downhills. At this point, the crowds screamed for you if they simply saw you running at all. I worried about taking in too much water and keeping my salt intake intact. Heartbreak Hill is every bit as tough as people say (and I did remember that from last year).

But, I knew I just had to hold out a bit until Mile 20, which would gave me a chance to see Lauryl, who helped me last year when I was stranded on the course after the bombing. I am now friends with her and her husband and son. She had a sign made for me and we took a great picture, as she asked me how I was doing and said she knew I would finish. She handed me a banana that, with her water bottle, gave me the strength to get through the rest of Heartbreak Hill. This was especially important because, due to the heat and the amount of runners, some water stations simply were out of water. At the top of Heartbreak Hill, a woman said to me, “only four more blocks,” (or something like that) and I thanked her for that information. I did remember passing by the Mile 21 medical tent, where we were stopped last year. It was FULL of runners, and part of me wanted to join them! But, the stronger part of me knew the worst was over. I think some guy around Boston College wanted to give me some champagne in my water bottle, but I knew it was premature to celebrate and that was not a good hydration plan.

Seeing the Citgo sign was what gave me the energy to move through the last few miles. I stopped and kept taking photos, still really unable to see my phone well. I could barely move my feet, one in front of the other, but made sure to text my husband when I was on Mile 23. At this point in the race, I was dealing with an unexpected side stich. I knew it would only go away when I reached the Finish, so it was tough going. Even though the crowds did not seem to care either way, I wanted to tell them I wanted to run faster, but just could not. But, when I saw the sign for “1K To Go” I said to the guy next to me “Is that for real?” I just could not believe it.

Again, the crowds were amazing through the whole course, but the last two turns onto Boylston came fast and the finish gave me goose-bumps. My family actually was at the corner of Hereford and saw me make the turn. The hill up to Boylston almost was more than I could take (no more hills!). I could barely move my legs anymore, but the huge crowds pushed me to keep running the whole stretch. As we closed-in on the Finish, I saw a group in a fundraising team waiting for each other and looking behind us for their other members, so they could finish together. That stuck with me. It was not about a particular race time for them; they were there to finish together. Even though I could see the Finish for the entire stretch, I knew Boylston well, and it is a long street. As marathoners know, the race is not over until you finish. There is no easy part of the race.

As I crossed the Finish Line, I reached up to the sky and touched my heart, thinking about others who could not finish with me: Jon the "Blazeman," Celeste (my hairdresser, injured last year but who did cross earlier, with her family), and Meg (my high school classmate). All of them helped me finish this race. As I crossed the line, despite doubts, last year’s events, the hard winter training, injuries, and even Newton, I understood why people do this race year after year, even for decades. Once you cross that line, you forget all the pain and sacrifice. Nothing is left but pure joy and pride.

After I received my medal, the sound of the crowds finally dissipated and I realized I still was listening to my IPOD. The crowds were so loud along that last stretch that their cheers were all I could hear. As it grew quiet in the finishing area, I could hear the song that was playing in my ears. It was “Best Day of My Life.” Wow, I could not think of a better accompaniment to this special occasion.

Kelly Swan Taylor
Providence, Rhode Island

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