I hadn’t intended this to be a running destination vacation, but it was a nice reward at the end of a 2-week road trip. Hilda and I had been planning to do a driving and hiking trip to southern Utah for a while, so we blocked out our route and I began looking for interesting places to stay. I called the Desert Hills B&B in Moab after some favorable reviews on TripAdvisor to inquire about availability, and the owner asked, “are you coming for the half marathon that weekend?” I told her no, but my curiosity was piqued, so I checked out the website, found a lovely video of the start of the race down the Colorado River canyon, and I signed up. We flew to Las Vegas, rented an SUV and meandered our way 2000 miles in 15 days. We made good use of our vehicle, exploring back roads to visit slot canyons and petroglyphs, ending every day with the feeling that today had been a real adventure. As anyone who has a non-running partner knows, hiking, no matter how strenuous, is not the same as running. Although we hiked 7-10 miles a day at over 5000ft altitude, I felt that 2 weeks of that and no running was not a good idea for half marathon training. I managed to get in two 45-minute runs at Zion NP the first week, but our robust time schedule was not allowing much more. On Tuesday before the Saturday race, I had a major crisis when I struggled through an 8-mile workout in 1:22, over 10 mins per mile, which was a lot slower than my goal. After I calmed down, I realized that we were at 7500 ft. elevation, and later in the car I clocked the distance at 10 miles, which made it closer to 8:15/mile. Celebrating its 40th year, the Canyonlands Half Marathon at the end of March is the informal beginning of tourist season in Utah, coinciding with spring break. Moab was buzzing, every vehicle in town seemed to have a roof rack and/or to be towing an assortment of ATVs, Jeeps and mountain bikes. At the expo I got into a long conversation with the town’s tourism director, who moved to Moab from Benicia 35 years ago as the last uranium mines were closing. The remaining 6 families didn’t want to leave, and someone came up with the idea to promote mountain biking, and the rest, as they say, is history. Three other guests from the B&B were also running the half, and our hosts were very accommodating in having food available for us at 5:30 AM. The others were extra cautious about arrival time to the bus, over my objection, so we arrived very early to the park where we were to assemble, then boarded the first bus for the 13-mile drive up the canyon on Highway 128 to the start. The advantage of arriving so early was I had the pick of the best rock to camp out on, made more comfortable by the last minute addition of my REI inflatable camp pillow. I soon found myself in a lively discussion about Utah and its quirks, since it seemed like most people running were originally not from Utah, but many were recent non-Mormon transplants to Salt Lake City.
I had been told that this March race can often be very windy, but that was not the case today. It was still in the 40’s when we had to abandon our gear and head to the starting line, so we had a cold half hour anticipating the start and the predicted warmer morning ahead. My goal was to try to run 7:30 mile pace, so I found a 1:40 pace group and off we went. The scenery was as spectacular as advertised, red sandstone canyon following the meandering Colorado River, comfortable rolling hills, starting at 4200 ft elevation with a net drop of only 200 feet. The highway was closed to all traffic for the morning, so my 3000 friends and I had plenty of opportunity to enjoy the stunning views. Within 2 miles we were in sunshine and it warmed up quickly, so I was happy to have chosen my ER singlet, and later welcomed the road back into canyon shade. I somehow got a bit ahead of my pace group and dropped in with another pack, and was pleased to hit the 8 mile mark at exactly one hour. The only real hill on the course was at mile 9, but I handled it well, dropping off pace about 20 seconds, but still OK. After 11 miles of dramatic red canyons, the course headed south to the outskirts of Moab, and finished at the city park where we’d boarded buses hours earlier. Of course there was the usual pain, doubt, determination, pity, loathing, euphoria and self-analysis that accompanies the last stretch of a hard effort, but I was pleased with my 1:38:57 finish. I took it as a milestone finally marking the end of my one year of injury, my hip didn’t bother me and, even if it was only the 4% Utah variety, there was cold beer at the end.
Nineteen-eighty, a time in running when scratching a line on the road would draw a hundred people just to see why the line was there. Then the race would begin. In the mid-70’s, a local event might be $8.00 and include a t-shirt, many of which adorn t-shirt quilts today. Empire Runner water stops often were card tables with cups and a jug of water or two of water, sometimes self-serve. Qualifying for Boston was 2:50 for men under 40, 3:00 for 40 and over and for all women.
In 1980, there were 5,417 entrants (’95 – 9,416, ’14 – 35,755). For this year, the event was capped at 30,000 including 6,000 non-qualified runners. Nineteen-Eighty was perfect for Spring Break but not for running a long way down the road. Since the run traditionally started at noon, with the boom of a cannon in Hopkinson, the sun was already high in the cloudless sky and held no promise of a cooperating temperature. One aid station was a single National Guard soldier, a couple of tables and a ‘water buffalo’ truck with its three inch spigot for filling cups. Offers of water and orange slices may have been festive for the spectators to offer but were life savers to the runners.
About ten miles into the race, I bonked. Passing too many aid stations, due to crowding and being too confident from the start, did me in, and I still had a way to go. Most of the journey was just a slog without any key memories other than seeing the Pru in the distance (with it seeming to stay in the distance) and then a couple of turns to the finish. My wife collected me at the finish and escorted (dragged) me to the hotel room of Ken and Shirley Howe where I spent many minutes hugging the toilet bowl feeling the effects of dehydration and exhaustion. Welcome to the finish line! Rosie Ruiz had finished almost an hour before me and was not even winded!
In 1980 I was 35. Thirty-five years later I am running the Boston Marathon for the second time. Same course but a whole different world and event. Qualifying times exist in five year groups from age 18 to ‘over 80’. Qualifying times run from 3:05 to 5:25 for the fastest male division to the oldest female division. There is a ‘rolling’ registration period in which faster qualifying times can ultimately bump slower times. A significant number of non-qualified registrations can be awarded to runners who do fund raising for specific charities. (In the New York Marathon, the charitable donation is $2,620!)
The BAA (Boston Athletic Associate) is in nearly constant contact with entrants with everything from training tips to travel plans and security requirements. (The bombing in 2013 certainly changed event planning!) Along with everyone else, I have received an event passport with maps, time tables and do’s and don’t’s. Also a 22 page official program booklet and an official merchandise catalog. Big events must be very expensive to produce because sponsorship logos adorn every page.
Online comments about this year’s event have been interesting to follow. Boston, along with New York and Chicago, seem to be the ‘big three’ of American marathons with lots of people wanting to collect all three. With run-walking becoming more and more popular, entry fields have swelled. “Getting in” has become a huge challenge. Lotteries, fund-raising, qualifying times and awareness of opening of registration have to be part of one’s master plan.
Is Boston still the premier marathon event with its history and qualifying standards? Or is it merely a marathon that is run in the Boston area? Opinions abound. The 1970 standard was 4:00 hours, men only. 1971, 3:30, men only and a faster qualifying time to keep the run at 1000 entrants – “A good size to keep the course from becoming too congested.” – per a race organizer. 1972, first time women could be official entrants, but everyone qualified with a 3:30 time. 1980, most stringent qualifying time but additional age groups were added for men and women. 1990 through 2012, 3:10 qualifying time but 18 age groups with increasing times. 2013 to present, 3:05 with 22 age groups.
It will still be an exciting event from the expo to visiting friends to trying new restaurants to getting to the starting line and, with dignity, to the finish. Once the run begins, I won’t know age groups from ox carts or qualifiers from non-qualifiers. We’ll run to do our best. With my now-established pattern of attendance, I need to plan for 2050, Boston Marathon #154. I’ll be 105 years old, but the qualifying time should be slower than it is this year.
I arrived in Boston about a week before Patriot’s Day. Those days are a story for another day.
On the day of the big event, we were up at 5:15 for a drive from Lee, NH to Hopkinton. The weather forecasts were increasingly grim. Rain, heavy at times, strong winds pretty much all day from Hopkinton to Boston. During the drive, we had heavy weather, lots of rain falling and lots of water being thrown up by the cars and trucks on the road.
The arrival in Hopkinton was easy with volunteers and police officers ready and able to give directions. I was dropped off about two hours before my wave was to move to the start line. (My wife, Sandi and good friend, Bill Bryon, then drove to a train station for their ride to Boston. We would take the train back to New Hampshire later in the day.) I got in line for a shuttle into town. With no bags to check, I was ushered to the front of the line and immediately got on a school bus for the 10 minute ride to the Athletes’ Village.
My outfit for the day, from the outside in, was a Goodwill purchase ‘Portsmouth LaCrosse’ team pull-over and a pair of jeans ($12), long sleeve pull-over, t-shirt, long sleeve pull-over, tights, shorts, hat, gloves, shoes and wool socks. My plan was to shed as the day proceeded. Except for the gloves, I kept my attire for the entire run. Well, actually not the Goodwill outfit. That was deposited in one of the many collection bags. Maybe I can find it again next year!
The Athletes’ Village was the enclosed area of the high school sports fields. Again, there was easy entry, passing smiling security guards and on to a big open field. A light and scattered rain was falling. One side of the gym was lined with runners sitting against the wall; others were walking around, but most were under three large open tents huddled against the wind and rain.
Organization of the Village was superb – many potties rimming the edge of the field, jumbo-tron screen with race information, loud and clear PA system with an announcer who kept us informed without over-using the mic. Food and drink galore – coffee, Gatorade, water, bagels, bananas, Clif Bars, Shot Blocks, and gels in never-ending quantities. The area was fairly litter-free, but it will always bother me that some people simply leave things behind rather than walk a few paces to one of the many obvious trash cans.
Easy conversation with fellow runners, especially under the tent where crowding encouraged chatting, always initially about the current weather and what might come. I talked with runners from Canada, Cincinnati, Ventura, New York and Finland. Some were first timers, others repeat offenders. There are fifteen or twenty ‘streakers’ – those who have run 25 or more consecutive Boston Marathons!
I lined up for a pre-race potty stop, perhaps 20 people in line, thinking I had plenty of time before the village exit. I measured my progress against two ladies who had started in the line next to mine. They arrived at their potty door two people ahead of me. Someone else’s line always moves more quickly! A rule of nature. I deposited my outer clothing for its trip back to Goodwill and followed my wave of 7000 down the hill to the start.
All along the .7 mile walk we were greeted by volunteers collecting discardable clothing. The local ‘clothes banks’ did very well by the Boston Marathon. Police in various uniforms were ever present. Neighbors on their porches waved and cheered us on. All this and we had not even run a step!
Once onto the main street (I guess it was the main street because with the crowd, I could not see above the shoulders of those around me!), we were ushered to our starting group by numbers held on long sticks. Everyone was calm and cheerful with no pushing or squirming forward to get an advantage. Gees, it’s a marathon, there’s no need get an extra foot or two! A light rain was falling.
My group was still a block or so from the actual start and we moved forward as those ahead of us were sent on their way. We managed a walking start as our starting gun sounded. At this point, about 14,000 runners were already on the road. Since the road slopes down and is fairly straight, all we could see were bobbing shuffling heads. And that was the view for many miles to come.
Many Hopkinton residents sent us on our way with hearty cheers and the knowledge that their day was just about over and they could return to the daily life of a small New England town. Probably within another half hour, the last runner would be on his way and the clean-up and tear-down could begin.
The course is really pretty easy and in the early Spring not yet very colorful. But the crowds and history of the event make up for any deficiencies. The weather may have reduced the number of spectators a bit but is still pretty exciting to be cheered on and on and on. For a bit I felt like a well-known local. Many people shouted encouragement to “Mike”. A tall man passed me a little later with his name, Mike, plastered on the front of his shirt. My rooting section quickly evaporated.
With my GPS watch coaching my pace, I settled into race mode and was very consistent for many miles. I walked through most aid stations and pleased with how my layering was keeping me comfortable. Oh, the litter of clothing – caps, gloves, shirts, pants! Hopefully no one discarded items too soon.
My training for the marathon was lacking in long runs. One 16 miler, several 12 to 14 and a lot of 7 to 10’s. Alternating hamstring and Achilles problems put me behind the typical schedule. My plan (hope) was to run a conservative race and finish in no more than four hours. The plan worked well for 21 miles and then my pace began to slow as I looked forward more and more to the next aid station where I could take a walking break. Toward the end I took out my camera to take some pics but really more to do some walking. But I crossed the finished line with what looked like a running step and only 2 minutes off my 4 hours.
The finish line was another example of fabulous organization with dozens of volunteers directing runners to food, drink, wheel chairs and meeting places. We were wrapped in hooded ‘heat retention cape’s, given wonderful finishers’ medals, treated to food and drink, and congratulated for our effort. I was content to know I had warm clothes and friends close at hand.
Sandi and Bill and my nephew, Cole, who goes to school in Boston, texted me as to where to go – a short walk to a lunch counter diner with a view of the finish line. After changing into clean dry clothes, I settled in to recount my exploits.
Later we walked a short distance to a commuter train station for the beginning of our trip back to New Hampshire. Next, a wait in an Amtrack station allowed me to fill up donut holes before the hour ride back to our car and the final leg of our trip home. Actually, we stopped at a terrific pizzeria for a couple of slices and pints. And then we went home.
Two days later our trip wound down as we were dropped off at Logan Airport. It was fun to see all the marathon shirts and jackets in the terminal. All runners greeted each other with congratulations and comments about the weather and the course. Everyone was in great spirits and convinced they would return next year.
Maybe a new set of ‘streakers’ has been formed.