Running the Boston Marathon had been a dream of mine since I became a runner over 23 years ago. What started out as a way to lose the extra 25 pounds I was carrying around on my then 14-years-young frame, has become a passion that has sustained me through the good and not-so-good moments of my life. From those first few precarious jogs around the track at Anna M. McCabe School in Smithfield, RI to the starting line of the 2016 Boston Marathon, I fell in love with a sport that has not only gotten me in the best shape of my life, but also has shown me that my inner strength is equal to, if not greater, than that of the outer.
My journey to the 2016 Boston Marathon began on New Year’s Eve 2013. I had just run my third half-marathon in Newport, RI that October and after completing the flat, but scenic course, felt that if I did run a marathon (a bucket list item at the time), I would probably fair well in Newport. After a few months of pondering this idea and fueled by some liquid New Year’s Eve courage, I registered for the 2014 Newport Marathon on my phone shortly before ringing in the New Year with our good friends, Brianne and Bernie. In all honesty, even with a few glasses of champagne under my belt, I was slightly horrified at the thought of running those 26.2 miles, but felt that I had plenty of time to train. At that point, the marathon was still over 10 months away.
Winter turned to spring and spring into summer and before I knew it, it was time to actually begin the full-marathon training program that I had printed out sometime around Mother’s Day of that year. I took to the streets of North Providence as well as the Blackstone Valley Bike Path (a now beloved and sorely missed running spot of mine) that hot summer and began a 16-week training program that not only made it possible for me to finish the Newport Marathon, but also to complete the race with a Boston Marathon qualifying time. I ran my legs off for 26.2 miles around Newport on a beautiful fall day that October and finished in 3:37:52 – just 2:08 under my Boston Marathon goal time. I left Newport that day feeling proud, thrilled and more tired than I’d ever been before.
There are two ways to get into the Boston Marathon – to qualify (which I did with my 2014 Newport performance) or to run for a charity team while raising money for your team’s cause. I was so excited that I had qualified on my own and immediately began the almost year-long wait to register for the 2016 marathon. Once I learned of my registration date – September 21, 2015, I began counting down the days until I could begin the process of making one of my biggest dreams come true. Because I had qualified by less than five minutes, I had to register in the third wave, after everyone else who had beat their qualifying time by more than five minutes. By that time in the process, there were just 5,000 spots left. During the early morning hours of September 21st, I completed my registration and hoped that my 2:08 qualifying cushion would be enough for me to make the cut.
Two weeks went by before I learned that because of the high number of runners in my wave (there were 10,000 of us vying for just 5,000 spots), you needed to have exceeded your original qualifying window by 2:28 in order to gain admittance into the 2016 marathon. I was disappointed to learn that I had missed the cut-off by a mere 20 seconds. I posted my results on Facebook (as I had been posting quite regularly about my hopes of gaining admittance), and resolved any cognitive dissonance by reassuring myself (and others) that I was somewhat relieved not to have to train for a marathon during the upcoming winter months. Shortly after I made my post, Kate, a good of mine and loyal Bostonian, messaged me to ask if I would be interested in running the race if I could get a spot on a charity team – The Catholic Charities of Boston. With renewed hope, I immediately replied with an exuberant, “Yes! …. And how much money would I have to raise?” And, as they say, the rest is history.
I officially began training (I used the same plan as I had for the Newport Marathon, plus four additional weeks of base training) just before Thanksgiving. Since I hadn’t been running more than a few miles at a time for almost a year (I was trying to put on some muscle mass), I had to build a base before I could start logging some serious mileage. I spent four weeks retraining my legs and lungs before completing my longest run, a 10-miler around my neighborhood, in early January. At the time, those 10 miles seemed like 10,000, and I knew that I had my work cut out for me. Thus, began a 4-month journey that would take me from treadmill to Tow Path (a new favorite VA running spot) in the cold, rain, ice and snow. Throw in a blizzard for good measure (which meant quite a few 3-hour-plus runs on the treadmill, thank you Netflix) and before I knew it, April had arrived and it was time to taper.
In addition to all of the runs that I completed, I still kept up my strength training routine using programs such as The Master’s Hammer & Chisel, Moms Into Fitness 30-Day Core and PiYo (a new love that combines yoga and Pilates into one amazing workout). It’s important for long-distance runners to train the entire body and not just the legs, as you need your arms and core to also keep up with you during those 26.2 miles (and they definitely helped propel me up and down those hills in Newton!).
I left for the marathon on Saturday, April 16th on a flight bound for Providence on my first solo trip in over three years. Taylor and I decided it would be best for me to go it alone, as we didn’t want to take Clara out of school and disrupt the girls’ schedules. Besides, it would be easier if I only had to worry about getting myself to the starting line. The weekend was a blur of visits with family and friends, my CIZE Live Fundraiser on Sunday morning and the marathon Expo and bib pick-up on Sunday afternoon.
The John Hancock Sports & Fitness Expo was held in the John B. Hynes Convention Center in Boston. My Dad and Brianne graciously accompanied me to the Expo and patiently waited as I got my bib (and posed for multiple pictures) and browsed the array of vendors selling all-things running. I bought a few souvenirs (hey, how many times do you get to run the Boston Marathon for the first time??) before we headed back to the parking garage to retrieve Brianne’s car. On the way back to the car, we stopped by the finish line for a couple of more glamour shots. I was finally at the place that I had visualized so often during those long, hard, cold runs. I was in awe as I took it all in – the blue and yellow marathon logo emblazoned on the pavement, the bleacher-lined street and the finish line itself. Brianne decided to cross the finish line that afternoon, while I chose to walk around the famous spot. I am a fairly superstitious person, so there was no way I was crossing that line before my time, which was then less than 24 hours away.
After a carbo-laden dinner on Sunday evening, I said goodbye to my parents (who would be waiting for me at the finish line with my in-laws) and spent the night at Brianne and Bernie’s house. I was taking a coach bus with the Colonial Road Runners Club (a recommendation from a blogger who ran the 2015 marathon) from Braintree to Hopkinton (home of the marathon’s starting line) at six o’clock the next morning and wanted to “sleep in” as much as I could on that Marathon Monday morning. Given the fact that Brianne is my marathon good luck charm, I was thrilled when we made the plans for my stay the previous week. The night before the race, Brianne and I sacked out on the couch and watched a rerun of The Golden Girls while I feasted on my homemade protein bread and about three tablespoons of toffee crunch peanut butter; the perfect ending to my marathon eve.
Believe it or not, I actually slept fairly well the night before the race. Since we had to leave for the bus around 5:30 a.m., I woke up at 4:45 so that I had time to get ready and eat a light breakfast. Brianne was kind enough to drive me to the bus at that ungodly hour of the morning and I couldn’t have been happier. We chatted about various non-marathon related topics and it calmed me down spending some time catching up with my friend. At exactly 5:55, we arrived at the bus. Brianne gave me a hug, wished me luck and told me she’d meet me in Boston.
I got on the bus and found a seat in the back. The ride took about an hour from Braintree to the Athlete’s Village in Hopkinton. Along the drive, I chatted with some of the other runners — some were first-timers like me (one was even proposing to his girlfriend at the finish line later that day!), while others had run the race a time or two (or more) before. The veterans were happy to share their past experiences and tricks-of-the-trade. Thankfully, the weather forecast was a runner’s dream – when we arrived in Boston that afternoon, it was going to be sunny and around 50 degrees. We arrived in Hopkinton at 7 a.m. Since my wave (Wave 3, Corral 5) wasn’t due to begin running until 10:50, I spent a couple of hours thumbing through the stack of magazines I brought with me and carbo-loading up on some of my favorite pre-run snacks. Everything that I brought with me that morning (minus my BAA-approved fanny pack and fuel belt) had to be disposed of before I got off the bus, so I did my best to eat through my stash and read through my trash. At about 9:30, I decided to leave the bus and check out the Athlete’s Village. I wished my new running friends luck and headed up toward the village that had been erected at the Hopkinton Middle/High School. It was a mix of nervous and excited runners gathered in and around two giant tents and more portable toilets than I’ve ever seen in one spot. I took a couple of selfies and photos of the area, visited the porta john village and before I knew it, my wave was being called to the corrals.
Once we got to the corrals, we began the almost ¾ of a mile walk to the starting line (not surprisingly, I logged over 30 miles on my legs that day!). During the walk, I readied my mp3 player, ate another snack and just enjoyed the scenery. Before I knew it, we arrived at another set of corrals where we waited until it was time to make our way to the starting line. There were three waves of runners that day; I was in Wave 3. Each wave consisted of over 7,500 runners directed into one of eight corrals. Each corral is released separately, as you can only fit so many people on a city street. And with over 30,000 people running the race that day, it was feasible to let off only 1,000 or so people at a time. As my corral made its way to the starting line, we grinned and waved at the television cameras and spectators. Minutes later, we started to jog. I hit the start button on my Fitbit, as we began our long, then downhill, descent toward Beantown. It was go time!
To say that I didn’t tear up once or twice before the race began would be a lie. I felt so proud to be a part of such an amazing and historic athletic event. I had sacrificed so much to get to that point – time with my family and friends, extra glasses of wine and my free time. Being a stay-at-home mom who lives far away from her family, I get so little free time and for the last five months, I had spent a good majority of it running by myself. I also worked so hard to raise money and to proudly represent The Catholic Charities of Boston and felt honored to be a part of it all. I probably looked like the world’s biggest goofball during the first couple of miles of the race, as my facial expressions oscillated from cheesy grin to teary smile. But, this was the Boston Marathon and I was going to enjoy every single moment and absorb as much of it as I could. And, I did.
I ran from Hopkinton to Boston that Marathon Monday and I did it with my head held high, a perma-smile and the support of so many people near and dear to my heart. Here’s a rundown of those 26.2 miles, which I covered in four hours, five minutes and 22 seconds:
Miles 1-4: The night before the race, I read my “cheat sheet,” an article that I found online written by a former Boston marathoner who was kind enough to break the race down mile-by-mile while making recommendations for pace, technique, etc. His advice was to take the first few miles slow, as they are mostly all downhill. As much as I tried to follow his suggestion, my adrenaline was in high-gear and I ran those first few miles at a much quicker pace than I expected. I actually ran mile two in just eight minutes, which was much faster than my training pace. I tried my best to take my time (at least I wasn’t trying to dodge in-between people), but it’s hard not to be excited when you’re fulfilling a dream. Up to this point, I was doing okay physically. I started out the day with the beginning of a head cold and upset stomach (which had been acting up for several weeks). I also noticed some stiffness in my right hamstring, but tried my best to ignore it as I still had a long way to go.
Miles 4-13: I sailed through the first half of the race thanks to the unbelievable crowd; the crowd really made the race for me. For 26.2 miles, it was wall-to-wall people reaching out for high fives (I high-fived more people and children that day than I ever have), cheering your name and clapping. I felt like I was one of 30,000 celebrities that day and embraced it all. At the half-way point, I took a planned stop (which is why my pace fell off the radar for those of you who were tracking me) to refuel and reapply my sunscreen. However, once I got going again, I noticed that my legs were starting to stiffen up. Also, I was starting to get pretty warm and beginning to run low on water. I always run completely covered up (thank you, melanoma diagnosis), but wasn’t used to running in temperatures that were quite so warm. When I started the race just before 11 a.m., it was about 65 degrees in Hopkinton. Now, two hours later, the sun was even higher in the sky and the temperatures were on the rise.
Miles 14-19: Once my legs started to tighten up and my right hamstring began protesting more loudly, the allure of slapping high-fives had lost its luster. I was really warm, super dehydrated (thanks to my upset stomach) and nervous about mile 20, the infamous Heartbreak Hill. At one point along the course, a kind man handed me a full, unopened bottle of water, which I promptly emptied into the four smaller bottles on my fuel belt. Yeah! Other kind souls handed out wet paper towels, tissues, ice pops (I hadn’t had one of those in years – that day, I ate two!), pieces of ice in cups and snacks (Goldfish, oranges, Twizzlers, Swedish Fish, pretzel rods, you name it). There were even people handing out tongue depressors with Vaseline (for chaffing). Thankfully, I didn’t need to take one. Ha!
Hands down, the best part of this part of the course was running by the Wellesley girls right around mile 14. Imagine a line of college girls wearing low cut shirts and holding signs that instructed the runners to kiss them. I actually saw one guy run over to the girls, grab a kiss and continue on his merry way. I snagged myself a high-five on the way by. At the end of the line, there were two girls wearing full-sized poster boards and nothing else (well, once I ran by them and looked behind the poster boards – I just had to know! – I saw they were wearing tube tops and shorts).
Before I knew it, we were in Newton, which is basically a series of rolling hills. At that point, I’d been running for about three hours, wasn’t feeling too well and was about to come face-to-face with mile 20. Since I wasn’t trying to set a personal record or even qualify for another Boston, I wasn’t going to push myself to the brink and decided to take some walking breaks. When I started to feel faint (I think this was during mile 18), I felt no shame in walking for a bit. It was so hot and I saw so many other runners doing the same. The crowd was gracious enough when they saw a runner walking and did their best to encourage us to keep going.
Miles 20-25: I knew that Heartbreak Hill wasn’t going to be easy. The unfortunate part was that I had no idea when it was coming, as all of Newton is very hilly. After two consecutive, long rolling hills, I had a feeling I was coming up to the big one (my legs were telling me so, anyway). I put my head down and just kept telling my legs to keep going, despite the pain and stiffness. When I was almost to the top, I had to stop and walk for a bit. My legs were on fire and I was thirsty and tired. Most of us hadn’t trained in the heat; we’d trained in the snow and cold. This was completely unfamiliar territory in so many different ways. Finally, I saw the “You Survived Heartbreak Hill” archway near Boston College and knew I had made it. I felt a wave of relief wash over me. I still had five miles to go, but I knew the worst was behind me. I took a few more walking breaks after Heartbreak, but since I knew so many people were tracking me, I tried my best to keep up my pace and just keep running. One break, in particular, came up just before the 35K mark. Because this was a marked checkpoint, I made sure to pick up the pace and jog over the little “speed bump” that records your time. I kept up the pace for another mile or so and just let the crowd continue to carry me through.
Around mile 23, I decided that I probably wasn’t going to run another marathon ever again. I was dead tired, more thirsty than I’ve ever been and completely over it. I spent most of these last few miles just chugging cups of Gatorade (which I never drink while running, but was craving a lot that day), eating popsicles and imagining seeing my family and friends at the finish line. I knew that I was almost there, but these miles seemed to drag on forever. Thankfully, they were mostly downhill, but by now, my quads were screaming. They had just endured the hills of Newton and were now being pounded down upon over and over again with the drop in elevation. I tried my best to enjoy these last few miles, as I knew the race was almost over and a few more miles just meant another 30 minutes (give or take) of running, so I focused on the music blasting in my ears and kept a watch out for the Gatorade stops.
Mile 26-26.2: When I saw the “1 Mile to Go” and the Citgo signs, I was elated. I was almost there! I must have looked at my running watch a thousand times between mile 26 and the finish line. I’m not sure if it was because I didn’t want the mile to end or because I just couldn’t wait to eat a banana and sit down. Either way, I’ll never forget that last mile, the right onto Hereford and the left onto Boylston. The crowd was at least four people deep the entire way and all I could hear was cheering, clapping and excited shouting. In the distance, I could see the finish line. I tried my hardest to pick up the pace (like most runners, there’s nothing better than finishing strong). By now, I was running into a cool breeze and feeling a bit better, physically. Mentally, I was about to finish the race of a lifetime and did my best to absorb every feeling and every single detail. I tried to locate my family, but didn’t see them and just wanted to finish those last .2 miles with a respectable pace. At long last, it was my turn to cross the finish line. Since I knew there were photographers overhead, I made sure to “pose” for what I believe is one of the most telling pictures of me ever taken. With head down and fist up, I became a two-time marathoner and Boston Marathon finisher.
It’s been a month since I finished the marathon, and I am still tearing up as I write this recap. I am so proud of what I accomplished — both on and off the course. I ran my dream-come-true race with the support of The Catholic Charities of Boston, and helped so many people in the process through my fundraising efforts. I’ve proven to myself that I am strong, despite being a melanoma cancer survivor and someone with a newly diagnosed auto-immune disease. I am thrilled that I was given an opportunity to show my girls that you can do anything that you put your mind to and that with determination and perseverance any goal is within their reach.
As I look toward the future, I do so with a newfound confidence – a feeling that I am capable of accomplishing so much more than I once thought possible. I have the strength to rise above my physical limitations and show others that with the proper mindset, you are only limited by your own insecurities. It’s important to rise above those times of uncertainty and believe that if you want something badly enough, you can and will achieve it.
If you would have told that once overweight teenager that one day she’d finish the Boston Marathon, she wouldn’t have believed you. It took 23 years, 26.2 miles and an infinite amount of love and support to get her there. But, she made it…and will forever remain Boston Strong.