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Boston - A Journey

As I stood there in awe, knee deep in mud, teeth chattering uncontrollably and legs plastered in a paper mache mud, I took in my surroundings. Moments before, we had been ushered off yellow school buses, herded like cattle and directed to wait in large fields until our ‘waves’ were called. Garbage and haggard clothing decorated the ground, people wrapped themselves in garbage bags and lay on the ground huddled close together, trying to find warmth. There were no cell phones to be found, little laughter filled the air and friendly exchanges were few. The freezing temperatures, torrential rains and heavy winds made warmth hard to find and spirits even harder to lift. There was, however, a smell of excitement in the air and an energy that even the strong winds couldn’t tame.

I tried to count the endless hours that I, and the 30,000 others who surrounded me had vested into having the opportunity to stand exactly where we were standing, in that treacherous weather, at that that very moment in time on that very day like so many before us had. And although, I will admit, my spirits were dampened a little as well, I knew it was a privilege to be standing is this particular position. I was healthy, I felt strong, and had friends amongst me to share in this ‘adventure’, and I knew with even just one of these things, I was far ahead of the game. This was the running of the 122nd Boston marathon; now widely regarded as a marathon with arguably, the worst weather conditions in the last century.

It would prove to be a drama-packed event with most elite runners opting to pull out mid-race, dark horses who came out of nowhere to make historical tenacious podium finishes, and fairytale stories for many unexpected participants equipped to brave the elements. For myself, I had made it to this dance and I would find that with the spirit of the race, the strength of the community that surrounded it (which had dealt with far worse blows then a bad weather day), and the pride that beamed from its participants and hosts, would allow for the necessary encouragement to carry me along the 26.2 grueling miles that lay ahead.

For the previous five months leading to this day, my focus had been on pounding icy roads in below 20C temperatures and I was very ready to put to bed the permanent limp that had taken a jump out of my step. I realize that I was not in a unique position, many others felt just the same and with training winding down, I was eager for this chapter to end.

The ebbs and flows of distance running, that I am only now approaching the depths of understanding, are what make mental toughness and a continued commitment to persistent focus so critical in racing. The physical challenge, combined endurance and speed cannot be dismissed but it's this mental focus that sets aside those who can endure this long drawn out (and sometimes awkward) dance. This is the struggle that is tattooed in the DNA of competitors and it’s the same struggle that draws myself and so many others to keep coming back for more, keep pushing their limits and setting goals that they have no idea how they will attain.  A year and a half ago I eyed up the Boston, the proclaimed ‘crown jewel’ event of distance road running and set my sites to qualify. Although my racing experience was limited to a couple of short races; hard work, focus and the determination seemed to be the right recipe and before I know it I had qualified and was in the game.

Without really knowing it, I knew there was something special about this event long before I took part myself. It wasn’t however, until I stepped off the plane on the Thursday before race weekend when the culture of the race smacked me right in the face as I almost tripped over lettering engraved in the ground, plated in a golden steel that read, ‘Welcome to the home of the Boston Marathon’. I noticed the many Boston marathon race jackets that surrounded me as I picked up my luggage, and in the days leading up to the race the infamous jackets and their beaming with pride owners surrounded us almost everywhere we went.

The spirit of the race was in the air and the gritty Boston citizens, whose demeanor seemed to perfectly align with the iconic event, were arms wide open in welcoming the influx of runners that would take over the city in the coming days. The city and this race had been through a lot in its long history, and it wasn’t without its wounds. We would hear stories from the locals of the 2013 bombing - of regret and loss, but also of coming together through love, who were oddly open to reminiscing their memories with us. I couldn’t help but wonder why we were privy to such information, maybe it was the ‘Boston Strong’ shirts we had been sporting, or the tone of compassion, regret and genuine interest in our voices, regardless it was a privilege to understand more and deeper what this race represented for the beautiful city and people of Boston.

Before I could truly process my surroundings that dreadful Monday morning, down the half cup of coffee I had been holding on tightly to keep my hands and fingers warm, I heard my 'wave' being called. I began to prepare myself for the pain that comes hand in hand with finding that perfect balance between a fast pace and being able to hold on to it for 26.2 miles without collapsing. The kilometer gauntlet would lead us to the start line, also littered with old clothing and faces that must have been feeling exactly how I was feeling - ‘Were we all really about to go run this thing in hurricane-like conditions?’. I guess we all came to the same conclusion, because as we packed together and the horn blew, we all put one foot in front of the other and propelled our bodies forward.

I’m certain that for years to come I’ll be able to recall the many little moments that filled those miles and kept carrying me forward. I found a big smile on my face when a man with an amputated leg  flew by me at kilometer 31, moments of shared laughter and connection with my friend (and running partner) that seemed to give us a special strength to finish our goal together. The previous kilometers brought high fives and kisses from the ladies of Wellesley, cheers from the crowds that came out even amidst the horrible conditions, the spirit that shined from little communities we ran through, and mumbles of curse words I heard around when heartbreak hill lay under our feet, and most importantly, the look of determination I would note in each and every runner's eyes.

When I crossed the finish line, after 3 hours and 24 minutes with one of my two great training partners and friends who shared the experience with me, we embraced and looked at one another, shivering, lips deep blue in color, tears filling our eyes, ‘never again’ we both stated and laughed awkwardly, the marshals tried to tear us apart and usher us forward. I’m not certain if my uncharacteristic tears were from pain, exhaustion, a touch of delirium from hypothermia, or the contentment and pride we both felt from the journey we had both set out to achieve, now complete. Likely, it was some combination of all of the above. Running the Boston was just that - a journey - a chance to pour my heart and soul into something I thought was special, to find identify and take pride in something I now get to hold on to forever.

And now, as I reminisce back on the freezing cold and early morning runs, the aches and pains that never seemed to leave my body and the small sacrifices I made along the way, a popular quote from my friend's kindergarten class keeps bubbling to the surface of my mind.

‘If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you’,
And I’m content in my decision to continue on pursuing journeys such as this one. 

Couldn't of asked for two better friends and training partners to share this journey with. Heather MacPherson to my left and Val Chisholm to my right sporting our Boston Strong shirts.

Val and I would end up running the entire marathon together side by side (kindred spirits ; ) ).


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