The 122nd Boston Marathon

By Diarmuid Ó Súilleabháin

This weekend past I had the pleasure of running the 122nd Boston Marathon with fellow club mates Kevin Curran and Gavin Finlay (although the latter entered his club name as Bull City Track Runners, a clerical error no doubt, I won’t tell anyone if you don’t).

The Boston Marathon is famous for many reasons. It’s the oldest annual marathon in the world. It was set up due to the success of the marathon event in the first modern olympics in 1896. The route chosen was picked in order to as best match that of the ’96 route. This took place in the middle of April of ’96 and Boston run theirs on Patriots’ Day (a bank holiday in Massachusetts and a couple of other New England states) in the middle of April ever since. It’s amazing to think every participant has ran the same route. The day is called ‘Marathon Monday’ by the locals. Katherine Switzer of course who secretly entered and completed the race in 1967 demonstrated that a woman could in fact physically run a marathon. It was believed until then that it wasn’t possible. Women were only officially allowed to enter in 1972. The 2013 bombings, the famous colourful jacket, ran point to point with a hilly profile, the Boston Qualifier Time (BQ) entry requirement, unpredictable weather, and it is known to break your heart. Generally at an incline at Mi 21 which they have cleverly given the handle Heartbreak Hill (HBH).

(Above: Ms. Switzer being accosted by a man trying to pull her out of the race in 1967)

The course is really good and quite beautiful. It starts in the picture postcard town of Hopkinton which is dotted with little New England style timber houses on narrow roads and then it traces its was into the city with the scale of the buildings and infrastructure increasing gently until it Terminates in the Centre of the city surrounded by skyscrapers.

The courses profile is set up in such a way as to give you every opportunity to blow up early. The first 4 miles are steeply downhill, perfect for going out far too fast. Then there are 11 miles of gently undulating roads which are a slow descent, lulling you into a false sense of security whilst slowly tenderizing your quads. A big drop at mile 15 marks the start of of the Newton Hills. These 5 miles of rolling hills which finishes on top of HBH. Many people lose the battle before this point. From here if you have managed yourself well are still going you have chance to kick on and show what you have in you as a runner over the 5 Miles of downhill and flat into the finish line at the city centre. Easy peasy, right?!

On the Tuesday before I travelled I could feel that my runny nose from the day before was more like the sniffles, and the croak in my throat the next day was worrying. Despite massive denial on my part, it didn’t stop it from developing nicely into a cold and a cough by the time I was heading to the airport. Disaster, I said to myself, all my good work, those 20 milers in the snow, all out the window, but it wasn’t like I could pull out either. I just had to rest and be as boring as possible until the race. This should make for an exciting read.

The expo, number pickup, and mandatory race jacket buying was flawlessly well run. Michael Cunningham would doff his cap. There is a big program of free events put on by the B.A.A. for the weekend, such as guest speakers and workshops. On Sunday evening Kevin and I went to the prerace dinner which again was seamlessly orchestrated. As much grub as you wanted for nothing. This all took place in city hall. A brutalist piece of Architecture, which is a clear homage to a le Corbusier’s La Tourette monastery in France completed a few years before, has been polarizing people since day one. I liked it. There are many fine examples of the style in the city. The Berkeley Library in Trinity College Dublin completed at about the same time would be our best example.

(Above: Modelling my new jacket and medal at Fenway Park, well worth a visit)

I wasn’t feeling well at this stage. The cold was in me and despite my rest I knew it wouldn’t clear. The forecast on the night before hand was unfavorable. Cold, rain and a head wind. Boston can be wicked fast in good conditions but it was clear to us that we would have a slower outing.

Come race day morning conditions had worsened. It was already raining, with sustained heavy rain, 5c temperatures, and a 50kph head wind expected. After carefully packing my drop bag, and bag to bring to Hopkinton I left the house at 5:50am to the train station. My runners and clothes were wet within minutes. I didn’t know at the time but I wouldn’t be dry again until nearly 3:30pm.

After the bag drop we all boarded the fleet of yellow school buses that shuttle you to the start from 6am onwards. Our driver was a compassionate soul, she had the heating up to 90 which helped thaw and dry us a bit. It was like a sauna. Kevin’s bus driver kept the windows down en route. Yock.

There was snow on the ground in Hopkinton. We all assembled on the playing fields to wait for the start. We were there from about 7:30am and the gun is at 10am. The field was a bog. The two tents erected where the runners are provided with breakfast were full of a penguin like shivering huddle of runners trying to get shelter. It was a sight to behold, some people were dressed in summer attire and looked in a terrible way. Every now and again a terrific gust of wind would bellow through the tent and try and take the canvas off it.

Kevin and I both agreed it was a day in which if you got up opened the curtains and looked out you would’ve hopped straight back into bed again. This must’ve been a common feeling as I heard one person politely put it after, I think a lot of people had mentally tapped out before the start. Fortunately for us we had plenty of go back to bed race days in the cross country. Clarinbridge. The horror.

You bring clothes to keep you warm until the race starts when you leave them behind. These are all recycled for charity. The more experienced people brought a spare pair of shoes and dry socks to the start line. The amount of gear that must get discarded in the school field is unreal. Basically 30,000 trackie outfits, shoes, T-shirts, and gloves. Enough clothes to kit out everyone in Bray in tracksuits.

We got called to the Corrals. Kevin gave me a lend of a long sleeve t-shirt and I’m eternally grateful as it helped to keep the cold off me for the race. The race seemed to get going from here quickly and with it a much more positive experience unfolded. Distant noise could be heard as we approached the start line. The atmosphere was turning in an upward trajectory and getting louder was we neared the start. The runners are released in 4 waves of 8 corrals. Your race number that is given to you is your ranking in terms of qualifying time. The smaller the number, the faster the time. My number was 4027 meaning that there were over 4000 people who qualified with a better time. The BQ means that the field is really deep.

As we passed the start line the roars and cheers and screaming and cowbells started to fill our ears and the sight of the first swathes of the thousands and thousands who stood out in the mankiest weather to encourage us. The crowd here is famous and rightly so. I think Bostonians may have the loudest voice boxes in the world and they really buy into the event and want to get involved. There are people everywhere along the route and the noise doesn’t let up. Sometimes it can be less dense in some of the remote parts but there is never a section where there isn’t someone standing. You go through a number of villages and where the volume then got so great I couldn’t hear anything else for extended periods, not my breathing, nor footstrikes.

(Above: This image captures the spirit of the race)

Race strategy went out the window well before the start line. I started slowly. I was so cold from standing around that I couldn’t feel my feet for the first few miles. Once I started to get the feeling in them again my pace increased and I thought I would just hold this as long as I could and see how far it would get me. I had no idea how it would pan out.

(Above: Me in the second half of the race)

You start with people who have the same qualifying times as you, so you get really comfortably carried along. I noticed that each mile marker is painted onto the road markings in the centre of the road all year round, including the start and finish lines. Class. At no point did the rain let up. Occasionally the heavens would open with a massive downpour. Rivers ran on the sides of the road. Wide and unavoidable deep puddles formed on the flatter surfaces. In fairness, everyone was in good humour about it, laughing and joking. The weight of the sodden shoes though must have affected people’s’ stride and the wet clothes additing to the weight too.

In the middle of the race you pass through the quietest area of the course just before going past Wellesley girls college, famous for their scream tunnel. You can hear this racket from a mile away through the woods. It’s eerie. Like a Grand Prix race, nothing can prepare you for the noise of the tunnel. The girls hold handmade placards inviting you for a kiss whilst screaming their lungs out. For a fleeting moment I thought I was in a boyband. My ears were ringing after, most likely caused by the gentleman wearing the stars and stripes short-shorts and nothing else. Some man.

After hear you drop down into the town of Newton where you begin the famous Newton Hills section. These are four hills which roll though the next five miles and bringing you to mile 21 at the top of HBH. This is where your work begins and you could see the people who hadn’t prepared for the pace they were running dropping off from here. The hills are just steep and long enough to make you change your stride. Each hill knocks more and more puff out of people causing the groups to thin out. You start to see people walking here. The support is terrific. I had to concentrate a lot through the hills. I didn’t feel like taking water or my gels but I had to force myself to do it. My hands were really numb and I struggled to hold onto the cups and open the gels. The cold weather was taking effect.

From HBH and on my memory is fairly hazy. I couldn’t really think or do numbers at this stage. I was pretty tired and cold but my legs were still going strong and I was able to speed up over the last 5 miles. Those 20 milers in the snow had worked after all. I was passing a lot of people and I knew I’d be close to the 3 hours if I could squeeze it a bit more. I pushed on as much as I could despite feeling very lightheaded and I was losing my vision. Fortunately, I made it to the finish.

After crossing the line I tried to talk to the man next to me but I couldn’t speak, and the person handing out the extra thick mylar blankets after the finish had to get one of the medical tent people to help me get it on. My fingers wouldn’t work. I slowly began to regain my senses and faculties as I walked gingerly between the skyscrapers towards the baggage area. They were handing out little square breads that tasted super sweet. I must have eaten a dozen of them.

My bag got lost by the staff. Someone put it in the wrong box. Eegit. So I had to wait for 90 minutes for it to be found in the lashing rain shivering and shaking. The lady who found it was an Ann Moynihan. Her people were all from West Cork. She was just there on holiday. Small world. I nearly cried with joy when she handed it to me. Getting into my dry clothes was a religious experience.

I got home eventually and was so happy for the shower and warmth. I knew I’d be as sick as a dog for the week after running in that weather but I was delighted for the experience. Unsurprisingly it was the coldest running of the marathon on record and the slowest winning times since the 70s. A huge number of the Elites had dropped out and many people were treated for hypothermia and hospitalised. Everyone I spoke to finished slower than they hoped but everyone was positive about it. Sure, you can only race the day. I was very happy with my time. I was only 80 seconds off my PB in those conditions, with a cold. I finished in 1855th place which meant I finished over 2000 places ahead of where my bib suggested I should finish.

Name – Half Split – Chip Time

Diarmuid 1:28:56 3:00:17

Kevin 1:24:04 2:59:48

Gavin 1:16:57 2:45:46

(Above: Kevin and I enjoying the after party at Fenway Park)

Being a bit sceptical I was wondering why Boston is such a thing, why do so many others go to it every year, and, why do people wear those jackets for years and years after, what’s that about, like. Well, it lived up to and exceeded my expectations. It is a weekend long celebration of the marathon and the whole city buys into it. The volunteers are warm, genuine, and kind. The buzz and atmosphere is infectious. People come up to you on the street to congratulate you and thank you for visiting Boston. You will find that the base level of knowledge in the city about long distance running is way higher than at home. I guess when people are wearing their jacket from a past race it allows them to remember the great time they had. I would like to think that I’ll get the opportunity to run here again… in better weather.