Former 2:24 marathoner, now in my late 40s and hoping to maximally flatten the curve of my slide into senescence and mediocrity • Magazine writer, book editor and author, and commentator on the sport of distance running since 1999 • Adviser and confidant of other perambulators • Paradoxical hater of exercise fanatics • Chihuahua whisperer Sentence-fragment impresario

Wednesday, April 29, 2015


I have been told by a number of people I respect that my Boston Marathon race report is the most enjoyable thing I've ever written. When I restructured my Web site a dozen or so years ago, I stripped it of a lot of me-me-me stuff, such as race reports and training logs, because I wanted a site that included only things that might benefit other runners at some level. Apparently, this report can and has, so I am returning it to the Internet at large.


Got a revolution behind my eyes
We got to get up and organize
Got a revolution behind my eyes
We got to get up and organize

My experience at the 2001 Boston Athletic Association Marathon cannot, in fact, be aptly summed up by the lyrics of the Lo-Fidelity All-Stars club anthem "Battle Flag," but since I like the song I will impose its besmirched couplets upon my race nonetheless.

 My race began, of course, months, not weeks or days or hours or minutes, before high noon in Hopkinton, Mass., a nondescript if pleasant enough burg annually transformed into a freak show by the descent of fifteen thousand curious souls - aspirants with dreams too offbeat to fill their leisure time with the mundane corruptions of workaday society. It certainly did not begin with the previous day's story in the Concord Monitor, though that column, reflecting as much insight and humanism as its ham-handed author will ever summon, added a nice touch. But for purposes of this account, the story's obligatory beginning is at the unfurling of my rendition of that dream - as I wandered blandly out of the Korean Church of Hopkinton, the temporary operating base of the two-hundred-plus seeded runners, slapping a modicum of restraint on the pulses of adrenalin that needed to be harnessed until a more opportune moment than this instant of contrived hype.

I said hallelujah to the sixteen loyal fans
You'll get down on your muthaf*ckin' knees
And it's time for your sickness again

Under the direction of race marshals (who, much to my satisfaction, made sure I was wearing a seeded number beneath my BRADY/POSITIVE POWER T-shirt) I followed teammate Dan Verrington to the front of the first corral, the noisome belly of which I had narrowly eluded thanks to a 2:26:52 qualifying time in my last marathon in October 1999. The day was sunny and the easterly breezes ripe for bipedal showmanship. I remarked unaffectedly that I felt like an impostor among the Tanuis and Aberas and Nderebas and DeHavens traipsing along nearby. Dan, a 2:21 marathoner, gave amused assent. The thought was devoid of timidity; a half-accomplished runner knows his position far better than the wags who would lump him in the "elite" category for the sake of convenience, ignorance, and hyperbole. As if on cue, a public address speaker announced that every one of the runners streaming onto Route 135 between untold numbers of raucous observers and press corps members was capable of covering 26 point 2 miles at under five-minute pace. I smiled. The day was in order.

Given my position I was able to warm up in front of the starting line, and with a hundred introspectively light-footed others I ambled to and fro a few times more for the sake of nervous dissolution than to prime myself physically for the impending task. The trick here was not to undermine my chance of success in the first downhill miles. It is not an easy trick. The ghosts of a score of legends, realizing their mistakes too late even with the foreknowledge of what might happen on this unique stretch of asphalt, pepper the landscape between Wellesley and Boston, where luxurious debts are repaid to the fullest misery of the starry-eyed borrower.

Twin F-14 fighter jets soared by overhead toward the east, two minutes ahead of schedule.

I manipulate to recreate
This air to ground saga
Gotta launder my karma
We got two more minutes and
We gonna cut to what you need

Finally, as the final seconds were counted down, it was just like any other race. We were stuffed onto a very ordinary two-lane road, sweaty and anxious to escape the jitters and body odor. I can only imagine what the people crammed into the corrals must have felt.

The officials lowered and removed the rope stretched across the street. A simple pistol shot (or was it a cannon?) launched the 105th crazy parade toward the appallingly disorganized infrastructure of the most provincial city in America...

Hey Mr. Policeman
Is it time for getting away
Is it time for driving down the muthaf*ckin' road
And running from your ass today

My plan was to run the first half of the race evenly, meaning I would run the first four or five miles with restraint and effectively pick up the pace as I traveled over the flats. (Actually, my plan was to run the whole damn thing evenly, but even I wasn't buying that one.) Of course, I wouldn't really know until I got to the flats whether I' d in fact held back before reaching them, would I? Oh, the cognitive gymnastics. I eased into what felt like something between mile and 50K race pace and listened to the fans yammering away behind the guardrails on either side.

Shortly I was joined by Eric Beauchesne, a Massachusetts runner who, until the Eastern States 20, had probably beaten me about a thousand times in a row. He had started somewhere in the first corral. "It's a clusterf*ck back there," he announced. I didn't doubt it. Meanwhile, a huge lead pack was forming up ahead. I was guessing the leaders were running "slowly," but still felt that giving them any less than a half-minute in the first mile was probably imprudent. My time (note that in this account I am giving split times from my watch, and eight-second cushion on my official time) at the mile was 5:26, which told me nothing, really. Shortly thereafter I edged past the women's leaders - a surprising development. (Later, at around seven miles, Beauchesne would remark, "I' m surprised the women went out so slow." I replied by telling him I' d remind him of that comment when said women went zooming by somewhere within sight of skyscrapers.)

The next several miles were a continuation of an experiment - did I really feel good enough to hold on to this pace for two and a half hours?

Passing through splits of 10:52, 16:17 (16:51 at 5K - this was incorrectly reported on the BAA Web site), 21:39, 27:11, 32:40 (33:48 at 10K) and 38:05, I had no conscious bouts of either self-doubt or extravagance that I can recall. I was moving along as I had trained myself to do, which I suppose was the point.

Just beyond eight miles (43:30), I left a small group of runners, including Beauchesne, behind. The bodies ahead were already scattered into groups of three or two or one, and I was sure I would be largely if not entirely alone the rest of the way.

That was okay. Contrary to common belief, solitude can be a marathon racer's ally so long as the occasional passing of a comrade-in-legs occurs, subserving the need for confidence-boosting.

I took a bottle of fluid from Bob Hodge, 3rd-place finisher in this race in 1979 and my gracious host for the weekend, just beyond nine miles (48:56) and noticed for the first time how warm it seemed to be getting. I felt fresh, no worse for the wear than I would be on a long training run. Concentration is a funny thing; ask me to run nine miles cold at faster than 5:30 pace on some stretch of road somewhere and I doubt I could do it without extremes of effort.

As I passed ten miles (54:27), I realized I was flirting with the Olympic Trials "B" standard pace; this meant nothing here, in April 2001, and even less in the face of the 16 miles remaining. But every benchmark helps and I was on a roll. I covered the next two miles in 5:19 and 5:18, my fastest two of the day. Passing Wellesley College - where the noise was so fearsome I edged grimly toward the center of the road but broke into a reluctant smile in spite of myself - I urged myself to ease up, one of running's peculiar oxymoronic demands, and reached thirteen miles in 1:10:30 and halfway in 1:11:06. Another benchmark. Verrington, who had been at least 200 meters ahead, was slowly coming back. It was almost time to begin playing mental games: "How much can I slow down and still run..." but I managed to keep most of these idiotic mental maneuvers at bay.

It was here that I realized the low-grade gnawing need to unload biological ballast from at least two orifices was not subsiding, as I had assumed it would with the persistent effort. Perhaps my display back in the church basement, where I' d served as the equivalent of the town drunk by bellying up to the coffee bar far more often that my fellows, was leading me down a crueler path than this habit of mine had managed to do in the past. Other than this distraction, I was feeling fine, and continued to reel in runners I didn't recognize. At first these runners had worn bibs with three and four digits, but a few of the guys I was now catching wore bibs with only two. Benchmarks.

I passed fourteen miles in 1:15:55 and fifteen in 1:21:2X (I rely on memory for splits and here is where mine begins to fail), and noticed as I began the long descent toward Newton how subjectively different this race was from the 1996 version, my only prior bout with this particular fool's errand. Not only was a running half a minute per mile slower, but the nuances of the course - in this case the downhill that had begun the rapid unraveling of my quest for a sub-2:30 in the 100th Boston - seemed kinder. That sort of thing is always as important as the numbers on the clock with each passing mile. When I reached the bottom of that hill still feeling fresh (sixteen miles: 1:26:48), I was confident this was going to be a fine day. I passed Dan somewhere on that hill and set my sights on the next singlet. The heat seemed to have cast itself aside.

My seventeen-mile split was in the 1:32-twenties. I would be climbing for the next four miles, and my general distaste for downgrades notwithstanding, I could still find myself in trouble in short order. But the rumbling in my guts was becoming a truly unmanageable problem. I reluctantly began scanning the sidelines for portable toilets. When I finally found one (having never looked for them in a race, I was surprised and distraught at how few of them were actually available in such a large race), I startled the people nominally gathered around it by veering toward then with a cry of "anyone in there?" "Yes," a woman told me (guiltily - not that it helped) and with a cry of "FORK!" I skedaddled back onto the road. Strike one.

Eighteen miles passed in just under 1:37:5X. My mental mathematician, aroused briefly from her slumber and divorced from the equally busy gastrointestinal disaster-management engineers below, busily informed me I still had over a one-minute cushion on 5:30 pace. That translated into a sub-2:23:00. many ifs.

I trundled by 30K in 1:41:25 and was told by an official I was in 39th place. I knew that if I simply held form and passed only a few runners, I would likely move into the top 30 through Boston's unique disbursement of attrition. My legs were still quite willing, the mind equally so. Nineteen in 1:43-thirtyish. I guessed that three of the supposed four hills encompassed by the Heartbreak stretch were behind me. I was noticing lots of cries of "Alright Kevin!" and "Go New Hampshire!" but was clueless as to their sources. I made yet another foiled attempt at a port-a-john entrance. Strike two. Not yet truly desperate (yet obviously desperate enough to do the unthinkable and stop in a race), I graced everyone nearby with another cry of "FORK!" and sullied on.

Twenty miles went by in under 1:49:00. That benchmark was very real - it meant I was somehow clinging to 5:30's even in this revered stretch, known, if perhaps hyperbolically, for dissembling the races of legends. I then began climbing Heartbreak Hill proper. Six tenths of a mile of altitude gain which, compared to the roads I had carved my life's initials on all winter, was a piddling hump. As I threw myself up the hill, passing a Brazilian masters runner, a South African runner and New Jersey's own Joseph Aloysius McVeigh (a former top American at this race and one of its biggest proponents), I smiled inwardly at my dismissal of Heartbreak Hill. A little well-placed arrogance, properly applied, can never hurt.

Come on and tell me what you need
Tell me what is making you bleed

At twenty-one miles (about 1:54:30), CMS team manager Gary Bridgman appeared, bearing, as promised, a drink similar to the one Bob had supplied. I waved him off and gave him the thumbs-up at the same time. I had been taking Gatorade at most of the aid stations and, feeling as strong as I did, felt no need to torment my innards with any further sugary insults. I started the long descent into the belly of Boston.

35K in 1:58:40. The crowds grew thicker and more flamboyant; the personally directed shouts from the sidewalks flew toward me as before. Twenty-two miles in a shade over two hours even and I had reached Cleveland Circle. Whether by playful fate or playful coincidence, I knew as I spotted the lone portable toilet to my right as I rounded the turn onto Beacon Street that I could no longer defer relieving myself, and that I would be forced to do so with several hundred people more or less watching. As I shot into the port-a-john, I swear the cheers doubled in volume. Great.

I won't delve into the unnecessary details of my communion with the port-a-john, but I believe I was in and out in about forty-five seconds. I recall no toilet paper, but had there been any, I would have flown out of that foul little edifice trailing it behind me in place of the Superman cape the gathered throng (whose cheers had now surely trebled in volume) evidently expected me to have donned.

Your construction
Smells of corruption

I plunged back into the linear ring of combat. My legs seemed no worse for the wear, and I was eager to leave this particular group of onlookers in my odiferous wake. As I result, I fairly flew by McVeigh and the South African again (if they were confused by my apparent lapping of them, they didn't show it) and, given that I reached twenty-three miles in close to 2:06 flat, actually covered the twenty-third mile at close to 5:15 pace. This may have been my biggest mistake of the race, but it didn't wind up costing me that much. I knew a sub-2:23 was clearly out of the question now, but a sub-2:24 was not.

Twenty-four miles in 2:11:30-ish. Another 5:30-ish split. I was feeling nicks and quivers in my stride now, but nothing tragic. I focused on the long lane in front of me, an unbending stretch of asphalt that would be my proving ground for the next ten-plus minutes and forever all at once. I now rallied behind the humming, belching noise of the most scholarly and enthusiastic marathon crowd anywhere, white noise I had fought to ignore until this, the proper time. Gamely, I edged by another runner, a Japanese. He wore bib number 6. Benchmarks.

So one of six so tell me
One do you want to live
And one of seven tell me
Is it time for your muthaf*ckin' ass to give

The "pain" of a marathon, to a well-trained and focused athlete, is not unbearable by any means. Those who speak of The Wall in hushed tones and with overstated reverence have either never trained properly or have executed a marathon race foolishly, their well-intentioned ambitions toppling them beyond the crest of their physical and emotional means. No, it is not the pain of non-responsive limbs and that plunges marathoners over the brink into a purgatory of utter helplessness that can only end with a shambling, hacking wobble across the finish line or to the sidelines; it is the frustration, the apocalyptic frustration of a racer's cardinal sin: Slowing down when the mind says go, go, we MUST cover this mile in five thirty and change...

And just like that, at twenty-four and a half miles, the realization was complete. There would be no more surges or bright-eyed gambits or pleasant surprises. I was hanging on, fighting to keep the house of sub-5:30 cards I had assembled over the past two hours from being blown all over the city of Boston. For the next ten minutes - and hopefully no more than that - my life effectively depended on it. I had a mile and a half left to run - to race.

 I'm blown to the maxim
Two hemispheres battlin'
I'm blown to the maxim
Two hemispheres battlin'
Suckin' up, one last breath
Take a drag off of death

40K in 2:16:21. That meant nothing too me. Still, I noticed the big Citgo sign near Fenway Park and the small teaser of a hill at Kenmore Square, right at twenty-five miles (about 2:17:12). I had no memory of these things in 1996. At least my brain was still functioning. Functioning and skittish; a quartet of motorcycles zipped by me with just under a mile to go, causing me to flip my head to one side far faster than I could have moved my legs. The policeman astride one of them grinned and said something. I glanced around. Sure enough, I wasn't entitled to my own personal motorcade: Catherine Ndereba was coming, coming strong, and was about to roll me like a wet log. A mental comedian took center stage and joked that in my first national television appearance, I might well be splattered with the sort of unsavory matter on learns to dispose of properly by the age of three. But it didn't last long; Ndereba was gone as quickly as she appeared and I was alone again.

Fighting to maintain the one pace I was now seemingly capable of running, whatever it was, I dragged myself up the street. I decided swinging my arms really, really hard was a good idea, because any good coach knows the legs have to follow. Or something.

A minute passed; two. The vehicles ahead darted to the right. There, I saw a blessed, blessed sign:


and as the South African drew alongside, another, this one on the left:


I could see the finish line.

Now tell me if do you agree
Or tell me if I'm makin' you bleed
got a few more minutes and
I'm gonna cut to what you need

It wasn't as close as I thought.

Is it time for your muthaf*ckin' ass to give
Tell me is it time to get down on your muthaf*ckin' knees
Tell me is it time to get down... 

But two hours, twenty-four minutes and seventeen seconds after some forgotten point in time, it came. It came with a little lurch and a righting of my miraculously intact body and it was in the books - a personal best by about a half-mile, here, on the course I knew I couldn't run, on a day when I couldn't, for once, run the whole way. I had covered the last mile in about 5:48, a yeoman effort lost in the shazam of Ndereba's five-flat, a time I would bet fewer than a half-dozen men bettered.

Come on baby tell me
Yes we aim to please

The immediate aftermath was a bit perplexing. The announcers noted my name and hometown, and though under ordinary circumstances Bostonians might be loath to embrace New Hampshirites as true locals, their polite cheers suggested otherwise (I was, after all, the first New England finisher, the 7th American, and the 28th male; Ndereba's 26th-place finish was the highest ever by a woman at Boston). After being checked briefly by a BAA official, I was fairly accosted by two guys bearing microphones. One was Andy Schachat, who had, interestingly enough, predicted a different man would claim the title of top New Hampshire finisher. The other was Charlie Sherman of WMUR-9 out of Manchester. I gave desultory interviews to both and have a strange but very real recollection of one of them dropping a loud F-Bomb either to the other or to the BAA official who was telling them to get the hell out of the chute. I gave a brief interview to a Manchester Union Leader reporter (story) and eased into the seeded runners' tent. I eventually found my way back to Hopkinton, to Concord (where the Monitor put together its own article) and, of course, to my keyboard.

At some point, the sunglasses came off. But the brightness remains, and no matter where my running takes me in the future, this day's glow will never fade.

Got a revolution behind my eyes
We got to get up and organize
You want a revolution behind your eyes
We got to get up and organize

Here, as an epilogue, is something I posted to a running forum as I reflected on my Boston experience and the training that preceded it:

"Naturally I wonder where I might have wound up yesterday had my training consisted of 90-mile weeks with "more quality." My feeling, which coalesced even as I urged my greasy-assed carcass past a bevy of late-race stragglers on Beacon Street yesterday, is that the high-mileage weeks do a lot more than train the circulatory and cardiovascular systems - the crux from which constructs like the MERV calculator fundamentally spring.

"There is no underestimating the adaptation to pure mechanical stresses on the legs and tendons and other gristle. While progressive tolerance to such stresses cannot be neatly codified into data such as target heart zones and VO2 Max, they are just as real, and critical on a quad-buster of a course like Boston's. During my 515-mile March I noticed, more than anything else, an increasing ability to rebound from long runs and hard runs and races and everything else - a lightness of being that I had never experienced in training, even when theoretically in 'better shape.' Even on recovery days I was able to ease from an eight-minute-per-mile shuffle down to sub-sevens and even sub-sixes, depending on the day. Strangely, I was never worse for the wear.

"Could it have gone the other way, down avenues of powdery metatarsals and frayed tendons and intractable malaise? Yes, it could have. But it didn't, and I was able to find out only by trying. The final answer came when a notoriously crappy downhill runner was able to hold pace on the fearsome stretch after the 21-mile mark, Ndereba's frenzied passage at mile 25 notwithstanding. I was able to hold on for a 5:48 final agonizing mile owing to my legs'simple comprehension of what was happening to them. I don't think my heart and lungs could have cared less - I wasn't really breathing that hard even in extremis, when the real pain comes not from the physical sensations per se, but from marshaling every available resource to keep the chronological house of cards built over 24 miles from collapsing; to a marathoner, the pain of slowing down is always worse than the pain of holding firm at that stage.

"That's my firm belief, inasmuch as anyone can ever know anything for certain in an uncontrolled experiment.' Then again, you really do find out a lot of things when you spend two hours a day shagging ass up and down snow-covered hills."

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