We had just passed a sign which noted there were 103 miles left between our current location and the city of Boston. “See Mark. We are less than an Ironman bike away from Boston!” I said with a smile.
“Too bad we didn’t bring your bike,” he replied, not exactly mirroring my enthusiasm. Then again, not everyone subscribes to my Ironman relativism.
While I’ve always had an appreciation for spectators and support personnel, entering that part of the endurance event equation creates a new level of respect. From personal experience, I realize I am no treat around race day, and trying to offer support to others in the right ways and the right tone is an art form I have yet to master. But I try and do the best I can. And then realize there will be chocolate at some point, making all right with the world.
The Boston Marathon spectator experience began for me Saturday night when Mark and I arrived in the city and met up with his gang of friends.
First an explanation of the cast of characters:
- Mark: My boyfriend, running his first Boston Marathon after hitting the qualifying time at Wineglass with zero seconds to spare.
- Greg: Mark’s friend who qualified for Boston at the Las Vegas Marathon after collapsing at the finish line.
- Mary: Greg’s wife, a runner and budding triathlete.
- John: Mark’s friend who did not qualify for Boston but is preparing for his first Ironman in Lake Placid this summer.
- Dave: John’s twin brother who coaches cross country in the Rochester area. Also not running the marathon, but when combined with John, provided hours of comic relief and cheap entertainment.
- Donna: Greg’s sister who made the trip from Florida. Also an incredibly strong runner with a quick wit.
- Cassie: The 3-year old daughter of Greg and Mary who seems to love everybody. Good thing for me.
Ever since the Disney Marathon weekend, Mary and I had been secretly planning a surprise for the boys. We wanted to create a huge flag so that they had a better chance to spot us on the course and make matching t-shirts. As with every good group of friends, there was an ongoing inside joke. This one revolved around unicorns (seriously, you’d have to know these guys to understand completely, but it works) so I recruited my talented sister-in-law to create a logo for us and Mary secured the screening services. Days before the marathon we were prepared with our “U is for Unicorn” banner and shirts. The big unveil came Saturday night to laughs and smiles. Team Unicorn was ready to rock.
We kicked off the day with the official expo, learning our way around the Boston public transportation system known as the “T.” And if you need to get anywhere on the orange line, I’m a pro at it now. Heck, on Monday I even worked the green line, so yeah, be impressed and slightly awed. (Understand in Buffalo we have a subway line that only goes up and down Main Street.) Expecting long lines and chaos, I was not disappointed. While Mark and Greg went to get their bibs and pre-race packets, I hit the bathroom, dealing with another long line and trial of patience. It was at this point that young Cassie was concerned with my whereabouts. Trust me, in my book it’s a good sign when a 3-year-old is looking out for you.
We went through the expo, and I racked up the free samples en route to the official Boston Marathon merchandise area. By this time, selection was slim but Mark was able to purchase the jacket he wanted. He also insisted I get something. Confession time: I was reluctant to purchase official Boston Marathon gear. After all, I wasn’t running. I hadn’t qualified. Heck my times aren’t even CLOSE to qualifying. Yet Mark continued to insist, because I was there and part of the experience. So I made a purchase of running capris and a hat along with a special Easter gift for my niece. (She is 6 months old and can’t read yet, so I’m not spoiling the surprise.) Part of me still feels unworthy of Boston Marathon gear. Part of me is really glad that Mark pushed the purchase.
After a light lunch, it was time for my 10-mile run. John and Dave already said they would go with me, though they were doing a seven-miler. Mark went out too, to shake out his legs and enjoy the Boston afternoon. I overdressed, but the sun was nice, the breeze was stiff and the Charles River provided an amazing backdrop to the run. We watched sailboats practice racing, ran through MIT while I continued to Harvard and felt smarter just by breathing the air.
The evening was spent with another T ride over to the official pasta dinner. Despite horror stories I had heard about past pasta dinners, our experience was rather pleasant. While the line seemed endless, we waited only about 15 minutes, complete with entertainment from The Big Apple Circus and made our way to the buffet line. The open air seating was pleasant on the cool evening and the meal was supplemented by beer (included with the dinner) and Toblerone for dessert. Since I was not running a marathon the next day, I enjoyed a beer. And I got Mark’s Toblerone. It was win-win. For me at least.
I sauntered into the lobby at 5:30 a.m., still in my pyjamas, to wish Mark and Greg good luck and snag myself a cup of coffee. (OK, yes, the coffee was most important to me at that point). At 8 a.m., John, Dave, Donna and I were off for a six-mile run. Taking the same route as the previous day, Dave and Donna were able to enjoy a quicker pace while John humored me with an easy pace as we chatted through the city. Back at the hotel, we put down carbs at the free breakfast buffet as if we were running 26.2 miles that day. Not that there is anything wrong with that. We needed the energy, after all, to bring to our spectating.
By the time the Boston Marathon began at 10 a.m. we had already run, eaten breakfast, showered, and napped.
We left the hotel around 11 to scout out our spectating spot. Donna, Mary and Cassie were meeting up with Greg’s parents around the finish line with the Team Unicorn flag. Dave, John and I planned to go farther up from the finish and hopped the Green Line. Our original plan would have put us near the infamous Heartbreak Hill, but we hopped off the train somewhere around Mile 24, just as the lead men were speeding past. We set up shop complete with Dave’s poster board signs constructed in the hotel the previous night. John and I clapped and yelled and took much pride in getting runners who had succumbed walking to start running again.
Clad in my U is for Unicorn shirt, I yelled and cheered and offered support as much as I could. The updates came through our phones. Dave was vigilant about keeping track. “Hey. I just got a text that Greg finished the Boston Marathon,” he said. Wait a minute. We missed him? A bald guy running shirtless? We missed him? Damn! John and I decided to wait a few more minutes to see if we could spot Mark.
“Is that him?” I asked pointing to someone in the distance wearing a red shirt and holding his arms in a similar position to Mark’s. Sadly, it was not Mark but an older Asian man who appeared to be in some pain. Oops. But alas a few minutes later I spotted him coming down the road. He crossed through the traffic of runners onto the right hand side of the road. We were stationed on the left. We yelled. We screamed. I sound like an idiot on the video (which is what all good spectators do). Dave had made a sign for each runner he knew, including Mark, but he ran right past, missing us completely in the haze of pain and the audio blur of his iPod. “We wasted a sign on you!” John yelled. That was the line of the weekend. (Disclaimer: If you watch the following brief video clip note that I am yelling extremely loud and sound a bit crazy. If you know me, this is not a shocker.)[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BhjDnbkp3Oc]
John and I hopped the subway back toward the friends and family meeting area. The trains were packed with marathon spectators and Boston Red Sox fans but we squeezed in like the champions we are and made it to the chaos that is the Boston Marathon finishing area. Eventually, we found our meeting place and congratulated Greg. Mark finally found his way over, through the maze of post-finish line hoopla.
He was sore and crusty with salty sweat. The course was hard. Not quite magical. Just hard. He described himself as “content” with his finishing time and eschewed congratulations from well-wishers. I respect that. However (you knew there had to be a however here, right?) I was amazed and proud and inspired. To get to the Boston Marathon is an accomplishment in itself. I watched Mark work terribly hard to qualify. I watched him struggle through a brutal winter of training. And regardless of the value he places on his performance, to watch it, to be some very, very small part of the experience, makes me dream just a bit bigger for myself.