Runners push to Boston “victory”

Running and Racing:  Christopher Goss
April 26, 2001

Runners Jill Boerigter, Linda Branstetter, Heather May, Bob Andree, and Christopher Goss (from left) huddle up at the athlete's village in Hopkinton, MA on the morning of the 2001 Boston Marathon.

"Which would hurt more? Continuing to run? Or stopping?" Those words from a billboard along the Boston Marathon course in 1995 echoed through my head in the final miles of this year's running of the world's oldest marathon.

Running marathons is tough work, both physically and mentally. Anyone who tells you differently is lying. Over the course of 3 or 4 hours and 26 miles, you have a lot of time for your legs to make a case to your head that what your body is doing doesn't make any sense and that it is really time to stop and sit down. Therein lies the challenge of the marathon — convincing your body to keep going when all other signals are telling it that it is time to stop.

For the fifth time since 1998, my head won the 26.2-mile battle. I convinced my aching legs and blistered feet that it was possible to make it to the finish line, that stopping would hurt more than pushing on over those last 3 miles.

I am also proud to report that mine isn't the only local success story of the 105th edition of the world's most famous running race. Six Bloomington runners made the final turn onto Boylston Street, running the last several blocks to personal Boston victories. Heather May, Bob Andree, Linda Branstetter, Bob Furnish, and Jill Boerigter all came home with the unicorn emblem of the Boston Athletic Association proudly around their neck. For May, Andree, and Boerigter, it was the first trip from the little hamlet of Hopkinton, Mass., to downtown Boston. Branstetter and I were running our second race, determined to improve upon first-time mistakes. Furnish completed his 17th tour of the opening downhills and closing uphills that make the course so challenging.

Two other Bloomington runners should have been with us Monday. Tom Varns and Jean Whitlock had both qualified for the race and had logged many miles in preparation. They wound up injured in the final weeks of training and had to pull out.

My first challenge of the weekend is connecting with former Bloomington running buddy and current Boston area resident Joe Lane. After traveling via a van, a plane, a shuttle bus, another plane, another shuttle bus, three subway trains, and a third shuttle bus, I finally make it to the expo where we had agreed to meet. I hook up with Joe, we grab our race numbers, and then pick up some free PowerBars, stickers, posters, and water bottles for the kids before heading to his house for the weekend.

While we relax just across the border in New Hampshire, the rest of the Bloomington contingent builds up their carbohydrate reserves at the race-sponsored pasta dinner.

Getting to sleep the night before a marathon is always a little difficult for me. The feelings are a conflicting mix of excitement, dread, anticipation, and doubt. Am I really going to do this? Have I trained hard enough? How should I dress for the weather? Where's my race number?

The Boston Marathon always starts at noon. This presents a significant challenge for runners who are used to starting most races at 8 a.m. The extra hour or two of sleep is appreciated; it is the decisions about what to eat in the morning that make this afternoon race different. I decide that a couple of bananas and a bagel sound about right.

Joe is taking a bus with his new running club to the Hopkinton start, so I head back into Boston and meet up with the other Bloomington runners. Since this is a point-to-point race, race organizers have assembled an armada of yellow school buses to transport 10,000 of the 15,000 runners from downtown to the start.

We board a bus for the long trip west. I am amazed the trip takes 45 minutes — most of it even on the interstate — to get to Hopkinton. For anyone harboring any last-minute doubts about making it back to town on foot, this doesn't help.

Each year the Hopkinton High School is transformed into a refugee camp for runners with dreams of glory. It is 3 hours before the start of the race, so the thousands of runners all try to find ways to rest and relax.

Just before we head for the actual starting line, the incomparable Johnny Kelly takes the athlete's village stage and treats us to a charming rendition of "When You're Young at Heart." Johnny Kelly is the Boston Marathon. He started the race 61 times and finished 58 of them, winning twice. I take note of the fact that if I can run this race every year until I am 92, I can beat his record.

We change into our race gear, dump our bags back into one of the buses, and head to the starting corrals. Bob Andree, Heather, and I decide to try to run the first part of the race together. We wish Linda and Jill good luck (we weren't able to meet up with Bob Furnish) and realize this is it. We are actually getting ready to start the Boston Marathon.

The gun goes off and the elite racers fly. At the point when they finish the race, we will still have more than 8 miles to go. These athletes are so smooth and swift, it is easy to forget how fast they will be running. For perspective, I usually finish in the top 10 percent in 5K and 10K races in the area, so I am in decent shape. I cannot run all out for a single mile and keep up with the pace that these runners will maintain for 26 miles.

Three minutes after the gun, we cross the starting line. It will be almost 10 minutes before all 15,000 runners start their quest eastward. The three of us settle into a comfortable pace — mindful of the fact that the first 6 miles are all downhill — and begin to enjoy the throngs of people along the road. Bostonians embrace this race the same way Hoosiers take to the Indianapolis 500. There are families that have stood at the same corner to watch the race for 30 or 40 years. As the fans begin to scream my name — which I have pinned to my chest — I smile, remembering why I worked so hard after last year's injuries to get back to this race.

The effort this time feels much better that 1999 when I started to feel tired at Mile 7. The steady stream of screams from the legendary women of Wellesley College pulls us to the fastest mile split of the day at Mile 12.

At the halfway point, we are on pace to finish under 3:15, the time I need to beat to automatically qualify for next year's race. My feet, though, are starting to talk to me. Have I made a mistake choosing thin racing flats for today's race?

At 16 miles we start the first of the five famous hills known together as the Newton Hills. We are still running as a trio at this point, but after the first two hills, we lose sight of Bob. Heather and I run the next hill together, but at 18 she finds another gear and slowly pulls ahead of me. Even though I am surrounded by hundreds of running compatriots, I suddenly feel alone. I begin to miss my wife and children and start wondering if I have tried to do too much too soon on my comeback bid.

At 20 miles, I once again come face to face with the world-famous Heartbreak Hill. For a southern Indiana runner, this hill by itself is not much too worry about. At 20 miles, though, and after the pounding downhills of the first half of the race, the hill is daunting. I muster up all of my courage and focus and begin the ascent. This hill beat me last time; there is no way that I am going to let that happen again. Halfway up, I notice that I am passing other runners. I try to steal a little energy from each of them as I pass.

I crest the top of the hill and give a quick arm pump in the air. The celebration is short-lived, though. I still have a 10K to run and my feet are really starting to hurt. I have slowed my pace only by 10-20 seconds per mile, but the miles now seem to take at least three times as long to complete. I look at my watch and realize that I have fallen off my 3:15 pace, but that no longer matters. I now want only to get the most from my body that it can give. I try to play games with the signals my legs are sending to my brain. Those are only electrical pulses, I try to convince myself, in the same manner as the logic games I used to play as a kid when trying to make it through a scary movie or fearsome roller coaster.

I pass 23 miles. This is when the urge to stop becomes strong. Despite what I had told myself about coming to Boston this year to have fun and enjoy the race, I remind myself that I am really here to run the best race possible. That is what we are all trying to do.

I continue to argue with myself. My head is able to recognize the benefits of pushing on — the right to hold my head high after the race; a lifetime of recollections of a race run to its limit. My body is a more carnal entity, however. It is not capable of seeing past the present. It continues to report distress signals like a ship lost at sea. The blisters on my feet are burning. Then I look up.

Looming above me is the CITGO sign, the same one seen over the left field fence at Fenway Park. This point signals exactly 1 mile to the finish. This lightens my steps, if not my pace. I am going to make it. Before I know it, I am making the last turn onto Boylston Street. I can see the finish banners a quarter of a mile ahead. All of my energies become focused on the finish line. I know there are thousands of people screaming from both sides of the street, but inside my head it is strangely quiet. The next thing I know, someone is handing me a cup of water. I think I raised my arm with two fingers stretched into the air as I crossed the Boston Marathon finish line for the second time, but I really can't remember.

I have finished. I won my race. Short of the birth of my children and hearing my wife say "I do," there is nothing that has ever felt this good. I finally look at my watch: 3:17:49. A couple of minutes from the 3:15 I would have liked to have run but 10 minutes faster than my last trip down this road. I look at my heart rate monitor. It is still in the red zone. I smile and take solace in the fact I left nothing out on the course that day.

In the confusion of the recovery area, I am not able to find the rest of the Bloomington folks, but I do find Joe, who finished in 3:05 — a fantastic time, particularly when considering the running conditions in the Northeast this winter. His training was not easy. We make it back to his house and I immediately log onto the Internet to see how my friends have done.

The good news begins rolling in immediately. Heather has run a 3:13. She sets a personal record and is the first of 52 Hoosier women and the 147th woman overall. Linda finishes in 3:22, as Bloomington sweeps the first two female positions for Indiana.

Bob Andree is not far behind me at 3:18, a qualifying time for next year in his division. Bob Furnish completes his 17th Boston Marathon in 3:34. Jill completes the Bloomington team's stellar day in finishing with a 3:59. I think about how excited her students at Childs Elementary School must have been when they downloaded the news and smile.

Few things in my life have been able to generate the kind of emotions I feel when watching and running the marathon. There are no lucky bounces or bad calls. As a marathoner, I get back exactly what I put into my performance. I certainly could not do this without the support of my family and friends, but ultimately it comes down to me and only me. When I have run my race well, there is nothing more satisfying.except, however, when six of my running friends are wearing the very same smile.

Carpe viam.