On June 5th, 2021, I finished my first marathon in 4 hours 10 minutes and 52 seconds. It was a familiar route, one that stretched between Ashland to Hopkinton, Main Street to Tyler Lane. This is what I learned.
I grew up in a running town. A quiet suburb that claims the marathon and its ancient history with pride. Every year, I would bike to where the Boston runners met the curve. A fork in the road, roughly 5 miles from the start where I could watch the waves of dreamers and enthusiasts. I still remember the masses. How could I forget the promise keepers? The racers and the resilient? An inspired tradition, and yet, the marathon didn’t mean anything to me then. Not until April 15th, 2013.
I think everyone remembers the Boston Marathon bombing in their own way. Where they were, who they were with. Memories and heartache now seared into the Boylston cobblestone. My account isn’t much different. It was my mom’s second running of the Boston Marathon and we were just around the corner from the finish. When the first explosion went off, the chaotic canon sounds were only met with disbelief. It wasn’t until plumes of smoke rose from the pavement did we realize something was wrong. I thanked God my mom ran her goal pace and was still minutes from the carnage. Others were not as fortunate.
My mom decided to run the marathon again in 2014 as did tens of thousands of others. For some, it became a race in remembrance for what was. Others, a statement for their city. Whatever their motivation, a collective decision was made to run from a place of strength. To run for a reason bigger than any one person.
My marathon didn’t hold the same initial intention. It was a virtual race, self supported and designed to accommodate busy semester schedules and long commutes to Springfield. I’ve always thought of myself as an athlete but I didn’t start seriously running until the summer of 2020. And so I ran. Week after week of double knots and sore legs, I ran, and I loved it. Yesterday was no different.
It was an early start but I didn’t sleep much anyway. The plan was simple, two laps, 1500ft of elevation, don’t give up. I wanted to finish in under 4 hours, but I’ll get to that. The first 13 miles were fast but I felt good and I had my friend Kathryn to pace me. The next 13 miles took on a different complexion. With my friend Sarah to pull me the rest of the way, I’m sure she could see my shortened stride and my labored movement. But still I pushed forward.
Around mile 18 I no longer had a choice. I greeted the pain in my lungs and chest like it was an old friend. I lost myself in it. My focus became narrow and singular as my body did the rest. “Just keep going”, I told myself. Up and down hills I cursed and fought for every step. Two things compelled me forward; the rhythm of running and my family along the way.
I ran 26.2 miles yesterday because I had help. I was coached, encouraged, inspired, paced, and relentlessly supported by friends and family. The day’s success and my first marathon was made possible by the people I got to share the day with. Whether it was in-person or through text, I know this milestone was bigger than just me.
So when I started mile 25 and the heat enveloped my every nerve and sense, I finally let go. I let go of the pain I carried and the expectations I was desperate to reach. I took a moment to stop, collect myself, and wait for the tunnel vision to subside and the incredible dizziness to fade. And it was then that I found peace. The internal dialogue that burned in my thoughts and kept me up at night finally fell silent. I let go of running for time, my fear of inadequacy, and reasons intrinsic to me.
At mile 25, I sat in shade that sang like refuge. I have to admit, as I let myself recover I didn’t catch the way the trees danced in the wind or how the world inched and turned around me. I didn’t think about growing up with the Boston Marathon, the time spent training, or much else at that moment. What I did find, was a reason why.
So why did I continue running? Because it was my choice to do so. I met my family and friends at the finish line on Tyler Lane. Their concern washed away as I raised my hands in victory and defiance. I ran the last 100 meters with my mom. Side by side, she told me in a whisper she was proud.
I didn’t run a perfect race and I didn’t set PRs on every mile. I didn’t finish in under 4 hours and I didn’t run a negative split. And yet still, it was a day I’ll always consider with gratitude. A day shared with others, a day for celebratory pancakes drowned in syrup, and a day I got to choose.