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Ready or Not, Boston Bound

Paula O’Neill, May 18, 2016

First of all, I’d like to preface this piece with saying that I am not a marathoner even though I’ve run three marathons.  I’d also like to say that the marathon is my least favorite distance but somehow, one in particular, turned out to be my very favorite race of any distance, ever.

I started running ten years ago in 2006 with the Springtime Tallahassee 10K training group.  That year I ran the Springtime Tallahassee race and the Palace Saloon 5K.  I didn’t run again until the training group started up again in 2007 because who in their right mind runs during the Tallahassee summers?  In 2007 I ran Springtime and Palace again and was set to not run again until the next Springtime group in 2008.  But things have a way of evolving unexpectedly, and in October of 2007 I went to Washington DC to visit my niece who had been born in August.  That visit would change everything. The day before leaving, my brother said to me that he was glad I was leaving on Saturday because traffic would be chaotic if I were leaving on Sunday because of the marathon.  I really had no idea what he was talking about so he showed me an article in the Washington Post about the Marine Corps Marathon.  Well, the only thing I knew about marathons was that Oprah had run one when she turned 40. And coincidentally it was the MCM.  How hard could it be, right?  So, then and there I told my brother that I would be back in a year to run the MCM!

At that moment, I started thinking of myself as a real runner and planned out a course of action.  I trained for and ran the Turkey Trot 15K, the longest distance up to that date and then I ran the Ten Mile Challenge in December, ending 2007 with four races total. 

2008 turned out to be a pivotal year in that in order to run a fall marathon, I would have to run in the Tallahassee summer!  And that I did.  I met a core group of women who were also training for fall marathons and we ran our Sunday LSD runs together.  So, a year after meeting my niece, I was back in DC ready to run my first marathon.  And that I did.  Everything went well and at mile 20, Mark and my brother were there to get me past the “wall’ that at that point wasn’t up yet.  I was all woo hoos and such until mile 21.5.  That’s when the wall came crashing down on me.  I’d never experienced legs that felt like concrete or pain in my hips and back.  But, I finished to the cheers of OO Rah with a time of 4:15:40. Even so, I vowed to NEVER run another marathon again.  I wasn’t crazy.

As it turned out, my running partners enjoyed their experiences with their marathons and wanted to do another one.  Not me I said.  One and done, thank you ma’am  But, in keeping with the bonds that running partners form with each other, we all put our names into the New York City Marathon lottery in 2009.  (I figured we wouldn’t get in, and we didn’t.)  Each year after that, we put our names in with the same result.  Which, of course, I was very happy with because I really DID NOT want to run another marathon.  During that time, all my running partners ran more marathons; I did not.  Well, in 2012 I found out that after 3 consecutive years of not winning the lottery, you get an automatic entry, so guess what?  I was going to run a second marathon.  Okay, well it’s New York.  I can do it.  I wasn’t especially happy about it but I’d give it a go.  I even hired a coach!  But, the running Gods and Mother Nature made sure I would not run another marathon.  I swear I had nothing to do with it, but Hurricane Sandy devastated the New York area and the marathon was cancelled while I was at the Expo.  I have to admit, I was probably the only person happy to not have to run that coming Sunday.  I was still a one and done marathoner.

Flash forward to the end of 2014.  I like half marathons, a lot.  So, I was planning on running the Tallahassee Half Marathon in February of 2015, and I planned to PR.  I wanted to PR so badly that I hired another coach to get me there.  Well, things weren’t going well with my training, and I wasn’t hitting my benchmarks, so I was a bit frustrated.  I was, however, running extra-long distances on Sunday with my core group of running partners who were training for the marathon.  These ladies are fast and many had run the Boston Marathon, or were training to “BQ” a race I never even imagined myself running.  But it was fun running with them even if I wasn’t going to run more than the half.  After a while the Tallahassee Marathon race director noticed this and asked me why I was running such long distances.  I told her I didn’t like to run alone, so running long was a way to stay with my group and socialize.  She suggested that I switch over to the marathon.  What??  No way, I am not a marathoner.  I don’t like marathons.  Famous last words.  Being frustrated with my half training, I started thinking about running the marathon.  Could I do it?  Not alone I thought.  That course is way too mind-numbingly boring.  If I could find someone to run with me and keep me company, I thought, I’d possibly consider it.  And I found someone.  I’ll just refer to her as my Marathon Angel.  So, on January 12, 2015, I wrote a check to the marathon director and paid the difference to switch from the half to the full, GULP.  I had one month.  And I wasn’t telling anyone because I wasn’t even sure that I could do it.

A month goes by pretty quickly when you are dreading something, and the month between sending that check and the marathon flew by.  Two days before the marathon, I called my angel and asked her if she thought I could “BQ” like all my friends.  No problem she said.  Okay then, let’s do it.  And do it I did.  My angel paced me to a BQ!!  She had worked out a strategy for me the night before the race and guided me through it step by agonizingly hard step.  We reached the half way point at 1:59:55.  I never thought I could run the second half faster, but she got it out of me and I finished with 3:57:18. I was going to run the Boston Marathon….another marathon, GULP!

But that race took a toll on me.  I do not recommend running a marathon on half marathon training.  My body took a long time to recover and there was just something not right with my right knee.  I was in denial about the knee for a long time, until the middle of May when I knew I couldn’t ignore it any longer.  Long story short, I had a torn meniscus and surgery was the prescribed remedy.  I had surgery in July, seven weeks before heading off to the trip of a lifetime; two months in Italy with my parents.

Upon my return, I hadn’t run for 6 months and I had Boston to run.  I made the additional qualifying cutoff, paid my entry fee, reserved a hotel, and bought plane tickets.  I WAS going!  I had 5 ½ months to prepare from scratch.  So I started November 1st, 2015.  It wasn’t easy, my knee was still problematic and that first week I was only able to get in 17 total miles.  I knew about the 10% rule, so I only added that much mileage each week.  But, boy, I had lost so much fitness.  I was slow and running was hard.  I’ll admit that I thought I would bounce back quickly, but that wasn’t the case.  But, I was able to gradually increase my weekly mileage until I got up to 36 weekly miles by the last week of January.  Things were looking up.  Yeah, until the next week when I started having chronic shin pain in my non injured leg!  This wasn’t happening.  How could this happen?  Even so, I ran the Tallahassee Half Marathon, my slowest half ever.   Two weeks later I was in the doctor’s office.  I was put in a boot and was scheduled for an MRI.  They thought I had a stress fracture.  The next 10 days in the boot seemed like a year, but the news turned out to be relatively good.  No stress fracture, but a stress reaction.  I could continue to run but was told to use pain as my guide.  It was going to hurt.  And hurt it did.  I just couldn’t put in the miles necessary. Apparently my pain threshold is low!  I still had 8 weeks to Boston.  But with all the interruptions with the injuries, I never got past that 36 miles benchmark..  I averaged 25 miles a week until Boston, not enough mileage for a marathon.  I decided that I was not going to be able to run the entire race, so I set my mind on just finishing by run/walking it.  Three weeks out I did a 17 miler and had to run/walk it, as I did the 15 miler the week before.  At that point I had a few people tell me the adage, “the hay is in the barn” but I had to admit that my hay hadn’t even been harvested and was nowhere near the barn.  I was going to Boston so undertrained, with the longest run /walk of 17 miles at a 10 ½ minute/mile pace.  What was going to happen?

Well, I’ll tell you what happened to me.  I had the time of my life.  After deciding that this would be my LAST marathon, I was going to make the most of it and enjoy every step.  And that I did.

We got to Boston late Saturday evening and I was at the Expo the next morning bright and early.  Too early, so we had time to take pictures at the finish line and to take in the finish area before the masses arrived later that morning.  Boston was electric with marathon mania. What a feeling!  At the Expo I got my race number and race shirt. Then came the massive spending spree.  Unlike at the MCM expo where I didn’t want to jinx my run by buying anything in case I didn’t finish, I bought everything.  I was going to have clothes to prove I was here, even if my knee and shin wouldn’t allow me to finish (my deepest fear).
Then at 10:30 I left the expo to make my way to the Old South Church in Copley Square for the Blessing of the Athletes service.  A couple of friends of mine who had run Boston before recommended it, and I have to admit, I felt I needed all the help I could get.  It turned out to be a pivotal moment for me.  Not only did the service uplift me, but it made me believe for the first time that I was really going to be able to finish this marathon.  I was going to do it.  I cried three times during the moving service. 

Now for the race.  Since making the decision that this was the last marathon my broken body would let me do, I decided to enjoy every step.  And those steps began as we walked to the T race morning.  My husband and I asked another runner who was riding with us to take our picture.  You can see such joy in my face.   I was going to do this even if it took me 5 hours or more or I was the last runner in.  I was going to run the Boston Marathon! I was ready to have some fun.  We made it to the bus area and I promptly got on a bus and made the 45 minute or so ride to Hopkinton.  I made conversation with my seat mate and found out that she was a charity runner who had only run as far as ten miles in her training!  At the athletes’ village I chatted with everyone around me as we waited in the port-a-potty lines…three times.  Then I ran into another Tallahassee runner, and we sat down and talked until she was called to her starting wave. My wave was called 15 minutes later.  On the .7 mile walk from the athletes village to the starting corrals, I passed by a homeowner who had set up a stand with markers so people could write their names on their arms.  I decided at the last minute to quickly write my name on my bib.  That turned out to be one of the best decisions I made that day, other than to just go and have a fun time.  I heard my name called out so many times during the entire race.  Total strangers encouraged me along the entire route.  What a feeling!

The race started promptly at 11:15 and it was hot and sunny.  No problem, I was there to enjoy my last marathon and that I did.  I started with a 10 minute pace, a pace I felt my knee could handle.  I walked through the water stations and thanked the volunteers. As I ran, I made a conscious decision to look at my surroundings and take it all in.  I high fived the little kids, ran close to the side of the roads so I could connect with the spectators better and got to the half way point in really good shape at 2 hours and 11 minutes.  I kissed a Wellesley girl and high fived my way down the entire line of screaming girls.  I was having so much fun. Before I knew it, I was approaching mile 17, the mile after which I did not know what my knee could do.  I started slowing down but didn’t care; I was in Boston running the Boston Marathon.  I cried, right then and there.  I was so happy.

At mile 19.19 my Garmin stopped functioning properly so I stopped looking at it.  I was walking more and more and my pace was slowing.  Heartbreak Hill could have lived up to its name had I not had my name on my bib.  So many people yelled out encouraging words.  “Go Paula.”  “You can do it Paula.”  “Don’t stop Paula.”  It was the crowd that got me through it, smiling all the way even though my legs were spasming and my back was aching.  No mind, I high fived the entire Boston College segment of the race.  At this point it was getting hotter and hotter.  I was slowing down and walking even more.  People in the crowd offered me ice, wet paper towels, orange slices and encouraging words.  I took it all.  Then about 4 miles till the end, I started having severe leg pain, my feet were numb, but my toes were tingling.  I was in pretty bad shape, and if I wanted a great finish picture to remember this awesome experience by, I would have to stop and walk and get myself together.  That rest did a world of good for me.  By the last few miles, I knew I was going to finish and in under 5 hours.  My knee, although aching, had held up and I hadn’t had any pain in my shin.  As I got closer to the end, I got emotional.  I had had such a wonderful experience, hard, but amazing, and soon my marathon career was coming to an end.  As I got closer to Boylston Street the roar of the crowd got louder.  The air vibrated with the screams and cheers of the crowd.  I’ll never forget turning on to Boylston Street and seeing the wide avenue in front of me lined on either side with cheering people ten to twenty deep.  It was electric!  I waved and cheered to the crowd.  I raised my fists in the air; I was so filled with joy.  Then the finish line came and I had done it.  I was a Boston Marathon finisher in 4 hours, 37 minutes and 26 seconds. I still can’t believe it!

And that is it.  No more marathons.  But what a marathon to go out on. It was simply magical.    As I said in the beginning of this, I am not a marathoner and although the marathon is my least favorite distance, the Boston Marathon IS my very favorite race of any distance ever. I wish this experience on all my running friends who aspire to it.  It is so totally worth it. But no more for me!!  Three and done!