My first Marathon

by Samson Timoner
written Tuesday April 17, 2001

It was a beautiful morning in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was 45 degrees and sunny with a just a little bit of wind. One could not ask for a better day to run.

I arrived at the race start, Hopkington School, around 9 a.m. The place was a carnival. There were tons of people selling everything from heavy sausages to running gear and energy bars. There was a small band dressed in revolutionary garb that included a drum and two wooden flutes. There was even a preacher with a microphone praying for runners. And, of course, there were tons of media interviewing just about everything that moved (I declined.)

I tried to relax by stretching and reading the paper. But, my mind kept coming back to my two worries. First, I had spent the last two weeks in Florida where my family pampered me for two weeks. I had done very little cardiovascular exercise -- I certainly did not come anything close to finishing the training program I had planned. Would I have the stamina to finish the race?

Much worse, for the last two weeks before the race, areas around my right knee were very tender. I did not have full extension in my right leg. Running using long strides, my preferred stride, was painful. How could I possibly finish a race with my knee in such bad shape? I was pretty sure I could run 5 or 6 miles on it. My guess was that I could finish maybe 10 miles before I would face extreme pain and have no choice but to stop the race. I had very little hope of finishing.

Since I had not qualified for the race, I was one of about 2000 people who ran "as bandits". We lined up behind the last of the 16000 registered runners. It took 15 minutes just to walk from the starting line to the end of the registered runners. And then once the race began, we had to run uphill for 5 minutes just to get to the starting line! It wasn't until 20 minutes after the race started that I actually reached the starting line.

I was a little worried about running in a pack of people -- this would be my first such experience. Running in a pack turned out to be O.K. There were no collisions and there was space to go around people if you wanted to go faster than the pack. Happily, my first worry was gone.

During the first mile, there were maybe a few hundred spectators -- They were clapping and cheering for us. I didn't expect the warm support. We runners had done almost nothing, yet the crowd was showing us a lot of respect. It was very nice of them.

At the first town we came to, we found a party. The sides of the streets were packed with spectators. There was a band playing "When the Saints go Marching In". There were tons of people announcing the score of the Red Sox - Yankee game as we went by. There were families picnicking by the side of the rode and cheering when we came by. The pack started to expand enough so that people could read our T-shirts. The guy to my right had a T-shirt that said "Ted". Cheers of "Looking great Ted!!" and "Way to go Ted!!!" and "GOOOO TEEEDD!!" soared through air. Similar cheers for "Stacy" and "Jen" were thrown around. I was running behind a group of B.C. cross country women (who made for a lovely view) so that loud cheers of people screaming "GO B.C" echoed of over the place. It was pretty clear that the people wearing "B.C" and "B.U" T-shirts were getting the loudest cheers. The home town crowd liked cheering their own.

I had decided to wear an M.I.T. T-shirt. My choice was based on the fact that the maroon lettering on the shirt matched my maroon running shorts. This choice was a lucky one, I got a good number of screams for "GO M.I.T." and "LOOKING GOOD M.I.T." When I heard such a scream, I turned to the screamer and acknowledged them by pumping my fist in the air twice. I got a lot of smiles back.

There were huge numbers of families lined up by the side of the road. I watched many Moms and Dads talking to their kids. It seemed to me there were trying to send their kids a lesson: you can do anything if you put your mind to it. We were 18,000 role models. ( Conversely, we were 18,000 bodies in good shape with tone bodies, tight behinds, and skimpy shorts....not exactly displeasing to watch.)

Lots of kids put their hands out so that the runners could give high fives as we went by. Most of them were from age 5 to age 10. These were the people cheering the loudest, and many runners, including myself gave them what they wanted. They smiled back at us.

It was great to receive all the good feelings and cheers. The first miles are pretty easy so that the crowd didn't make any difference in my running. However, the crowd did draw my attention away from pain in my body towards them. That, I appreciated greatly.

After the first mile, we came to our first water/gatorade pick up -- there are two after every mile marker. I picked up a cup of gatorade and soon learned a valuable lesson: it is very difficult to drink a full cup of liquid while running. Half the gatorade in the cup ended up on my hands and shirt and shorts, not in my mouth. Luckily, I didn't feel very sticky and the wetness didn't bother me very much.

What bothered me was the litter. Everyone had tossed their cups on the side of the street. I wanted to throw the cup away in a trash can. After all, here we were running in someone's town with the towns people cheering us -- how could we possibly litter their streets? Alas, there were no garbage cans and I ended up throw my cup in with the rest. But, I wasn't happy.

I had started the race with an old sweatshirt which I had taken off and put around my waist. Many people were removing layers and tying the clothing around their waist. For whatever reason, I didn't feel comfortable with my sweatshirt around my waist on that day -- I certainly didn't want it there for 25 more miles. But, I had owned the sweatshirt for many years and casting it by the side of the road didn't seem respectful. A church solved my problem. They put up a huge sign that read "Donate Clothing for the homeless, 0.25 miles down the road." This seemed like the right thing to do. I came to about 10 people holding open trash bags and my sweatshirt flew into one of them. Many other runners did the same with their excess clothing.

I haven't really spoken about the other runners. The best runners started far ahead of me so that I never saw them. Most of the runners around me were also running 9 minute miles, and looked to be in very good shape. One impressive runner was carrying a POW-MIA flag; Another was carrying the flag of the state of Maine. The last 2000 registered runners were actually running for the Children's Hospital or the Dana Farber Institute or other charities. Some runners were discussing the politics of "Taxachussets". Some runners wore headphones. Many painted their names of their T-shirts so that the crowds could root for them. Most people I saw were in their twenties through forties. It was a good mix of men and women.

With all the fuss going on, I was still worried about my knee. I did not have full extension in my right leg and my right knee was in pain. I figured there was no way I could possibly finish the race without destroying my knee. I tried to run in a way to relax my knee and stretch the associated muscles. But, nothing was working.

We received huge cheers in Ashland, and Framingham. The locals of Ashland started handing out orange sections for the runners. In fact, all along the route hundreds of people were handing out extra water and food -- it was a very supportive crowd. We past bands and dance parties. There were a bunch of people cheering us as they jumped up and down on trampolines. It was a lot to fun to feel all the good spirit.

And then, around mile 6, before Natick, a miracle happened! My right knee relaxed and started to feel almost no pain. I regained most of my normal stride. I now had a chance to finish the marathon. I felt great.

After the tenth mile marker, I was doing just fine. I had run for almost exactly 90 minutes since the starting line. My respiration rate was still normal. My heart rate was only mildly elevated. Unfortunately, my legs and feet were showing signs of fatigue. The muscles around both knees felt a little tight, as did my ankles. It was pretty clear to me that I was in sufficiently good cardiovascular shape to keep going. Only, could my legs and feet keep going for another 16 miles?

After mile 12, I started to tire. I didn't know it at the time, but I was becoming a bit dehydrated. I was pouring out most of the liquid from the water and gatorade cups so that I could drink them without spilling them all over myself. I wasn't halfway done with the race and I was already tiring. I started to worry about not finishing.

At the mile 12 water stand, the MIT Cross Country Team was handing out food and water. They cheered wildly for me. This was the first time I felt energy from the crowd and really absorbed it. I felt great again and kept on going.

And then, I came to Wellesley. Imagine the following: you've run almost a half marathon and you are tiring. You come to a wall of (*good looking*) young Wellesley women. As far as you can see, hundreds of Wellesley women, nothing but Wellesley women. And, they are all screaming at you. They are all cheering at you. They all have there arms out so that you can high five them as you go by. The chants of "MIT" were almost deafening at some points. By obliging most of their high five requests, they only screamed louder. It was quite a thrill. If you ever have low self esteem, I highly recommend running the first half of the Boston Marathon. Having 500 Wellesley women scream at you is quite an pick-me-up. (I'm told they cheer louder for women than men.)

But, in mile 13, disaster seemed to strike. Part of my left shoe started digging into my left foot. Would this be what caused me to not finish? Would my foot become raw and force me to give up? I tried to adjust my foot in the shoe to no avail. The shoe just kept digging and digging. In my experience with shoes, once they start digging in, it is almost impossible to get them to stop. I was in pain; there was no way I could on like this for miles. But, for whatever reason, a mile later, the digging lightened up and became almost non-existent. The race would go on.

After the sixteenth mile, I was extremely tired. And then: disaster. About 100 feet after the mile marker, I suddenly felt extreme pain in my right foot, going from one side of my arch to the other. I had to stop running -- I started walking. Thoughts starting streaming through my head: Would this be the end of my marathon? Could I possibly finish a race when I was in such pain in my right foot? Both of my legs were extremely tight and I was running out of energy. How in the world would I find the energy to go on? How could I loosen up my legs? What could I do for my foot? The longest distance I had ever run was between 16 and 17 miles; I had just equaled it. Maybe this was the best I could do given the minimal training I had done. I felt terrible. All I could do was keep walking.

I soon found my salvation. I drank a full cup of water -- it was good. So, I drank another. And then I drank a cup of gatorade, and then another cup of gatorade, and then yet another cup of gatorade. Now I knew why I was so tired: I was dehydrated. The pain in my arch disappeared. My legs started to feel better. I walked for about 10 minutes on mile 16 and stretched before I found the strength to start running again. It was a slow run, not even a 10 minute mile, but I was running and that felt good.

I found the strength to continue through mile 18. I walked for a couple of minutes at mile 18 while I drank water and gatorade. I did the same at mile 19. Otherwise, I kept on running.

I started to rely on the kindness of strangers. I thanked many people who handed me oranges. I blessed people who handed out extra water -- I was drinking 2 and 3 times a mile. I would not have been able to continue without their kindness.

At mile 18, I walked for a minute or two as I drank water and gatorade so that I would actually drink most of it. After I was done, I kept on running. At mile 19, I did the same. I was exhausted; my legs were tight and I was running 10 minute miles -- but at least I was still going. Still, I had no idea where I would find the energy to finish the last 7 miles.

Then, a miracle happened. The Power bar company was handing out little packets of energy for runners around mile 19. I grabbed one. Within of minute of eating it, my legs relaxed and my energy returned. I felt strong and good. The world was happy again. My tiredness was simply a lack of sugar in my blood. All I needed to do was to keep my blood sugar up and I would be able to finish the race. I could do it.

After the energy packet wore off, my eyes turned to the crowd. I greedily scanned the crowd for people handing out food. I took jelly beans, fig newtons and a banana. I took vanilla wafers and I almost took a home made brownie (I missed it).

Newton gave us a huge welcome. By this point, the Red Sox had beaten the Yankees and there were huge cheers for anyone wearing anything related to Boston (I took in a few). The crowds were lined up 10 people deep behind the metal fences. They were a great crowd and I absorbed some of their energy.

Then, came Heartbreak Hill. Between miles 20 and 21, there are a series of hills. The last one is known as Heartbreak Hill. The hills actually aren't so big, but they do come after 20 miles of running. I shortened my stride and went right up. For whatever reason, the hills didn't bother me. In fact, I kind of liked them. Much of the Boston Marathon is downhill, which is terribly difficult for the knees. My knees were able to relax going uphill.

The last five miles, through Brighton, Brookline and then Boston are all downhill. It is vicious test of the knees to absorb the energy from each step. But, I was only five miles away. My usual run is a bit more five miles, so I knew I could finish the race. I just knew I could.

Unfortunately, my body disagreed. At mile 22, I found myself dehydrated again. I walked for a few minutes until I got to the water stands and then drank more than my share. I kept on walking afterwards. But, the crowds didn't allow me to continue that way. There were huge MIT cheers for me from about 20 people as I came around a bend. So, I found the energy to start running again. Those 20 people went wild as I began to run. I gave them a thank you wave (I was too tired to pump a fist). The crowd had done its job.

Then, around mile 23, there was another bunch of MIT cheers. This time, I was able to use them to go from a slow pace to a much faster pace. The crowd went wild once again as I showed that I still had some energy left.

The last few miles, through Brookline and Brighton, are somewhat of a blur. I was very low on energy -- and people weren't handing out any food. I started asking myself if my brain was all there. That's one of those questions that if you have to ask, the answer can't possibly be "yes". Tired as I was, I continued on a relatively slow pace.

And then, I saw it: The CITGO sign. This is the sign by Fenway park that you can see from all around Boston. I was running right towards Fenway park. I was finally on familiar ground. I had 2.5 miles to go. I was dehydrated; I was low on fuel; but, I had to be able to run to that sign.

I made it -- barely. Not more than a few feet after I turned towards Kenmore Square, the pane in the arch of my foot returned. I had to walk it off. I walked about 100 feet and then started running again. I had 1.2 miles to go -- about 11 minutes to go.

I made the turn and started running towards Copley Square. I saw the huge grandstands and then I turned onto Boylston Street for the last 200 yards. The Finish Line was disappointing. I expected to see a huge clock, and flowers. All I saw was a large gold colored awning.

I passed the finish line, clicked my watch to record the time (4:25) and then started walking. Well, at least I tried to walk. My first step was 6 inches. We second step was 5 inches. My third step was 4 inches. I was cold and my muscles were very tense. I could not bend my knees. I hobbled forward slowly, eventually getting some water, food and blankets. A very kind man named Chris told me my muscles were inflamed and that I should take some advil -- which he gave me. He helped me up a curb and down a curb -- I quite literally could not bend my knee to step onto the curb. Getting into the taxi, someone helped me lift my leg into the taxi so that I could close the door.

The driver put the heat on for me, and I was able to relax in his car. Having warmed up, I felt a lot better. I had no problems getting out of the taxi at my house. The steps to my apartment were still difficult, but not too bad.

Today, I feel fine. There is some tenderness in my right knee and left ankle. Climbing steps is still difficult, as is bending down and getting up from my chair after I have been sitting a while. But, I can walk and I will likely go swing dancing tonight to celebrate.

The marathon was fabulous. If anyone is considering running a marathon, I highly recommend it. The experience of having crowds cheer for you is a great one. Go for it.