Small Steps, Big Accomplishments: From Fun Runs to the Boston Marathon
Small Steps, Big Accomplishments is a series of encouraging stories about everyday exercisers doing big things. This installment is told by Pat Murphy, a Boston resident who decided to take on the Boston Marathon.
I’m a slightly overweight, 34-year-old male who runs 5k races to get the t-shirt and gets most of his exercise playing 18 holes of golf (with cart). The Boston Marathon is one of the oldest, most respected and challenging marathons in the world. People like me only gain entry through extensive fundraising and must undergo an arduous training schedule in the dead of the New England winter.
Yeah. Sign me up for that.
Why was I compelled to run?
I’ve been living in Boston since 1999, my wife ran in 2012 (to honor a friend who passed away two weeks before the race), I’m not getting any younger, and my father would have loved to see it (he passed last year and was an avid runner). I felt it would be a tribute to my city and family, but also a great accomplishment—assuming I crossed the finish line.
The Boston Marathon allows for a few thousand runners who do not qualify based on time to enter the race by raising money for a select charity. My “aha” moment came when a Twitter feed announced open spots for a children’s non-profit called Playworks (they do great work, check them out). All I had to do was raise $10,000 and I was in.
After being accepted, I focused on the daunting training schedule. I was excited to start, but that excitement morphed to fear when I surveyed the later weeks of the schedule and runs of 17, 18 and 22 miles.
The first five weeks of training weren’t bad. Each week included three short runs and one increasingly long run that by the fifth week had reached eight miles. As winter set in, I became great friends with a Life Fitness treadmill (I called it “Das Belt”) at my gym in favor of always running in the elements. The cold temps were tough to handle some mornings.
About a month into the training I noticed a progression. Four miles gave way to 7, 9, 12 and 15 miles. Before I knew it I was driving out to the ninth mile on the marathon route for a 17-mile run. After that, I realized for the first time that not only running, but finishing the marathon, was within reach.
After the 17 miler, I derailed a bit. Weekend trips, soreness from workouts, and St. Patrick’s Day contributed to fewer miles. Training for a marathon is all-consuming. Balancing training with life was incredibly hard. Luckily, I have an understanding wife whose encouragement was essential. That’s the only reason I made it through my 20-mile training run on a cold and rainy day in early April. My wife ran with me for the first half and then met me every two miles after that to make sure I had water, snacks, and a dry towel at the finish.
The beauty of the Boston Marathon is that the field consists of a large contingent of average runners who raise enormous amounts of money for local charities. I saw people from all walks of life training on the hills of Newton every weekend. The one thing that got me out of bed on those cold mornings was knowing that if all those other brave souls could do it, so could I.
I took the long bus ride to the starting line, and after pulling into Hopkinton High School and the athlete’s village the nerves turned to excitement. My wave was called almost two and a half hours later and I was herded to the starting corrals. The sun blazed, my mind raced, and I started second guessing my training strategy – I was a pre-race mess. My corral was finally called and I inched to the starting line.
The first few miles felt like every other road race I’ve done—crowded, people maneuvering for a little more space. At about mile five, the road opened up and I was able to appreciate the throngs of people lining the course in the western ‘burbs. They were all positive, vocal, encouraging. “I’m going to need this energy later," I thought.
I cruised for the first half of the race and felt like I was putting a solid effort together. At the crest of the hill at mile 14 I was met with a wall of sound from the girls of Wellesley College and the “Scream Tunnel”—a much-needed boost of energy near the halfway point.
At mile 16 I began to cramp up, terrible timing since the Newton hills (including Heartbreak Hill) were a few miles ahead. I started to worry that I might actually not finish this race that I worked so hard to prepare for. Unable to run uphill, I hydrated as much as possible while walking the inclines and running as fast as my legs would take me on the downhill stretches. I quickly threw my 4:20 finish goal out the window and decided it was about survival.
The stretch from mile 17 to mile 22 was possibly the most physically grueling and mentally challenging hour I can ever remember. I passed Heartbreak Hill and focused on seeing my family at mile 24 and eventually coasted down the hill to where they were stationed on the route. I high-fived and hugged everyone while still slowly moving toward the finish line. It was one of the coolest moments of my 34-year-old life.
The boost of energy from seeing friends and family was short-lived, as exhaustion slowed me to a determined shuffle. I vowed to not stop running until I reached the finish line. I took a right turn up Hereford into the overserved crowds celebrating the best day of the year in Boston. Before I knew it, I was curling left onto Boylston Street—I made it.
I used whatever energy I had left to applaud the crowds lining the street, hold my fists up over my head in defiance to this beast of a race, and to trot over the bold blue finish line. I collected my medal, my breath, my emotions, and set my sights on a post-race burger and beer.
Dad would be proud.