Six lessons from running this year’s Boston Marathon

Last April, I wrote about my experience running the final 6.2 miles of the Boston Marathon as an unofficial “bandit” – and being in the city in the aftermath of the bombings. Even before the last Patriots’ Day made its terrible turn, I was dead set on participating in this 118th installment, having qualified at the Brooklyn Marathon in November 2012.

Near mile 18. (Nicholas Guerrero)

Near mile 18. (Nicholas Guerrero)

This year, as I’m sure you know, had a much different feel; for my part, in the midst of sensing the expectations from a city still healing, I would be running the full course as one of 36,000, the second-largest field in Boston history.

I’ve been sitting on this piece for two weeks now, wondering if my thoughts were somehow colored by the usual post-marathon blues. At some point, I decided I had to hit “publish” and walk away; as they say, art is never finished, only abandoned.

This isn’t about being Boston Strong or Taking Back The Race or any of the countless other slogans that were (rightfully) bandied about this weekend. It’s about some of the small joys of running, and why I continue to love it, three years after running that single block around my new Park Slope apartment, the first foray into a new habit that quickly turned into an addiction.

External motivators are critical.

I like to think I’m very self-driven, but even the best of us has to rely on an outside influence from time to time. For the past few training cycles, I had logged my training on giant posterboard in my kitchen, very visual reminders (along the lines of “don’t break the chain”) of the work I wanted to do. I didn’t do that this time, and I paid for it, with skipped workouts and postponed long runs.

My first-ever training schedule, for the 2012 NYC Half.

My first-ever training schedule, for the 2012 NYC Half.

Despite notching a new personal best in last autumn’s New York City Marathon, I found motivation in the winter months elusive. Emotionally, I was dealing with the end of a toxic relationship, and the nagging self-doubt that resulted; meteorologically, icy conditions kept me confined to a treadmill – an activity I abhor – for several weeks in January and February.

When my training faltered, I thought of those who had really been affected by the events of last spring. I mean, just read some of the profiles here and then tell yourself you might as well just stay at home because you’d prefer to not run indoors or you have some work you could get done. I drew on that during the late miles on April 21, too, when my legs felt as if they were on fire. That feeling is a privilege, one that might disappear in an instant.

Most signs suck, but the good ones are great.

I’ve begun tuning out signs at races because many of them invoke negative thoughts – exactly what I don’t need while I’m already struggling to rein in that tiny voice asking what the hell I’m doing with my life. Chafing rocks! and The guy in front of you is beating you! are uncool, no matter how funny you think they are.

That said, I still do look at the signs on occasion, because people put effort into them, and there are a few gems buried within. In the first or second mile, there was a group of guys with a large sign that said:


… and they were actually offering each of these things. I overheard that they’d already had ten takers for their frosty beverages. (The doughnuts looked delicious, but I don’t take things from strangers.)

My favorite sign, however, came from a five-year-old: Go runers Go!

Having the right crew is a huge boost.

Among those positive external motivators are your friends scattered throughout the course, some you expect to see, some you don’t. They’ve all given up part of their day to see the fruit of your training, and, this year anyway, to join in the celebration of light over darkness.

Some of my fans even wore shirts with my likeness and a reference to one of my favorite viral videos.

Keith 2014 Boston Marathon cheering section

The “Wellesley Tunnel” is not a physical tunnel. It is as awesome as people say it is.

I had heard stories about the “Wellesley Tunnel”, a mythical place where college girls lift their shirts and make out with you. I had figured it was a literal tunnel, in which prying, unregistered eyes (and cameras) would be unable to witness the spectacle.

Yet, no: it’s a wall of screaming girls, mostly on your right-hand side, every other, it seems, holding a sign offering a kiss to those who liked [self-descriptor]. I was on the lookout for Vermonters or Jeopardy! champions, but, alas, no such luck; my favorite was the computer-science major whose sign read println(“Kiss me”); or something like that. (I took none up on her offer.)

It was easily the loudest thing I’ve ever heard at a race – and I was amazed that my pace didn’t pick up a full 30 seconds per mile. You could hear the screams a half mile after you’d passed the area. I imagine there were many hoarse voices on the Wellesley campus the rest of the week.

Despite their sport’s asocial focus, runners have a lot of empathy.

It was warmer than many of us would have liked that day, with the mercury heading north of 60 by midday. This was a stark contrast to the frigid temperatures and icy surfaces we had to deal with in much of the country during the winter. Speaking with other runners, it was clear I was not the only one whose training and motivation suffered as a result.

The consequence: swept up in the emotion of a glorious day, many runners went out too fast for their fitness and paid the price.

The opening four miles of the race are notoriously hard, dropping about 300 feet from the start in Hopkinton. Hit them too aggressively and you’ll blow out your quads and have to walk later in the race. That’s exactly what happened with many runners.

You might think in such a loner sport as distance running that everyone else would be focused on his own race. On April 21, you’d have been wrong. Whether it was the gelled atmosphere or just general principle, every person saw himself as part of a larger team.

In the most memorable case, a runner dodged across three or four “lanes” to give a pep talk to a guy who had slowed his pace significantly. I don’t know how the guy did, but he was effusive in his appreciation for the chat.

This gave me warm memories of my very first half marathon, a disastrous 90-degree affair in Flushing Meadows Park in 2011. When I stopped to walk around mile 11.5, a passing runner yelled at me, in French: “Cour-ahj!” I got right back into it, drawing strength from his anonymous support, and broke into tears at the finish.

Wear sunscreen.



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3 Responses to Six lessons from running this year’s Boston Marathon

  1. michael abrahams says:

    Great piece, Keith. You nailed it.

  2. Mrs. G says:

    Love this!

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