There were three of us, close friends, who used to run in the Boston Marathon. This was in the '60s when no qualifying time was necessary and the fields were considerably smaller. Not that we hadn't trained hard for it—a lot of miles in a lot of snowstorms. But for us and our families, the Boston Marathon was sort of like a Harvard-Yale game in which we were allowed to participate.
We'd usually have pancakes the morning of the race. The idea was to fill our stomachs with something bland. One year I gave in to a glass of orange juice and was none the worse for it. At my eight-minutes-a-mile pace, I probably could have gotten away with champagne.
All the runners gathered at the Hopkinton High School gym. It was like a club reunion, people greeting people they hadn't seen in a year. The gym always reeked of wintergreen. Bodies were strewn everywhere, guys taping their toes, applying Vaseline, putting on a wild assortment of clothing, especially if it was cold. You can never tell about New England in April. I once ran in 70° heat, but I also ran in sleet. After changing, you had to take a physical, which was a joke. Lift your shirt, five seconds of the old stethoscope and out. Next. Then you'd pin your number on your shirt, front and back, roll your clothes into a knot and toss it on the bus to Boston. That's why you wore old clothes to Hopkinton.
Thirty minutes or so before noon you jogged to the starting line half a mile away. One clear day I caught sight of the Prudential Tower in the distance. Mount Everest in downtown Boston. There was always a huge crowd around the starting area—band, balloons, kids up trees, the works. You said goodby to family and friends, as in I won't be back till it's over, over there, and shook hands solemnly with the guy next to you, even though you might be spending the next three hours at his side.
Then the gun, a roar from spectators and runners alike and you were off. Slowly. The last year I ran there were over 1,000 entries and it took me 20 seconds merely to reach the starting line, a wide white stripe across the road. By then the leaders had turned right at the town green and were headed for Boston. Shortly after the start of the race came a stretch of road where you could see for perhaps half a mile, but every time I got there the leaders, along with their motorcycle escorts and press buses, were already gone. I never did see them, not once in five years.
If you trained diligently for the 26 miles, the first 13 were usually fun, no more taxing than a round of golf. The course through Framingham, Natick and Wellesley is free of hills, and crowds line both sides of the street, offering orange slices and cups of water and even calling out your name, having checked your number with the starting list in the Boston paper.
My family always met me in front of Munger Hall in Wellesley, where my wife went to college. There my sons would hand me some special brew, perhaps a Coca-Cola left open all night to get rid of the carbonation. They would jog along with me so I would not have to slow down. Slow down and you might stop. When I had gone they would return to the car and drive into Boston for the finish.
It always got tough after Wellesley. Chances were that something had already started to go wrong. A blister, maybe. An ache in the right hip. The curious thing was how one ill disposed of another. If the right hip ached enough, you wouldn't notice the blister.
Perhaps you've heard about the hills. They begin at about the 17-mile mark and you are not rid of them until 21. The first year I sailed through them in fair style, but I misjudged things badly the next year. I assumed the second hill was the last, figured I had only five miles to go, glanced at my watch and decided I had an excellent chance to break three hours. A mile further the third hill loomed into view. I had to walk up it.
A favorite memory: one year I was plodding up the final hill in the rain. There was no other runner nearby. At the crest stood two elegantly dressed Boston women, tweeds, fur wraps, leather gloves. They were talking, but just as I passed they turned and applauded lightly.
"It's all downhill" is what everyone yells at you once you pass Boston College. Five miles to go. By now you are very anxious to stop running. In fact, you may have already. I walked a bit in every one of my marathons. Distance running is a constant war between mind and body. The body starts saying stop at a certain point and the mind says no, and there comes a time when the body dominates the mind.
But in the last few miles the mind always takes control again. You know the end is near so you can ignore the latest problems. Leg cramps one year. Had to waste a minute massaging them. Another year some kids darted across the street and one of them stopped directly in front of me. It was too late and I was too weary to change my course, so we collided. One of them yelled at me but I had no energy to yell back.
I don't think I will ever experience anything quite like the finish of my first Boston Marathon. In downtown Boston the crowd had started to build again. Police blocked the intersections. One of them indicated a right turn off Commonwealth Avenue and, when I took it, there was the Prudential dead ahead. Up a little ramp and I was entering the closest thing I'll ever see to an Olympic Stadium. There were 200 yards more to run, slightly downhill with crowds standing behind barricades on both sides. I could hear my wife shout my name. I nearly sprinted down that stretch and, in the final 20 yards, I lifted my arms above my head, as Bruce Jenner would do 11 years later. Yes, it was showboating a bit, but at the moment I really didn't give a damn.