Observations From My First Marathon

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This past Monday, I participated in the 125th running of the Boston Marathon. For me personally, this was a pretty big deal because I had resolved for a very long time that running a marathon was something I would never do because quite simply it was something I could never do. So breaking down that barrier was meaningful for me. I decided to break this down into some context about what got me here and what I learned from this.

How did we get here?

Running was never my thing. I am probably the tightest person you will ever meet in terms of my muscles and flexibility, so running has never been kind to me. I was a sprinter as a kid and in high school I was on the Prep New England Championship 4×100 relay team. So I could run fast, but I would get winded running anything more than a mile. I think I threw up running 5ks when training for soccer in high school or wrestling in college. It was just not something I ever enjoyed.

A few years ago, I wrote my first ever blog about becoming a member of the very elitist running community. Though it was satirical in nature, I kind of meant everything I said: I didn’t feel like I belonged as a “runner.” I had joked in the blog that having participated in a 5k, I was ready for a 10k or “whatever comes after that.”

Anyway, I eventually trained up to running a half-marathon. At that time, this was a pretty daunting feat. My goal was merely to finish the race. And what happened that day was pretty magical. Not only did I finish the race, but I ran 7’37” splits, which was maybe a good couple minutes faster per mile than I thought I might do. Basically, I showed myself something that day – that if I put my mind to something, I could do it. I had trained hard for that race, and it showed.

A couple months later, I ran a second half marathon. This time, my splits were 7’51”. After that race was over, I cried. They were not tears of joy. They were tears of disappointment. I can be incredibly harsh to myself. Though my goal two months prior was merely to finish, if I was unable to “one-up” myself the second time, I considered myself a failure. When I tell people this story, they laugh, because they cannot comprehend how someone would be so hard on themself. I have learned over time to be more forgiving.

So what about the marathon?

Having run those half-marathons and various other road races, I qualified for the 2020 NYC Marathon. Obviously, that marathon never took place because of COVID, so I deferred my entry to 2021, and I started my training for the race several months ago.

A few months ago, I randomly got an email (I don’t even remember where it came from, or why I opened it) about certain organizations that still needed fundraisers for the 2021 Boston Marathon. Given that I had spent my childhood in the suburbs of Boston attending the Boston Marathon, it was kind of a lifelong dream to participate (even though I figured that could never happen). So I jumped all over the opportunity.

The Boston Police Foundation needed fundraisers and I identified them as a charity I wanted to raise money for. Why? In 2013 when the marathon bombings happened, I was living in Back Bay just a few blocks from where the bombs went off. The police and first responders were the first people to run into the debris to risk their lives to save the wounded and injured. I will never forget how everyone rallied around one another in the aftermath of those bombings and how the phrase “Boston Strong” came about. It brought me to tears over and over again back in 2013, the mixture of emotions of grief over what had happened along with the joy of community.

I also believe the police have been inappropriately demonized in the media and on social media. A classmate of mine from Princeton firebombed a police vehicle during a protest in New York City last summer, and inexplicably, seemingly half of the Princeton people I know rushed to his defense. We have reached a point where some people condone violence against others as long as it is in the spirit of shared ideology. I try to hold back in these blogs because they are shared with my professional network but I also wrote a book about authenticity, so let me just be honest and say how I really feel: I find it disgusting. Disgusting because we praised these people in 2013 or on 9/11 but many of us conveniently cast them aside for what – to look good to our friends? So rather than whine about it on social media (like most of those people like to do), I decided to do something about it. So that’s what I did, and I raised $10,000 for the Boston Police Foundation and earned my entry into the race.

Race Day

I was incredibly nervous leading up to race day. The longest run I did was 17.25 miles, and while I had done that run at a pretty good pace (I was pretty consistently running 7’30 to 8’ mile splits leading up to race day), it was over a month before the race. I had some concerns about whether or not I was fully prepared and how I would cope with running that extra 9 miles or so. Everyone says to train up to 17 to 20 miles or so and to let the adrenaline and crowds carry you the rest of the way on race day. I was hoping that would be true.

I made a big mistake and came out way too hot out of the gate running 7’ splits for the first few miles. This was not on purpose – I did not see the first couple mile markers, so I thought I was going too slow and picked up my speed. Eventually, I realized that I had done the thing that everyone had warned me not to do, which was to burn all of my energy from the jump. Eventually, I settled down.

Around Mile 11, I got vicious muscle spasms in my calves. I do not mean cramps – I mean full-blown convulsions and contractions. Runners behind me could see the muscles twitching as could spectators along the way. This was not the type of injury you can run through. Every time there was a spasm, it required me to pull over to the side of the road and to deal with the excruciating pain until it subsided. And when it did subside, I was otherwise running through the cramps in my calves until inevitably the spasms would kick back up again.

These spasms had occurred from time to time over the years and a couple of times in my training. I attributed it to dehydration and lack of potassium and made those adjustments in my training with great success. I won’t say I was surprised this happened to me given the history, but I am certainly surprised about how quickly it happened in Mile 11. As I prepare for NYC, I am seeking some medical attention first to ensure there are no abnormalities I need to worry about. I finished the race about ten pounds lighter than when I started it (despite drinking copious fluids) so I imagine it is an issue with hydration that I need to fix.

In any event, you can imagine how mentally daunting it is to deal with this type of injury not even being halfway done with the race. For a moment, I thought to myself that there was simply no way I would be able to finish. But then I remembered what I had set out to do and who I was doing it for. There are people who lost lives or limbs in 2013. Who was I to say that this setback was not one that could be overcome?

It became evident pretty quickly that I would not meet my goal of finishing the race with sub-8’ mile splits. Instead, it was a battle of whether or not I might finish. Fortunately, there were many helpful runners and spectators along the way, including one who eventually helped me into the medical tent between miles 20 and 21. There, I received enough care to make my way to the finish line, running when I could, and walking when dealing with the spasms.

In the last mile of the race, I broke down in tears several times. There is no way to explain the feeling of making the last turn onto Boylston Street. For years I had watched people make this last victory run and finally it was me getting my turn with thousands of spectators cheering from the sidelines. When I reached the finish line, I broke down completely. In college, I quit the wrestling team after a year and a half and always thought about how much I hated quitting at anything. This time, even though I fell short of my goal, I had reached my real goal: to finish. And though it is hard for me to do, I am trying to learn the lesson from my two half-marathons, which is not to move the goalposts on myself or to beat myself up too much. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed, but I’d also be lying if I didn’t say I think I was tough as nails that day. I have a month now to regroup and see if I can improve for the next race. And I know that because I think most people would have expected that I would have no desire to run another one in such a short span of time after what I had gone through, and yet that same evening, I had already resolved that I was not done yet.

Community

I think the most exhilarating part of the marathon was the sense of community. You just do not see so many people getting together and being aligned around the same thing any more. Everyone was positive, from the runners, to the spectators, to the staff involved with the race. People go out of their way to cheer for you. In fact, it was one of the spectators who helped me identify a medical tent, and many others who saw me struggling who asked if I needed help. A couple runners along the way helped me out when I really needed it. As I’m writing this, I’m not only planning to run in November for NYC, but I am also looking ahead to the next Boston Marathon in April 2022 (it is typically held in April). It’s almost a little addictive to be involved in something filled with so much positivity.

People like and appreciate the police more than the media would have you believe – especially in Boston

Leading up to race day, I was not sure whether or not I should wear the singlet that was given to me by the Boston Police Foundation. Why? Because the police have been demonized so much within the media and within my social media sphere that I kind of assumed that a lot of spectators would give me a hard time about it. I didn’t want to deal with people booing me or giving me the finger or having some whack-o run onto the course and tackle me.

Here is what actually happened: zero people said anything negative to me, and hundreds of people went out of their way to identify me as “Boston Police” when they cheered for me. Others thanked me for my service, mistakenly believing that I was a police officer myself. When I say hundreds of people, I am not exaggerating.

What did I learn through this? To stop listening and caring about the people on the political fringes – both left and right – who are incredibly loud and narcissistic but themselves make up an incredibly tiny fraction of the population. They do not represent what average people think, and that was reflected very clearly in the way I was treated on race day. In a city where the police were heroes at the marathon less than a decade ago, you would think this should be an unsurprising revelation, but in today’s polarized world, I found it entirely surprising.

You’re still a nerd if you run back-to-back marathons

Listen, just because I ran a marathon doesn’t mean I am going to stop giving the running community a hard time. It’s still incredibly elitist. People have a way of trying to let you know how many marathons they have run like it is some sort of competition. What I found really funny was that there were regular people who had run the Chicago Marathon the day before and then Boston the next day. How did I know that? Because they made t-shirts letting everyone know about their wonderful achievement. I think running a marathon is kind of like CrossFit: unless everyone knows that you participated, it’s not really worth doing. This is especially true for the people who run back-to-back marathons. They clearly did not get enough joy bragging about the times they ran a single marathon, so they decided to one-up themselves and do two back-to-back. Of course, they need to advertise to everyone that they did such a thing because no one would know otherwise (and therefore it would not be worth it). Some of these people were even on the news for their “achievement.” There were some professional runners who did both back-to-back, but that’s their career. For those who did the two back-to-back, well, they’re nerds. Plain and simple.

Lessons moving forward

I’m looking forward to the NYC Marathon and potentially doing Boston again in 2022. I am not sure if I will do many (or any) after that – it remains to be seen.

Currently, I am awaiting the results of some bloodwork to make sure there are no abnormalities that would prohibit me from future competition. Assuming there are not, I clearly need to do a better job leading up to race day with my electrolytes and hydration.

On Race Day itself, I think there is a very simple fix that will help me. That is to listen to the one piece of advice I was given – don’t go too fast out of the gate. I didn’t intend for that to happen in Boston, but it did, and it kind of messed me up later on. In New York, I’ll be more mindful of my pace, and I’ll probably hydrate more frequently. In Boston, I was hydrating every three miles until the spasms kicked in. In New York, I’ll probably take water and Gatorade every mile or two.

If I can stay clear of injury, then I can really run my race. And I’m really looking forward to seeing what happens when I do.

One comment

  1. Jeff – I love everything about this post, from the impetus for you pursuing this dream to your preparation, approach, goals, mindset and the ups and downs of the whole experience. Kudos to you for mapping out a goal, achieving it, and looking for more, plus finding all of the benefits of the support network around you. A vulnerable and honest masterpiece – well done!

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