It’s a strange experience, being congratulated on a race you haven’t even run yet. But that’s just how it is in Boston, home to the most famous distance race in the world, in the days before Marathon Monday.
Bostonians are rightly proud of their event, and, in turn, every one of the 30,000 runners who are awarded the privilege of coming to their city to take part in it each year.
As much as the runners themselves, they know a Boston place is payback for all the miles we BQ-ers have put in to get there. When shop workers, waiters or hotel staff find out you’re in town for the race, they don’t miss a beat in welcoming you to Beantown, and congratulating you on the achievement of just being there.
Everyone, even non-runners, gets into the marathon spirit. Blue and yellow banners bedeck buildings and streetlights; billboards and promotions riff on the running theme. Runners in their year-dated Boston 'Celebration' jackets, their personal badges of honour – and always, always their oldest ones – mill around everywhere. Bars give you free drinks after the race if you’re wearing your medal (a fact I found out too late to be of use in my own celebrations).
The lengths people go to get to the start line once they’ve qualified are like nothing else I’ve seen. The woman who sat next to me on the bus out to the start at Hopkinton was eight months pregnant, having earned her BQ the day before she got her good news. “I wrestled with what to do for ages, then decided I just couldn’t miss the opportunity to run,” she told me. Cleared by her doctor to take part, the only thing she was focusing on was enjoying her race, which would be, in fact, her baby’s second marathon. Two women on my flight home had travelled from Dubai, even with one being injured and not able to run to her potential. Like my pregnant bus companion, they just weren’t going to miss their chance to be part of running history.
As for the course itself, everything you’ve heard is true. The point-to-point route is deceptively hilly, with the hills being exactly where you don’t want them – from miles 16 to 21 – to boot.
Everything you’ve heard about the support on the route is true, too. From the ‘end of the driveway’ and small-town boosters in the early miles to the enthusiastic ladies of Wellesley College (sample sign: ‘I love your stamina: call me’), screams, hoots, bells and whistles seemed to come from every inch of the 26.2 miles I ran. Ignoring the general agony of running a marathon, I couldn’t believe how quickly the race passed – more a testament to the love of those in every town we passed through for their world-class event than my skills as a marathoner.
The famous ‘right on Hereford, left on Boylston’ finish in the middle of downtown Boston was quite simply overwhelming. I could barely hear myself think for all the screaming and cow bells clanging in my ears. Keeping up a good pace in the last mile was a tricky business too, at times, with runners criss-crossing all over the place to high-five waiting loved ones and make the most of their moment of finishing-straight glory.
In the end, despite doing nearly everything against the PB playbook in the immediate build-up to my big day – eating too much of the wrong thing (breakfast nachos, anyone?), drinking too much (I’m sure cider and gluten-free beer count for carb-loading), staying out too late at the ice hockey (well, it was the Stanley Cup playoffs) and doing way too much sightseeing (20+ miles around Cambridge and Boston on our rented ‘blue bikes’) – I came away with a new personal best time of 3.24.59.
Roger, the chap from North Berwick I ran the first 10k with, hoped to go sub-3.20 after what he called ‘unfinished business’ at last year’s frozen washout of a race. But when I caught up with him at the medals, I discovered it just didn’t come together for him in 2019, either: he’d ‘blown it’ towards the end, albeit to the tune of a very respectable 3.23.15 finish.
The sun coming out in force around lunchtime, about the time many runners hit the three Newtons and the legendary Heartbreak Hill, certainly didn’t help those of us from the UK. Conditions only grew hotter and more humid over the day (after torrential downpours at the start), and were not the comforting ‘British’ weather of rain and low temperatures predicted when I packed my bags the week before.
In the end, heeding the words of the 2012 winner Wesley Korir kept me right. Recognising the Kenyan runner in the passport queue at Logan, I wished him the best of luck for Monday and asked if he had any tips. “Don’t go too fast,” he told me. I laughed and assured him there was absolutely no danger of that, compared to what he’d be doing, and thanked him for his time. With another BQ in my pocket now, I’ll be sure to follow his advice again, the next time I turn right on Hereford, and left on Boylston.
Sports Tours International is the official travel partner of Boston Marathon – details of registration for their 2020 packages are available online now.