You have got to be kidding me!
I am at mile eighteen of the Boston Marathon and the foothills that began around mile sixteen are turning into the Himalayas. It has been raining throughout the race, but now, suddenly, here we are in a torrential downpour. I have three miles of mountains ahead – including Boston’s infamous Heartbreak Hill – but the heavens have opened up upon me. I need an umbrella, goggles and a snorkel to continue.
The mistake I made was in looking up rather than continuing my inspection of the asphalt and pelting rain in front of me. The view ahead is sobering: the course winds upward as far as I can see – hundreds of runners climbing the hill and fading into the mist. No one at this point has given up and is walking along the side of the road; everyone appears to be lost in his or her own struggle to fight through the tempest and reach the top.
So the test begins, I say to myself to steady my nerves and prepare for the hell that is about to unfold. But why am I saying this? The test began miles ago. This is the critical third hour of the marathon and the rain simply won’t stop. I feel like Noah – Noah from the Bible: it is Day Thirty and the Ark is taking on water; the mice are floating upside down and the bunnies look like swamped rats.
Okay. Okay. So the conditions are miserable, but all along I knew the weather could be a problem; it is Boston in the early spring after all. Mentally, I said to my friends and family, I would be ready come what may—in fact, I have endured the rain all day, even before the race began. But now, at mile eighteen we are in the middle of a monsoon. How disheartening! Still, after the New York Marathon five months earlier, I told everyone, I was toughened by the experience; I could handle anything.
Now I am not so sure.
Squinting at the runners passing me, I can see their endurance, their strength, their stamina – attributes I too acquired back when I was training in North Carolina, but while mine are flushing out of me like stream of paint as I struggle up the hill in the middle of the deluge, theirs have only gotten stronger.
How did I ever think I could be a legitimate participant in this race?
Mile eighteen and, once again, this is it: the critical moment I have encountered many times in my life, my crash-in-a-blaze-of-glory moment. More often than not in my runs preparing for Boston, I died at mile eighteen, died a tragic death whether on a hill or along a flat, under the sun, rain, or in the cold of winter. Now running the five most critical miles of the marathon, the hills of miles 15 through 20, I have every reason to stop, to give up, give in, once again.
Good old eighteen. Back when I was training for Boston, I reminded myself over and over, I would be ready for Heartbreak Hill. Yes, at eighteen I had run the number of miles needed to make it up the most famous hill in the annals of marathoning – I would reach the top, even if afterward I had to walk rest of the way to the finish line.
It was my daughter, who, in studying the elevation map of the course a week ago, pointed out that, no, Heartbreak Hill was between miles twenty and twenty-one.
Mile twenty-one? It’s not eighteen?
Who the hell moved Heartbreak Hill?
Now I am in a crisis, dying in the driving rain with at least two miles to go before reaching the most critical hill of the marathon!
The no-name bump in front of me is nothing, I tell myself. It cannot be anything, not compared to Heartbreak Hill, or Mount Everest, or Kilimanjaro. It’s only here for one reason: to torture me into stopping. If ever there was a time to show my mettle, my determination, my steely resolve; if ever there was a time to kick into my climbing gear and storm up this hill; conquer it like Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders; show my family and friends I could do this, the time is now.
On the other hand, with the long, steep incline ahead of me fading into a drenching cloud of a full-blow typhoon, maybe, it really was a good time to walk.
Wouldn’t the onslaught give me the excuse I needed?
Tomorrow, I knew, the headlines would read “Rainy Conditions Dominate the Marathon.” This would refer to all the other participants. The small article on the bottom of page five, “Runner Drowns, Lack of Buoyancy Cited’ would be me.
At the block-long aid station, hundreds of volunteers are stretching out their hands with cups of Gatorade and water for the runners passing by. Others earlier along the way handed out sheets of paper towels and goo packs and Vaseline. Even little children in raincoats and galoshes offered runners slices of oranges – yes, the local citizens in the villages and hamlets outside of Boston have been incredible.
I grab a paper cup of Gatorade from a drenched girl in a blue slicker, take a small swig, and toss the cup and most of the liquid to the side of the road. In the rain it mixes with the runoff pouring into a drainage opening in the pavement.
I should have asked that girl, “What’s the fastest way to Heartbreak Hill? I’m drowning here.”
‘Up the hill,’ I know she would say, pointing like a swamped albatross. Yes, yes, I got it, up the fucking hill!
I never, never, never should have looked ahead, even though everything I read says keep the head high and do not restrict the air passages. Yet, now realizing what is what and what lies in front of me, my bubble has burst, or rather my corpuscles. Lifting my head for a few gasps of air seems like a crazy idea. Better not to know. Better to hide in the asphalt, head down, focused on the wet road in front of me. Study the rain splashing like a billion pellets into the puddles.
How can I believe what I see anyway, what with the brim of my baseball cap channeling a steady flow of water off my cap in front of my face? I must be running through Niagara Falls.
I am wearing sunglasses to keep the splash out of my eyes, and the dark lens, at this point, are covered with raindrops. I am now, essentially, running blind. Maybe, actually, I am not moving uphill at all, but upside down and running downhill. No, no. In spite of my splotchy glasses and the steady stream of water coming off my hat, I can tell, I definitely am pushing myself up a hill. Blind and struggling at mile eighteen – Great… From here on I am in unexplored territory, the great unknown.
Lewis and Clark and me. Where’s Sacagawea when I need her?
What a disaster. Where the hell is mile nineteen anyway?
My red shirt clings to my chest and my black shorts glisten in the rain. A stiff wind blows down the hill, but I am wearing no other clothes to combat the chill. In point of fact, I tossed my windbreaker miles back, somewhere around mile three or four when I thought I was too hot. Dumping the coat was so smart at the time. It was what I prepared to do, but now I can feel the cold rattle my bones.
My gloves, the ratty gloves I intended to throw off too, are still covering my hands. Even though they are soaked, my fingers are warm. At least I think so – maybe I have frostbite and have lost the feelings in my hands. I don’t know. Better not to know. Not now. Not with this endless Himalayan peak in front of me.
I am wearing a striped red beanie over my baseball cap. I have pushed the beanie down over my head to keep my ears warm and my earphones secure in my ears. An app on my phone has been giving me my pace, but it stopped a mile or two back. My phone must have washed away, or it too has drowned.
I am on my own at mile eighteen. At this point the earphones simply keep the rain out of my ears. I can hear the shouts of thousands of spectators on either side of the road, spectators who are braving the conditions, the cold, and the wind to cheer us on. Their support is intoxicating. I can’t stop now. No wonder no one is walking.
A ragged paper towel is in my left glove. It too is soaked, but at some point, I simply must blow my nose. First, I need to catch my breath. Breathe. Breathe. On this hill, this may be a problem, but breathe. Breathe. No shallow breaths now. Force the air down. Down to the bottom of the lungs. Down. Down. All the way down. Down to my balls. Warm those scrunched up, blue babies.
Oh, man, give me back my balls in my time of need!
Viagra. Maybe Viagra is the magic bean I should be searching for at the aid stations along the route.
Gladly I would follow my penis like a divining rod pointing the way up mile eighteen if only it could show me how to get to Heartbreak Hill.
I have to stay focused. Stay in the moment.
Keep pushing my legs forward.
It’s my feet. Even with the earphones, I can hear my shoes squishing. My shoes and socks were wet before the start of the race. I feel the heavy flush of water shooting out of my shoes. I feel like a duck. I am growing webbed feet in my socks.
‘Stay positive,’ I quack as I waddle up the hill, searching for mile nineteen. Thoughts of giving up wrack my brain.
‘A moment of pain for a lifetime of glory.’
This statement from some movie I watched over the holidays has been with me through my workouts, even here, right now as I keep churning upward like the Little Train in the children’s story. Huffing and puffing: “I think I can. I think I can.”
Two weeks earlier at this point I nearly succumbed to the heat of North Carolina and thought I would pass out on the hill I was climbing. I threw up a horrible mixture of Gatorade and goo and when I went to get my water bottle strapped to my belt, I discovered it had fallen out somewhere behind me. I was too sick to go back and had no choice but to stumble onward the three miles home. In the house, I sank onto the couch in my sweaty clothes and dirty shoes; my calf muscles visibly clenching in endless spasms of torture. My daughter taking off my shoes and socks was shocked enough at my demeanor to suggest calling 911; her sixty-one-year-old father shriveling into a purple prune right before her eyes.
It was several hours before I could recover to get a shower.
This is not going to happen today. Not here. Not now. The drenching rain and the cold wind are keeping me from overheating. Suddenly, I realize, the weather is giving me precisely the conditions I need to press forward, past mile eighteen.
‘A lifetime of glory!’ I hiss as I spit a throat full of phlegm at a spectator.
“Opps! Sorry,” I mumble as the guy looks at me in horror.
In spite of my dark nature, I swore Boston would be different. This has been my mantra: Boston will be different. Boston will be different.
This time, unlike at the New York Marathon five months earlier, I would not descend into mind-numbing negativity and give up at mile eighteen. I would remain above it all, above the fray – no matter what happened over the course of this fucking race.
I would stay positive.
Nor would I be freaked by phantoms that might arise. I had learned my lesson in New York; I saw first-hand what ghosts I could conjure if I gave in to the temptation.
Now at mile eighteen, after how many times I stopped exhausted in my training runs back home, I must cram the desire to give up into a box in the back of my mind and seal the cover if I am to survive. Though I can feel it in there, treading within, keeping its head just above water, this time the deathly fury cannot be released.
Boston is giving me a gift. I can’t blow it!
I remind myself of this over and over, like breathing. Don’t blow it. Don’t blow it.
I have no time to think negative thoughts now. Besides, such concerns, I realize while inching ahead through the raging floodwaters gushing down the over-saturated hill, will only defeat me.
“I will not be defeated by defeatism!” I yell out to the world at large. A couple of runners look at me startled in the rain and quickly move away from me. “Yes that’s right, and no hurricanes and no nor ‘easterners will keep me from my appointed task, and no headless horsemen either. Bring it on, Boston, bring it on!”
I feel a new me emerging through the pounding rain and I am becoming the positive person I was meant to be – eighteen miles into the race and I am drenched and nearly naked, but, I realize, I am carrying deep in the core of my being a shining spot of positivity. Come what may, I will hold on to this. I will climb my way up Boston’s five miles of mountains, I will master Heartbreak Hill, and I will cross the finish line.
It’s time to quit drowning and believe.