As I settled into a leisurely pace amid the babbling brook of runners on the downhill first mile of Monday's Boston Marathon, I looked forward to seeing what this Heartbreak Hill was all about, and ultimately making the turn onto Boylston Street. There is a giddiness to the first mile of any marathon, and it felt more like the beginning of a camping expedition than a race.
I’ve suffered heat-related illness before, nothing life-threatening, but enough to alter my preparations given the ominous forecast. In addition to the usual hydrating and carbo-loading, I made sure to eat salty snacks. I applied suntan lotion, wore sunglasses, and donned a visor atop a white bandana to keep my face and head sheltered. I planned to drink a cup of Gatorade and a cup of water, and to pour a second cup of water on my head, at every station. I had a few mental tests to ensure that my faculties were intact: calculating 2 x 2, calculating 7 x 7, and thinking of assorted friends and relatives at miles 3, 8, 17, and 22.
The mile split, 7:15, was about 30 seconds slower than I would have expected for ideal conditions. Seemed about right.
It became clear early on that there was very little shade on the course. By mile 6 there were already a few walkers, and by mile 10 I saw as many walkers as I normally would only after about 20 miles. It hadn't crossed my mind that I would soon join them.
I had kept around that 7:15 pace for the first 9 miles, drinking the fluids, eating Gus and shot blocks, periodically multiplying 2x2 and 7x7, and keeping my competitive instincts at bay. Mile 7 was rough, but I got a lift in mile 8, when a runner handed me a bag of ice that he had gotten from a spectator.
The towns lining the road reminded me of old Westerns. The sun was blazing. We carried on.
It it difficult to pinpoint exactly what happened between mile 10, when I maintained hope of a successful race, and the half-marathon point, when I knew that the second half would be much, much slower. I could still do the math. 2x2 was 4. 7x7 was 49. I did not have a headache, but I was slowing down and becoming ever more mindful of the heat.
An hour, forty-nine minutes after I crossed the starting line, fourteen miles in, I stopped running. It was the first time I had ever walked in a race. It just seemed to happen, as if the decision was made for me a moment before my foot hit the ground.
And so began the second leg of the journey.
The spectators, with their offerings, turned me into a scavenger. There were garden hoses, weak sprinklers, and a young girl with an impressively powerful squirt gun shooting streams of icy cold water. Adults handed out orange slices, and little kids held fruit-flavored freezes. The water in the plastic cups from the Bostonians lining the course was more likely to be cold than the water in the Poland Spring paper cups at the official stations. Plastic cups of ice were especially useful. I even scored an electrolyte mix.
I was grateful for the wonderful generosity and spirit of the fans, but this new relationship was one-sided. They were giving me high-fives, but I wasn't even running.
One lady tried to motivate me, "C'mon Central Park, you gotta compete out there!" she yelled, with a bottle of water in her hand. I looked at her and wondered whether she was going to give me that water, and whether it was cold.
I started running again. My wife, son, and brother-in-law would be waiting near the Newton Firehouse at mile 16. But I was looking for them on the wrong side of the street, and we missed each other.
As I walk-jogged the Newton Hills in miles 18 and 19, I was asked by other runners whether we were on Heartbreak Hill. I suspected not. Then we reached a final, roller-coaster incline. In a whopping justification, I told myself that I couldn't run up Heartbreak Hill because I hadn't earned the right. I did try walking faster though, and wondered why I hadn't tried walking fast before. I had unthinkingly been walking at walking pace, not at race-walking pace.
I kept drinking cups of water and pouring it on my head, but my throat remained dry. I didn't seem to be sweating anymore, and I didn't know whether I had had too much water, or not enough.
Once I got to the top, I allowed myself to jog again. Only five miles left, and the majority of runners had slowed so much by this point that upon running once more I passed many of them. There was more cheering. These new spectators didn't know that I had been walking for most of the previous seven miles. To them I was another determined runner enduring the heat and embodying the spirit of the marathon, which I knew not to be the case. How strange that one could exit a race, and then re-enter it.
My heartbeat started fluttering. I didn't know whether this signaled anything, but out of fear I stopped running. I walked on. To the right of the mile 22 marker I noticed a medical tent, and when I got there, without a thought, I entered it and told the doctor that I was done. I had been on the course for about three hours and fifteen minutes. I was turning myself in.
I hadn't been looking for a medical tent, and if it hadn't been there I would have continued. But four miles of walking seemed very far at that point. I didn't want to experience the hallowed finish on Boylston Street in the condition I was in or worse. I wasn't racing anymore, I was simply trying to get from point A to point B. There was no fun left to be had.