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The Boston Marathon -- What A Great Experience

Column by Michael K. Chung
Athlete Wannabe

I ran the Boston Marathon last Monday, perhaps one of the neatest experiences (of the one-afternoon variety) I have taken part in. Over a year ago I wrote a column saying that rowing crew is the ultimate experience and that everyone should try it. While the marathon was quite an experience, I can't necessarily endorse it for everyone.

The start of the race eliminated any leftover languor from the drive over. The runners and spectators were going nuts, cheering and whistling, getting everyone's adrenaline pumping. After the gun started, it took about six-and-a-half minutes until the pack I was in was able to start jogging, which was greeted with a terrific burst of cheers.

For the first several miles, seeing the floods of people - literally thousands of people were in front and in back of me - was quite amazing. The first six miles were really fun to run because of the excitement of the Boston Marathon (while still physically fresh), further fueled by all the kids and families on the sides giving high-fives, water, and oranges to you. (Some of the kids even had races with their friends to see who could get 200 high-fives first.)

By the third mile, I had taken my t-shirt, which had a big "T" on the back, and "MIT CREW" above it, and turned it around so people could see it as I approached. I got cheers ranging from "Go T" to "Go MIT Crew!" to "Go Mr. T!" throughout the race, which was definitely motivating.

After about seven or eight miles, I decided that I would think of the race as blocks of nine, seven, four, three, and three miles each. I figured that I ought to be able to do the first sixteen without much trouble, than split the last ten miles (if I felt reasonably healthy enough) into three blocks.

We descended into the city limits of Wellesley at mile 12. My high school math teacher (who ran the Boston Marathon in 1990 in 3:01:08) said that if you ever get into running, to train for at least a 15 mile base so you can go through Wellesley, since the students there cheer so loudly that you can hear them from a mile away. Also, one of the guys I drove up with said that "if you only want to do half the race, do an extra mile so you don't look like a schmuck at Wellesley for dropping out."

I started hearing the cheers from a distance and was not disappointed to run through a five-hundred gauntlet of Wellesley College students yelling "Go MIT Crew!" I gave them all high-fives, yelled "Let's make some noise!" and of course, ran the fastest I had all afternoon in my little attempt at studliness.

Though the initial (and longest) string of cheerers was shorter than I expected, I decided that it probably would be a cool thing to go back and introduce myself to them all, spending perhaps a little more time with them.

Okay, back to the main story. The halfway point finally came after about 2:05, and with it, my first cramping in the calves (spreading to the shins and lower quadriceps).

Stopping to stretch, I thought "This is about how far I expected to get before cramping ... with any luck I can still make my initial goal of getting through the famed hills' of Newton (miles 16 through 20) and not require hospitalization, forever ruin my joints, or suffer a heart attack at the tender age of 22."

The next four miles went by more slowly, but reasonably well; I stopped and stretched periodically and was still able to smile and wave to people while they cheered me on.

Going into the Newton hills, I started to cramp more often, which was kind of annoying because I felt aerobically fine. I measured my pulse once and it was around 200 beats per minute, which kind of worried me.

"Heartbreak Hill" finally came up, and the only reasons I could recognize it (people often have trouble distinguishing between the various hills by this point) was because of the big banner above it saying that this was the place, and that I had seen it on TV the night before.

Personally, I felt that the hill was overrated - I guess that by that point of the race, I had expected to be running up a ski slope. Of course, my stride was down to about a foot-and-a-half by that point, so the contours of the course had substantially less effect.

Don't get me wrong - it was tough to run, but I somehow expected more. Sure enough, there was yet another hill lurking after the plateau of Heartbreak Hill, but I think I had to walk that one because of cramps.

The last seven miles were pretty harsh - I got into a rhythm that went something like: jog for a couple hundred yards, cramp, stop, stretch (and moan and curse), walk, and start the whole cycle over again. This happened so many times that I can't even begin to imagine how many times I had to stop.

I kept looking at my watch and decided that I was never going to catch site of my friends at Massachusetts and Commonwealth Avenues (about the last mile of the race), since I told them that I might get there between 3:30 and 4:30. I wondered if I would even break five hours.

But all that mattered to me was finishing (preferably before sundown). I had almost decided not to run it because of foot problems and an over-cautious attitude to keep from permanently damaging my body, but I was instilled with considerable religious motivation a few evenings before, and decided that if the Lord Jesus Christ could have suffered so much for the sake of humanity, certainly I could at least try to suffer through a marathon to show a little appreciation.

Anyhow, by the time I was shuffling (literally) through Boston College, the cheers became more along the lines of "You're looking great MIT Crew! You've only got 5 more miles, you can do it!" which translates roughly to "You look like a disaster, but I admire you for being crazy enough to do this, so I encourage you to finish." Either way, it was certainly nice to get support from other college students.

The last five or six miles of the race (before the turn onto Hereford and Boylston Streets) follows Commonwealth Avenue. Let me tell you, I was pretty tempted to jump onto the T for a few stops. Finally I was able to see the CITGO sign, which took forever and a half to get to. I knew that once I reached Kenmore Square, I was home free, since I knew how far it was from there to the Boston Public Library, where the finish line was.

Getting to Kenmore Square took a while and was painful. It got to the point where I thought that even if I did finish the race, there still was a lot to be desired since I kept cramping. This was in sharp contrast to my thoughts of the first six miles: "If I finish and see my friends there I'm gonna be crying and screaming I did it! I finished the Boston Marathon! I can't believe it!'"

I finally got to Mass. Ave. and started getting pumped. When I saw the 26-mile mark, I felt tears coming to my eyes and tasted the victory of finishing the race. The last 385 yards down Boylston Street was simply amazing. There were still big crowds along the sides (it was about 5 p.m. by then) but the runners' field had thinned out considerably.

In a last attempt at feeding my ego, I sped up and waved my arms around, telling the crowd to "make some noise," and loving every step of the way.

Luckily, during the last half mile or so, I didn't have to stop and stretch for cramps, and when I crossed the finish line, I wanted to cry (in joy), laugh, and stretch all at the same time. Instead, I stretched, got my mylar spacesuit blanket, and ate and drank plenty of free samples.

Without question, this was one of the most exciting and craziest things I have done in my years at MIT. The first half of the race was considerably more fun than the second half, partly because of the excitement of the start, and relative physical freshness.

Each mile and every fifth kilometer was marked. The kilometer signs got to be mind boggling for me, after 25 (followed by 30, 35, and 40), I thought "Wow - I've never seen a race advertised as this many kilometers before, except for the Ultramarathons - 100 km (62.5 miles) - specially designed for the extra crazy."

All the while, I knew that even after 15 miles (my expected threshold), 11 miles was not trivial. Anyhow, I can only recommend running the entire race to people if they train properly for it (I barely made that qualification), are cautious about it, and never lose sight of their motivation for the race.

Congratulations and thanks to all marathon participants, finishers, volunteers, and cheerers from the MIT community and everywhere - you made the day for a lot of people.

Opinion Editor Michael K. Chung is surprised at his post-race mobility, but does not plan to run again until after graduation. Any future marathons would probably be for fund-raising purposes only.