Reminiscing about Running the Boston MarathonGuest column by Paul L. Penfield Jr.
Michael K. Chung '94 recently wrote about running the Boston Marathon ["The Boston Marathon - What a Great Experience," April 22]. His column brought back great memories for me, from 31 years ago, when I was maybe a little older than he is now.
After I ate my Wheaties (I thought that the "Breakfast of Champions" might help) my wife drove me to Hopkinton. In 1963 you could drive right to the starting line, since unlike today there weren't that many people crazy enough to run. I was joined by three busloads of runners from Boston, many of them still recovering from the evening before at the Eliot Lounge.
All 275 of us went into the basement of the local high school to pick up our numbers. Mine was 72. To run you didn't need to qualify, you just had to pay one dollar to the Amateur Athletic Union. I got in line and soon found myself next to a man with a stethoscope. He put it to my chest for about 200 milliseconds, maybe long enough to detect advanced cardiac arrest, and then declared me fit to run. So much for my medical exam.
One intriguing aspect of marathons is the number of runners with advanced degrees. In the crowd I spotted an engineer who had attended a course I gave the previous summer. He (SM) was telling me (ScD) about his doctoral thesis, in nuclear quadrupole resonance, when we were joined by two other runners (MD and PhD). One of them told how he and a friend (DDS) were training one day when a truck driver ran them off the road, called them bums, and said they should quit loafing and get a job.
Well, noon came, and we were off. My memory of the next five-and-a-half hours is a blur, but I did learn to appreciate the wonderful spectators. I also learned how to eat oranges on the run: place quartered orange in mouth, skin side out; chomp down to release juice; discard rind backward to increase your speed (and perhaps hit and thereby slow down the runner about to overtake you).
Before long one of the three buses came by and offered to pick up stragglers who were clearly in pain. For many of us our emphatic refusal was a bonding experience. Eventually the other two buses came by and repeated the offer, the last driver insisting that if I refused him I would not get any more sympathy from anyone.
What a thrill it was to run by Wellesley College and hear the students cheer me on by name. They did it for all runners. It was great. They had no idea who I was, or that I was from MIT. I am sure they didn't find me cute. I was still in Wellesley when I heard the winner's name. It then dawned on me that I would not be sharing the beef stew served to the first twenty finishers.
To add insult to my already considerable injuries, passing motorists offered to drive me to the finish line. I also remember drinking a Coke my wife brought me at Coolidge Corner while she helped me limp along.
When I dragged myself past Kenmore Square it was 5:00 and the Red Sox game was letting out. Several fans let me know that my entire afternoon had been wasted. I found out how wrong they were when my six-year-old son joined me to run the last block, and we crossed the finish line together to the clapping of a few people still standing around watching. My wife said that I really did well, and perhaps a little more training might take three hours off my time.
At the time many people asked me why I did it. The best answer I had was that if you could run the Boston Marathon, you could do anything. You know what? I was right.
(Professor Paul L. Penfield Jr. '60 is the head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.)