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Estimating Distance in the Boston Marathon

By Brian Loux

At Hopkinton, it’s a matter of looking for the starting line. Traffic’s real bad and the school busses only seem to be taking the runners who actually have a number. You thank your driver and join the surprisingly large pack of people garbed in flashy athletic gear and permanent marker tattoos. Any self-doubt and worries you may have had are gone now; the sheer focus for the task at hand will permeate every thought you have for the rest of the day.

At Corral 21, the last official area for runners, you do your best to squeeze right behind the tail end of it. Volunteers will set up roadblocks to ensure people don’t jump in amidst the numbered runners. Technically, nobody is supposed to be allowed on the track but the numbered runners. This is, of course, futile.

Then comes the most frustrating part of the day -- more frustrating than taking on a hill when your legs are on fire -- the wait to start. You hear the start of the elites and the cheers as they start their run, but you must remain still for what seems like hours. Only after you have served your penance can you make a brisk walk through Hopkinton town center, take one last swig of water, touch the starting line for good luck, and take off.

At 50 feet, you’re taking in the cheers of the crowd and the kids that reach out to slap your hand. The runners begin to separate based on their intended paces. Just like a road, it’s the faster to the left and the slower to the right. Confidence is mixed with caution as you try to balance your current feeling of strength with your calculations of the road ahead.

At Mile 1, you estimate your pace again. Most likely, it’s a trifle bit too fast thanks to the throngs of spectators egging you on. It’s also your first chance to grab some water and Gatorade amidst 200 other people that are more intent on an excuse to slow down than refueling.

At Mile 4, you’re leveling out at the pace you wanted. You also start to notice that the oranges you had counted on haven’t come yet. Having something fleshy in the stomach becomes almost as important as the energy from the Gatorade. There are rinds scattered about the streets. Clearly, the elites got to the food before you.

At Mile 7, you’re impressed that you’re still able to maintain your pace, especially under the near-record heat and gusty winds that occasionally create Gatorade and water cup cyclones. Every so often, you’ll pass a few memorable runners like the basketball dribbler and the man in the Santa suit. You press on and maintain your pace careful not to get cocky.

At Mile 10, you’re going farther than the longest distance for which you trained, and still maintaining the pace. Your confidence is growing along with your sense of power. You almost feel as though you’re at some lower level of nirvana.

At Mile 10.5, your leg gives out on you. Cursing, swearing, and blaming everything but the fact that your pace was far too fast, you switch to a brisk walk and try to calculate when’s the best time to start jogging again (answer: when you’re done). It had to happen some time, but the important thing is that you’re still moving forward. The sun and wind that you seldom noticed before now make themselves known with every breath.

At Mile 13 comes one of the few times you’ll find the strength to run again thanks to the myriad of screaming Wellesley students egging you onwards. Right after comes the monumental halfway point -- the ultimate litmus test for progress and chances of finishing. You look at the stopwatch. There’s no way you’re going to beat last year’s time. The food offered to runners has declined in nutritional value. But you’ll eat whatever they have for you in your mental state. Oreos, Twizzlers, Fig Newtons -- the taste takes away from the rest of the sensations your body feels.

At Mile 18, you begin the stretch of climbs that will eventually culminate with Mile 20’s Heartbreak Hill. Because you’re already walking and jogging, the agony is not as damning to you as it is to many of the others writhing on the suburb sidewalks. You pray for a second wind that doesn’t come. Even the top of the hill where the Boston skyline dawns, Jerusalem to a crusader, can’t lift your spirits enough.

At the outskirts of Boston, you take another look at the clock. There actually is a chance you can beat last year’s time. It is time for another push.

At Mile 24, the sun rears its sinister head again and kills your hopes of a faster time. But the Prudential Center is so close.

Then, at Mile 25, you’ll be able to push again. Encircling Kenmore Square are throes of your MIT friends. They cheer, they scream your name, you show off the speed you can still muster. It’s the second wind. For an event that’s mostly about individuality and self, you’re amazed at how much the idea of team still plays into the equation.

At Mile 26.2, you start to think about what it was all about. For me, there was only one reason. I try to ace my classes, and I fuck up. I try to find a job, and I fuck up. I try to date women, and I fuck up. I try to keep this newspaper together, and I fuck up. Then, for a brief four hours, 52 minutes, and six seconds, I get to do something that few others even try to accomplish. For that brief time, I get be king.

And at Mile 27, you have to realize: that is Victory. That is Sport.