Marathon Still Thrills on 4th Trip
There is a great desire to share your story when you finish your first marathon. You’ve accomplished something few ever try, and from that arises a great sense of purpose and a need to relay your emotions.
Every mile marker, every costumed bandit runner, every spectator that shouts some words of encouragement is unforgettable the first time you soak in the experience. Justifiably, these things become part of an epic tale that pours out of you in the coming days when people undoubtedly ask you to regale them about the race.
It’s a predictable story, but one you’ll enjoy telling. It will have the dramatic preparation, the anticipation before the starting gun, the confidence and the test of will, and finally the glory and pride as you make your final footsteps along Boylston Street. This will be followed by self-reflection, retelling to friends, moving on with your life.
That’s not the case when your second time becomes your third, or your third becomes your fourth. Gatorade will once again be spilled on an innocent volunteer who didn’t see it coming. Santa Claus will return to his post just before Wellesley College. Heartbreak Hill will still be a frustrating crawl.
There won’t be a lot to surprise you. It will be old hat. Routine, almost. It will serve to remind you how far away your days as an undergraduate punk with the balls to even try the race really are.
This was the case when I began my training last winter for my fourth bandit running. I was far less concerned about how I would train for the marathon and much more about why. Having already completed three Boston marathons, there was nothing really to prove to myself anymore.
I had already done one for charity and bested my personal record to boot, so that got rid of those twists. Add to this the fact that after MIT I had a job that kept me in an office and in transit for nine hours a day and a draconian time-off policy that keeps most employees with ailments short of sucking chest wounds at work, and running did not seem like a good idea.
But I fell back on the least logical argument: tradition. I did it before, and I’ll do it again. So I trained almost every day and weekend. And this Monday, I threw myself in a car with two friends who had been inspired by my previous marathons to try it with me. (I’m apparently the type of person who makes other people think they can accomplish the things I do. Not in the in the supportive coach way or in the “I want to be like my favorite superstar” way, but more in the “If this schmuck did it, why can’t I?” way. It is my gift.)
As I had expected and feared, everything felt routine. The jets flying overhead and the long lines around the port-o-johns of athletes who had consumed far too much Gatorade just didn’t seem to have any impact anymore. (This year did bring one new experience, however: getting kicked out of the runners’ corrals. My two friends insisted that we would be able to sneak in, and twice we encountered irritated volunteers in blue jackets who promptly told us how we were ruining it for the real runners.) This is very bad for a person trying to get psyched up for a multi-hour run. When our group of bandits finally made its way to the starting line, I began to question whether this would be the last attempt at this endeavor.
What I didn’t realize was how much that feeling would help. Focusing on the experience, expectable as it may have been, essentially took my mind off the task laid before me. And much to my surprise, this unintentional Zen master trick kept me on my 10-minute pace for almost the entire race. I was not trying to slow down at the water stations. My girlfriend jumped in at mile 16 with me and I kept her at a steady jog. I didn’t even break down and stretch on Heartbreak Hill. Come the final stretch, I could no longer contain myself.
“You don’t know about the tradition, do you?” I asked my girlfriend.
“What tradition?” she replied nervously.
“The afterburners!” I shouted as I ripped off my running shirt and mustered what I could to demi-sprint the last fifth of a mile. This was technically now a routine, too. But it didn’t matter anymore. For now, half-naked to the world, there stood a very tall, very un-tan, very large hairy white man hurtling freely through the center of Boston with a stupid grin plastered to his face.
And like that, I was back to the kid who had never run it before. Every experience felt original. I began to catalog every horn blast and noise-maker whirl. I passed by two of my friends and I briefly flexed for them. A man told me to put my shirt back on, and so I screamed back “NEVAAAAAAAA!” His friends promptly laughed at both of us. I once again got to experience the overwhelming thrill of crossing into Copley with a new personal best, and somehow it was again a new and improved experience.
It’s not really that much of a mystery why. Marathons are supposed to evoke that raw emotion out of people. And that will never get old. It can’t. Because if it did, why would we ever come back?