"You are 60?!" Startled, eyes wide, Rick, a 30-ish stockbroker seated next to me swivels in his seat and peers at me. It is October 2000, and I am at a runners' meeting that will, I hope, make me a participant in the Boston Marathon. I am only a casual runner and one of the oldest people in the room. I am scared to death.
"No," I reply. "In fact, I'm 61."
Rick's eyes widen even more. "Wow! I'll have to tell my mom!" And then, more puzzled, "Why are you doing this?"
Why, indeed? How can I possibly think of running 26.2 miles from Hopkinton, MA, to downtown Boston at an age when my contemporaries are moving to Florida?
There seem to have been many reasons. I wanted a large project, with a goal at the end, and I wanted to do it before it was too late. To prove myself, to take on a challenge of large dimensions, to show women-particularly older women-that they can do whatever they set their minds to. Those were prominent among my goals. But more than anything, I wanted to do something bigger than myself.
It's the fall of 1999. My son Jay is in my Cambridge, MA, kitchen eating his breakfast. I am preparing for my standard run, planning to take more than an hour to go five or six miles. "Mom," Jay says, "you aren't doing anything to get fitter. Try running as fast as you can for 30 minutes and see what happens." Pooh, I think, 30 minutes? That's nothing. Out I go.
Thirty minutes later, back I come-my body contorted, cramped and distressed. I have challenged parts of me that definitely need attention.
Jay is sitting there, still eating his cereal, and I detect a certain smugness in his expression. "All right," I pant, "how do I get fitter?"
The first step turns out to be an introduction to Michael Woods, master of an excruciating gym program developed to challenge the entire body-MY entire body. My abdominal muscles undergo slow sit-ups and other tests. My resting heart rate accelerates into aerobic zones I had not thought of on the treadmill. Arm, shoulder and back muscles are subjected to increased weights. Squats, pull-ups and lunges of every sort strengthen my quadriceps, thighs and calves. It's torture, but I endure. After each weekly session of one hour, I am more exhausted than I have been with several hours of casual exercise.
Summer approaches. I am still running, and feeling amazingly strong, moving effortlessly over eight, nine, 10 miles. My body seems to have taken on a new identity. One late August day in Maine, on a road where the swamp maples are already turning scarlet, an idea comes out of nowhere-I can do the Boston Marathon.
To enter Boston with a number, a runner has one of two choices. You can qualify for the race by achieving a certain time in a previous, sanctioned marathon. My age category dictates four hours and 10 minutes, running under-10-minute miles for 26.2 miles-impossible for me. The other route is to raise money for a Boston Athletic Association-approved charity.
I am accepted by the Dana Farber Cancer Institute team, which raises funds for innovative cancer research. The program offers an extraordinary support plan to its runners: training manuals and advice, a team coach, group runs, fund-raising advice, tasty snacks. My only problem is that I am twice the age of most team members!
The week before Thanksgiving 2000. A 15.5-mile run along the beautiful shore road from Prouts Neck, ME, all the way to Portland. Boy, am I impressed with myself-even though on Thanksgiving Day, the flu hits my stressed body with a vengeance.
January 6, 2001. My first group run in Cambridge with the Dana Farber team. Heavy snow. We slip and slide 13 miles along the banks of the Charles River. Marathon training is not weather dependent.
January 20. Another group run, from the Boston Athletic Club through the streets of South Boston, around the harbor in slanting snow, past oil tanks, past the JFK Library, in wind, hail and bad visibility. I get lost in a housing project. After three hours, the worried team captain sets out in his car to return me to team headquarters.
January 26. While on a regular weekday run along the Charles, pain pierces my left calf. Several days later it is still there, despite rest and ice. A visit to my doctor produces the dreaded news. "No running until this injured tendon heals-at least three to four months." Total despair.
February 1. My great team captain, Kristin Graves, inspires me with stories about the Kennedy Brothers, a Boston physical therapy group known for treating marathon runners effectively. "We'll get you to the starting line," promise PT experts Bronco and Jake. I do exactly what they tell me, even though it takes an enormous amount of time-and trust.
February 6. Alta, Utah. On an annual ski trip with friends, I commit myself to three hours a day of aerobic workout. Out of the pool, onto the machines, off the machines, into the pool: three hours of total boredom but a necessary part of the regimen-mental as well as physical commitment.
Mid-February. A renowned Boston podiatrist takes a look at my feet, already supported by old orthotics, and creates new, very stiff, realigned ones that will give me, in his view, perfect podiatric balance. After the next run, my feet are blood-soaked; parts of them have been rubbed raw by the dramatically changed inserts. My savior is Dr. John Danchik, former marathoner, Olympics doctor and chiropractor, who observes my gait and adjusts my alignment and feet to what will work, not what is perfect.
April 9. Seven days before the race, I am making a bed when I crunch my bare toe into one of the legs. Purple streaks shoot up to my ankle. Alone and in a state of panic, I drive myself to Mt. Auburn Hospital, where X-rays reveal a chipped bone. Dr. Danchik provides me with another brand-new skill, showing me how to "buddy-tape" that toe to the next one to provide support. The rest of the week is spent with the foot elevated and covered with quantities of ice.
Marathon Weekend. I feel a sinus infection looming. A holistic practitioner persuades me to cleanse my head with cayenne pepper tablets. My head is cleansed, but so is the rest of my body. Thoroughly! And for the entire weekend. Although I am supposed to consume copious amounts of pasta and other energizing carbohydrates, the sight of food is nauseating. New rule: never eat anything radically different when you are in training.
The Boston Marathon is the only major marathon that starts at 12 noon. Nonetheless, I am up at 6:00 a.m. I check and recheck my equipment. Vioxx. Aleve. Tape. Scissors. Power Gel. Goo. Jacket. Long tights for my aging legs. Dana Farber T-shirt. The Dana Farber team shelter in Hopkinton is full of goodies. I hang out there, have my picture taken, stretch, and dedicate my race to my niece and goddaughter Liza, who is struggling with lung cancer.
The number on my front is 15,558, meaning that I start a long way back. Making my way to the end of the line, I pass many determined faces, young and old. I tell myself, "I can do this."
In a rush, we are off, heading for Natick. I spend a mile or two in frenzied movement before I can settle down and start focusing on the people around me. I eavesdrop on critical advice that will help me on the road ahead: "Move to the other shoulder of the road if your left side is already hurting"; "Slow down"; "Drink water at every stop." I'm already gulping water and Gatorade. And thinking about how soon my "milestones" will come up: sister Joan at Mile 9 in Natick, sons Chris and Jay at Mile 14.5 in Wellesley, friend Judy Bagalay at Mile 17 at the foot of Heartbreak Hill, Boston College at the top of the hill at Mile 20, the Finish.
There's Joan! Buried in the crowd at the Natick train station. I am so happy! I had thought it would be too early for a stop, but it's the perfect time to fall out, take an Aleve, stretch…I tell Joan good-bye, and as soon as she's out of sight, I miss her.
Getting to Wellesley takes forever. The famous crowd of cheering college girls starts to appear at Mile 13, but it's a long stretch into town. Finally I see Chris and Jay-signs, grins, oranges. "You're doing fine, Mom," Jay cries. "Just keep up your pace."
More stretching and some jelly beans at Mile 16.5. My quads are killing me. I have picked up my feet and put them down for almost 90,000 feet, maybe 60,000 times. The upper parts of my legs have braced against the down slopes and driven the upgrades nonstop for over three hours. I have poured liquids into and over myself at 15 water stops. I turn the corner, and there it is-the Marathon's infamous Heartbreak Hill-plus my friend Judy, with oranges.
In the 15,000-number group, I am definitely with the halt and the lame. Many are walking up this succession of rolling hills, not just Heartbreak but three miles of undulating upward slopes. Will I walk? No, I will never walk. If I walk, I will never get there. I pick up my pace. I hear from the sidelines, "Go, Dana Farber!"
The mile signs become my focus. One more mile, one more gulp of water, one more gel. The concentrated sources of energy in the little packs of food are now critical. Twenty miles into it, and Boston College comes in sight. I have been running for four hours, longer than I ever have, but I know that if I had to, I could crawl the rest of the distance. My body seems OK, my shoes don't hurt too much, my muscles are locked in place, and I can just put my head down and seemingly move like a tractor.
Here's Commonwealth Ave. There's Boston's landmark Citgo sign. Here are spectators, all heading for home. I turn the corner onto Boylston St. and realize that I am looking at the finish line. About six blocks ahead, in a canyon of tall buildings, I see the huge banner and cameras over the blue line on the street, the grandstands, the flags.
My leg is going to fall off. I'm going to trip, I'll fall on my face, I'm going to have a heart attack. I tug my hat down over my eyes and move on.
"Mom!" Two very familiar figures leap over the snow fence. Jay, video camera in hand, Chris at his side.
I'm over the finish line, the electronic clock overhead registering my time. A few more steps to get the marathon blanket. I almost forget to pick up my official medal.
The day after the race, I find myself getting into my car, driving out to Hopkinton, retracing my tortured steps. I want to see where I've been. Some memories are vivid; some stretches are complete blanks.
I drive back home, knowing that if you do the right thing, if you take the time to learn about yourself, if you understand your process and your training, if you learn from your mistakes, if you put all your eggs in the basket of commitment, and if you persevere, you will be rewarded. I certainly was. I did it!
Marjorie McHenry Bride '61 lives in Cambridge, MA where she is a tour operator for alumni/ae and art museum travel programs, and in Prouts Neck, ME where she spends a lot of time outdoors and on the coast. Her two sons in Boston and Portland carry on the long family tradition of health and athletics.
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