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Battling the Elements at the 2018 Boston Marathon

By Aaron Coe

“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” — Mike Tyson

It’s 2018, and I finally made it out to my first Boston Marathon. The weather forecast is cool and rainy, which describes Portland much of the year, so I don’t think too much of it. “Overheating is unlikely,” I reason. Two days out, it dawns on me that things look potentially more severe than I realized. High winds, below-freezing wind chill, and steady rain. The weather service issues a “gale warning,” whatever that means, and I realize that I forgot to pack several items of clothing. Knowing that the buses leave for the start hours early, my biggest concern is that I’ll freeze before I even see the start line. My friends seem optimistic, though, and I’m still very excited, so I don six layers and head for Boston Commons. 

The scene at the Commons is drizzly and chaotic, as runners draped in plastic hurry in every direction. I’m getting wet already from meandering through the park, but we still have more than three hours before the race as I slide into the back of a balmy school bus. A Washington man who recognizes my face sits next to me, and amid small talk we notice an ominous dusting of snow covering miles of ground near Hopkinton, the small town where the marathon begins. 

In the prerace “athletes village,” there are large tents as shelter, but they quickly fill and places to sit are limited. The surrounding fields are muddy, with small piles of snow, and the long walk-jog to the starting corrals is just that much more time in the rain. I ignore the alarms in the back of my head as I legitimately struggle to tie my shoes and tuck my laces. It’s not raining too hard now, though, and the mass of humanity is partly blocking the wind. 

I should note that, having lived and trained in Portland for a dozen years, I am no stranger to wet conditions. I’m periodically taken aback when friends ask, “Do you still run in the winter when it rains?” because, obviously, you still run. You always still run. And how often, even when the forecast is dire, do you really get stuck running for hours in a constant wind and rain storm in temperatures around freezing? Practically never. It’s not as bad as it sounds. 

So, here I am, standing in a drizzle by a white temporary fence, distractedly peeling off layers while someone sings the national anthem. How much clothing does a guy need when he’s about to crush the Boston Marathon? Probably not much. This would be easier if my hands worked properly.

The start is a tidal wave of runners, and from Corral 4 I can see the sea stretching out before me. I follow a trio of Brazilians on the left side, making gradual passes when there is space. Like an actual tidal wave, it is also very, very wet. The rain picks up, and I’m running through a quarter-inch of water with disturbing frequency. But a lot of the fans don’t seem to care, and the way we’re all running into it has me smiling despite it all for quite awhile. 

The pack thins after a couple miles, allowing for more acceleration. Running behind people gets me out of the wind, but provides an additional shower of water kicked up from the flooded pavement. At 10k I notice that I’m running both slower than I had planned and a higher perceived effort. My lungs are basically resting, but my muscles and joints don’t feel good. They feel stiff, almost like I’m running on stilts. This is 10k? This is bad. 

From miles 7-15, even before the hills, I run eight miles progressively slower; but I don’t know it because I’ve given up on my splits. My hips are extremely tight, and my focus is waning already. We run through a patch of hail. Heavier downpours. Bigger gusts. It takes two miles to get a gel out of my pocket, and I barely open it with my teeth. My half time seems redeemable as I track a probable triathlete with the word “Spaghetti” on his back, but though I want to speed up, I doubt I can maintain this for another 13.1, and I can’t run steadily enough to stay with Spaghetti. Can I even finish 13 more miles right now? It’s unclear. Almost everything is. Wellesley is a welcome jolt of screaming enthusiasm, and I veer over for high fives, but soon after I’m back in the same situation. 

When the hills start, I already feel bad enough that I don’t really notice them, it’s just the same thing on a different incline. I stop around mile 18 in a portable, partly because I have to pee, but mostly because my legs hurt and I feel potentially on the verge of some kind of mental meltdown. Running feels about the same when I start up again, but escaping into the little plastic box does help my state of mind slightly. 

I’ve already seen a number of runners dropping out, walking, and being guided to medics. I’ve been warned of the late-race carnage, but it’s still unsettling to witness. Even in my depleted state, I’m still somehow passing others too stubborn to yield yet. My own ability to think is being hijacked by an effort to not fall down, which is becoming a concern, and the overwhelming icy cold. A soreness in my jaw alerts me to how much my teeth have been chattering. I might be running two minutes per mile slower than my goal pace by now (who knows?), but I didn’t do all this training and fly out here to DNF. This is pretty awesome still, too, if I look around. If I do… More importantly, if I stop now, where will I go to get warm? My clothes are at the finish.

We run down the same street for a long time, and we’re finally getting into Boston. Everyone has been bunching to the right side of the road, even though the entire thing is closed, so I stay to the left a little bit to make some space. Somehow the giant Citgo sign triggers an emotional response, allowing me to drop my pace slightly for the last two miles, despite my condition, and overtake a lot of distantly familiar runners who had gone by in the previous ten miles. The Heartbreaker girl, the Bibrave guy, JP from Corvallis. I had forgotten they existed, it seems so long ago. The crowd is getting thicker and wilder again as we near the finish, and I’m suddenly keenly aware of this, this thing that’s happening, and it supplies a final bit of fuel. Sprinting seems pointless by now, but I can’t help accelerating to the finish and nipping a Oiselle runner who had passed me miles ago. 

When I’m done, I have no thoughts about the race, no feelings. All I know is the cold. I can hardly walk from the tightness in my hips, and changing into dry clothes actually seems impossible due to my frozen hands, and the fact that I’m shaking uncontrollably, so I hobble to a warming center on the promise of heated blankets. There I see a lot of people in even worse shape, gimping about, staring, and sitting in wheelchairs. After an hour or so I finally make it back to change. 

The next day, my fingers and toes have some swelling, and Wednesday night I still have a line across my thighs from my compression shorts. What is that, wind burn?  It’s still hard to feel either very proud of completing the race, or upset that I ran so much more slowly than I had planned; somehow I’m still processing the fact that it happened at all. I keep thinking about parts of the ordeal, but it’s hard to pull much meaning from them. And people keep asking about the race, but I’m not sure how much they really understand. I guess you had to be there.  

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