A couple of weeks ago, I wrote in another blog entry that running the Boston Marathon would feel like running in a dream. That wound up being absolutely the case, though as these things (both real life and dreams) go, you never quite anticipate why or how they might wind up feeling like dreams, nor precisely how they will unfold. Some of the events that took place on Monday resembled those which would take place, not in real life, but in dreams. Except, they really happened. Suffice it to say, Marathon Monday was a stupendous day. I suppose it must have been stupendous, because I can’t recall ever previously having used the word “stupendous” in any serious sense. In this case, I think it’s merited. And so, even though I am tired and jet-lagged and still processing these memories, I probably should put them to “paper” before they scramble or fade, and provide a recap of a day that would, were ESPN to broadcast all of my days, be immediately dubbed an “instant classic” and show up in cheesy poll questions about how viewers would rank the greatest days of my life. If this wasn’t in the Top Five, it’s certainly somewhere in the Top 10. As they say, it’s in the conversation. Ironically, on a day when I endured one of my worst marathon performances according to the clock, I happened to enjoy one of the more amazing times I have ever enjoyed.
It’s cliche to claim you “don’t know where to begin” when retelling certain events, but in this case I know precisely where to begin. In Hopkinton, where the Boston Marathon itself begins. Shortly before the roads closed at 7 AM, my brother Ben was kind enough to drop me off at the Hopkinton church just blocks from the starting line where the Dana-Farber runners gather in the hours before race start time. This was a great perk, as it afforded us a gymnasium stocked with chairs to sit on, pre-race snacks and drinks, cell phone charging stations (hours on a crowded race course with the Runkeeper app active on your arm drains the battery), and the wonders of indoor plumbing.
Midway through the morning wait, we were ushered outside to the church’s front steps to receive some final words of advice from 1976 Boston Marathon champion and Dana-Farber running team advisor Jack Fultz, and then get the official team photo taken. Dana-Farber Cancer Institute fields the largest charity team in the Boston Marathon (we had about 575 runners), a big enough group that the photographer was positioned on an elevated perch. After the main team photo came a bit of a surprise.
Apologies for the slightly out-of-focus image, but if you look closely you’ll see the name “Matt” on the left side of the sign. There were 25 or so runners on this year’s team who are either survivors or currently undergoing cancer treatment, and Dana-Farber chose to honor us by naming us to its “Living Proof” team. Following the primary team photo, an announcement came that the Living Proof runners were requested at the bottom of the church steps, where a special photo would be taken of us in front of the rest of the team. As I moved to step forward down the steps and through the crowd of other runners, I heard words of encouragement and felt slaps on the back. Then, when it came time to take our photo, a thunderous cheer arose. Here I am, I haven’t even crossed the starting line of the race yet, and some 600 people – among them Dana-Farber staff and many runners faster than me and a Boston Marathon champion – are cheering for us. Ever since fighting cancer myself, I’ve felt a little conflicted about this. I’ve never seen myself as a hero of any sort, just a guy who took his medicine and got better. But in the context of the name “Living Proof,” it makes perfect sense why we’d be seen as worthy of cheers. Here we are, cancer patients and survivors at all different stages, and we are all about to run the friggin’ Boston Marathon. By merely reaching the starting line, we serve as living proof that the war on cancer can be won, and we are winning it.
On to the race itself. Partially thanks to the fact I grew up in the area, and partially due to the mystique of the Boston Marathon in its own right, I enjoyed the largest contingent of family I’ve ever had supporting me at a race; my wife and two daughters were there, joined by three brothers and their respective wives, as well as a niece. They caught me at a few different junctures, including Mile 4 in Ashland, where this shot was taken where I am extending a hand to high-five my brother Steve.
To this point in the race I’d been covering miles at a strong pace, but the warning signs were already there that a long day could be in store. I learned first-hand on Monday that the difficult reputation of the Boston course is well-founded. Of the eight marathon courses I’ve run, Boston is easily the most challenging. From the steep opening descent out of downtown Hopkinton on through Heartbreak in Newton, the hills are relentless. Though I’d trained well for this race, I hadn’t prepared for hills quite like these – it’s pretty much impossible to truly simulate them in Northern Illinois. As a result, while my pace was right where I’d hope, I was feeling a lot more creeping fatigue already than is typical for me after four miles.
Through the remainder of the afternoon, hard as I tried to sustain as strong a pace as I could manage, I grew incrementally slower. The course flattens out (relatively speaking) for a while in Natick and Wellesley, but then the infamous hills of my native Newton hit you. While I’m not sure they’re truly much tougher than the hills of the early miles, they certainly “feel” tougher in light of the fact you’ve already logged two-thirds of a marathon before they begin. At Mile 20, just a few blocks from Heartbreak Hill and also a few blocks from where I lived for a portion of my childhood, I encountered a welcome sight in the form of several running friends from Illinois, whom I met through running for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. They were all decked out in various crazy costumes from unicorns to Spongebob Squarepants. Because of this, they were pretty easy to spot, and they also spotted me from a good distance away.
Because they had been kind enough to wait for me on a day when I passed through about 20-30 minutes later than I’d hoped, the least I could do was stop to chat for a minute about how tough the course was. I was honored to have their enthusiastic support on this day. Here, I’m receiving a hug from my friend Kristen…
Crowd support does wonders for the spirit, and it was after Heartbreak Hill that the support of the crowds of Boston truly powered me through to the finish line. The lengthy incline of Heartbreak Hill nearly broke me, as I felt my breathing grow ever-heavier. Soon after Heartbreak, though, Commonwealth Avenue passes by the campus of Boston College. While the students of Wellesley College are known for their high-decibel cheering (which did not disappoint), on this day I found the BC students to be even more inspiring. They were simply great, loudly and enthusiastically encouraging all the runners as they passed, reminding us of the impressive feat we had already achieved by coming more than 20 miles.
Here, it must be noted what an honor and a privilege it was to wear the singlet with the Dana-Farber logo. A speaker at the charity team’s pre-race pasta party on Sunday afternoon (I unfortunately forget who it was) said at one point, “Boston loves Dana-Farber.” While those were nice words to hear, at the time I thought them to be mostly just that – words. But on the course, I found them to be literally true. A mile did not go by all day when I didn’t hear some Boston-accented voice yelling “Go Dana-Fahbah! You guys ah awesome!” at the sight of my jersey. On multiple occasions, spectators called out to me the words “we love you” just because of the logo I was wearing and what they knew it represented.
My wife Krissie sewed the letters of my name onto my singlet the night before the race, and it was also in these latter miles where that provided a boost. Battling up Beacon Street through Brookline, when I was 97% spent, the cheers from complete strangers kept coming. They could tell I was battling fatigue, giving all I had to make it to Boston, and they saw the name on my shirt. It would begin with one person in a crowd yelling out my name to encourage me. Then, others would pick up on it and join in chanting my name. Over and over as I ran up Beacon Street at my reduced pace, I heard it: “MATT! MATT! MATT! MATT! MATT! MATT! MATT!” I know all caps is annoying, but that’s the way they were yelling. They were yelling in all caps. I am fluent in Boston sarcasm. I frequently employ it myself. No sarcasm was present in these cheers. They were 110% genuine.
These people cheering for me through Brookline had no idea who I was except for a name and a charity logo, but I felt like I knew them. In a sense, I am one of them. I am a lifelong Boston sports fan, which really is a unique breed. Because of that, I know how these people think. The Boston sports fan is educated about the game and has strains of college-infused intellectualism, but at heart is a simple creature. The Boston sports fan loves championships, of course, but in the end demands only two things: An honest effort from the athlete and appreciation for the devotion of the fans. Because of this, I knew what these people wanted and whenever my energy level would allow, I gave it to them. I acknowledged them with waves, fist pumps, hand slaps. I looked at them, nodded, and increased my pace. Their chants of “MATT! MATT! MATT!” only grew louder. On this day, I was a struggling, slow marathoner merely aiming to finish a race. And the Boston sports fans I’d been a member of all my life were cheering for me with all their passion. It was incredible.
With that sort of phenomenal support from family, friends, and complete strangers spurring you on in the race you’ve always wanted to run in your hometown and the world’s premier marathon, what happens when you make the famous left from Hereford onto Boylston and the finish line appears in your sight just like you’ve seen it happen on TV for champions? Well, you get a smile on your face a bit like this:
After crossing the finish line and getting the finisher’s medal with the famous unicorn logo draped around my deck, the unprecedented support only continued. Along the walk back to the Copley Place Marriott where Dana-Farber had set up its race weekend headquarters, the congratulations from Boston police officers came one after another. They did not seem perfunctory, but genuine and heartfelt. I have to think they’ve always done this to an extent, but that it must take on greater meaning since the events of 2013. The congratulations come across as a simultaneous “congratulations on your achievement” and a “thank you for demonstrating for the world the strength and resilience of our city.” Boston Strong indeed. As I walked through the Copley Place shopping center, a security guard gave me my favorite line of all: “Don’t ever take that medal off,” he told me. “I would wear that medal for a month!”
While I may not have run fast on Patriots Day, I have never experienced a run that felt any better. I’m guessing I never will.
On Tuesday, the last night of seven we spent in Massachusetts, Krissie and I took our girls Caroline and Georgia to my favorite place in the world, Fenway Park, to catch a Red Sox game. I made sure we got a photo before the game in front of this statue, because it seemed fitting.
That’s a statue of Ted Williams handing a cap to a child who was being treated at the Jimmy Fund Clinic. That’s the clinic run by the same Dana-Farber Cancer Institute for which I ran the marathon. While I have been raising funds for them, I still feel indebted to them because the treatments they helped pioneer have saved my life, allowed me to run marathons, and allowed my daughters to exist. Once in the park, the highlight of the game for Caroline and Georgia was getting Mookie Betts bobblehead dolls.
Finally, after the Boston Marathon, another sports-related event I’d anticipated for years occurred: The chance for little Caroline to experience a stadium full of Red Sox fans singing what she calls “my song” with her there in the park to enjoy it.
Don’t worry about how Caroline seems upset at the tail end of the video. She was only disappointed that there wasn’t enough time between innings to play the entirety of the song. That disappointment lasted about eight seconds. She gets that from her dad, and I’m okay with that.
Thank you, Dana-Farber. Thank you, family. Thank you, friends. Thank you, God. Thank you, Boston.