Over 36,000 individuals toed the start at this year's Boston Marathon. Each with a different story. Each with a different journey. From Meb Keflezighi attempting to be the first American man to win in several decades to hometown darling, Shalane Flanagan with an eye towards running 2:22:00 and hoping that would be in enough to wear the wreath. Countless others wanted to take back the streets of Boston in their own unique personal way. There were those running for charity. There were those wishing to fulfill a dream of crossing the finish line after unable to due so in 2013. In the sea of runners at the start line on Monday morning stood a beautiful and talented elite runner named Jen Pfaff. She has run a double digit number of marathons. Each time she runs, she qualifies for Boston. She has run this famed course a couple times and was set to run it once more. This time was different. This time she was not doing so as an elite runner in the field, but as the eyes of her friend. This time she was volunteering to be a race guide for a man who had come a long way from his first marathon. He was a man who walked towards the start line wondering if he deserved to be in the field. That man was me. Having lost my sight as a teen, I could qualify for Boston as a blind or visually impaired runner. to do so I had to run a marathon in under five hours. After crossing the finish in 4:50 one year, I had qualified, but did not feel I should take a spot from someone more deserving who truly ran a faster time. I turned to pro triathlete, model, actress, Jenna Parker to teach me to train and race. With her help, I ran my next marathon fifty-two minutes faster getting my personal best in under four hours. My next 26.2 mile run saw me take that time even lower. It was finally time to take my spot in Boston.
In the middle of February, I suffered a similar injury to Chicago Bears quarterback, Jay Cutler. It hampered my training well into March. I gave serious consideration to back out of Boston, but I ultimately decided I needed to be there on Patriot Day. Jen and I travelled to Boston. I was still hopeful that I could run a personal best, but aware that if I did not, I should not be disappointed and instead appreciate the experience for what it would be. Of course, that is easier said than done.
The day before the marathon was packed with plenty of activities. It was erie standing at the exact place the bombs had gone off a year ago especially as church bells rang out in the distance. Highlights included sitting in a room listening to the fabulous and talented Peter Sagal from National Public Radio who for the second consecutive year was a race guide. I had the great privilege of meeting the beautiful and inspiring, Sarah Koenig.
At 4:55a.m. on Monday morning, I woke up ready to face the events of the day. Surrounded by some of the nicest, warmest, friendliest people I had ever met all of whom were Jen's teammates, I jumped on the bus provided by Chicago Area Runner's Association. We made the drive 26.2 miles down the road to the start line in Hopkinton. From there, if I wanted to make it back to the hotel room, I would have to run twenty-six miles to get there. Can I do this? Am I ready? Jenna had done everything she could to get me to the start line. Now it was time to trust Jen to take me the distance to the finish line. As Jen and I walked to the start, I was my usual nervous smart mouth self. Jen said if I kept it up, she would consider leaving me at all women's Wellesley College and their famous Scream Tunnel at the marathon midpoint. A woman walking next to us laughed and said, "I graduated from Wellesley. We'd take him. Sure we will. We'd take good care of him too." Slowly we made our way across the start line. Jen said we could start running. As I took a step, chills ran up my spine. I was running the Boston Marathon!
I had been warned about the opening miles. I had been warned about the various up and down hills throughout the course. As the saying states, experience is the best teacher. In fact all the research I did could not prepare me for what awaited me. Only experience could teach me. Jen gave me my mile splits. I was doing well. In fact, I was doing better than I anticipated. I tried to relax which is always a chore for me. I took deep breaths. I tried my best to take in the experience. From the opening steps, it was clear that this would be a special time in my life. The crowd was amazing. The amount of support is unlike anything I have ever enjoyed. 5K complete. Before long, 10K in the books. I was feeling good. Still nervous, but good. Suddenly, ten miles were in the books. Only sixteen more to go. Slowly, I started to panic. I knew I could not keep the pace. I would have to slow down. I did not want to, but my body was beating my mind. It was around this time when I began to realize that my Jay Cutler type injury had prevented me from being in the best possible shape for a best. I was scared of failing Jen. As is always the case, my first thoughts are always for my friends who guide me. Sure, when I do not perform to my capabilities, I am disappointed in myself, however I am more angry at myself for letting down my guides or for making their job more difficult than it should be. I never want their experiences to be miserable and I was starting to worry that I was heading down that path by how I was feeling. We reached the Scream Tunnel. The women were crazy! I soaked it in. We pressed on with half a marathon still to go.
The hills piled up and began to wear me down. When we reached mile sixteen, I took a deep breath. Ten more to go. My pace had slowed. There was a slight chance to still set a personal best, but it would require gathering myself and running through pain and misery. Still, there was no guarantee that would be enough to get the job done. The way the hills and pressure of failing Jen had weighed on me, I was mentally gassed. We entered single digits remaining. I was close yet so far away from the finish. Jen continued to encourage me to push. I could tell I was already fading. As we ran up yet another hill and the fans cheered loudly, I heard the words, "Congratulations! You've made it to the top of Heartbreak Hill!" Really? I had done it? I thought that famed hill came later in the race. Apparently not. I was so happy. There were still another six miles to go. So close yet so far. A personal record was no longer in the cards so my goal became run the entire distance. I did not want to walk. I wanted to say I had run the entire way. As the miles piled up and the sun beat down, even that became less and less of a possibility. The hills had crushed my spirit. Five miles out and I wanted to walk. Jen would not let me. I was in pain. I was inching closer. Other runners cheered. Fans shouted encouragement. We crossed the 35K mark. Only 7K to go. Just a few hours ago, we had 42K to run. As I called upon any higher power or other worldly being to help, I head Jen demanding I push. Others ran by yelling encouragement. Even Danny Wood and Joe McIntyre of New Kids On The Block fame ran by offering support, back slaps, and high fives. I wanted to walk. Jen made it clear walking would not be an option. As I struggled to churn my little legs, she offered one of the most impassioned pleas I have ever heard. "Think of the people who didn't get to finish last year. Think of those who lost their limbs or lives. You owe it to them to not walk. You owe it to them to be Boston Strong!" As she screamed these words to me, Jen choked up. At that point I started to choke up. It was clear, Jen wanted this for me more than I wanted for myself. I needed to change that. I needed to do everything within my power to not walk. I needed to run it in. Three miles away and I kept telling myself to put one foot in front of the other. With every step, I was getting to my destination. As we reached mile twenty-four, I thought to myself, no more thoughts about walking. I am running this entire distance. Sure enough, I did not consider walking anymore. In fact, I ran that mile in what seemed to be faster than I had run in several miles. Somehow, it felt easier. I may not have picked up the pace, but it felt as though I had. With that I had reach mile twenty-five. The finish line was within range. I was going to run the distance!
The crowd was even louder than ever which is saying something because they had roared the entire time. As we moved forward, Jen informed me we had one kilometer left. Only minutes remained between me and the finish. Jen had me wave to the crowd. Each time I pumped my fist or waved, the fans erupted. The more I did it the more they responded. It was fun. Jen had me make the turn on to Boylston Street. I wanted to push. Jen wanted me to push. Both of us wanted me to sprint home. I tried, but I had nothing left. There was no gear shift remaining. I kept telling myself it was almost over. I stepped over the finish and Jen coasted to a walk. It was over. I had gone from Hopkinton to Boston.
It was not as fast as I would have like and I was angry with myself for that. I was upset that I had put Jen through this. She deserved better as my guide. Yet, I also found that I was satisfied that I had learned plenty on that day. Boston is even tougher than I ever imagined. Boston is challenging and it almost ripped my heart out. Thanks to Jen and the way Jenna prepared me, it had not completely disheartened me. In fact, it motivated me. Now that I have experienced the course, I am ready to go back to the drawing board to work on returning to Boston. I do not know if it will be next year or the following or when, but now that I have learned what it takes to go the distance, I want to return with a purpose.
I can not thank Jen Pfaff enough for giving me a weekend of a lifetime in Boston. Thank you to Jenna Parker for supporting, training, and preparing me. Thank you Pinnacle Performance Company for their continued support and sponsorship. Thank you Base Performance for the products which have been aiding in my recovery this week. Thank you to the city of Boston. I hope I was a wonderful guest and you will consider welcoming me back in the future.