Friday, May 6, 2016

Stronger - Boston, MA

Boston Marathon 2016, Newton MA
Our family was invited to our first ever marathon-watching party a couple of weeks ago. Boston Marathon 2016, Patriot's Day, April 18. Our friends' house is in Newton, at about mile 19.5 of the 26.2 mile course, a half mile from the start of the so-called Heartbreak Hill. We brought a salad, some guacamole, some folding chairs and a big sign that said CAW! I'll get to that in a minute. 

The last Boston Marathon I watched was at Wellesley College way back in the middle of last century. Okay, not quite but it seems like that sometimes. Wellesley is situated about halfway through the marathon course and most students, having the day off for Patriot's Day (only in Massachusetts and even then there are those who don't get it--Harvard for one), come out to cheer the runners. 

Back in my day,  we just cheered by picking out things written on t-shirts--we yelled "Go, Maine" or "Go Blue" for the Michigan folks, or whatever was on their non-lycra shirts. Which reminds me: no one wears a cotton shirt anymore. Or shorts. Now we run in underpants. Is that bad for our environment? I mean lycra not underpants. But I digress. 

Now a lot of Wellesley women show up out on the streets with "Kiss me, I'm  XXXX" where "XXXX" might be Irish, bored or a senior. I don't love that but then again, I recognize I am old and don't know how to use snapchat nor want an unknown sweaty runner to kiss me. And they me, probably. Anyhoo.

One of my favorite races to watch (and run) is San Francisco's Bay to Breakers. Not a marathon, but a 12K from one shore to the other, and let's just say that clothing was optional when I ran it in 1991. I am guessing it is much the same. One guy cheering us on was fully clothed in the front, then turned around to show no back to his outfit, wagging his butt at us to motivate us. I did in fact run faster at that point. I miss San Francisco. No one was hanging their butt out in Boston--yeah, the weather has something to do with it.

It wasn't to show that I was "Boston Strong" that I wanted to watch the race, or even because I never refuse a barbecue and potluck. It is because of a guy named Gary and another one named Michael. While I have never met Michael in person, and Gary I have met only once six years ago, they are inspiration of a level that makes me consider running "competitively" again. Not as in trying win, but as in, actually going out to run more than once a week.

Gary is the director of the Mount Desert Island Marathon, the world's most beautiful marathon, coincidentally located on my favorite island. Haven't heard of MDI? What about Acadia National Park, one of our country's most visited parks? Or Bar Harbor, a town steeped in a rich past, now with really good ice cream and an eat-in movie theatre that completely makes my day. The theatre serves beer. And good pizza. It almost makes me amenable to watch Frozen, if that is the only movie playing there. I'd need a lot of beer.

I met Gary six years ago when a friend (and Bar Harbor native), my husband and I decided to run the MDI Marathon as a three-person relay.  It was an incredible experience--not only for the course's beauty but because Mainers are so danged awesome. Because we had gathered a bit of local Bar Harbor fame for coming all the way from Brazil to run as "Team Brazil", we were known at the breakfast spot (and greeted by a Brazilian server!), talked about by a friend who waits tables during the summer season, and I was tapped on the shoulder at mile 4 and asked if I was from Brazil by the passing runner--apparently her server had mentioned us the night before. 

Team Brazil at the start

The MDI race is so beautiful you almost forget that you are coughing out a lung on some of the hills. In and out of the October-colored trees, along the coast, through empty streets. Yes, a few people do come out to cheer you on but let's face it, at a year-round population of 10,000, you'd better be your own best cheerleader. I think I ran a race in São Paulo that had more runners than MDI has residents. Also I have to say that Brazilians are not great spectator-cheering folks. I don't recall anyone setting up a chair outside their house to watch. More like complain about the runners for messing up traffic.

On my MDI run, I was accompanied by a playlist chosen by friends who had donated to MDI Hospital, the cause we were supporting for the marathon. Not sure I'd make that rash promise again since Justin Bieber's Baby just about ruined mile 5 for me. At the end of that race, Gary, as race director, interviewed me about coming up from Brazil. And we ended up in third place of three-person relay teams and got ourselves a rock.

I kept in touch with Gary from time to time to see what was going on. A lot, really. Gary lives on Great Cranberry Island where the summer population reaches 300. Year-round population? 40. The island is two miles long and one mile wide --and it is where Gary trains for marathons. Not just runs them, but RUNS them--he has run five decades of sub-three hour marathons. And the Boston Marathon 2016 was his 100th marathon. I can't even make a joke here. It's just amazing. 

In December Gary was diagnosed with lyme disease, an extremely bad bout of it. Until three days before the marathon, he didn't know if he was going to run it.  But then he went to New York with another Crow Athletics (the local running club) runner and he too became inspired. The Crow that inspired him? Michael Westphal, who suffers from Parkinson's Disease, and was running the race as a fundraiser for Team Fox.

Michael Westphal, Team Fox (and Crow Athletics), photo credit: Chloe Emerson

In the good old days, it was pretty hard to find the person you were waiting for. Imagine the thousands of runners; even knowing which wave they are in makes it tough. Now there is an app for that. Type in your friend's number or name, and bingo, you can watch as they fly (or creep by) the 10K, 10 mile, 20K, 30K marks. The bad news is that is that when you don't see them check in when you expect them to, you start to get a bit nervous.

It is not my story to tell, but Gary had a tough race. Or not. He calls it his best race. He was not sub-3 hours. I made my kids wait for him--we patiently held our "CAW" for Crow Athletics (get it?) and watching my phone. 

First came Michael, slowly but efficiently making his way past the house. He was on the opposite side of the street and I am not sure he heard our "CAWS" or "Yay, Michael!"s. Then the mom of one of Lalo's soccer friends went by--smiling, waving without any sign of pain or exhaustion. Seriously she could have been in a homecoming parade, as long as lycra was the year's theme.

Then we waited again. Finally the green line on the app that was Gary crossed the 30K mark, and we pushed to the side of the road to cheer. He was on the opposite side of the street, but came over as soon as he saw my son and me with the sign and my Crow Athletics sweatshirt. He stopped and hugged me, chatting about how he felt, and how he had seen friends from Cranberry and other places along the route. He was going to finish that 100th marathon that day, and soon he turned and jogged up the hill, fighting off the lyme disease fatigue. I admit it made me a little emotional and I had to claim a gnat in my eye when my son asked me why I was crying. 

Gary Allen, inspiration. Photo is not mine, but I don't have the credit...
What drives a marathoner? I will never know. I hear it is an addiction, a high like no other. I can only imagine that Boston is a total addiction--so many people come out and cheer along the route. Many on either side of us knew multiple runners--it seems so much a local marathon, but of course it is world class. We had seen the Kenyan and Ethiopian (among others) elite race past earlier. Later, it felt like we were all out at a big Boston block party. Everyone wore pants. Both sides.

When we got home, I immediately went over to the MDI Marathon site to sign up. Alas, the three person relay team entry is full. I am not ready to do a half marathon again. Or am I? Hmmm. In any case, I renewed my Crow Athletics membership--the best $10 ever spent, and I'll be seeing you around, Gary. Maybe from the sidelines. Maybe not. 

Run MDI.

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