My first experience with the Boston Marathon was my freshman year of college. I filled my Nalgene bottle (a necessity back then) with cranberry juice and vodka, and went to cheer on the runners with my friends. I clapped at strangers and wore a Yankees baseball hat, for which I was ridiculed for by several passersby. I got excited when I saw my friend’s dad pass by unexpectedly, and I witnessed an elderly woman attempt to cross the street only to get stampeded by a runner too exhausted to stop in time.
Besides that, the whole day was pretty uneventful.
Yet my friends and I returned to watch the race year after year. “Marathon Monday,” it was called, and it was a celebration for all Boston college students, not to mention an excuse to day drink and yell (words of encouragement!) at strangers.
Things changed when my friends convinced me to run a marathon of my own right before graduation. We couldn’t qualify for Boston, but we flew to Nashville for the Country Music Marathon as a ‘last hurrah’ before getting our diplomas. As my first visit to the south, I realized the best way perhaps, to see a city, is to run 26.2 miles–or any distance, really–through it. And it was during that race that I finally figured out what a marathon was all about.
Strangers hold signs and their hands out for high fives from sweaty, wet, shaky palms. Runners and non-runners are pushed to their very breaking point. Individuals discover their true potential, and what they’re really made of. And the crowd supports them, because whether they are running for charity, in memory of someone, or for themselves; running that distance alone is incredible. So after we crossed that finish line and flew home, watching the 2012 Boston Marathon was a truly extraordinary and special experience for me. “I get it now,” I remembered thinking. “And someday that’ll be me.”
Last year’s 2013 race was the first in five years I was unable to stand on the sidelines and cheer. After graduating and moving back to my hometown in New Jersey, I no longer had the luxury of Patriot’s Day off from work. Yet I was still excited for the runners, and my younger friends still attending Northeastern who would be cheering them on.
But as we all know, the marathon did not go as planned. People were killed, and a city was in panic. Watching it all unfold from screens via newscasts, Twitter and text messages was eerily strange, weird and scary for me–as it was for the nation.
On any other year, I would be cheering alongside the other spectators, most likely near the finish line as it was close to my dorm. I had many friends who were in attendance, that day—and confined to their apartments during the manhunt that followed–yet luckily were spared from any serious harm.
Timing is everything though. And while it felt strange to miss such a big day in Boston history I would normally be at, I’m glad I wasn’t at that finish line.
Just a few weeks later, several of my friends from Boston and I took on the New Jersey Half Marathon and Marathon in Long Branch, NJ. We wore custom made, “NJ Runs for Boston” tank tops, and ran with the city and its people in our hearts. Along the course, I got emotional seeing the #BostonStrong signs along the route and runners who wore shirts designating they had been just 2, 1 or .5-miles away from the finish line in Boston before they were stopped.
Even though I struggled through the last 6 miles of that race, I ended up finishing with a time of 3:27:07–not only a Personal Record, but within The Boston Marathon’s qualifying requirements. I quickly forgot about all the cursing myself out in my head I’d done while I was painfully finishing the race, and switched to being elated about running Boston the following year.
After crossing the finish line in 3:30:26 on April 21, 2014, words can’t really describe the experience I had. Being back in Boston with the same friends I had traveled to Nashville with was so comforting to begin with, and prepping for the race (going to the expo, making pasta dinners, rolling our calves out with The Stick in the living room) felt like home. My phone blew up with text messages, Facebook posts and tweets from friends, family members and coworkers wishing me luck. To be honest, I’ve never felt more loved in my life.
As for the race itself, the excitement, anticipation, enthusiasm, respect from and for other runners, pride from Bostonians and its people, and resilience was overwhelming, awesome and powerful. Along the course, I had so much support from cheering spectators–from small children handing out water cups and high fives, to families holding out orange peels and necessity items like wet paper towels, to inspirational signs, to drunken frat boys and the Wellesley College scream (and kiss!) tunnel. There was never a dull moment in the course (I say that about the crowd, and the rolling hills!). It might be weird to say, but I enjoyed just about every sweaty, calf-burning minute of it…minus that awkward moment a man walked in on me in a Porta Potty right before the race.
Though I wasn’t there for the tragic events of last year and cannot pretend to know or even imagine what it must have been like, I know in my heart that Boston has come back three times as strong, and nine times as proud. While the Boston Marathon has always been something special and amazing, it is now a symbol of a comeback–quite possibly, the greatest comeback this nation has ever seen.
I won’t pretend to associate myself with the runners who returned to the finish line in 2014 after being stopped in 2013 (and I admire those people to the fullest extent). But what I can say is, I’m proud to have gotten the opportunity to join them in their own personal comebacks. I’ll even wear my Solar Zest-colored marathon jacket with dignity!
I couldn’t walk normally for over a week, but the pain was well worth it. Just past the finish line, I think the smile on my face said it all: I could not be more honored to have been part of Boston’s big day.