boston : at last

Three years ago this week, one day after the 2016 Boston Marathon, where I’d collapsed on the course at mile 10 after almost two hours of blinding pain, an orthopedic surgeon pointed at a black-and-white imaging of my hip. I’d broken the joint in two places, and virtually all of the muscle had ripped away between my thigh and my glute, leaving a gaping black hole in its place.

 With that came the prognosis. Three weeks on bedrest/in a wheelchair, crutches for an indefinite amount of time after that, more physical therapy than I thought humanly able. It was possible I would walk with a limp for the rest of my life. It was probable I’d never be able to run a distance race again. The news was coming two months after I’d lost a beautiful friend to an ugly disease.

This Monday, almost exactly three years to the day I broke my hip, I completed the 2019 Boston Marathon in 4:09:37.

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This has been, without a doubt, the most difficult journey of my life. I’m still not entirely sure what to think, or write, or say. My boss told me that when she saw me after the race on Monday, it seemed like I was in shock. In some ways, it still feels like that. It took until I was alone a few days later, sitting in my room with my windows open, for the magnitude of the moment to hit me, and that was when I broke down and cried – not when I crossed the finish line, not when Heartbreak Hill felt millions of miles long under an unrelenting sun – but a few days later, quietly by myself.

 

That run. There’s a reason Boston is often referred to as the mother of all marathons, which I found out firsthand on race day.  

The weather – unpredictable. It was supposed to be thunderstorming and windy. Then, cloudy with showers. Instead, we got hot, humid sun, and I finished the race absolutely roasted, with a sunburn down exactly one side of my body.

The course – brutal. B R U T A L. I’ve run that race so many times in training, and hundreds more times in my head. And it still kicked my ass on race day. I felt great for about the first 15 miles, hot but happy, elated to see friends and family along the way. Then I hit the Newton Hills. Those fuckers (sorry, Mom, but this is truly the best way to describe them). I struggled up those hills, and knew my quiet little pipe dream of a sub-4 marathon was probably fading. Because it was hot. I couldn’t cool down – the humidity made it impossible, and despite grabbing Gatorade at every water stop, I started to feel dizzy.  

“I didn’t regrow a hip to DNF because I passed out of dehydration,” I thought to myself, and began to grab whatever I could from spectators: water, sports drinks, orange slices and even a popsicle. As the sun climbed into the sky, fireman started to open hydrants and people living along the route stood out with hoses to spray us. I ran through all of them.

 Finally, finally, I was through BC and turning into Boston. Here’s my thesis: the slog along Comm Ave from about mile 22 to 25 is the worst part of the race. You feel like you’re running forever and getting nowhere. You’re searching the skyline for that goddamn Citgo sign and seeing nothing.

This was when a small voice in my head piped up – you can’t do this, it told me. I was in pain, I was hot, I was exhausted… but I knew that this was where the mental strength needed to run a marathon came into play. I’ve run one before (Philadelphia, 2015), and I pulled out the same mental trick I used then: dedicating a mile to a certain person in my life. I began to say their names out loud to myself (people running near me probably thought I was insane), and it really did keep my feet moving forward.

Mile 23-24 I dedicated to Becky. I thought about how much we all miss her, how proud she would have been of me for running, and how she probably would have signed up for a marathon right alongside me. I thought about how badly I’ve wanted to talk to her these last three years and I started to talk to her out loud, saying her name and letting her know I was going to carry her to the Boston finish line. And then something kind of amazing happened. I felt this wave of calm wash over me, and I felt Becky running next to me. I’m not sure how else to explain it, except that I knew that she was right there next to me, reminding me that she wrote me my first-ever training plan, and that she was going to help me across this finish line, too. And pretty much immediately after that feeling washed over me, I spotted my friend Lyndsey on the side of the road and burst into tears – my only tears of the day:

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And then I gathered myself and got my butt across that finish line. FINALLY. Three years, two breaks in my hip and one long ass recovery period later.

 My injury was the worst physical thing that’s ever happened to me. It was blindingly painful. I gained weight, I struggled to regain strength, I struggled to walk, and it took me almost the entire three years to trust that my body could run again.

Coming on the heels of losing Becky, it also took a toll on my mental health. There were so many days when I doubted I’d ever shake the sadness and grief that had settled into my chest. There were a lot of nights when the pain woke me up, and I cried myself back to sleep. There were so many moments where I was blindly angry at myself, at the universe, at whatever had allowed this to happen.

 But it also showed me my own strength. Nobody rehabbed and recovered that injury but me. Nobody listened to doctors tell them it was unlikely they would seriously run again, only to shake it off and set their own goals, but me. Nobody learned to walk again but me. Nobody raised a hand, got a therapist, and healed their heart but me.

Nobody took a deep breath and returned to the place where she passed out on the side of the road in Natick, and then continued on for 16.2 more miles to become a Boston Marathoner but me.

Every time I look at my medal, I get a little chill. It’s so much more than a marathon medal to me. It tells me I survived. It’s my triumph over grief, pain, and heartbreak. For the rest of my life, it will show me that all I need is my own heart and my own strength.

 Three years ago, I trained for and attempted to run the Boston Marathon to try to forget about pain I was feeling. This week, I completed the Boston Marathon to ensure I always remember it – and remember my own ability to overcome.