That’s the word I would use to describe this year’s Boston Marathon experience.
I had high hopes for this year’s race. My training was the best it had ever been. No injuries. No aches. Nothing holding me back. Nothing in my control, that is.
On top of feeling great, this year I would be taking my grandma and parents with me. My grandma had never seen me run, so to have her at the biggest event in the marathon world was a treat. For the first time, I dedicated this run to my grandpa who had passed away three years earlier from Alzheimer’s.
It was my grandpa who taught me how to be a runner. No, he wasn’t a coach or a runner. In fact, as far as I know, he never stepped foot on a track or a race course. But the life lessons he taught me made me the runner I am.
He taught me that anything worth having in life is worth working for. He taught me not to quit. He taught me to be the best I could be at whatever I do. He taught me to set my sights high and far and never lose sight of the goal. He taught me that none of life’s success mean anything without loved ones to share it with.
It was these lessons that helped me get through one of the most trying experiences of my running life.
You could hear the rumblings a few days before the race.
Have you seen the forecast?
Did you hear the temperature will be in the 80s?
Did you know the BAA is offering deferrals for those who don’t want to battle the heat?
People were throwing around phrases like “Duel in the Sun II” and “Another Run for the Hoses."
But I didn’t panic. I had run in the heat before. In fact, I finished the St. George marathon in 80-degree temps. I run in the summer afternoon sun all the time. I knew how to hydrate and pace myself. I knew better than to expect a PR. I would take it conservatively and enjoy the day. No pressure. Nothing to prove.
The Facebook frenzy began early. My phone was vibrating like a washing machine gone bad for hours with message alerts from friends and fellow runners all in a tizzy about the weather. I’d been a cool cat, but maybe I shouldn’t be. Should I be more alarmed? Should I stress? Nope. I should just sleep.
I wasn’t nervous when I walked out to the busses that waited to take us to the start and I only needed a light jacket in the chilly morning air.
I wasn’t nervous when I walked around the Athlete’s Village and had to unzip said jacket.
I wasn’t nervous when I finally took the jacket off because I was too warm in the shade.
No, I had this under control.
I was having more fun than I had at any other Boston Marathon. I had seen so many friends over the course of the weekend. I was soaking in the sense of comaraderie I shared with those I knew and those I didn’t. I was with my people and loving it. As my corral was called to the starting line, I gave my friend and fellow instructor Tracy a hug, wished her well and made my way to the most famous starting line in the world.
I was off.
It was in the high 70s during the early miles, but I felt fine. My pace felt easy, but was faster than I expected. The crowds were out in full force and the energy was electric. I could feel the training pay off as my legs felt light through the first 5K.
By mile four, I was drenched in sweat, but I tried not to let it worry me. At each water stop, I would take one cup to drink and another to pour over my head. I zig-zagged the course, chasing shade and spectators with ice.
Mile 10 passed by and the temps were now well into the 80s, but I was still feeling great. I had energy enough to interact with the spectators who seemed to be cheering a little louder this year.
By the time I reached the girls at Wellesley, though, I could feel a dip in my reserves. Normally I love the scream tunnel. The girls almost always give me a burst of energy as we approach the halfway mark, but this year wasn’t what it should have been.
I wanted to soak in the sights and sounds, but instead I found myself desperately searching to soak in any breeze, water and relief from the beating sun.
I passed the halfway mark in good time, but I knew it wouldn’t last. That was fine with me. Better to finish standing than on a stretcher.
As I approached the Newton Hills around mile 16, I started to sink. I walked a little slower through the water stops. No pain. Nothing specifically slowing me down. The sun was simply draining all I had.
My usual celebration at the top of Heartbreak Hill didn’t happen. I was too focused on reaching each mile marker and, subsequently, each water stop.
We waded through deep drifts of water cups while the fabulous volunteers did all they could to keep the water at the ready. They were working as hard as we were. I swear, those volunteers are the glue that holds this race together. My one regret is that I didn’t thank them enough. I had nothing left. I hope they understood that my simple nods and half-hearted smiles were all I could give them.
The runners who did have a little extra in the tank encouraged those who didn’t. When their tank reached empty, they were encouraged by others. I have never felt closer to a large pack of strangers. We pushed each other along, sometimes literally. We tried to ignore the sirens for those whose day ended early. Just. Keep. Going.
My focus stayed sharp until we reached mile 24. It was as if a dark cloud descended over me and I simply couldn’t see through it to the finish. People were shuffling, many were walking as we dragged ourselves toward the Citgo sign which would signal the last mile of the race. I couldn’t do it. I needed help.
None of us can do great things alone, so I reached out to my husband, thousands of miles away at home in Utah. I didn’t want to alarm him, but I needed his encouragement more than he needed my reassurance, so I called him. He thought I was calling from the finish line until he heard the sobs.
“I can’t finish. Tell me something good or I have to quit. It’s too much,” I cried into the phone.
“You’re doing great. It’s two miles. You can do this. You’re amazing. I love you.”
I hung up the phone, took a deep breath and did what I was taught to do. I moved ahead, one step at a time.
I wish I could say I enjoyed it. I wish I could say the crowds buoyed me up. I wish I could say I found an extra gear and sprinted to the finish. But I can’t.
I was fighting every fiber of my being that was telling me to stop.
We took a right onto Hereford and a left onto Boylston. Only a half mile to go. I scanned the crowd and found my grandma, then my mom, then my dad.
I thought of my oldest daughter who was waiting at school for me to call her from the finish line. I thought of my youngest daughter who was watching the race from home. I thought of my husband who was, no doubt, concerned by my unprecedented call from the course. I could feel him cheering me on in my heart. I thought of my grandpa who never had a chance to see me run. I didn’t want him to see me quit now.
And then, it was done.
While I fared better than most runners, I lost a lot of weight, even though I truly feel I executed my hydration plan the best I could. My electrolytes were way out of balance and I was sick. I sought out the medics who found me some shade, doused me in more water and force fed me potato chips. Yes, the potato chips brought me back to life. When they cleared me to go, I found my family who showered me with praise and donuts!
The next couple of days, anyone wearing marathon gear would give knowing looks. We’d been through the worst, but we went through it together. I feel bonded to the other runners. I feel bonded to the fantastic spectators who really stepped it up this year. I feel closer to my friends and family who pulled me through the worst of it.
Nothing in life turns out exactly according to plan. My grandparents would be the first to tell me that. You set goals, work hard and hope for the best. Life surprises us at the most unexpected moments, but we learn to adapt. We pick each other up and push each other along. We cheer each other and encourage each other until we reach our own finish line. Then we celebrate our victory and the people who got us there.
My grandpa taught me many things, but there was one more lesson he taught me on race day: I’m tougher than I think and I have a lot more of my grandpa in me than I ever knew.
I think he’d be proud
Kim Cowart is a wife, mother, 24-Hour Fitness instructor and marathoner and now a three-time Boston Marathon finisher who is beyond grateful for the spectator at mile 15 who loaded her up with ice cubes and a wet towel when she needed it most.