A Long Way to the Finish

Down under the overpass, and up a rise I ran. Tired. Stiff. I wanted it over. I took a right on Hereford Street, and then a left on Boyston Street. Large crowds were on both sides screaming and cheering. It was absolutely packed with people held back by barriers. Suddenly I was swept up in it. A surge of emotion and adrenaline. Keep pushing. The finish line, only a quarter mile ahead, decorated in blue and yellow. Just a little farther. Keep pushing. And then it was over. I crossed the line and the timing pads. I did it. I finished. All that work. All that time. All that energy. It was worth it. I had accomplished my dream.

After IBM moved me to Austin in 1995, Nancy and Micky, short for, Michele, two women co-workers, asked me to join them for this city’s Rite of Spring, the Austin American Statesman Capital 10K – lovingly called the Cap 10K. I told them I wasn’t a runner, and they said that’s OK. They were just going to walk it and it would be fun. We registered and got our T-shirts and race numbers or bibs. Then when the day came we, in our bright new T-shirts along with ten thousand of our fellow Austinites, walked and talked those 6.2 miles all around downtown Austin. It was so much fun that the next year we did it again. Sadly the work ended, our group disbanded, and Nancy and Micky found other positions in other cities. As the years went by I continued doing the Cap 10K but now without them. Over time I went from walking to running.

By the Fall of 2002 I was running more often on my own. It was good exercise and I liked waking and doing it before dawn. There is no better time than watching the sun rise on a new day. That fall I ran the IBM Uptown 10K. At RunTex running store I saw a notice for The Austin Distance Challenge, a series of road races each increasing in distance. The first race was the IBM one, which I had already done, the next one, Amy’s Ice Cream 10 miler, was only a few weeks away, and the series ended in the 3M Half-Marathon and Austin Marathon. Wow! I had never done a series of races like that, nor had I run a marathon. Actually I had never run anything over 6.2 miles. It piqued my interest. So I signed up for Amy’s race.

The day before the race I picked up my registration packet containing a light yellow cotton T-Shirt and bib. On race day I arrived dressed in my new T-Shirt to a much smaller crowd of runners. Instead of the thousands for the Cap 10K there were now about about two hundred. Instead of everyone wearing their race shirt, there were now runners wearing technical polyester white racing shirts and skimpy black running shorts. Hmmm, these were a different type of runner. They were the serious ones. When the gun went off I did my best, and finished near the back of the pack, but that was OK. Although I was hot, and sweaty, I was also happy. I had found a tribe who I enjoyed to be with.

Unfortunately my hopes for completing the Distance Challenge were sidetracked that year when a medical procedure and its long recovery required me to curtail my running in January 2003. The rule was that if you miss any race in the challenge then you’re out of it. However, I had been bitten by the running bug, and by the Fall of 2003 I was again interested in running again and attempting the Distance Challenge.

Yet this time I was going to do it differently. Instead of training on my own I signed up for RunTex University’s running program taught by Steve Sisson, a UT running star. With about thirty other runners we met once a week for an intense track workout, and then on Saturday we did a long run. Throughout the fall of 2003 to the spring of 2004 we progressed from 5 mile long runs to 20 mile ones. Along with the training we also ran each of the Distance Challenge races. This was all in preparation for the culmination of the Distance Challenge – the Austin Marathon in February, which now with the right training I completed in 4:22. And with its completion I also got a pullover jacket for completing the Distance Challenge. I learned that preparation was an essential component of running.

By the 2004-2005 season I continued to train and run. I also continued to do the Distance Challenge. Most people who run are young. They’re in their 20-40s. There are far fewer of us in their 50-60s, probably around twenty runners doing the Distance Challenge each year. So as the series progressed toward the Austin Marathon I was doing quite well in my little group. You are ranked by the sum of your times of each completed race. And I was in second. So it came down to the Austin Marathon. The day was hot. Normally February days have a moderate temperature, but not this day. The sun was out, and runners, whose hopes were dashed for making a good time, were giving up. I followed my race plan and although I was hot I was somewhat oblivious to the environment around me. I had a job to do and I just went ahead and did it. To my surprise I found out after I finished that I had gotten first place in the Distance Challenge along with a medal. I feel that medals are important symbols to runners. They are the physical reminders of an achievement. Oh, and they’re shiny too.

By the end of the next year I remember Steve telling me that if I worked hard that maybe in two to three years I could qualify and run the Boston Marathon. Now you’ve got to understand, the Boston Marathon is considered one of, if not, the most prestigious marathon in the world. Depending upon your age the Boston Athletic Association sets qualifying times. You must run a preliminary marathon equal to or less than the qualifying time to be able to register for the Boston Marathon. At the time, I was 56 and my qualifying time was 3:45 for 55-59 year olds, that is, I needed to complete 26.2 miles in three hours and forty-five minutes. In other words, I had to run each mile in eight minutes and thirty-file seconds mile-after-mile for 26.2 miles. Just one second slower per mile meant 26.2 seconds slower overall, missing 3:45 by about a half minute, and not qualifying. To me qualifying was beyond my capabilities. It was a dream.

Yet I continued to train and push and strive. By that time I was 58 I was ready to try to qualify. I trained with a great coach, Karen S. She pushed me, and I remember at the end of training, a week before the marathon, going out for a thirteen mile easy run. Yes, “easy”. There were three of us along with Karen. We ran down Jollyville Road through the Arboretum down Burnet Road. We ran marathon goal pace. We were comfortable. We ran smoothly. We flowed. It was wonderful. I was ready. Marathon day came, but the weather wasn’t ready. We woke to 28 degrees Fahrenheit, and ice on the roads and especially the bridges. Unlike the current loop race that Austin Marathon runs today, the race started in far northwest Austin and ran downtown. I started out fine, I was on pace, but the cold slowly sapped my strength. At mile 23 the course went up a highway ramp, and I just couldn’t run any more. I started to walk. The 3:45 pace group passed me. As I watched, while trying to will my legs to run, I saw them turn a corner and disappear in the distance. With them my qualification evaporated. I was decimated. I cried. Then ever so slowly I began to shuffle along, to force myself to run. I knew I would not qualify, but I could finish. And finish I did in 3:50 – missing qualifying by five minutes.

After that I gave up trying to qualify. Not everyone can physically qualify, and I felt that I was just one of those who can’t. I still trained, but my desire had been broken on that cold day last year. Although I trained to run the marathon, I only registered and ran the Austin Half-Marathon that year. I was 59 and defeated. My heart wasn’t in it. I went through the motions, but that failure had affected me deeply. I was about ready to stop running. Yet there was a glimmer of hope. Next year, when I turned 60 my qualifying time changed to 4:00. Two years ago on that cold day I had done a 3:50, which means I might still be able to do it. At my age I knew that each year your physical capabilities decrease. But if I focused all my energy next year and trained well, I think I might be able to really qualify for Boston. Now at least I had a new goal. One that seemed possible. I again had hope. I would try one last time.

That Fall I was again training and running. I listened to and followed what Coach “Geezer” told me to do. Each workout I did the “advanced” level. That is, I ran harder; I ran farther. By Spring I was again ready to try to qualify. On race day the weather was just right – cool, not hot or cold. I had memorized the new Austin Marathon loop course – each turn, each hill. My plan was to stay on pace, 9:06 per mile, throughout. The course goes south from downtown on South Congress Ave. and rises for the first three miles and then turns around at Ben White Blvd. and heads back to downtown on South 1st Street.

I started with the pace group and ran the first three miles easily. After the turn I lost sight of the pace group behind me. Back downtown I looked at my watch. Oh,oh. I was now one and a half minutes ahead of the pace group. What should I do? I was going too fast. But should I stop and wait for them? No. Should I slow down? But, I feel fine. I’ll just continue along. I’m relaxed. I’m fine. Let me just ignore where the pace group is, and just run. And so I did.

By the time I got to mile eighteen, I was eight minutes ahead of pace. I still felt good. Although I had eight miles to go, I knew the last few miles had a slight down hill. I started to realize that I could do this. I relaxed and continued to run. The clock read 3:53 as I crossed the finish line. I had done it. I had qualified by seven minutes for Boston Marathon.

You register for the April Boston Marathon in the previous October. I knew that last year’s online registration had been open for about two months until the race was filled. Many people qualify for and want to run each year so there’s a limit on the number of runners. The 2011 limit was 30,000. On registration day I signed on and tried to register. After typing in all the information I hit enter, and nothing happened. The entry page reappeared. I didn’t get a confirmation screen. Hmmm, did it deduct the $250 from my credit card? I tried again. Same thing. I tried again. I hoped it hasn’t charged my card three times. Oh well. Something is wrong. I’ll try again tomorrow. But wait, who can I ask? Let me ask people on Twitter, “Hey, anybody having problems with registering #BostonMarathon”. And someone replied, “Yes, use this URL: …”. So I entered the new URL along with my information and it worked. I got registered. Whew! What was extraordinary was that the next day I found out that registration had filled at 5 PM, and if I had waited just one more day I would not have gotten in. I was lucky. I was very lucky.

Then on a beautiful April spring day in 2011 in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, I crossed the start line and headed towards downtown Boston 26.2 miles away. I was on my way.

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[Written as part of a class exercise for a Memoirs class I am taking. I was to select an object with memories and write about them. I choose my Boston Marathon finishers medal. It seemed appropriate since class was on Patriots Day, and it was the day of the running of the 119th Boston Marathon. 4/21/2015]

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