'Next time, I'll just try harder' At the Boston marathon, pain is not the point

April 21, 1996|By KAREN HOSLER

`TC EVEN AFTER 11 marathons -- or maybe especially after 11 marathons -- I approach each one with a mixture of excitement and dread. The 100th running of the Boston Marathon last Monday multiplied these emotions about 100 times.

What runner wouldn't be excited? With 40,000 of the sport's best, most determined or just most social athletes taking part, it was to be the premier celebration of the road-racing ever. The Woodstock of running, some called it. A three-day party of shopping, schmoozing, and carbo-loading before the event itself. And then more party afterwards when everyone dons the proud uniform of official marathon T-shirt topped by their finisher's medal -- a striking gold unicorn head with royal blue inlay hanging from a blue and gold ribbon.

I booked my hotel room two years in advance. I ran my qualifying marathon -- which showed I could meet the minimum standards for my age and gender -- in Chicago in the fall of 1994. Many of my running friends were going.

But the nearer the big day came, the more vividly I remembered how much it hurts to run 26.2 miles. Particularly when you're not well trained, which I wasn't. Marathoners often vomit, faint or pull muscles. Sometimes they die. When a marathon is behind me, I'm always proud I had the grit to complete it. Yet, pain isn't much fun to look forward to.

And I worried about being crushed among all those people. Four times the normal Boston Marathon field, which had already seemed during my two previous races there to be way too big for the narrow roadways and limited facilities. In honor of the centennial, the Boston Athletic Association accepted all applicants who met the qualifying times, plus another 15,000 who won a lottery, donated $1,200 to certain charities or had VIP connections. They wound up with a group larger than the population of Annapolis.

Only two modest-sized tents were to be available during the six hours between when runners began arriving at the starting line in tiny, rural Hopkinton, Mass., and the noon starting gun for the race. It appeared likely we may have to wait all that time in the freezing rain.

With my expectations running so high and so low, it was inevitable that I would be disappointed as well as pleased. I didn't know for sure until I got home Tuesday, though, which way the balance would tip.

Certainly, the whole experience was fun. About 30 members of the Annapolis Striders running club took part, including eight of us who hung together all weekend except for the race itself.

The runner's expo was a shopper's dream. Cut-rate shoes, socks, T-shirts, tights and every other accoutrement imaginable. After years of coveting the blue wool, baseball-style Boston Marathon jacket several of my friends bought there earlier, I finally got one of my own -- green with brown leather sleeves.

We got our first real measure of the crowd Saturday at the expo, when it gradually became impossible to move in the huge convention center. The trick was to go early, as we did Sunday night to the pasta dinner, which was designed with eight seatings of about 5,000 each in another cavernous hall.

We were twice lucky on marathon morning. The day was cold but sunny and the temperature promised to reach the fifties by noon: perfect running weather. Plus, we didn't have to worry about jamming into the two muddy tents in Athlete's Village. One of our eight is an official with the U.S. Postal Service, which sponsored its own team. They graciously allowed us to share their private tent behind the Hopkinton Post Office, which had food, water and toilets. I'm swearing off snail mail jokes in appreciation.

The race logistics went almost flawlessly. A staggered start, seeded by qualifying time. I was No. 27,252, "corraled" with 1,000 others roughly of my speed and vintage. It took 20 minutes after the starting gun before my corral reached the starting line. We had to walk for another 10 minutes or so before there was enough room to run. But I had expected that to take an hour.

The crowd support was far better than in the past. Spectators lined most of the course in rows three and four deep. A half dozen bands entertained at various intervals. Two couples got married during the race and completed the course in black tie, white gowns and running shoes. An Elvis impersonator ran along crooning into a Mr. Microphone and swiveling his hips. One runner carried a large replica of the church where Paul Revere saw the lamps signaling the British arrival.

As it happened, my only real disappointment was in myself. I wish I had tried harder. I figured I was so far back my time didn't matter. All I had to do was finish in eight hours to get the medal. My qualifying time had been 3 hours, 51 minutes. My personal best is 3: 41. With the half-hour delay, I picked an easy goal of finishing by 5 p.m.

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