I first posted this story after I ran the 2013 Boston Marathon. As I prepare to return to Boston this weekend with 36K other runners for the 118th Boston Marathon, I am remembering my adventure in Hopkinton the night before the race. Here is my tale.
The first person I spoke to from Hopkinton, Massachusetts the eve of the Boston Marathon was a cop.
My good friend and running mate, Greg Heilers, had just dropped me off at the corner of Main and Grove Street in Hopkinton at about 6:30 PM. As I opened the passenger door to his rental Kia, Heilers asked me one last time the same question he had asked a dozen times that day. “Are you sure about this?” he repeated.
It was my grand plan to stay in HopTown, the place where the Boston Marathon begins each Patriots Day, the night before the race and soak in even more of the energy and atmosphere of this 117-year-old tradition – despite having made no prior plans for lodging.
I assured Heilers that I would be fine and closed the passenger door with a slam. We had just cruised the town Square where a handful of folks were milling about but not nearly the number I had expected. Before leaving, Heilers also drove us by Hopkinton High School where 27,000 runners would disembark from an endless line of yellow school buses starting at dawn tomorrow. I expected a buzz of activity just 12 hours before the first buses arrived but again, it was silent. A lone abandoned sedan sat in the school’s parking lot. It looked like it had been there for days.
Standing with my Nike bag slung over my shoulder in the parking lot of Colella’s Supermarket on Main, I considered my options. I knew no one in town. I had about 90 minutes of daylight to find some stranger who would be willing to put me up for the night. There were reportedly 6,000 residents in Hopkinton. I liked my chances.
I tugged on the front door of Colella’s but the small grocery store was already closed for the evening. Heilers had been inside this market last year when we ran Boston and he remembered the cashier. “She has a mustache that Burt Reynolds would envy,” remembered Heilers. I felt bad that I would miss seeing Mrs. Reynolds this trip.
A closed grocery store before 7:00 PM on a Sunday night is not normal in Kansas City or Boston. But this was Hopkinton. Time moves a bit slower out here 26.2 miles from Copley Square. I headed west down Main and my path on the north side of the street was almost immediately blocked by a Hopkinton police officer who peered at me out of his cruiser’s driver-side window.
At least I thought he was peering at me. He was actually looking past me at the slow-moving oncoming west-bound traffic, looking to turn left onto Main. Just as he was about to drive off, I stopped him with an energetic hand signal and then quickly asked if he knew of a place in town I could stay for the night.
The cop was a young guy in his late 20s at best. “There aren’t any hotels in town,” he answered with a puzzled look. “You’re on foot?” he added with even more of a quizzical tone. I explained that I was in town to run the Boston Marathon the next day and even showed him my official “Boston Marathon Passport” that hung around my neck.
“Do you know of anyone in town who is taking in runners for the night?” I asked in my friendliest tone.
“Nope,” he responded. “I’ve never heard of that.”
And then he pulled out into the street and was gone. He didn’t ask my name. He didn’t seem to be all that concerned that a stranger was walking the streets of his town in search of lodging. He just smiled and was gone.
No problem. A firehouse sat just across the street from the police station and it was manned 24 hours a day. There were a number of cars in the back parking lot and I approached the front door of the firehouse with confidence. No answer. I looked into the large front windows of the place but saw no one and no signs of activity. Around back I found the same lack of life.
Knowing a few fireman myself, I decided against pounding on any doors with more than a polite knock. While firemen are for the most part a friendly sort, they might not see a guy with a Nike bag as ample reason to field a distress-sounding knock.
I headed back east toward the town Square where I would be sure to find some approachable locals who could steer me toward a runner-friendly abode. The sun was now casting some long shadows as I made my way up the street. While the sunlight was fading, the temperature was dropping as well. It had been a pleasant day in the 50s, but in this late-daylight, it was closer to 40. I zipped up my thin gray sweatshirt and hugged my Nike bag closer to my waist.
Three junior-high-aged boys passed me on skateboards as they coasted along the concrete sidewalk. The Square was populated with numerous vendor tents to supply concessions, souvenirs and unofficial Boston Marathon items to the throngs of runners and spectators that would overrun Hopkinton in the morning.
But it was now after 7:00 PM. The vendor tents were strapped closed and not one person strolled along the picturesque walks through this famous patch of grass in the center of town. I eyed the space between the bottom of one of the tent’s canvas fronts and the grass. I made a quick mental note that I could possibly squeeze under that locked flap – if I should find myself in need of some shelter for the night.
There was some activity across the street at the elementary school, near the new statue of Dick and Rick Hoyt, the father and son wheelchair team that are an institution in New England. I headed toward the statue and started up a conversation with what appeared to be a grandmother, a mother and an adult daughter.
After explaining that I was looking for some local resident who might be taking in runners for the night, they directed me to hotels in Framingham, five miles down Highway 135.
“I don’t have a car,” I explained.
They looked at me with cocked heads and then wished me luck in the race tomorrow as they piled into their black SUV.
When a nearby grandfather loaded his two-year-old grandson into his car and then drove off, I was left alone in the Square with my Nike bag and a chilly north breeze. For the first time since arriving in Boston earlier that afternoon, I considered the possibility that I was going to have to sleep outside the night before the Boston Marathon.
Before I was ready to succumb to that frosty fate, I had a good 45 minutes of daylight to burn before the locals would view me more as a vagrant than a curiosity. I made the decision to start cold calling.
The Square is ringed with neat two-story colonial homes across the street to the south and the west. I approached the very first home on the corner of Park and Ash. It was painted a bright white with bold black trim highlights around its windows, doors and heavy moldings.
I rang the doorbell and a 40-ish housewife answered the door almost immediately. I could see her dining room table past her right shoulder where her laptop computer sat awaiting her return.
My best approach was to not be too direct, or so I surmised. I began by introducing myself and explaining I was from Kansas City and in town to run the Boston Marathon the next morning. I had thought invoking the phrase “Boston Marathon” to a Hopkinton resident would have a similar effect on them as if you mentioned “Ditka” to a Bears fan. It. Did. Not.
She listened to my tale and smiled sweetly as she told me she did not know of anyone in town who was in the business of taking in strange men. “We don’t know you,” she said almost apologetically.
“If we knew you or if you knew someone in town who could vouch for you…” she started.
“All I need is a couch,” I countered. “I’m willing to pay you cash for a couch.”
“Oh,” she softened. “We wouldn’t take your money.”
An opening! Her tone told me she was willing to give me a shot at that couch and maybe even an empty bedroom!
Just as I was imagining a good night’s sleep in a bed once owned by Paul Revere and a hearty home-cooked New England breakfast just a few steps from the starting line, I heard her husband bounding down the steep staircase that rose up directly behind where she stood holding her 250-year-old front door.
“Hi,” smiled the bespectacled and shaved-bald man in his 40s. His smile was a ruse. He never did allow me to speak.
“We understand your plight but we don’t know you,” he said as he looked me in the eye and took the door from his wife’s right hand. “I’m sure you understand.”
His smile never faded but his tone was undeniable. He reached out and clapped me on the shoulder as he moved me away from his doorway all in one consolidated move.
“Good luck with that,” were the last words I heard as he shut the door with authority. I was already off his stoop and left staring at the black-painted door.
This was not going to be easy. I looked at the other dozen or so homes that surrounded the Square. While moments ago they all represented opportunity, they now looked like cold fortresses.
I decided that the Square was the wrong place to search for an understanding family. A few blocks over was Grove Street, where the runners slowly walk from the high school to the starting line each Patriots Day. I remember many of those modest homes had signs in their windows and banners attached to their fences and homes greeting the throng of runners and wishing them well on their foot race to Boston.
This is where I would find refuge from the mounting cold and darkness on Marathon Eve. I began the short walk toward Grove with renewed hope. Just a couple of blocks into my journey, I came across a home that was being renovated. The front door and garage doors were nowhere to be seen.
“Last resort,” I told myself. I moved on west toward Grove.
Church Street comes before Grove and on this aptly-named road was the town’s Catholic Church. The parking lot was loaded with vehicles – probably for the Sunday evening 7:30 PM mass. A new idea struck me that I thought pure genius.
If I could get in front of that Catholic congregation, I could increase my chances for landing a warm bed maybe 150 fold! I leaped up the massive concrete steps two at a time and bounded through the heavy double entrance doors.
My first thought inside the church was a simple one. I was ecstatic at how comforting it felt to be out of the cold. I was actually happy just to feel warm again. We are a pampered lot here in the age of gated communities and climate-zoned vehicles. Being cold – real bone-gnawing cold – is something I kind of remember from my youth. But I haven’t felt the exhilaration of warmth like this since my brothers and I shoveled snow off of Margaret Foral’s Alpine-aping front steps across the street from our childhood home.
I sat in a mid-to-back pew and allowed the chill to ease from my body. I viewed the sharp angle of the pew’s back and sized up the seat for sleeping. “I could make this work,” I thought.
The offertory portion of the mass had just concluded and we were moving on to changing the bread and wine into the body of Christ. It had been a good twenty years or so since I have been to any church service that did not include a wedding or a funeral. I now consider myself a “Recovering Catholic.” I spent the first 20 years of my life going to daily mass. I spent the next five questioning why and feeling guilty about my fickleness. I have spent the remainder of my years content in knowing that organized religion is something many men and women need – I am simply not one of those folks.
But I needed a bed or a couch or any reasonable facsimile this cold dark night. I had a 26.2 marathon to run starting at 10:00 AM the next day. I needed some sleep! And preferably not in that abandoned remodel job with no doors. I started standing, kneeling, singing and handing out the sign of peace like I was Pope Francis’ long-lost brother.
I may be struck dead for this next act before I finish typing this sentence but I even partook in the holy sacrament of communion for the first time since my wedding. I figured the more people who saw me and my Nike bag (I toted that sucker up the aisle with me), the better my chances were of scoring a davenport or spare square of carpet. I was way past picky at this time. I was closing in on desperate.
The pastor never looked up as he placed the host on my tongue. I was hoping for some eye contact so that we could make a connection. I was nothing more than another case of halitosis to this guy in a bejeweled cape. I turned to slowly walk back to my pew and searched the congregation for an understanding soul. Not one set of eyes stared back. All looked to be in solemn prayer for those in need.
If I would have gotten the least bit of a feeling that the priest would have understood, I would have stopped the mass right there and gone Baptist on that crowd with a loud voice and a humble plea for help. But I just did not get a good vibe that this was the right place or time to blurt out, “Hey, anybody got an extra bed, couch or rug for $40 bucks tonight?”
Back in my pew, I looked up the recessional hymn and belted it out with the rest of the Hopkinton Catholics. One thing I loved about being Catholic is singing in church. I have a voice that always turned heads – in a good way. I could always sing. I hoped someone in that church would hear my baritone voice rise and fall on the emotion-rich hymn, Holy God, We Praise Thy Name and be moved enough to want to get to know me and my bag.
I didn’t get even a sideways glance. The one-man choir above and to the rear and I appeared to be in a head-to-head contest to reach that infinite vast domain and everlasting reign with depleted oxygen tanks. The 150 or so churchgoers were quickly filing down the aisle and out the door like their microwave dinner bell was about to chime.
The pastor was outside at the bottom of the church steps greeting the parish people as they rushed by and into the parking lot. I viewed each set of headlights and then their taillights as an opportunity lost. I envisioned empty bed after empty bed driving off into the early evening Hopkinton light as I stood near this odd pastor who shook hands without making eye contact.
More desperate now with the evening breeze winning a contest against my zipped-tight sweatshirt, I approached a jolly looking man with a full head of black hair. He stuck out his hand before I even removed mine from my pocket.
“Are you in town to run the marathon tomorrow,” he beamed as he pointed to the passport around my neck.
Finally! Someone who appears to understand who I am! Why I am here!
“Have you met our pastor?” he asked in the friendliest of tones. “He’s new in town. He has no idea what he’s in for tomorrow when all those thousands of runners hit this town.”
The pastor looked away and toward the ground as he moved off toward the church. He said nothing and then was gone. I turned back to the jolly man and saw that he was joined by a friend. I chatted with these men and found they both lived in Hopkinton.
“I need a place to stay tonight,” I wedged into our conversation. “Any idea if there are any locals taking in runners for the night?”
“I can’t say that I do,” the man replied. “Mass is at 7:00 AM tomorrow morning if you would like the Lord’s help in your race tomorrow,” he added before leaving me at the bottom of the church steps. I faked a smile and sent him half a wave.
I considered the door-less house once again but it was not yet dark. I had wasted a good 30 minutes in that church. “Wasted” may strike some as a blasphemous term but I was in survival mode now and every minute I wasn’t making progress on finding a bed I was wasting.
I headed down Church Street and renewed by path to Grove Street where I hoped to find more runner-friendly domiciles. Or any.
The funeral home sat on the corner, just across from the church parking lot. An elderly lady could be seen in the window standing in front of a sink – at least I think it was a sink. I was sure they had room but sleeping with a corpse the night before a marathon was just too much foreshadowing – even for a writer. I hustled underneath her window and into the darkening night.
Two neighbor ladies in their 40s stood outside their adjoining homes and talked carelessly as the last few shards of light lit the sidewalk. I approached them with a smile and my best sales pitch of the night. They smiled as I told my story of adventure and how I wanted to spend Marathon Eve here in Hopkinton, where it all begins.
“Have you tried the police?” asked the lady with the blonde shag haircut. “I would think they have a list of people who are taking in runners.” I assured her the police were the first contact on my list but they were of no help.
“What about the firehouse?” said the brunette. This was like a bad dream – only it got worse.
“I am sure the Catholic Church would help you out,” chimed in the blonde. “Have you been to the Catholic Church?”
I assured them I had been to the police, the firehouse and the Catholic Church – and none of the three had been fruitful.
“Well,” said the blonde. “What you should do is just walk up to people in town and see if anyone has a place or knows of someone who does.”
I fixed on her a look I reserve almost exclusively for my wife. “THAT IS WHAT I AM DOING RIGHT NOW,” I mostly-kind-of-tried-to-say in a composed tone – but failed.
The two women giggled and told me to try the church again. I thought of that warm, hard, wooden pew and decided that would make a fine bed for the night.
I headed back down Church Street and rang the doorbell of the rectory. Two SUVs were parked in the pastor’s driveway and every light inside and out burned brightly. Hopkinton is an orderly, pretty town with a number of well-educated and wealthy inhabitants. The Catholic Church and its rectory displayed that affluent status.
One problem. Old Glue Eyes wasn’t answering my page. There is no way he didn’t hear me or that he or somebody wasn’t in that rectory. He or they just weren’t coming out. I looked across the street at the church and hoped they hadn’t locked it for the night. They had. It was now dark. It was getting colder. I was pretty much screwed. I thought of Heilers in his warm Boston hotel room and squashed the pang of regret that was wanting to bloom in my gut.
There were two places of business on Main Street still open at 8:30 PM on this night. One was a carryout pizza joint and the other a sit-down pizza joint. I opted for Bill’s Pizza, where I could sit and be warm until closing before I had to sleep in that cold, door-less construction site.
There were four tables occupied at Bill’s upon my arrival. Four high school girls sat in the middle of the room. A grandfather and his grandson drank orange Crushes in a booth along the far wall. A big guy sat alone reading his newspaper near the teenagers and two 30-something lads sat at the bar. I headed for the two guys at the bar.
No dice. They were heading back to Boston after they finished their beer and pizza. “We just drove up here to see the start line,” the smaller of the two explained.
“So you’re planning on sleeping in Hopkinton tonight?” the other asked.
“Yeah,” I said as I looked around the restaurant one more time. “Crazy idea, huh?”
They took my “Huh?” as being rhetorical and returned to their Sam Adams brews.
I walked over to the last booth along the wall and plunked by Nike bag onto the booth’s seat. The grandfather and his grandson talked about the Red Sox as I passed then on my way to order a pizza.
If Bill’s stayed open until 10:30 PM, I figured I could nurse a large sausage pizza and a refillable Diet Pepsi for two hours in exchange for the warmth the restaurant provided. The high-school aged lad at the counter took my order and handed me my paper cup. I filled it with DP and turned to see the tall single gentleman shuffling his newspaper back into order and preparing to leave.
“Why not,” I thought. I caught him at the restaurant’s door just as he was walking out.
He listened to my tale for a few sentences and then stopped me with his raised left hand. “How did you get here?” he said plainly.
“I flew in just this afternoon,” I explained. “I picked up my race packet…”
“No,” he stopped me abruptly. “How did you get right here, right now?” He pointed at my feet for emphasis.
“I had my friend drop me off near the Square a couple of hours ago….”
“Are you sure that was a friend?” he said with a large hint of sarcasm but no humor.
“So,” he continued. “Is this your race thingy?” he asked as he flipped by official Boston Marathon passport over and then tossed it back at my chest as if it were a phony.
“Uh, yeah,” I answered. “It’s not my race bib but it’s my official Boston…”
“So where is your gear?” he asked as if he’d caught me in a lie.
“Right over there in that booth,” I pointed.
The tall 50-year-old man looked at me one last time, paused, and then said the three sweetest words in the English language.
“Alright, let’s go.”