Once I heard, “Alright, let’s go,” from my tall, studious-looking stranger, I grabbed my Nike bag and followed him to his black Jeep Liberty parked six steps from the pizza joint’s front door.
So, why did I put myself in this odd predicament of wandering around a strange town, dressed as a stranger, cold calling on strange homes looking for a spare bunk? Let me start at the beginning…
The Boston Marathon is a point-to-point race, meaning you start in one place (Hopkinton) and run 26.2 miles to another place (Boston). It is a logistics nightmare to load and bus 27,000 runners from downtown Boston on Patriots Day morning into the tiny village of Hopkinton.
Being my third time at Boston, I wanted to skip waking at 4:00 AM on race day to catch a cab to stand in an endless line of scantily-clad runners near Boston Commons and then sit in a school bus for more than an hour’s drive southwest to Hopkinton. Once in Hopkinton, you are relegated to sitting or standing amidst the human sea of runners that grows exponentially as the yellow buses arrive, park and then vomit their contents onto the grass playgrounds of the local high school.
The Boston Marathon formerly started at noon – a ridiculous time of day for any road race but an even more insane start time for a race as wickedly hard as Boston. The move to a 10:00 AM start took place just a few years ago in 2007. Runners back before then were forced to sit around for an additional two hours!
After sitting in the unusually warm 85-degree heat for three hours last April, I wanted to find a way to skip the whole early wake-up call and bus ride on race day in 2013.
I had only really experienced Hopkinton on race day in the past. It is the epicenter of road racing on Marathon Monday each April. The entire town appears to be gorged on Gu and Gatorade. This is the Hopkinton I expected to see the Sunday night before the marathon.
Michael Connelly’s book, 26 Miles to Boston, also played a role in my decision to freelance it as far as housing in HopTown. Connelly penned his well-read book about his and his running buddy’s experiences at the 100th running of the Boston Marathon in 1996.
Connelly talked of how he and his friends stayed in Hopkinton the night before the marathon and described tent villages teaming with runners and special housing for the elite athletes…and just an atmosphere of camaraderie and goodwill.
It seems all that bustle and busy in Hopkinton was unique to the party that was the 100th running of this country’s longest-running and most cherished road race.
When I arrived in Hopkinton that Sunday before the race I saw no tent cities surrounding the local high school. I saw no elite athletes and their handlers being catered to or housed by local do-gooders. I didn’t even see the mustachioed cashier at Colella’s! I saw a home under reconstruction with no doors and a couple of pizza shops!
Another reason for my seemingly foolish foray was a website I came across called stayatthestart.ning.com. This site was organized by Hopkinton families who signed up to offer beds to visiting runners in exchange for a charitable donation. The fact that the website was inoperable and showed a static alert screen of “under maintenance” every single time I tried to access it did nothing to squelch my enthusiasm for heading to Hopkinton without a known option.
Sure, the website was down every time I clicked on the link – but that didn’t mean the friendly folks in Hopkinton wouldn’t welcome this weary traveler into their homes with broad smiles and stories of marathons past…right? Wrong.
So… this is how I now found myself strapping my tired torso into the passenger seat of a 2007 Jeep Liberty, just outside the front door of Bill’s Pizza in Hopkinton, Mass., a little over 12 hours before the 117th running of the Boston Marathon.
I reached across the Jeep’s console with my right hand and extended it to my rescuer for our first handshake.
“Hi,” I began. “Greg Hall from Kansas City,” I repeated my opening line from inside Bill’s.
“My name’s Mark,” he said without acknowledging my extended hand. He pulled a sharp U-turn on Main and headed his Jeep east, following the exact route of the start of tomorrow’s marathon.
I cannot adequately describe my state of bliss as I sat in a vehicle again with the expectations of a decent night’s sleep indoors. It does not take long for the depravation of basic needs to strip away our cultural 21st-century veneer. Mine wore raw after about two hours.
Mark quickly and without emotion explained that he was single and living alone in a two-bedroom condo that was right at the 5K mark of the Boston Marathon. “You can use the spare bedroom,” he said without taking his eyes off the road.
“So how do you plan to get back to Hopkinton for the race tomorrow?” he questioned me somewhat sternly. He left off the rest of that sentence – “…because I sure as hell am not driving you back here,” but it was very much implied.
“I’ll just catch a ride with somebody heading west on 135,” I answered cheerily. “I can walk the three miles if I have to.”
It was obvious that Mark was reluctant about this choice, even though he had willingly invited me into his home. He was obviously not at all sure he was doing the right thing. He had some questions as we tumbled downhill toward Ashland.
“Do you live in Kansas City, Kansas or Kansas City, Missouri?” he quizzed.
“I’m surprised you know there are two!” I said a bit too enthusiastically.
“I grew up in St. Louis,” he explained. “I have been out here for the past eight years. I sell electronic displays for a Japanese company.”
Seizing the opportunity to find some common ground, I immediately mentioned that while both of us appeared to have roots in the state of Missouri, I too worked in IT for a software development company in Overland Park, Kansas.
“I thought you said you wrote a blog,” he said as he turned his head and stared directly into my eyes for the first time since we crawled into his Jeep. I got the chilly feeling Mark was not in a very trusting mood right now.
Part of my initial story to each possible host was a short couple of sentences about my online blog and how I hoped this adventure would make a good story for my blog. I was a bit stunned that Mark thought that was also how I made my livelihood.
“I DO write a blog,” I stammered. “But that’s not how I eat!” I gave him a short rundown of my professional resume and hoped that would ease his doubts. He listened intently but did not speak.
We remained quiet the last mile or so as I checked my phone for nonexistent messages and he stared ahead into the country-black night.
The intersection where we turned right into his condo’s subdivision was large enough to require a traffic light. There are very few of these along the quiet route of the early miles toward Boston. A well-lit Dunkin’ Donuts beckoned my inner foodie on the intersection’s northeast corner. I made a mental note to stop there in the morning to catch a bagel, a muffin and maybe a ride.
Mark’s condo was a three-story duplex built adjacent to the forests of the Ashland State Park. It was tucked secretively into the woods of this Boston suburb, like so many of the housing developments in this pretty part of the state.
His garage was a tandem two-car job with plenty of room for Mark’s sporty Jeep.
I hopped out of the passenger side and retrieved my Nike bag from the backseat. Mark hit the garage door button one more time and we were locked in for the night.
“I’m doing some work down here,” Mark explained as we walked through the lower level of his condo, which was in various stage of remodeling. “Just ignore the mess.”
I removed my Nike Pegasus running shoes at the base of his first-floor staircase. I wanted Mark to know I was a neat houseguest. I then followed him up the stairs where he showed me my bedroom for the night.
It was immaculate. There were no frills – the furniture was Spartan and the queen bed had a simple blue comforter with two white plumb pillows – but the room looked pristine. The adjoining bathroom was even cleaner.
I went from possibly sleeping in an abandoned door-less house to having my own private bathroom! Neat stacks of motel-size soaps and orderly rows of mini bottles of shampoo, conditioner and body lotion sat on a nearby shelf.
“I am on Japan time,” Mark informed me as I viewed the comfy confines of my room. “I work all night and sleep most of the day. I just got up at 6:00 PM tonight.” I smiled dumbly.
“If you happen to hear some loud noises during the night,” he added. “Don’t be alarmed.” He then turned to head out the bedroom door and back down the stairs.
Now it was my turn to be concerned. “Loud noises during the night?” I was so busy trying to convince strangers that I was a harmless boarder that I never considered that I might be placing myself in danger. Part of me wondered if Mark dropped that line to let me know I did not have the upper hand tonight. Whether he meant to or not, it worked really, really well!
I busied myself to take my mind off of Tokyo Mark by unpacking my Nike bag and partaking in one of my favorite pre-race routines – setting up my “invisible man” the night before race day.
I was traveling incredibly light this trip because I knew everything I brought with me to Hopkinton would need to fit into my official yellow plastic gear bag that we all received when we picked up our running bib and packet.
My race-day outfit consisted of the following;
1) Two pair of Balega socks (one brand new – I love the feel of new running socks on race day despite the old adage, “nothing new on race day”)
2) A pair of black Nike compression shorts
3) A pair of black outer racing shorts
4) Two Band-Aids
5) My white Nike singlet with the KC Royals logo
6) A mostly-new pair of Saucony Kinvara 3 shoes
7) A Garmin Forerunner 10 watch
8) Five packets of Gu
9) An elastic utility belt
10) A heavy long-sleeved t-shirt that I would toss on the discard pile just prior to the race.
11) A pair of cheap stretchy acrylic gloves that would also be sacrificed once the temps rose
I laid these items out on the carpeted floor of the bedroom in the form of an invisible man. It is my way of making sure I don’t forget anything on race day. I have shown up at the start line without my race chip, without the shorts I intended to run in, no Band-Aids (you remember Boston 2011, right?) and also no gloves – a brutal way to race on a cold morning.
Just as I was putting the finishing Band-Aids on my invisible man, Mark reappeared at my bedroom door. He walked into my room like he owned the place.
Mark had been gone about 15 minutes. In his hand he held his business card. On his face he was sporting what looked like his first semblance of a smile. His entire demeanor was different now toward me. Instead of the cautious and cold stranger I had known since our chance meeting at Bill’s, Mark was now chatty and open.
“He must have googled me,” I thought. “THANK YOU, Internet!”
Mark had earned his engineering degree from Rolla. I informed him that some of our son’s closest high school friends were enrolled at Rolla as freshmen this year. When I mentioned our oldest was running XC and track at Mizzou, Mark responded with how his niece in Albuquerque had been wowed by MU’s campus and student rec center and would be starting there in the fall.
Everything changed after this short exchange.
Mark wrote his mailing address and new email on the business card he handed me. “Just in case you forget anything here and need me to ship it to you back in Kansas City,” he said.
We talked about how he used to run 10Ks but his knees could no longer take the pounding. But he was far from inactive even at the age of 50. Instead of running, he was now an avid mountain biker. He had biked through all of the many back roads in and around Ashland and Hopkinton and also was a regular at the local gym.
His main passion is snowboarding! He used this as motivation all summer to stay in shape so his 50-year-old bod could handle six straight days of snowboarding in Colorado. “It’s too expensive to go out there for a week and be too tired to snowboard after just a couple of days,” he explained.
“Don’t worry about getting up early,” Mark said as he prepared to head back downstairs. “I’ll drive you back into Hopkinton in the morning.”
“But they close Highway 135 at 7:30 AM,” I cautioned.
Mark waved his hand at me to let me know it would not be a concern. “I know every back road there is between here and the start,” he assured me. “Sleep as late as you want.”
I flipped off the bedroom light and smiled at my dumb luck. I slept like a dead man.
Instead of a 4:00 AM wake up call to catch a school bus, I didn’t even set my alarm. With a 10:00 AM start and knowing I was only 10 minutes at most from Hopkinton, I slept in until 7:30 AM.
I shaved, showered, dressed, packed my bag and then took a few minutes to make my bedroom and bathroom look like I had never been there. I wanted Mark to be happy he invited me into his home and leaving the place as neat as I found it seemed like the least I could do.
I bounded down the stairs to find Mark sitting in his living room watching the morning news on his big flat screen. My bag hung from my shoulder and my sweatshirt was zipped – all ready to go.
“What’s the rush,” asked Mark.
“I don’t want to be any more of a burden to your schedule than I have already,” I explained. “I’ll just walk over to that Dunkin’ Donuts and grab some breakfast and see if I can catch a ride.”
Mark would hear nothing of the sort.
“I am driving you myself back to Hopkinton,” he said in a voice meant to dissuade any counter argument. “Sit down and watch the news with me. They just interviewed some guy who slept outside on the Square last night in Hopkinton! The guy looked frozen like a popsicle!”
I sat in Mark’s living room and for the first time I took in the incredible beauty outside his condominium. It looked like we were in an Aspen chateau. Mark explained that the housing market in and around Boston was old and expensive. His condo was affordable only because he was 25 miles from downtown Boston. He was lucky to find it first when it came up for sale eight years ago.
I bought us muffins and bagels at the Dunkin’ Donut as we started our meandering trek back to Hopkinton. The drive from Bill’s Pizza had taken no more than ten minutes the night before. But with Highway 135 now closed to all traffic, Mark took me on a tour of his mountain-biking trails that were absolutely breathtaking.
I got a chance to see the homes and neighborhoods behind the first few miles of the Boston Marathon that few runners of this historic race will ever experience. Each time we came upon Highway 135 and needed to cross, the police guarding the intersection waved Mark on through as if he had lived there for years – which he had. It was like having my own personal police escort to the start of the Boston Marathon.
Mark not only got me back to Hopkinton, he parked his Jeep immediately across the street from the colonial home on the Square where I stood last night after the husband wished me luck and slammed his front door.
“Do you mind if I walk through the Square with you,” Mark asked as we piled out of his Jeep.
“Mind?” I chuckled. “Let’s go.”
The Square and the town were now pulsating with activity. With only a few minutes before the wheelchair racers got their early start, there were spectators, runners, media and excitement everywhere. I started getting juiced about being an official entrant into this grand old race.
Mark and I walked up and down the makeshift aisles of the vendor booths. I thought back to the night before when I considered trying to wedge myself under a locked canvas flap in search of warmth and a grass mattress.
As we stood on Hayden Rowe Street, I reached out my right hand and Mark grabbed it like friends do. As we shook, he told me to look for him at the 5K mark, at the same intersection of the Dunkin’ Donut shop.
“I’ll be there,” he promised. “So be sure and look for me.”
I dropped his handshake and walked on toward the high school to drop off my yellow plastic bag of post-race clothes in the designated school bus of my correlating bib number.
As Greg Heilers and I clipped off our 7:35-paced first three miles and approached the donut shop, I looked to my right to see if I could find Mark in the massive sea of spectators lining the course.
There he was, his tall frame resting up against the oversized 5K sign.
“MARK!” I screamed and waved as I approached his perch. I was near the middle of the highway while he stood near the right-side curb. I could only imagine how hard his job had been as he scanned the faces of the thousands of runners who streamed toward him and then were gone before he could even be sure if that bald old guy going by was his houseguest.
I saw him raise his long arms high above his head and extend a small camera over the top of the crowd. I waved vigorously with my right hand as we sailed passed.
I felt myself choke up a bit as I pondered all of what had to take place the past few hours for that photo to be taken. I savored the thought that despite all the craziness and questionable decision making on my part, I had made a new friend.
Life is strange…yet so very, very worthwhile.
Later that afternoon, after the explosions at the finish line and the chaos that reigned downtown, I got a text from Mark asking if I was alright and letting me know that if I needed a room for the night he would gladly come get me and drive me back out to his place in Ashland and away from the madness. How great are humans?
I assured Mark I was fine and that I was going to try and find a hotel downtown and then fly out in the morning.
I saw the first video of the bombing as I stood in the massive lobby of the Park Place Hotel about 9:30 PM. I was stunned as I saw the carnage and misery the two bombs caused. I turned to another runner who stood beside me. He also had not yet showered and was still in his running gear. I hugged him and this stranger hugged me back. We never spoke.
I was turned away when I inquired about a room at the over-extended Park Place but I found a more receptive desk clerk at the exclusive Taj Hotel just down the block.
“I am going to be your hero,” she said as she looked at my physically- and emotionally-drained carcass. I smiled at her kindness. All that hero worship cost me was $440 for the one very short night.
“Sorry, ma’am,” I said to the clerk as I took my room key from her hand and headed to the elevator. “But my hero lives in Ashland, Mass and drives a mean Jeep Liberty.”
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