Boston Baked Marathon / Part II
The interlocking royal blue KC logo I had Nill Bros Sports affix to the front of my white singlet was a huge hit with the Boston crowd. I enjoy traveling to new locales and sampling the people, the culture, their favorite foods and even their accents. The Boston brogue is as rich as any dialect in Henry Wiggins’ vast arsenal.
The shouts from the sidewalks and curbs intoned that unique throaty sound from deep in these easterners’ necks. “Hey, KC!” they yelled. “Good job, KC! Good job.” This personal greeting began in the narrow streets of Hopkinton and continued all the way to my finish amid the pageantry in downtown Boston on Boylston Street. I am sure some runners nearby were sickened by the repetitive greeting. I, on the other hand, loved it.
My rooting fan base in Boston was not limited to Red Sox fans but I imagine that the familiar Royals’ logo drew most of the cries from those who frequent Fenway. With the Royals’ poor start to the season, I was expecting some derisive Bronx cheers from the Boston brood. I did not hear a one.
Instead of jeering my KC logo, they cheered it and my willingness to show off my home-team pride here in New England. Old guys, young guys, moms, Jersey Shore extras and even little kids who were just old enough to know the names of the letters were shouting, “Go KC!” toward my lumbering figure.
My trips back to Boston have given me a great appreciation for that town’s passion for their sports teams. They are not a divided city as we are here with our college teams. College sports are treated like New Yorkers in Boston – barely tolerated. What inspires the Bostonians are their Red Sox, Tom Brady and the Pats, their Bruins and the Celtics.
One residence on the marathon route between Wellesley and Newton had constructed a mockup of Fenway’s Green Monster – complete with a giant Coca-Cola advertisement outside the left-field wall and the celebrated manual scoreboard. This version of the green monster was big enough that it ran the length of the front yard and had a half-dozen people in lawn chairs sitting atop it drinking brewskies. All of this was taking place no more than a few feet from the six-hour parade known as the Boston Marathon.
My paranoia about my KC logo is somewhat well earned. Our baseball team here in Kansas City has not known success for almost 30 years. To us that is shameful, disgraceful and embarrassing. To a Boston Reds fan that’s just a slow start. The Red Sox went 86 years between their first World Series title in 1918 and their second in 2004. While their success has improved greatly the past decade with their teams, they have long memories there in Beantown. I felt like they still harbor a grudging respect for that gritty band of talented Royals who dared challenge the mighty Yankees in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
I tried to acknowledge each person who shouted at me with at least a raised fist or a slight wave of my right hand. One gentleman in particular made an impression on me as I struggled through those three ominous hills of Newton just past the 17-mile mark.
“Show us how it’s done, KC,” he said with a sincerity and undertone of passion that made me turn my head his way. I locked eyes with the man in his 40s who wore a faded Red Sox cap and a simple white t-shirt. “Show us how it’s done,” he repeated.
I answered him with a silent nod to show how much his words of encouragement meant. Corny? Sure, but not to a dehydrated soul beating his feet into flatirons in search of any reason to go on.
It is fleeting, gone-forever-yet-remembered-for-a-lifetime moments such as this that makes the Boston Marathon special for each man, woman and Kenyan who reaches Hopkinton with an official bib number. I headed up that hill just past the infamous Newton Fire Station with a new mantra on my lips. “Show us how it’s done, KC.”
The Newton Hills are made up of three hills starting at the Newton fire house, between mile 17 and 18, culminating with Heartbreak Hill just before mile 21. During my two tours of the Boston Marathon I have not found these hills to be ridiculously steep, long or foreboding. They just happen to be in a really bad place in a really long race.
The temperatures were now peaking in the upper 80s and the real air temps had to be close to triple digits when the heat of the concrete was also calculated. The time of day was near 1:00 PM and I had been out on this journey for now more than two-and-a-half hours. I knew the hills lay ahead and then the pain of the last four miles that I suffered through last year at Boston was as fresh on my brain as those three Dunkin’ Donut bagels I had for breakfast.
“Show us how it’s done, KC,” I repeated to myself as I passed my first walkers on fire house hill.
I ran through a water tunnel just in front of the fire house and it gave me a renewed jolt of life. I raised my head to take in the party-like scene there where the course takes a 90-degree right turn toward Boston. The intersection here seemed wide compared to the many narrow roads we had tread. Firemen, families and onlookers cheered us on as they sent us off toward the hills.
I love this part of the course because it is the one place so many of the great Boston Marathoners point to where a race was won or lost. Yes, it is the gateway to the dreaded Heartbreak Hill – but it is also signals that the race toward the finish has begun.
The late great Grete Waitz, the Norwegian running legend who won the New York Marathon an incredible nine times, described the Newton Hills thusly; “Killers. I had the impression that the last six miles (of Boston) were pretty easy but I was so beaten up by then, that they were excruciating. It was all I could do to keep running all the way to the finish.” Waitz ran Boston only once. Boston is a race of attrition and the Newton Hills are the accelerator pedal for that attrition.
Walkers were everywhere as I scaled the three hills. Boston does not attract your Sunday morning 5K crowd. These were all quality seasoned runners walking through this heat up these hills. I am sure many had never walked in a race before. But this was not a day to be ashamed of pace – even a walking pace. The B.A.A. had placed multiple electronic message boards throughout the course urging runners to; Beware of the extreme heat…Slow your pace…Walk.
I did not consider walking. One reason was that I had run at such a controlled pace during the first half of the race that I was not yet totally wasted. My legs still felt decent. The more compelling reason not to walk was that I wanted to be out of this heat as quickly as possible. Running would get me to Copley Square sooner than walking. I stumbled on and over the hills.
I grabbed a cup of water from the top of a ten-year-old boy’s head. I snatched a red licorice rope from the hand of an Asian lady. Chunks of ice from the angels who offered these nuggets of rapture were like gold. Huddles of runners formed at any curbside that offered these ice treasures. I grabbed at least the parts of two whole oranges that were freely offered. I passed on a scoop of Morton salt offered by the large lady who chatted on her cell phone.
The spectators at this Boston Marathon understood how different this race would be due to the record heat. They were there for us in spectacular form. The people of Boston do not simply watch this race. They are as much a part of the race as the runners themselves. I did not gain a proper appreciation for the Boston crowd during my first run at Boston. My second time though, left a mark.
One of the fondest marks was Boston College. Just after you crest Heartbreak Hill you relax and begin your descent down the backside of your climb. After a short surprise hill that I had forgotten about, the students of Boston College are there to urge you on your way.
The Wellesley women greeting is a lovefest. They know you have been anticipating their scene and they perform on cue for every last one of us 27,000 runners. The Boston College event is completely different. Maybe it’s a guy thing but those kids at BC made me do things as I passed by that I had no business doing. Like run fast.
I don’t remember any signs held by the BC students. I am sure they can write but it appeared to me they preferred to shout their feelings. And when I say shout, I mean scream with every ounce of oxygen they can muster from that place in the bottom of your lungs from which your music teacher always tried to get you to breathe. I absolutely went 1970’s Greg as I passed by these kids and fed off their insanity.
For some reason the KC logo on my chest set these BC kids off – in a good way. Maybe because my initials shared the same surname as theirs – I have no idea. But they started screaming, “KC!,” “Go KC!,” “KKKKKC!” It set something off in me that I thought had died with disco.
I raised my right arm and started giving them my best Tiger Woods’ fist pump. When they responded with even louder cheers, I pointing at them individually like I was John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. I am sure the other runners who had followed me through Newton thought I’d snapped. Hell, I thought I’d snapped!
I was on the balls of my feet, gliding now. A corpse come back to life. A large bearded senior with a red plastic keg cup leaned forward mere inches from my face and bellowed, “Fuuuuuccckkkkkinnnn’ Aaaaaye!”
When his buddy raised his hand to me I hit it with my fist like I was Rocky.
This was the only time during the four hours I spent on the course that I remember feeling fast…or at least normal. To have it happen here, 21 miles into the race, was pretty damn cool. The human body and mind are amazing, amazing gifts. I had nothing just moments before I arrived at Boston College yet left there with more than enough to get me home.
Something odd occurred around mile 23. A strange yet familiar odor hit my nostrils and it was not pleasant. How can I put this delicately? It smelled like someone had shit their shorts.
At first I looked for alternative sources for this foulness. Maybe this is just how Brookline smells? Nope. This acrid odor was definitely coming from close by. I stealthily glanced at my fellow runners but none of them appeared to be troubled by the stench from someone’s leaky plumbing. Was I imagining it? No. Someone in my little band had unquestionably sharted. For only the second time on this day I intentionally picked up my pace and left that aromatically-challenged group behind.
My finishing miles during my first Boston Marathon had been a mighty struggle. I had never hurt like I hurt at the end of last year’s Boston. I expected to feel even worse with the awful weather but I was surprisingly “fresh” considering. (At least my shorts were empty.) I considered picking up my pace for the final two miles. This was not a good choice.
My right calf sent an electric cramp shock to my brain the moment I leaned forward. It frightened me. For the first time this day I considered the possibility that I might not finish. Runners were cramping and stopping at almost every mile since Wellesley. I was not so special that the next casualty could not be me. Once you start to cramp, even walking is difficult. I backed off my pace and hoped my right calf would forget.
It would twinge twice more before I crossed the finish line – one being just prior to my left turn onto Boylston Street and the final 600 meters. Instead of working up a kick to the finish, I babied my calf and stayed with a steady jog. I crossed in 4:04, 31 minutes slower than last year. I was ecstatic.
I knew I was dead last of my small group from Kansas City but I was ready for their jeers when I got to our planned post-race meeting place. Greg Heilers spotted me first and waved me over. I was stunned to hear that Ken and Yael would finish behind me. But that is how tough this race was on this day. This was not a day to race but to survive.
Amby Burfoot of Runner’s World put it into perspective with these words the following day.
“Congratulations, Boston Marathoners. On Monday, you proved why you are a special group of runners. You were tough enough to qualify for Boston, the world’s pre-eminent marathon. And then, facing conditions completely unsuitable to marathon running, you proved that you were flexible enough to adjust your plans. You listened to the advice of everyone from the Runner’s World staff to the Boston Marathon’s medical advisors, and you changed your race plans. You didn’t run fast. You ran smart. And that is the greater of the two.”
Amby’s experienced words eased my pain in a number of ways.
A gentleman of Nigerian decent occupied the seat next to mine on the flight home. He was traveling from Boston to Kansas City for a business meeting at the Federal Reserve Bank near Crown Center. We exchanged some friendly conversation about me running the marathon and how he did not as the flight departed Logan International. We gradually returned to our own private activities after the pilot allowed access to his e-reader and my laptop.
As the plane approached Kansas City and the passengers began to ready themselves for the landing, we renewed our pleasant chat. He informed me he would only be in Kansas City for one night. He was concerned about the ability to get a taxi from KCI to his hotel at Crown Center.
“My friend here tells me he has never seen a taxi driving on the streets of Kansas City,” he said with genuine alarm. “He was not sure I could find one to take me to my hotel.” I assured him there would be plenty of taxis and shuttles awaiting his arrival at KCI.
“That’s too bad that you’re staying only one night,” I mentioned to the pleasant Nigerian. “Kansas City is a great town and one I think you will really enjoy.”
“But why would I want to stay more than one night in a town – this Kansas City – that doesn’t even have any taxis,” he replied without a hint of humor. “There must be very little to see in such a town.”
“That is where you are wrong,” I replied. I told him if he only had one night in my town, he needed to tell his friend to take him out for barbeque. I mentioned Fiorella’s Jack Stack BBQ to him as an excellent choice. I told him he would be close to the restaurant in the Freight House District or he could go to the one on the Plaza. I recommended he try their brisket, the baby back ribs and especially have some of their BBQ baked beans.
“I know baked beans,” he nodded. “Coming from Boston, I know baked beans.”
“I want to write the name of that restaurant down,” he said with earnest. “I want to write this down before I forget.” He took a sheet of paper from inside the cover of his e-reader and asked me if I had a pen. I patted my pocket but came up empty. I turned to my left and addressed the occupants in the seats just across the aisle – three young men and a middle-aged business woman. The men were obviously runners returning home from the marathon.
“Does anybody have a pen?” I inquired in a voice loud enough for them to all hear.
All four silently dropped their heads and dug into their backpacks, pockets and purse. My Nigerian friend by the way of Boston was stunned. “Are these people members of your running club?” he asked quizzically.
“No, I don’t know them,” I responded. “I just thought they might have a pen.”
He was amazed at the response my request had initiated from these strangers. “One, two three, four…” he counted out loud while pointing at each with his right finger. “All looking for a pen for a total stranger!” I assured him that this is how Kansas City treats people. He was genuinely moved by the swift actions to offer aid from people he had never met and would never see again.
“If you did that in Boston the people would tell you to go to hell,” he chuckled.
I wrote down Jack Stack’s on his paper and the menu items I had recommended. He then took the pen from my hand and drew a star to the right of the BBQ beans.
“Maybe I should move to live here in this town with no taxis – this Kansas City.”
I smiled, patted him on the back and told him to enjoy his dinner. I slung my briefcase across my shoulder and headed down the plane’s narrow aisle. I walked out of the passenger-friendly KCI terminal to meet my waiting wife and catch a ride to our home – in this Kansas City – where the BBQ is almost as special as the people.
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