Fearless Marathoning (From the July/Aug 2017 issue of New England Runner)
by Thom Gilligan
It had been sixteen years since I last stood in Hopkinton facing twenty-six miles of pain and suffering over the hills and dales of the eight cities and towns that comprise the famous course. When you try to race the Boston Marathon, as I did on twenty-two previous occasions, the pain and suffering is inevitable. Photo: Thom and South Africa’s Sonja Vijoen 30-meters from the finish on Boylston Street. (Photo courtesy of Thom Gilligan)
There are two causes of pain. The muscle pain of fatigue must be endured to finish a marathon. You embrace that pain in your daily training and embed that feeling in your long runs. There is also the more insidious pain emitted from ligaments, tendons and joints that signal a warning of something far more serious. It was the bone on bone hip pain in my last marathon that warned me that perhaps my body had maxed out at sixty-one marathons and one ultra.
I received an emailed invitation in mid-December from Kathrine Switzer, a friend of almost forty years, to run Boston for her 261 Fearless Foundation in April. We had gained mutual respect over the years collaborating on projects in Athens, Kenya and Bermuda. I would be one of six males among almost a hundred females who could receive bibs by running in support of women’s running, all in celebration of Kathrine’s return to Boston as an entrant to celebrate her historic run in 1973.
The message was carefully worded since she knew I had retired from marathoning after Boston 2000. It was more a challenge than an invitation, designed to strike a competitive nerve.
Perhaps I just need a nudge to avoid the guilt once again of being a spectator and not a participant. That guilt was an internal pain of sorts that gnawed at my conscience each year on Patriots’ Day. I reluctantly accepted her gracious invite and planned a four month training program that could best be described as ‘marathoning light.’
This year was different in so many ways. I had never run for a charity. I had chaired a successful fund raising program for the Charlestown Boys & Girls Club for eighteen years. But I had never asked clients, friends and family to contribute to my fund CrowdRise account. I was shocked and humbled at the incredible support and generosity of over 150 donors who made me that “number one” fund raiser in support of Kathrine’s foundation. I would be running not just for myself this time.
I had also never run Boston just to finish. I considered that goal disrespectful of Boston’s traditions. You qualify and you earn the privilege of a bib. But at age sixty-seven one must make some concessions in life and I set my goal as just that. Once I adjusted my mental approach to just covering the distance, the fear was distilled into the excitement of running Boston again.
The sport has changed over the years as it evolved from a competition to a participation to a recreation. If a person with no knowledge of the sport had visited the Boston Sports & Fitness Expo, they would exit thinking that running was the most complicated exercise possible. Over a hundred exhibitors were extolling the virtues of a variety of products that every runner must have.
As an exhibitor myself, I tried to minimize the fatigue of standing still in the booth for many hours. I always felt calf pain after a long weekend of offering trips around the world for runners. I tested compression socks to mitigate this problem. Amazingly they worked. I decided that I would even give them a try on race day.
I had never focused on my nutritional needs back when there were no nutritional supplements available in the earlier days. But I tried a few powders consumed one half-hour into my long run training. They seemed to help. Then I noticed an ad that had Meb supporting the benefits of a product that he used. If it was good enough for Meb, it was certainly good enough for me. It worked in training and it worked on race day. I leaned another lesson about modern marathoning.
I drew the line at wearing any extra gear other than a GPS watch and pace monitor. It was always a game of feel back when watch technology was a simple chronometer. I refrained from wearing the chest strap to monitor my heart rate. Extra weight of any dimension slows you down. That simple truth will never be disproven.
I also agreed to run the whole way with a debutante from South Africa. I would pace her conservatively through the early downhills and she would help me through the bad patches in the later miles. My trepidation of that agreement was overcome and magnified with the joy that comes when you share the Boston experience with a friend.
This time I made the turn from Hereford to Boylston feeling relaxed and excited despite the warm temperatures. Sticking to my plan of running just to enjoy the race, gave me a whole new perspective that could never be gained from the bleachers. I learned that marathoning for fun and recreation is a worthwhile pursuit. I think that I may have to run Boston again. But should I try to qualify or run for a charity?
Thom Gilligan is the proprietor of Marathon Tours in Boston. If you’re interested in an adventure run near or far, check out their Schedule