Boston Marathon: We were high, we were Sherpa-high

I’m a selfish person by nature. (Yes honey, I said it.) Doing things for others doesn’t always come easy to me. I have come to learn this character flaw about myself over the past several years. Perhaps that’s why running and doing triathlons has become my sports of choice lately. It’s a solo endeavor… most of the time.

Not on this day…

Leading up to my first Boston Marathon, I had intended to run “my race.” But with a nagging calf injury and a forecast calling for a high of 87F, that plan quickly disappeared. Yet, I still found myself searching for a race-day “goal.” I needed a reason to run. I needed something to focus on. (I also have self-diagnosed adult ADHD.)

Enter Jill,  a friend of mine from Atlanta. Battling a very serious hip injury, Jill decided to run  despite not running for the 2 months prior to Boston (a fact she failed to mention to me until we crossed the starting line in Hopkinton.) She had visions of running 3:30. We both agreed that would be our “goal.” It makes me laugh just thinking about it now.

After searching for each other in the athlete’s village for the better part of two hours, we finally found each other in the Corral 5 area for Wave 2 (I dropped back from Wave 1, Corral 8 to join her). Because we were both mentally prepared to run alongside each other, running solo would have been a crushing blow to our race-day plans.

Just a few feet in front of “The Starter” statue in downtown Hopkinton, we began our journey to Boston. As we started the so-called race, I discussed the “plan” with Jill. If I start hurting, she was to continue on without me. After all, her goal was what we were focused on. However, if she started hurting, I was going to stick with her. (She tried to resist my offer, but it was futile. I was in full-on Sherpa mode for this one.) With the amount pain I figured she might end up in, I wouldn’t want anyone to have to fight through it on their own. The only other rule was that she wasn’t going to “chick” me at the finish line. I was going to make sure I finished at least one second before her.

 And we spoke long at length

Of the fight or flee

And of nothing in particularly

Underneath the cannonball tree  – “Sherpa” by The Tragically Hip

I’ve heard many stories of friends acting as a Sherpa to help others achieve their goal and I always thought it was such an unselfish thing to do. This was my chance to give back a little for all of the encouragement and help people like Jill have given to me along the way.

Fittingly, the lyrics in one of my favorite Tragically Hip songs has the words “fight or flee.” On a day like this, It would have been REALLY easy to choose the flee option. Instead, we decided to fight.

We started out just fine and were clicking off 8-min miles until we reached about Mile 8. Occasionally, Jill would let out a whimper or a groan. These were the early indications of what was going on.  My ailing calf was feeling fine, but a shin splint in my left leg was beginning to ache. I quickly blocked that out and focused on the Sherpa duties.

I made no bones about it with her, whatever she needed to do, that was what we were going to do. If that meant walking, stopping to stretch or even… dare I say it… dropping out, that’s what she was going to do. BTW, my suggestion of dropping out didn’t seem to go over too well with her.

By Mile 10, the run-walk-stop-stretch plan was in full effect. I’m not exactly sure what kind of pain Jill was in, but I knew it wasn’t good. Basically, from what I could gather, her hip muscles weren’t working as they should be. (Here is her explanation.) She was running on a leg that wouldn’t propel itself forward. At one point, in a distraught/frustrated voice she said something along the lines of — “It’s just not working! I can barely lift it!” The hills were especially hard. On numerous occasions I looked over at her face and she was visibly biting her lower lip. I’m pretty sure she had tears welling up behind her stylish sunglasses on other occasions, too. (Crying is allowed.)

To get through it, we started to focus on small goals… A lamp post at the top of the hill … A telephone pole off in the distance… The half-way point. Those became our targets. The actual finish line was too far away to think about. We went through the halfway point at 1:54:21. There was still a glimmer of hope that we might be able to break 4 hours. However, the second half of Boston is where the hills are. It was going to require a really hard effort.

“Talk to me,” Jill said early in the race, a sign that she needed something to shift her focus away from the pain. So I did. We chatted about how we each came up the names for our kids, how we ended up in Atlanta, etc.

“Talk to me about hockey,” she insisted. So we chatted about the greatest sport ever created. Turns out Jill’s brother is one heck of an athlete. He even played goalie for the Jr. Penguins. He might be a natural, but Jill made sure to mention that she’s a faster runner than him.

“If you could be a superhero, which superhero would you be?” I asked her. Not surprisingly, she wanted to be one with healing powers. I suggested Mr. Miagi and his healing hands.

Eventually, much later in the race, it hit her… Jill decided on Wolverine. Nice call!

From Marvel.com “Wolverine is a mutant who possesses the ability to regenerate damaged or destroyed areas of his cellular structure at a rate far greater than that of an ordinary human.”

I decided on Superman. He can fly — enough said!

Back to the race…

My motto, which had been adopted from long, hot, hilly runs with some of my ATL training partners was to simply say “this is AWESOME!” in a mocking tone whenever the going got tough. For Jill, she went into her gracious motherly mode and began to thank every  volunteer/cop/fireman/military member that she could find. In return for her heartfelt “thanks” they responded with words of encouragement. It was give-and-take all the way.

Oh, did I mention that it was WICKED HOT!? It was so hot,  3,853 people decided not to run at all. Even defending champion Geoffrey Mutai dropped out with cramps at Mile 18, putting his Olympic dreams in jeopardy.

(Here are some great pictures of what it was like along the course.)

The temperature rose into the high 80s. Spectators had mounted sprinklers to telephone poles. Fire hydrants were spraying all over the road. There were several misting tents, too. We hit them all! We walked numerous aid stations without shame. If there was shade to be found, we tried our best to find it.

When we spotted a little boy handing out Flavor-Ice, Jill and I nearly fought over the grape one. Luckily, the kid had more than one to hand out. I can’t possibly say enough about how great the crowds were. They were all Sherpas in their own way.

As for us, the next goal was the Newton-Wellesley Hospital at mile 16 1/2. That’s where my dad and his wife were going to be. Once we reached them, we stopped to chat for a bit and put on our best smiles.

I was VERY grateful that my father was able to make the trip up from NJ and fight the crowds to come out and see me for a brief second along the course. Marathons are not very spectator-friendly events. His effort to be there was truly appreciated.

After a brief stop in front of the hospital, our next appointment was with Heartbreak Hill. While we had walked several of the hills along the way, Jill made one thing clear to me: “I’m going to run Heartbreak Hill!” As we rolled through the hills of Newton, “Heartbreak” was quickly approaching. On a normal day, this hill wouldn’t be too bad. Both of us had run many tougher hills on long runs in Atlanta. Heck, the Georgia Marathon has about 5 hills harder than Heartbreak. But this wasn’t a normal day. We ran every step of it. When we reached the top, Jill found a friend of hers in a shade tent on the left side. They hugged briefly and I could sense that Jill was relieved to see a familiar, encouraging friend at that point.

Less than 10k to go now… “We got this” was the refrain.

Onward we went through the Boston College section. These kids were crazy (aka drunk)! As we ran, we yelled at them and they practically fell over the railings trying to give high-fives as we ran past. It was an absolutely awesome, chaotic scene.

We reached the outskirts of Boston and people all around us were walking. Many others were lying or sitting on the ground off to the side of the course. It was carnage. According to the Boston Globe, 2,181 runners sought medical attention. The day after the race, nine runners remained hospitalized.

Jill and I did our best to keep a steady pace and focus on reaching our next mini-goal — her husband. I had asked her earlier where he and T.J. (another friend of ours from ATL) were going to be. She said they didn’t have much of a plan.

“You’d think I’ve done enough of these things that I would know better by now,” Jill said, laughing.

I was kind of bummed that she might not see them on the course.

Just then, I saw a sign on the left side of Beacon Street reading “Poonstar!” It was her husband, Alex, and T.J. Just in time! Alex appeared to attempt to hand Jill some water, but all she wanted was a hug. She basically collapsed into his arms. It appeared that her will to continue was almost gone… almost. After a brief stop, we carried on running. Alex and T.J., carrying coolers with them,  ran alongside us for about 1/2 mile (BTW, thanks for the water T.J.)

As we wound our way through downtown Boston and approached the left hand turn onto Boylston Street, the conversation going on between us subsided a bit. It was clear that we were both soaking up the moment. Finally, we could see the finish line ahead.

“Not everybody gets to run under that sign,” I said to Jill.

More high-fives were exchanged. Then, about 1/8-mile from the finish Jill began to slow and offered me the chance to avoid being “chicked.” No such luck girl. We were going to cross together. 4:15:30 was the end result for both of us. Looking back on it, I should have let her go first. On a day when there were few “winners,” Jill was clearly the more worthy candidate of the two of us.

Now I know why women are the ones who give birth. She’s one stubborn, tough woman.

As for me, I have no regrets. I wish I would have been healthy enough to “race” Boston, but this was not the year for it. I’ll be back again. I had an absolute blast and wouldn’t change a thing.

Even though Jill said “thank you” to me many times for being her “shepherd”, as she put it, I’m the one who is thankful. While running the greatest marathon in the world, I got to experience up close what it’s like to want something so bad, you’re willing to fight for it with everything you have.

A wise man once said to me EAT THAT PAIN! On this day, Jill sauntered up to the buffet and had several helpings of pain. She ate it all. As a parent, I know what that means. Now, she gets to enjoy some dessert!

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Boston Marathon: We were high, we were Sherpa-high

  1. Ty

    One of the better stories coming out of a very tough day. Admirable “Sherpa” performance.

  2. Mike that’s a great story. You’re a good man…you keep proving it.

  3. Jill Poon

    First of all, I find it very ironic that you used lyrics from a tragically hip song as I have a tragic hip. Haha I love your account of our day out there. It was almost a blessing that we were forced to slow down so that we had the opportunity to experience all that Boston had to offer. It was an amazing day and I am so grateful to have had such good company to share it with!! Thank you seems like too small of a sentiment, but truly thank you for sticking with me on Monday. It was in the truest sense of the word AWESOME 🙂

  4. sugarmagnolia70

    I’m so proud of you! You’re a great friend!

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