Five years ago today, I ran my first marathon. It was the spring of my senior year of college and I was feeling restless, in need of a goal, a mission that didn't involve school. Yes, I decided, I would run a marathon and it would be Boston. Not that I needed to specify at the time – in New England, there is only one marathon that matters and it is Boston. Are you running The Marathon this year? people will ask, their attention drifting when you might explain that yes, you are running a marathon this year, but it’s actually in Maine/New Hampshire/Cape Cod. In New England, there is only Boston.
And so, that restless spring of my senior year, I started training for a bandit race of Boston. I had a friend who had run as a bandit (without a race number or qualifying time – this was a fairly accepted practice at the time) a few years prior and I decided that would be the most relaxing way to cover my first 26.2. If I got injured, over-worked, too tired, no big deal, I just wouldn’t run.
It turns out that for me there is no “relaxing” way to run a marathon. For me, there is no relaxing way to run ANY race, even the little weekly 5Ks at Worcester State where they ignore placing, instead drawing numbers to see who wins a prize. From the beginning, I knew I would run Boston regardless of circumstance, and I jumped into training, making up my own plan as I went. I ran and I ran through Worcester, Holden, Paxton, Leicester, sometimes on my own, sometimes with cross-country teammates. I ran workouts on WPI’s track, hills at Dead Horse, trails at Cascade. I got stronger and faster and more stubborn.
Somewhere along the way I decided that I wasn’t going to consume anything with artificial ingredients during the race, so I trained with water and a small stash of dried fruit stuffed into the waistband of my spandex. On Thursdays, I’d wake up before the sun, force down a bowl of granola, and head out for my long run. When I got back, I’d shower, put on my favorite dress in celebration, and dash across campus to class.
I remember being hungry, so hungry as I trained. Once after a long run I walked down to the store to grab some groceries and being so ravenous on the way home, I dropped my bags in the parking lot, opened my half-gallon of milk and casually chugged about a quarter of it straight from the container. Soon after that, I instituted a Thursday night baking ritual so that I could satisfy my endless craving for chocolate chip cookie dough.
It was, of course, a very dramatic build up to what ended up being a very dramatic race. On the Friday before the marathon, the weatherman predicted sun and temperatures in the 90s. In APRIL. In MASSACHUSETTS. The race directors warned people not to run, offering to transfer their qualifying times to the next year. Don’t run, my mother said. I’ll play it by ear, I told her, meaning I’m sorry but I’m definitely going to run.
Marathon Monday dawned just as hot as ever. My boyfriend drove me to Hopkinton and we walked together to the start line. And then I was off and running with the final corral of racers, bat-out-of-hell style. Afraid to look at my watch, I just ran. Apparently, from my dad’s report I blazed through the first few miles at a sub-7-minute pace, but to me it’s all a little fuzzy. I remember the stickiness of the spilled Gatorade at water stops and how my shoes squeaked on the pavement. I remember noticing that I was no longer sweating around mile 10 and feeling goosebumps on my arms. I remember salt forming on my nose, cheeks, and shoulders. I remember running through a sprinkler put out in the road by a gaggle of kids. I remember the cheers from Wellesley College and getting high-fived by people lining the sidewalks. I remember realizing water and dried fruit were no match for 90 degrees and that I was probably going to throw up. I remember feeling more alone than I had felt during my entire life.
I was sitting on the curb at mile 23, having just puked whatever was left in my cramped up stomach into the bushes of a beautiful brownstone, when a cop approached. Do you need me to call someone? he asked, glancing at the phone number I had scrawled on my forearm, just in case I really couldn't finish, or couldn’t remember anything after 26 miles. I’m not sure what I responded, probably something along the lines of I know it's not a good idea but just have to finish this, or damn I feel so much better now that I’ve thrown up but regardless, he listened. He handed me a bottle of water, helped me up, wished me luck. I started jogging again, slowly, slowly. I clutched that water bottle, savoring small sips as I ran from mile marker to mile marker. Three more miles, two more miles, one more mile, point 2 point 2 point 2. When I eventually saw the finish line, I burst into tears. I hurt so very badly. I felt so very alone.
There is a short story called The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and on the day of my first marathon that title echoed over and over in my head. Nobody can help me do this, I remember thinking wildly as I stumbled along, losing speed every mile. I am by myself out here. But I really wasn’t alone at all. In fact, as I made my way from Hopkinton to Boston, I had more people at my back, more people cheering me on, than ever before. I had no legitimate reason to be there running that day, no number, no qualifying time, but people reached out to help me again and again without any hesitation.
Running often feels like a selfish pursuit. It takes up time - so much time! - that I could be spending with loved ones, helping others, tackling that endless list of chores, or making some sort of productive contribution to the world that involves far less sweat and pain. I have come to realize, however, that running is neither a selfish, nor a lonesome activity. When I run, I am fueled by the love of all those who support me, who accept that running is a part of me, who root for me in the heat and the rain and the cold and the wind. Running is a team sport and without partners and friends and families and coaches and sweet passersby and the stunning natural world - without love - it just wouldn’t be worth it. When I run, I am never alone.
One year later, in 2013, a piece of my heart shattered with the explosions of the bombs on Boylston Street. The Marathon, an endeavor of love, was mauled by hate and scarred by fear. It was a tragedy instigated, in a way, by loneliness.
It took me four full years after my first attempt to commit to running a second marathon. This time, I had one clear goal: a qualifying time for the start of a journey back to Boston one day. With my heart full, I wobbled across the finish line in 3:34.02, meeting my goal with less than a minute to spare (and without any puke). As I sat on the ground under the cold Maine sky, legs twitching, I promised my family that I had run my final marathon. I’d rather give birth than do that again, were my actual words I think, but I really meant I love you all, thanks for being here now, and for being there next time.
These brownies are my answer to the eternal question, can homemade brownies ever be more delicious than those made from the Ghiradelli box mix? They are my current favorite long run treat and probably a much better choice than the raw cookie dough trend of Boston 2012.
6 Tbls. salted butter
4 oz. dark or semi-sweet chocolate
½ cup light brown sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
¾ tsp. vanilla extract
½ cup all-purpose flour (if you are making these at sea level, use 1/4 cup + 2 Tbls. flour for a fudgier texture)
½ cup walnuts, chopped
Flaky sea salt, for finishing
Preheat your oven to 325 degrees. Lightly grease or line an 8"x8" pan with parchment paper.
Melt the butter and chocolate in a medium saucepan over low heat, stirring frequently. Add the sugar, mix well, and then set the saucepan aside to cool for about 5 minutes. Beat in the eggs and vanilla extract and then stir in the flour and walnuts, mixing until just combined.
Transfer the batter to the prepared pan. Liberally sprinkle the batter with sea salt and then bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the tops of the brownies are wrinkled and barely soft to the touch. Serve warm with softly whipped cream and fresh berries.