Mike, Nancy & Me

Guest Blogger Charlie Johnson

Approaching mile 25 of the 2012 Boston Marathon almost two weeks ago, I was delirious. Soaked from head to toe with the tepid water I had been splashing onto myself since mile two and struggling to keep from crumbling to my knees in a patch of fast-disappearing shade, I watched in detached horror as dozens of my wave one, corral one compatriots (these are some of the fastest and most experienced runners in the world) withdrew and collapsed all around me. Some of the less fortunate among them were even being carried away on stretchers, including last year’s Boston Marathon winner and the faster marathon runner on earth, Geoffrey Mutai, who succumbed to the heat around mile 18. The official high temperature for Marathon Monday, April 16, 2012, in Boston was 87 degrees. The humidity hovered between 40 and 60 percent and the promised tailwind of 10-20 miles per hour didn’t show up until the next day.

So oppressive was the heat that, in an unprecedented move, the Boston Athletic Association allowed, nay, suggested, that runners defer entry to next year (more than 4,000 did just that). Close to 2,500 runners were treated for heat-related illnesses on the course, more than 150 people were hospitalized for heat-related illnesses, and I couldn’t even muster a self-indulgent chuckle when the phrase “Boston Death March” snuck into my head near the start of the Newton Hills.

In 33 marathons I have never been so miserable nor contemplated quitting so many times…and I have never not finished a race. But somewhere in the stifling heat and the lukewarm water of aid stations, between my comically out-of-reach goals and heat-induced hallucinations, and among the handfuls of ice and merciful sprays of hoses, it became more than a race. It became the grotesquely beautiful embodiment of the struggles and challenges that test our resolve as runners and human beings, an opportunity to experience firsthand the humbling kindness of complete strangers, and a reminder that the human spirit is, without a doubt, utterly unstoppable.

Lining up at the start of the Boston Marathon ranks as one of the greatest rushes a runner will ever experience. The buzz of helicopters overhead, the sea of runners who have waited their whole lives to toe the hallowed Hopkinton start line, and the knowledge that you are about to run the marathon by which all other marathons are judged is nearly indescribable. The feeling at the start of this year’s race, however, was somewhat different. Excitement still prevailed, but it was an excitement laden by a stagnant fear hanging in the already sweaty 76-degree air. We all knew we were in for some serious hurt, and we all seemed to know that we couldn’t possibly comprehend just how much hurt that would be.

Around mile 10 I started to get a taste of that hurt. Having kept a quick but reasonable pace to that point, I was surprised when what felt like a six-minute and 20-second effort was yielding 6:50- to seven-minute miles. The temperature had already surpassed 80 degrees by a fair amount and every effort to kick my pace back on track proved fruitless; like stomping on the gas pedal of a 1979 Yugo in the final push over westbound Interstate 80’s nearly 8,000-foot Donner Summit—nothing happened.

Just before the Wellesley Scream Tunnel (a notoriously, um…inspirational section of the marathon where much of the all-female student body of Wellesley College lines the right side of the course, cheering and holding signs with offers of “free kisses” and marriage proposals to runners), around mile 11, fellow San Francisco Marathon Ambassador, Chris Kovalchick, caught up to me. He asked if I could hold a 6:30 pace with him and power through. In an uncharacteristically realistic move, I told him there was no use and to go on without me. Four miles later, my pace deteriorating with what felt like every step, I caught Chris—the heat had hit him too.

A couple of baking hot and windless straightaways led to the Newton Hills, a series of gradual rises leading to the infamous Heartbreak Hill at 20.5 miles. The hills looked and felt like a war zone. At least half of the field was run-walking by this point (remember, these people are still among the top 1,000 fastest runners in Boston) and the course was strewn with water-soaked paper towels, sponges, and every description of water container imaginable. As I clumsily stumbled over, around, and through the carpet of discarded items, it dawned on me that barely any of it had come from an official aid station. And that was when it hit me: for most of the race, I had been grabbing water bottles, Dixie cups, handfuls of ice, cold sponges, and even Otter Pops from toddlers, college students, senior citizens, and people with absolutely zero affiliation with the race’s army of official volunteers. These were regular Bostonians, braving record heat and beyond-cranky runners to help us reach the finish line. Their kindness was overwhelming, humbling, and beautiful. The water bills they must have suffered for their hose tunnels and endless water spraying were surely astronomical. In that moment I forgot about the heat, the pain, and my shattered race goals and pride. I stopped caring about the marathon and the finish line and basked in the great fortune I felt to be experiencing such selfless compassion from complete strangers.

The pain came back and I never recovered anything close to a pace I would have liked in the closing miles of the race, but the joy I found in the empathetic souls lining the course helped carry me through. At 1:03 p.m. (and three seconds) I staggered through the finish line in one of the slowest times I have posted in two years. I didn’t even bother to look at my Garmin and stop its timer until I had cleared the first set of water bottle-bestowing volunteers. There was no point. This wasn’t a race; it was an experience, and no arrangement of hours, minutes, and seconds could ever begin to represent what a lasting and impactful occasion it had been.

After the race, the horror stories grew as the beer flowed. I joined Ambassadors Nancy Cook, Michael Kahn, and other friends to share our experiences and commiserate over a race that pushed us more than we ever dreamed a race could.

As the sun set somewhere past Hopkinton and normalcy returned to recently reopened Boylston Street, Michael, my mom, and I found ourselves at the finish line, where a commotion drew our attention to who may have been the last person to finish the 2012 Boston Marathon. We stood in silent awe as Jason Pisano, surrounded by a group of friends acting as guides for the entire 26.2-mile race, crossed the intersection of Boylston and Exeter Streets and continued the 200 or so feet toward the finish line. Jason sat in a wheelchair, backwards, with both arms pinned to his sides in what looked like an exceedingly uncomfortable position. He propelled himself barely 18 inches at a time with only his right leg, which shook uncontrollably whenever he lifted in from the pavement. Jason, like all other wheelchair athletes, had started the race at 9 a.m. He finished within a few seconds of 9:03 p.m. It was Jason’s 52nd, and—as one of his friends lamented to me—last marathon.

Our cheering drew passersby who immediately recognized the indescribably amazing feat we were watching unfold. The crowd swelled and followed Jason toward the finish line, shouting, clapping, and cheering nearly as loudly as the tens of thousands of spectators who had vacated hours before. I’m pretty sure that there wasn’t a dry eye in the group, and I know I will never forget the 2012 Surface of the Sun Boston Marathon.