Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Boston, the Conclusion: Peace and Pink Tutus

Ok, so the Boston Marathon was five months ago. In five months time a gal can see 26.2 miles in about ten gazillion different ways. Perspective changes, goes away, comes back, and changes again. This story has been altered, many, many times.

I remember the first thought I had, immediately after crossing the finish line and maybe that’s the tale I should tell. Whatever my initial impressions are—for better or worse—the first person to hear them is always my trusty coach, who oh-so-patiently endures a gamut of emotions before and after a race. When I finally qualified for Boston, at the Philly Marathon back in 2008, with an 11-minute personal best time to boot, I blurted out, “Mike, I thought I’d be faster.” I could feel his eyes rolling through the phone and I’m pretty sure I should be grateful for the 2,500 miles that separated us back then. This time, my first reaction was, “Mike! That was the most fun I’ve ever had running a marathon!”

(Editor’s Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I later questioned…more than once… “Mike, why didn’t I run faster?” The first step is recognizing the problem, right?)

Given the events of the year prior, I didn’t allow myself to ever fully believe I was running the race, until I found myself in the starting corral. Then I wondered how, exactly, I ended up there. The road to Boston was not direct, as I’ve alluded to before. It went through New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, back to Philadelphia, spent some time in Saylorsburg, and eventually found its way to Flagstaff, AZ, in the dead of the worst winter the town has seen in decades, apparently. I never realized I had the tenacity to keep a dream alive through all of that. But I do, and that’s good to know.

And so there I was, at the start of the 114th Boston Marathon, with my new Flagstaff friend, Anna, by my side. Smiles all around, until out of the corner of my eye I saw a flash of pink. There he was. Again. Pink Tutu Man.

Pink Tutu Man is a middle-aged bald guy who sports a pink tutu, pink racing singlet, and carries a pink magic wand. He’s everywhere on the road racing circuit and I’m 99 percent certain I’ve found myself staring him down at every race I’ve entered in the past five years. While we’re roughly the same pace, the dude always beats me. And he’s not nice about it. At all. As he passes his nearby competitors, he taunts along the way, “HA! Look at you! You’re getting beat by a guy in a pink tutu!”

Seriously. Do you know what it’s like to be defeated—multiple times—by a man dressed like that?

But this was my Boston Marathon and I refused to let the man in pink steal my fun or my pace. If I’ve learned nothing else over the years, it’s to run my own race. One day my own race will end sooner than Pink Tutu Man’s.

I’m not sure what else I can say about the experience of the Boston Marathon that hasn’t already been said. It lives up to the hype, the history, and contrary to what some people say these days, it lives up to the prestige. I’d earned my spot there and there’s something magical about running against a group of people who did the same. There is respect for the distance and the race in Boston, not just from the athletes, but from the millions of people who support it as volunteers and line the course, screaming for hours on Marathon Monday. The atmosphere is extraordinary and at times, just gave me chills.

And so instead of paying too much attention to the clock or to any other costumed runners in our midst, I found myself just thoroughly enjoying the experience—a departure from any other race I’ve finished. I couldn’t help myself from actually having fun and soaking it all in. Maybe it was the oxygen-rich air (sea level might be my new favorite thing in the world), but I was happy. For the first time since I picked up my life and moved it across the country, I was running free. For exactly three hours and 27 minutes I wasn’t the new girl in town any more. I didn’t have to introduce myself to anybody or wonder if I would ever make new friends. I didn’t have to put on a happy face or feel awkward at yet another social event where I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t have to muster courage or fight fear that I’d never fit in. I didn’t have to worry about saying the wrong thing. All I had to do was run and it felt like pure peace.

I don’t know how it happened, but I’ve been at this marathon game for ten years. I now see that each race is its own chapter. I look back on my first marathon and recall some of the most exciting, friendship-and-adventure-filled, 20something, wide-eyed New York City years of my life. The Marine Corps Marathon conjures memories of turning 30, moving to Washington, DC, and starting a new job all within seven days. The Philadelphia Marathon (Part Two) came while I was wondering where to go next and knowing that temporarily living on a lake in the middle of nowhere was the best answer for the time being.

And then came Boston, when running was the one thing I could turn to during the most difficult transition of my life. The training itself was far from perfect, but the act of moving forward every day saved me from homesickness, self doubt, loneliness, and the darkness of a seemingly never-ending winter. Without it, I’m pretty sure the U-Haul would’ve done a quick u-turn back to the East Coast.

As I turned that corner onto Boylston, the finish line finally in view, it represented so much more than just the end of another race. In many ways, it marked a beginning. I crossed the line a few seconds behind Anna, but three minutes faster than ever before, feeling more like the confident, comfortable gal I’d like to believe I really am.

“Congratulations,” a fellow runner said, lingering near the fabled finish.

“Thanks,” I said, as I turned to see a bald middle-aged man in a pink tutu.

“You’re toast at Chicago,” I thought, heading to my phone, eager to once again share my first impressions and start writing the next chapter.