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The beauty of the Boston marathon

I’M SOMEWHERE IN the middle of a pack of more than 15,000 runners, thumping down the narrow road out of Hopkinton, Massachusetts, headed east for downtown Boston. The course is thick with spectators. They offer slices of orange. They yell and clap. Kids raise their hands for high-fives. “Go Canada!” they encourage me (I’ve got a small flag pinned to my shirt). Cool – it’s the Boston marathon, or Mecca for long distance runners like me.

Everybody gets into the act. Neighbours stage roadside barbecues. Farmworkers drift up from the fields to cheer us on. A motorcycle gang roars encouragement. It’s the Boston Marathon, and I’ve got another 42 kilometres (26 miles) to run. After six months and 1,500 kilometres of training, I couldn’t be happier.

I hope to finish in 3:15 (3 minutes faster than the qualifying time that gained me entry into the race), but I’m aware that it’s my first try and the course is notoriously tough. I’m not nervous, but I have two worries: With a million spectators, how will I ever spot my wife and two boys somewhere up the road? And, am I running my target pace correctly?

On the first point, we have a strategy. They took the T (the subway) to mile 21.5 at Boston College, where the crowds are a little thinner. It’s right after the biggest challenge of the course, Heartbreak Hill, and before a long descent into downtown Boston and the finish line.

The second point is harder to gauge. In two years of serious running at home, I’ve learned to judge my running pace, partly by feel and partly by my watch. But I’m used to measuring things in kilometres; here in Boston, it’s all miles, and my target is 7:26 per split.

My worries subside as the race progresses. My start is deliberately slow, but by mid-race I’m getting the hang of it. The towns zoom by. On one of the downhills I clock a 7:02 mile with only a gentle effort. My mid-race time is perfect, within seconds of my target finish if I can maintain pace. I drink constantly from my sports drink bottle, but the weather is mercifully overcast and cool. It’s a perfect running day.

I’m preparing for the big test, not far ahead now: a series of four slopes between miles 16 and 21 in the town of Newton, culminating in Heartbreak Hill. I remark to a runner beside me that I’m actually looking forward to the hills. Like any tourist attraction, you want to see for yourself what all the hype’s about!

I don’t lose any speed on the first hill, but after turning the corner in downtown Newton we face an abruptly steeper climb. I work hard and clock a 7:36 mile. The third hill is a little easier, but I’m tiring and my pace slips further to 7:46. This is a battle. We’ve got a flat half-mile for recovery before the final push.

The famous Heartbreak isn’t steep – I hardly notice it at first – but it’s interminable, almost a mile long. For the first time in the race, I feel winded. I’ve been running for 2-1/2 hours now. The winners have finished. My pace slips. I’m still enjoying myself, but the bloom is quickly fading from this rose.

I crest the final hill and check my split: 8:25. I estimate I’ve lost two minutes in the hills. Can I gain that back in the next five miles, with 200 vertical feet in my favour? Some runners are walking now; others head for the medical tent with cramps. I gauge my body and feel something new: my thighs are like jelly. I run on, trying not to wobble.

The road dips quickly downhill, I feel a cool breeze from the ocean, and the sun finally breaks out. I set two tasks for myself: to spot my family, and then recover the pace I had before the hills.

I scan both sides of the road as we descend, but it seems hopeless. There’s a wall of people and we’re moving quickly. I’ve almost given up, but then I turn right and spot Zak, leaning out over the metal barricade.

I actually run past him, stop, then turn back and ask, “Where’s Mummy?” He points back up the course a few steps. I dash over, mumble that I’m feeling okay, and give her a sweaty kiss. She just yells: “Go, go, go!” I never see Thomas, standing above me on a lookout post.

The last five miles are anti-climactic, even though the crowds are huge now. The noise, even outdoors, is a dull roar. I don’t notice the trees in bloom on the boulevard of Commonwealth Avenue, the beautiful Charles River to my left, or Fenway Park on my right (I catch all this on a bus tour the next day!). I’m trying to regain my pace, but my legs are refusing. Even with the gentle downhill, I’m clinging weakly to a 7:47 pace. Another distraction: I feel several of my toenails getting bruised black against the fronts of my shoes, the only injury I’ll sustain from the race.

Many of my competitors are walking now, while others have found some late source of strength and shoot by me. I manage a meagre kick, running the last mile in 7:37. The finish flashes by, the announcer actually calls out my name – “Art Kilgour of …” (he struggles to pronounce this) “… Eeelora” – and then blessedly, I’m walking.

I look down to make sure my legs are still attached, shed a short tear for my weary body, guzzle four cups of water, then begin enjoying the sun and the overwhelming exuberance of downtown Boston on marathon Monday.

My watch reads 3:18, exactly the time I ran in Toronto last fall to qualify. The official timing clock says 3:23, reflecting the fact that it took me almost five minutes to reach the starting line after the gun went off! My placing is 3,860 out of 14,578 finishers.

I wait 45 minutes at the finish for my family, but they’re obviously stuck in the crowds. I switch to Plan B, walking back to the T with some Canadians from our hotel We’re a sorry group as we limp down the stairs clutching the handrail, but there’s a bonus: runners ride free today. We’re not back at the hotel until 6 p.m., 12 hours after our journey began that morning. (Did someone say marathon?)

I’m disappointed that I failed to set a personal best time, but relieved that my family and I connected mid-race. We watch the replay that night on TV. I never saw the leaders of course, but my family had front row seats as the elite athletes zoomed by.

I study the faces of Rodgers Rop and Margaret Okayo of Kenya, the men’s and women’s winners, as they float through the final few miles. By the twitching of their faces, I guess that their legs must also feel like jelly. But somehow, they remain loose and relaxed as they power to the finish at a sub-5:00 pace. Amazing.

That’s the true beauty of the Boston marathon. We’re all part of the same big celebration: the elite runners, the wheelchair athletes, the hobby runners like me, the families and the local spectators. We honour the joy of running, the optimism of spring, the hallowed tradition of this race, and the enthusiasm of a marvelous city.

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