An Ultrarunner looks at Boston
Father, Father Boston…
I ignored your voice,
I had no desire to run your streets
Even though I had a choice,
Even though I had a choice.
I stayed home as others did so,
And endured their tales of joy,
There was little there that appealed to me,
An ultrarunning boy,
An ultrarunning boy.
Still – you wouldn’t let me be,
As others would have done,
The Wellesley crowd – their screams so loud,
I truly knew I had to run,
And found myself at Hopkinton,
And found myself at Hopkinton.
(With apologies to Jimmy Buffett and “A Pirate Looks At Forty”)
By Gary Griffin,
Ultrarunners are not supposed to do the Boston Marathon. In fact, for a number of years, on the Sunday prior to the marathon in one of the Boston suburbs, there was an event called the “Just Don’t Do Boston 50K.” (I always liked that title, because it managed to get the phrasing right — one doesn’t “run” Boston — one “does” Boston.) As further evidence of an ultrarunner’s commonly-held disdain for the event, I recently attended a pre-race dinner the evening before the Mississippi 50 at which the director of an upcoming ultra was promoting her event by passing out race flyers. Trying to be nice, I made the mistake of telling her that I would love to take part in her run, but that I was “doing” Boston that same weekend. She looked at me as if to say, “You stepped in what?” To tell the director of an ultra that you are skipping their race for the Boston Marathon may be the ultimate insult.
I must confess, for a good many years I shared such an attitude, rude though it may have been. Boston was far too “establishment.” It is the antithesis of ultrarunning… Those who dream of running for days in Death Valley, or in the briars of Tennessee (the Barkley Marathons) or the pine ridges of central Florida (the Wickham Park Marathon) are not to be found wandering places such as Hopkinton, MA on Patriot’s Day. No way! They may call them marathons, but that is the only thing they have in common with that Boston affair. As I recall, the Barkley consisted of four 20 mile loops that had never been completed until 3 years ago; Matt Mahoney’s Wickham Park “party” takes place on a 3.75 mile sandy loop in 90+ degree temperatures and requires back-to-back-to-back-to-back 50 milers from Saturday through Tuesday. One strange-looking character from Texas managed to accomplish it several years ago, and remains the only “marathon” finisher, whereas some 17,000 completed Hopkinton to downtown Boston this year.
And so it was this attitude kept me from Boston – that, along with the idea that races on paved roads that required traffic control were not for me. And so, the early 90s passed with several Boston qualifiers in my book, but with no desire to actually participate in such a thing. It was not until the late 90s that I realized that my running life would not be complete without Boston. Besides, far too many people would ask, “Have you ever run the Boston Marathon?” I decided that it would probably be easier to say “yes” than to give a long-winded explanation of why I had not. However, by the time I confessed my desire to “do” Boston,” I found myself getting old and slow and injured, and unable to qualify. In 1999 I found my way to the “Boston of ultrarunning,” i.e., Comrades in South Africa, and that I knew that I should have done Boston back when I had the chance. I felt as if my attitude would forever haunt me, and that the marathon gods were getting even with me for my sacrilegious thoughts of their hallowed event. Fortunately, these gods eventually offered their forgiveness, looking the other way as I eked out a 2001 qualifier by one minute at Blue Angel. They vacillated, though, torturing me with a late-March injury, but did finally clear the way for me to step to the line at Hopkinton that year.
My memories of that day are muddled, but I do remember taking the pre-race course tour and chuckling when our guide pointed out a small incline at mile 24 and told us that it would “feel like Mt. Everest” tomorrow. I also remember the screams at Wellesley and the long, tortuous trek towards the Citgo sign and the Pru (which one sees for some time but which never seem to get closer). And, I will remember for a long time how much I hurt throughout the following days. I recall not being able to do anything more than walk for 5 days, my quads so beat up from those early pounding miles. Yes, Boston had left her mark on this disrespectful ultrarunner. Although the solitary ultrarunner part of me was less than enamored with the idea of sharing a race course with such a large number of participants, I did come away from the 2001 event feeling as if I had been part of something special. I also noticed that I longed for occasions to wear my Boston Marathon t-shirt, and hated the day that I sold my truck with the “Boston 26.2” bumper sticker.
And so it was that in mid-April, 2003, I found myself anticipating another Boston, determined that, this time, my approach would be different. Something that was “only a marathon” would not chew me up and spit me out the way it had 2 years prior. This attitude prevailed in spite of the fact that over the past six months I had skipped all my planned mile repeats on the track and intense downhill training in favor of running four ultras and the Grand Canyon Marathon, which had basically become a cycle of taper-race-recover-taper-race-recover. Things went well for me on Patriot’s Day, at least until I got to Commonwealth Ave. Then, the guy with the ice picks returned and began jabbing them into my quads. No ultra ever hurt as badly as this, and I still had several miles to go. There was the Pru off in the distance, and it didn’t seem to be getting any closer. I should have gone into my ultrarunner survival death-grip “dead man walking” mode but could not. You see, I had to qualify to do Boston again in 2004. Whoever thought it would come to this?! An ultrarunner who held Boston in such low regard that he would never, ever, be caught dead doing it was now willing to die to qualify to do it again. When I arrived at that glorious finish my watch read 3:33:30 and I had tears in my eyes. That had happened only once before after completing a marathon. As a matter of fact, it had been 2 years prior in this same spot, upon realizing that I had just done The Boston Marathon. How could I ever explain this emotion to my ultrarunning friends? Simple. Boston, in spite of the fact that it is everything that ultrarunning is not, being filled with pomp and glitter and structure, it is still the greatest footrace in the world. For 100+ years now the best runners in the world have gathered to celebrate our sport in a little town called Hopkinton and have been greeted by over a million people while they made their way back to Boston. Ultra or marathon – it’s as good as it can possibly get!