Running Boston: A bittersweet accomplishment

Heather midway through the Boston Marathon
Heather Irvine is the associate editor of The Juice Online. She ran the 2013 Boston Marathon, with a time of 3:56:41, finishing just minutes ahead of the horrific events at the finish line. This is her story.

The horrific event that occurred at the world’s most coveted finish line has forever marked the Boston Marathon. For the 17,000 runners who crossed, their accomplishment is darkened by a coward’s attack on the greatest spectators in the world. For the 5,000 runners whose run to Boston was halted, they have unfinished business to take care of.

And for me, I carry my finisher’s medal with a heavy heart. A bittersweet accomplishment, really.

After years of watching my mom’s uncle run the Boston Marathon I knew I had to follow in his footsteps. I had to make the 26.2 mile trek from Hopkinton into my city.

Heather midway through the Boston Marathon

I qualified for the 2013 race through the American Liver Foundation’s Run for Research charity team. I raised more than $5,000 for liver research, something more difficult than the training itself.

As the months, weeks, days and then hours ticked by to my 10:40 a.m. starting time on Patriot’s Day, I was overwhelmed with emotion (and nausea). This was it.

The gun went off. Some 10 paces in, my eyes welled up. A smile came across my face. “I am running the Boston Marathon,” I thought. The downhill miles ticked by fairly quickly. But not too quickly. I maintained my training pace—8:45. “Don’t go out too fast,” I thought. “The downhills now will kill you later.”

Before I knew it, I was in Framingham. I checked myself out in a storefront’s windows, which had been turned into mirrors. “Look at those legs,” I thought.

Approaching mile 10.5, I saw my first fans watching from where we used to cheer on my mom’s uncle. It was just what I needed to propel me up the course’s first hill into Wellesley.

I approached the infamous Scream Tunnel at Wellesley College. Checking my watch, I saw I’d clear the halfway point several minutes under two hours. Perfect. Right on pace.

I enjoyed the last mile or two of downhill before making my way to Newton Wellesley Hospital (where I was born nearly 26 years ago). The American Liver Foundation had set up camp here, and I had been one of the first team members to run by in my orange “Run for Research” singlet.

Just past the hospital I saw my parents, my husband and my father-in-law. They were holding signs and screaming. But there was no time to stop. I had to keep my almost perfectly even splits. I quickly ran by and made the famous right turn at the Newton fire station. Now the race was getting started: Heartbreak Hill.

Nearing mile 21, I almost missed my close high school and college friends. But they spotted me. “Hey, is that Heather?” one of them called out. I veered to the right, ecstatic.

“Do you see what my sign says?” my close running friend asked. “It says, you can eat this hill for breakfast!” Her words of encouragement and her pacing brought me to the top of the last heartbreaking hill. I had to take it from here, she said.

After the hills, my pace was hovering around 9:15. I could see my goal of breaking four hours slowly slip away. How? I had run sub 9s for the first half of the race! But as I ran downhill through Boston College, the drunken shrieks, cheers, high-fives, pulled me closer and closer to the Boylston Street finish.

I grimaced every time my feet hit the pavement. My quads were in searing pain. No amount of reading about the downhills of the Boston course could have prepared me. Next time I’ll train downhill.

Miles 22 through 25 were utter misery. I frantically tried to calculate how much farther I had to go against my pace time. Would I break four hours? At mile 24.75 my watch read 3:41. A sinking feeling. No. I wasn’t going to do it.

And then it happened. Somehow, from somewhere deep inside me, I found a little more juice. I pushed through Kenmore Square, barely glancing up at my family. I knew they were there, that was good enough. And then like a mirage, the sign: 1 mile to go. This is it. Dig.

I make the famous right turn onto Hereford Street. Slight uphill. And then the even more famous left turn onto Boylston Street. I check my watch. Well under four hours. I thought about slowing down. I had sub 4 in the bag, why keep pushing? But then I remember something Steve “Pre” Prefontaine said. And fittingly, what a friend wrote on his sign back at Heartbreak Hill. “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” I had to leave it all on the course. The medics could take care of me if I collapsed. Sprint.

As I cross the most famous finish line in the world, they say my name. I make sure to look up at the cameras. I need to get my medal before I collapse. I stagger through the hoards of people. I collect my mylar blanket. Some water. Gatorade. A banana. And then I spot the medals. They place it on my neck and I feel like a champion. That feeling was gone in minutes.

I am about to turn off Boylston Street, asking for directions to the Westin where my team was meeting. Boom. I turn around and see a plume of smoke. And then another boom. Another plume. Someone says it must be a generator. But two?

Heather finished the Boston Marathon at 3:56:41

I think it must be cannons like they have at Patriots games every time the Pats score. But I finished around four hours. Surely the cannons would be fired once the elites crossed. And wouldn’t I have known about this tradition? No, it’s not cannons. It’s not a generator.

Starting to worry, I try to call my family. No service. I borrow a volunteer’s phone. No answer.

I keep walking, looking for the hotel as I start to shiver under my space blanket. I try my phone again and reach my husband. “Are you OK?” I ask. “Yeah, why?” I explain. He updates Facebook to let people know I am safe.

After what seems like an eternity of pacing in the North America Ballroom of the Westin, I saw my mom. I ran to her and we both started crying hysterically. It hit me that I was minutes away from being caught in the massacre. A 21st century Boston Massacre.

Once we were safely out of the city I came to the realization that we wouldn’t celebrate my sub 4 marathon (3:56:41). We could try, but it would be tainted.

The next 48 hours were a roller coaster of emotions. People told me to enjoy my achievement, but how? Those victims, that 8-year-old boy, were injured and killed supporting us runners. The horrific irony of spectators losing their legs as they watched people complete a 26.2 mile run.

But I’m a marathoner now. I’ve proven to myself and the city of Boston that I can persevere through physical and mental toil. My legs are resilient. Days after conquering the unforgiving course I can make my way down the stairs without holding onto a railing. My mind is resilient. The tears come less now. But it’s hard to hear people call my finish line a crime scene. But I’m a marathoner. I will overcome. And more importantly, I will toe the line in Hopkinton in 2014.

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