Bill’s best: Marathon

originally published in the Harvard Independent (April 1981)

Hell in the Heart of the Race

By Bill O’Neill

So you want to run the Boston Marathon?

You know you’re supposed to qualify, and you know that the “real” runners look down upon the “bandits.” Maybe you’ve even heard a scare story about billy-club-swinging race supervisors who weed out the unofficial runners.

But you want to run it anyway, just once, just to see what it’s all about.

Be sensible.

The hot-shot fleet-foots don’t care if you run; you’ll be far behind them anyway. There won’t be any club-swingers to stop you. The race officials don’t care if you run, so long as you don’t jump in ahead of the leaders in the last half-mile.

But remember: In marathons, there are no winners, only survivors, and darned few of those.

Here’s what it was like last April.

11:30 a.m. — It’s been four months and nearly 1,000 miles of training since I ran a qualifying race. I’m about to put it all on the line – the starting line in Hopkinton, a one-stoplight town 26.2 miles west of downtown Boston.

I’d gotten up at 8. A few glasses of orange juice to settle the stomach. Then the long bus ride to Hopkinton and the torturously long wait for the start. Pacing and jogging and pacing. A few dabs of Vaseline on the toes to prevent blisters, a few sips of water to prevent dehydration. Noon approaches and the mercury climbs. It’s heading to 80 degrees. Much too hot – great for spectators, terrible for runners.

I try to be optimistic. But as I squirm my way into the middle of the crowd of 7,000, the sun beats on my head and the truth sinks in. This will be one tough race.

Noon – Butterflies pound the wall of my empty stomach. I bob up and down nervously. The soft pop of a starter’s pistol 100 yards in front of me and the race has begun. Thousands of skinny bodies ooze out of the town green.

People are pushing me from all sides. We haven’t gone 100 yards, but everyone is fighting for position and searching for that square foot of open road to call their own for 26 miles.

12:30 p.m. – Five miles into the race and I’m right on the pace I’d hoped for through the long miles of winter training. Heat shimmers form the asphalt, and the sweat flows freely. Little kids are passing out tiny paper cups with a few precious drops of water. Every time I reach for one, someone else grabs it first. It’s going to be a long, dry day.

Then the stomach cramps start.

12:40 – The spectators in Framingham aren’t at all supportive. They just sit in their lawn chairs, watch those silly skinny folk pass by, and take faith in the knowledge that this circus weaves through town only once a year. Not a trace of encouragement shows on their faces. They look like vultures ready to pounce on anyone not hardy enough to make it through the village.

But if you look closely you might catch a trace of puzzlement in their eyes. After a lifetime of watching the race, the good citizens of Framingham know where these people are going. They just don’t know why.

I’m starting to wonder that myself. What am I doing here? The stomach cramps just won’t quit. I’ve slowed to a seven-minute mile pace to try to shake them.

12:58 – I pass Lake Cochituate at nine miles. The cramps are gone, but the heat is taking its toll. My shirt is soaked with perspiration and feels 10 pounds heavier. I can’t find much water to drink. I’m running smoothly, but I feel lousy.

A guy about 18 years old comes up on the right shoulder of the road. Good steady stride, doesn’t look too fatigued, obviously not a hack runner. I ask him why he’s wearing that bright red dancing tutu. “Just wanted to make the race a bit more interesting,” he says. His lacy suit bobs up and down as he trots ahead. He’ll beat me by 40 minutes.

1:20 – “Entering Wellesley,” the highways sign declares. I’ve slowed to a 7:30 pace – my usual training speed – but I feel encouraged. Twelve miles into the race, I’m tired but still in one piece. Some friends will be watching at Wellesley College and my family is waiting a few miles beyond.

But there are no spectators here in this beautiful wooded stretch. There are a hundred runners around me, but each is running his own race. I’m surrounded, yet I’m alone.

I hear it before I see it, and I sense it before I even hear it. A high-pitched howl that gets louder with every step. I round a corner and my mind pops out of neutral. A thousand screaming women line the roadside.

Louder than fireworks. Louder than the bleachers at Fenway Park. Louder than anything. The sound fills my body and I pick up the pace and I raise my fist and shake it in triumph and the noise gets louder and I’m feeling a high that no drug can produce and it’s over. Just like a snap of the finger, it’s over.

I’ve passed through the tunnel of coeds and my heart slows a bit. I ease my pace. The adrenaline rush had made me forget all fatigue and I’d started to sprint. The sun pelts my shoulders. I’m thirsty. The best moment of the race is behind me and I’m starting to feel tired.

1:35 – You find your own private hell in the heart of a marathon. A moment of doubt, a twinge of self-pity, perhaps a split second of mind-blowing agony.

Today it comes earlier than expected – only 14 miles into the race, barely halfway done. To the right is a beautiful grassy lawn and some shady oak trees. Stopping to stretch calves, I lean against a tree and ask the question marathoners hate, the one to which there is no answer: Why?

1:54 – Not with a crash and a bang, but with a thud and a whimper, 16 miles into the race I hit the wall – that point in a marathon where the body runs out of gas. Not a filling station in sight. You can quit, or you can struggle on.

I’m a bit light-headed, my legs are heavy and my pace has dropped to nine-minute miles. Every half mile I walk for 50 yards and grab a sip of water. But it’s too late. I’m dehydrated and no amount of water can make up for the thirsty miles at the start.

2:12 – Bill Rodgers wins the 1980 Boston Marathon. I’m eight miles behind, struggling over Heartbreak Hill. He gets a laurel wreath from the mayor; I get a blister. He rests; I run.

2:48 – I’m stumbling along at a 10-minute pace. Boston College is to my right. Four miles to go. I just want to get it over with.

The spectators keep me going. Every time I stop to walk, they prod me on. “C’mon, you can do it. Keep it up, buddy.” A little girl in a white dress shoots me with her squirt gun to help cool me off. Teenage boys put out their hands for me to slap as I trot by.

3:08 – Two miles left. I no longer think about going on. I’ve been caught in the current of a running tide for so long that I don’t have to think about it.

The spectators are partying. Between the 20 and 25 mile marks, I’ve heard dozens of times that I have “only two miles left.” If I wasn’t familiar with the course, I’d swear I was on a treadmill.

3:28 – One last adrenaline rush floods every vein in my body as I cross the line. I tremble from this last dose of useless energy. Walking in painful shuffles, I head for a nearby fence. My fingers hesitate to unclench from a runner’s fist. I clutch the fence and lean my head on the cold steel.

I swear to myself that I’ll never run another marathon.

Note: Bill O’Neill – whose marathon best is 2:44 – abandoned that vow. He ran the Boston Marathon twice more.