By Chris McClung
“Come on ten-thirty-nine! You’re better than that!”
I was still about a mile from the finish line of the Boston Marathon, walking a slow but steady pace, and those were the words of an enthusiastic citizen of Boston, yelling about 6 inches from my face in a perfectly thick Boston accent as she screamed my bib number and implored me to run. I am better than that, but I was not in that moment or at least I didn’t think so. I could only respond with a half smile, and even though my heel was hurting and my ego was seriously bruised, I appreciated her words in a way that I never could have imagined. Now, as I sit here 4 weeks later with the stress fracture in my heel bone starting to heal, I can finally wrap my head around the lessons of that day, a personal worst by time but a big victory in other unexpected ways.
Boston 2016 was supposed to be a victory lap for me. I entered the race fitter than ever after a near-perfect training build-up. I was poised for a marathon PR by at least several minutes, and I was mentally ready to give everything I had toward that goal. I wrote these words to the athletes I coach on the Friday before the race:
“I no longer think [my lifetime goal] is beyond my reach. In fact, I now KNOW it’s possible whether it happens on Monday or not, and even better, I have faith that it might only be the beginning of what’s possible.”
I was ready and confident, and my body felt good. As I exited my hotel on race morning to walk to the buses to Hopkinton, I was dressed in a throwaway long sleeve. I immediately felt comfortable in the unseasonably warm air, and I knew it was going to a tough day as the temperatures rose.
For those that don’t know Boston, it is similar to New York with at-times cumbersome logistics on race morning. The race doesn’t start until 10 am, but due to the point–to-point course, you have to be at the buses to head to the start about 3.5 hours earlier. By 7 am, you are at the “Athlete’s Village,” where you are dumped into a field with thousands of other nervous runners for nearly 3 hours, waiting for the 1-mile walk through Hopkinton to the starting line. I was fortunate enough to secure a seat on one of the private buses run by a local Boston club, so I had access with many other Rogues to the private bus lot with its own portable toilets and space to hang out away from the masses. Even still, as I sat there in the shade and wiped small beads of sweat already forming on my brow, I couldn’t help but be annoyed by the conditions.
And, I was mad at myself for it. This is the Boston Marathon, THE race for which nearly all runners dream about qualifying, and I was sitting there annoyed to be there. What was wrong with me? That started a cycle of self-flagellation that would continue until I stood on the starting line as I tried in vain to coerce myself to smile and enjoy the experience in spite of the nearly 70-degree temperatures.
Knowing the outcome of my race, that internal struggle between annoyance and anger seems silly now. It’s a reminder for the future not to fight the natural feelings as they come but instead to channel them.
When the gun went off, my petty annoyance continued as I jockeyed for position amidst the crowded street, which is crazy in Boston no matter where you start. But finally with the race itself as an outlet for my frustration, I settled in and focused on finding a smooth rhythm and executed my plan with perfection through the first half of the race.
Somewhere within the first 3 miles, I started to feel a twinge in the my left heel, the subtle kind that you usually dismiss and forget thinking about even before it quietly disappears on its own. In this case, however, it never disappeared and gradually became more and more apparent. By mile 13, it was screaming pretty loudly, and by mile 16, I began compensating with my stride and slowing my pace to manage the pain.
At 22, I stopped to walk because it felt like something was either going to break or tear, and since the pain seemed to be coming from my Achilles tendon, I didn’t want to risk longer-term, more permanent damage. After walking for a few minutes, I tried to run again and knew immediately that I shouldn’t. With the muscles tightening up around the injury due to the abrupt change in pace, my body was loudly telling me “no” even though I wanted it badly to say “yes.” The doctor would say later that walking was a smart decision because running further on the heel would have resulted in a full fracture with a much longer and trickier recovery.
Of course in the moment, it was impossible to see the wisdom in walking even if it was all I could do. Instead, the emotions began to flow.
It started with self-doubt. What is wrong with me? Is the pain in my head? Maybe I wasn’t ready for a big result? What if I am just too weak to do this?
For a fleeting moment, I wanted to quit as I passed by a train station near mile 23. What is the point of finishing this way? What if I do permanent damage? Wouldn’t it just be better to get out of everyone’s way and stop?
Then I got mad. How come I didn’t feel any issues with my heel before? Why is this happening to me? Why now?!?
Realizing its fruitlessness, anger turned to sadness as I mourned the loss of my goal. Was all of the work in vain? Will I ever be this fit again? What if this was my only chance to achieve it?
In the midst of the self-pity, I almost forgot about the fish bowl I was in, surrounded by tens of thousands of cheering fans and Bostonians, until I saw Jen – a friend and fellow Rogue coach – cheering on the sidelines. I surprised her when I said “hey” and stopped right in front of her as she was cheering for another Rogue running by. She knew that something was wrong and instantly choked back tears, knowing my goal for the day and how ready I was for it. I won’t soon forget her face as she pulled back in surprise and shock to see me and then immediately rushed forward to hug and console me over the security fencing.
Seeing her reminded me of everyone at home cheering from their tracking screens and how I wanted to do well for them as much for me. It also made me more aware of everyone cheering on the sidelines as they yelled loudly and encouraged me to run.
Leaving Jen and continuing my steady stroll, I was happy to have seen a familiar face but was suddenly filled with an intense sense of guilt and shame. I felt guilty that everyone was cheering for me either at home or there on course, but I couldn’t respond. The fans on the sideline were urging me to run as I walked closely to the security fencing to stay out of the way of the runners, but I had nothing to give them in return. And, they tried really hard to help me. There were coordinated chants of my bib number and high fives and pats on the back and cheers of “Go Team Rogue.” Those cheers were perhaps most painful as I felt ashamed to be representing my team so poorly, so much so that I nearly pulled my singlet off several times in response.
Other than perhaps early in childhood, I can’t remember a time in my life when I received something without being able to give anything in return. But with love flowing to me from the sidelines there on course and through data lines from tracking screens in Austin, all I could do was receive even if I didn’t feel deserving.
Gradually, at a pace of 17 minutes per mile, guilt and shame turned to acceptance as I humbly realized that the love flowed to me with no expectation. My family and friends at home wanted me to succeed because they love me, but their love wasn’t and isn’t conditional on my performance, it flows regardless of it. The fans in Boston were doing their part to contribute to the magic of the day. They didn’t need or expect anything from me in return, other than what I was already doing just to be there for their city.
By the time I reached the woman that I mentioned at the top of this blog, I was at peace with the day. Her words were harsh on the surface, but really just a reflection of the love that all of Boston gives to the runners on Marathon Monday. And at that point, I couldn’t help but offer a partial smile as she yelled at me in a way that only a Bostonian could.
Minutes later, I turned right on Hereford and left on Bolyston for the final straight away, perhaps the most famous four-tenths of a mile in all of running and deservedly so. Even post-bombing, the crowds are unlike anything in our sport and the noise and electricity can only be compared to what you might experience in the most crowded and energized stadium. It took me 6-7 minutes to walk that straightaway soaking in all that I could until I managed to shuffle-jog in the final 30 meters to cross the line, relieved to be done and so much better for it.
What I experienced in the 68 minutes it took me to cover 4 miles can only be described as grace. I was offered love when I had nothing to give. I received when I could not earn. There is freedom and power born from love unencumbered by the artificial burdens of expectation. This lesson, taught to me in a way that only a tough day at Boston could, will lead to my fastest and best self still ahead. For that, I am so very grateful for the longest and slowest 4 miles I’ve ever “run.”