Was it mile four? Yeah. Yep. Mile four. One, two, three and all the way to four. The hiiiiills are aliiiiiive with the sound of FOUR. I distinctly remember passing a giant sign that signaled we’d made it four whole miles into the Boston Marathon. The end. Pass me my medal! Can I shut up about this now? Where’s the keg.
I have sat down to write about this so many times, you’ve no idea (you do? You know? Oh, you’re a writer SO YOU KNOW MY TOTURE). Except that I’ve been on the road since the marathon ended, and when I told you guys something is wrong with me, that my body is just done puttered out, a few of you wrote to suggest that it was all because of the mental let down of having completed that goal. And I appreciate that, I get that. I appreciate all the advice and insight, but here’s the thing: if I’d had a single minute to sit down and analyze my feelings about finishing the marathon, that very brief nugget of wisdom would have been this: FUCKEN A. Relief. The thought would be relief. Followed by a shot of celebratory hard liquor. And a high-class hooker. And then I’d break every single one of the The Ten Commandments. In world record breaking time.
Wanna know why? Cause Mama doesn’t have to schedule childcare so that she can go for a long run this weekend. Fix me a vegan hot dog, LETA.
At mile four of that marathon I’d decided that I could not continue. And I was trying to figure out how to break that to Simon, the person whom I was supposed to guide to the end. Because, here’s the thing… the things was… hm… not making excuses, but it was hot, y’all. As hot as a Celebrity Hot Tub Party. I was ill prepared for the that kind of smoldering gathering of bodies, and anyone who was around me in the days leading up to the race has permission to poke me right in the butt the next time they see me. Walk right up and BOOP! Use the sharp end of a stick you whittled with a rusty butter knife, go ahead, I will help you whittle it. I will whittle it for you with my teeth.
Because that possible “heat” was all anyone could talk about during those days, and every time I looked at the weather app on my phone it forecasted 66° for race day. That’s, like, a snow day in Tennessee! Are all of you this weak?! 66°?! COME ON. You could make like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, run inside the carcass of a horse for 26 miles and not even break a sweat with that kind of weather going on.
PULL YOURSELVES TOGETHER.
Yeah. So. Ahem. A-HEM.
66° turned out to be 72°, and since our wave didn’t start until 11:15 AM, and since Boston’s heat is not like the dry heat we have here in Utah, and since there wasn’t a single cloud in the sky, and since the sun was beating down on us with the intensity of a blog post one hasn’t written about running one of the most revered races IN THE WORLD, that 72° felt like 95°. Like death. Like actual dying. Like, oh, hey! I’m dead! And the afterlife is… wait… there’s Prince and Bowie! Hey, this isn’t so bad! Wait! NO! NOOOO! They’re over there accepting the gospel posthumously?! This means the church is true?! Whoever got to do their baptisms for the dead probably didn’t even know what gift they’d been given, and were like, “Prince Rogers Nelson? That’s the name? What weird parents. Just dunk me underwater already.”
For those of you scratching your head about that tangent, please see: baptism by proxy. Good times.
Hot enough to be hallucinating, is what I’m saying.
Mile four is when I remember wondering how I was going to tell Simon that I was going to have to duck out permanently and climb into a minivan of ice. Except, I don’t really like confrontation. And that was going to be a difficult conversation to have:
“So, remember those five long months of my life when I sacrificed my time and body and mental stability to prepare to be here for you? What a waste, am I right?”
This is how I am with confrontation:
Me having been assigned to guard a door, “You, sworn enemy, need the keys to the kingdom? How about I open the kingdom for you. Wouldn’t want you straining your wrist.”
This character flaw actually came in quite handy because I decided to put off telling him until mile five. Then I’d tell him. But mile five came along and I couldn’t bring myself to do it. So I decided to wait until mile six. And then mile six came along. Still couldn’t do it! But that’s when I threw back my first shot of sugar, several gulps of water, and thought, nothing like mile seven to break the bad news!
It was so hot, you guys, so incredibly hot that even while contemplating how I was going to stop running the race I had started playing mental games with myself to keep myself running. Meaning I started to philosophize about really stupid shit in my head. Thank god I wasn’t talking out loud because Simon would have walked me to the side of the route himself and said, “Shut the hell up and go home. I’ll get myself to the end.”
I was turning over the notion of pain in my head, asking myself, “What is pain anyway? It’s just a word, an arbitrary collection of letters assigned to the body’s response to nerve impulses.” And then I started to sing it in my head, like, “Whaaaat iiiiis pain, ANYWAY!” Like a lead in an award-winning Broadway musical. Although I decided against combining it with jazz hands or interpretive, twisting leaps in the air because I needed to preserve energy. Energy I’d use to tell Simon I couldn’t go on.
And then we passed mile marker eight, and then mile marker nine. Did I tell you I’m also good at procrastinating? No? Guess what. I am the valedictorian of procrastination. You don’t think so? You’re better at it than I am? No. No, you’re not. I have still yet to grow boobs or start my period. I win.
I was following Simon’s lead in terms of hydration and nutrition, and I have two things to say about that. One, I should have carried a water bottle instead of relying on the water stations. I needed the water desperately, and the water stations were perilous. The crowd in this marathon never once thinned out, and I had to leave Simon’s side several times to weave through a line of stumbling runners to grab a few cups while trying not to trip on all the debris on the ground. Every water station was a booby trap. Even those water stations grew boobs before I did!
Two, Simon was a fount of running knowledge. In fact, he was as helpful to my strategy as everything I learned through my friendship with Scott Jurek, the ultra marathoner I met last year in Tanzania (he whose book inspired me to go vegan). Simon’s most helpful suggestion involved throwing back one Shot Blok every fifteen minutes after the six-mile mark to stave off any dips in energy, and it totally worked! And at mile 10 one of those Shot Bloks coincided with a breeze. A slight breeze that cooled things down a couple of degrees. Suddenly, or as Marlo would say, “All of a suddenly…”
I stopped hurting.
The heat exhaustion fell away immediately and a high set in. Boom, just like that. Maybe it was the Adderall I was sneaking in with the sugar? KIDDING! Or am I? I’ll never tell. You’ll have to concern-troll diagnose me. Tell me that it’s inappropriate to joke about something like that. Go ahead, WANDA. Shake your finger at me because I’m desperate to bite it off. I haven’t had meat in awhile.
At mile 10 I hit a stride that I did not see coming, and we knew that Simon’s friend and usual guide Neil was going to meet us somewhere at mile 14. I cannot stress how important it is to have something like that to look forward to when you are knee deep into 26.2 miles. It was like we were going to see Santa Claus, except he’d not only be standing there in his giant red suit he’d also be holding a basket full of baby panda bears and handing out free orgasms.
From mile 10 to 14, I really got to enjoy the crowds, and wow, are the crowds in Boston phenomenal. Unreal, in fact. There are crowds the entire way, people who sit out there all day handing out helpful things to the runners (SEE: ADDERALL). My friend Casey who told me they’d meet me at the finish line but missed me due to totally legal reasons said to me later that day, “You do realize what a big deal this is, right? Like, every person who lives in Boston has a memory of being a kid, standing by the side of that route and handing out orange slices. You don’t even know.”
Except that I kind of did! People everywhere were handing out orange slices and water bottles and donuts and pretzels and vaseline! People were handing out vaseline to aid in unforeseen chafing! WHO KNEW. I actually grabbed a stick of it at one point and said these words to a stranger, “Thank you for saving my armpit!” And then we high fived.
Those crowds are second to none, and I can’t imagine there being a more supportive group of strangers cheering other strangers on. In this season of total political and ideological divisiveness, the love and camaraderie that carried us mile after mile made me think for a few hours that I wasn’t so ashamed to be a member of this species.
Thank you to those of you who came out to see Simon and me (and Nicole), thank you for cheering and waving and pumping your fists in the air. You made such a huge difference. You gave me as much of a bump as each Shot Blok. And then there was Erin… an unforeseen Christmas miracle at mile 16? I don’t remember what mile she was standing at, only that I heard someone scream my name. When I looked to my right I saw she who ran side by side with me for 26.2 miles in 2011, my war buddy, my soul sister, and I experienced what it must feel like to wake from a coma and see all your loved ones standing at your bedside:
“Who the hell are all of you you, and why didn’t you wake me up sooner?”
I had to make a split-second decision and told Simon to keep running, I’d be right back. Here’s where you’re really judging me. Like, wait. You were guiding a runner who is blind and you left his side? What kind of monster are you, HEATHER B. MONSTORSTRONG?
I’ll tell you exactly which kind: one who knows he’d be okay because we were also running with another team member named Nicole. She’d have him covered for the minute it would take me to run over, nearly clobber Erin and the child in her arms with my sweaty torso and thank her for spotting me in the thickness of that crowd to give me that gift. I asked her to marry me right there. Her husband would be fine with it as that sort of arrangement is sort of legal in Utah.
Also, in terms of guiding Simon, I had a very easy job. He does not need to be tethered to his guide, and requires only verbal cues such as, “Hard left,” or, “A little to your right,” or, “Someone just stopped,” and I’d lead him by the elbow around someone who had suddenly hit a physical wall. I refilled his water bottle several times and prevented him from running into anyone, but when the infamous Boston hills loomed ahead all I could do was try my best to read what he needed from me.
In case you don’t know this about the Boston course: everything is pretty much downhill from the start until about mile 17 when three successive hills greet you with giant teeth, horrible breath and a bouquet of farts.
Now, some people would have you believe that you’re climbing Everest. THEY ARE EXAGGERATING. I happen to know a thing or two about exaggeration (happen to have built a career out of this skill? remember me?), so trust me on this in case you ever find yourself at that starting line. However, they do come at a very inconvenient point along the route, after you’ve been running for, oh, only 17 miles. Perhaps this is why they are so infamous. Because the hills are essentially taunting you in a Boston accent, like, “HAHA! FOOLED YA, YA CHOWDAHEAD!”
You may remember when I interviewed Simon before the race when he mentioned that there is always a point in a marathon when you’re asking yourself, “WTF am I doing? Why did I agree to do this again?” Well, what I left out of that interview was the slight injury he was nursing in his ankle and IT band. And he reached that very specific point at the start of the first hill. In fact, his IT band was screaming at him, and because he would be racing in the Namibian desert not even two weeks later he told us that he needed to walk and asked if were we okay with that. Nicole and I both assured him that we were there for him and only him, and so we walked for about five minutes up the first hill when I spotted someone handing out pretzels. Before the race Simon had mentioned that he loved eating donuts and pretzels handed out along the route, so I asked if he’d like one.
I grabbed a few and thanked the man passing them out only to turn to Simon and see the most giant scowl rip across this face. He didn’t even answer me. He was so upset about his leg, so upset about having to walk, that he could only form very distinct four-letter words under his breath.
“Is there anything I can do for you?” I continued, but he only proceeded to mumble. That’s when I knew that the translation for the letters coming out of his face were SHUT THE FUCKING HELL UP ALREADY.
You want the keys to the kingdom? Have I got GREAT news for you!
From that point on I followed his lead, in a sense. When he wanted to walk, I walked. When he started jogging, I jogged. And we continued this on and off dance of walking/running until the end of the race, over the hills and along the last few miles of drunken crowds when Simon asked if I had grabbed any pretzels along the way.
I’d been carrying the two I had grabbed at mile 17, and when some college kid at about mile 22 yelled, “KEEP GOING! YOU CAN DO THIS!” I myself wanted to turn to the dude and admonish him that those kinds of words are not encouraging to someone at that point along the route. YOU, sir, are going to stand there all rested and drunk and tell me to keep going? AW HELL NO, JAYDEN. Get off your lazy ass, run 22 miles and then let’s talk. Simon was thinking the exact same thing and told me very specifically to “shove that pretzel in his eye.”
Unfortunately, my aversion to confrontation had been broken down by 22 miles of pavement when a woman sitting on her butt on a picnic blanket yelled loud enough for every runner within a 40-foot distance to hear her, “I’m just so tired!” I may have yelled out loud DID YOU REALLY JUST FUCKING SAY THAT BELINDA?? Simon asked if I had saved a pretzel with which to punish her. I had indeed.
No keys to the kingdom for Belinda.
The run/walk combo that we did may account for the fact that I never once came up against the thoughts that plagued every step I took in NY in 2011 from mile 17 until the finish: MAKE IT STOP. MAKE IT STOP. MAKE IT STOP. In fact, the run only got more joyful after mile 24. I won’t try to downplay the pain I was in. I mean, my legs were wobbly and cramped, and I was aching in my shoulders and back. We’d been running for more than four hours, and I had to concentrate on getting one foot in front of the other. But it never felt impossible. The roar of the crowd never became unbearable. I never wanted to punch someone calling out my name (which I had written in Sharpie down the side of my arm) because this time? This time I remembered that I’d written my name down the side of my arm. And I didn’t hate people!
Boston does the runners a favor and posts a marker that says something like “ONE MILE FROM HERE” to indicate just how far the finish line is. Your brain can do weird things after you’ve passed the 26-mile marker, meaning those last .2 miles can magically transform into four days of running. But I spent that last mile forcing myself to remain in the moment, to acknowledge that I was running the Boston Marathon. I felt incredibly grateful to have had such a relatively uneventful race, thought about how amazing it was to have been paired with a man whose humor so naturally fit my own, and was overcome with gratitude to have been given an opportunity to work with an organization doing such important work. And then…
And then the zig-zag turn onto Boylston Street. That part. Maybe this is why it’s been so hard for me to sit down and write about this because of what happened to me there on that stretch when you make the final turn into what seems like a stadium full of people who all appear to have gathered there specifically to cheer you on. The sound was deafening, and I had to take off the sunglasses I’d been wearing the whole race. When I saw the finish line in the distance a burst of involuntary tears began pooling in the lenses.
I knew that my mom was at home following along, and that some of my friends and some of you had been keeping track of us. You could see us there in those final hundreds of yards. 18 weeks of unrelenting preparation and sacrifice, of weekend after weekend devoted to nothing but the long run and the recovery from the long run, of mile after mile all alone to myself to think about my life—who and what I used to be compared to who and what I am, who and what I will become—all of that filtered down into a final three minutes of this is simultaneously where you have been and where you’ve come to, what you were and who you are. And beyond that fixture ahead is everything ahead.
I got Simon to the finish line and beyond, in fact, because I was so moved that I didn’t even realize we’d passed the actual line. And as significant as those last moments were for me and the loneliness I had personally faced in training for it, it’s the friendship that we forged along that route that means the most, the bond that had to take form as we shuffled through crowds to grab water, to maneuver around people and objects safely and swiftly and with humor. Knowing when to shut the fuck up already.
Yes, my body and mind are all sorts of messed up now, but I’ll get that sorted out. I don’t have it nearly as bad as the woman who ran past us about 100 yards from the finish line. She had pulled out her phone to take a photo? or a snapchat? or a periscope? of the crowd along Boylston Street, running with her phone above her head, when her foot caught the pavement in the most perfectly wrong way. I watched her body fly three feet into the air and heard her skull and face bounce off the concrete of the road. A thousand people gasped. Later as I was recounting this to Neil (14-mile marker Neil), Simon was all, “Wait, what? She didn’t trip because she was exhausted?”
“NO!” I explained. “She was distracted by her phone!”
“Are you serious? ARE. YOU. SERIOUS.” He shook his head. “At least my excuse would be, oh, you know, I’M BLIND.”