It has taken me more than just a few days to digest the experience that is the Boston Marathon. Even as I write this, so many thoughts come and go through my head that I find them just out of the reach of my fingers to type them. I guess the best way to start is from the beginning so here it goes.

The morning of April 17, 2017 started with my alarm clock going off at 3:30am. With our marathon start time of 11:15am this seems ridiculous but there was good reason. Team 261 Fearless had secured a house near the start line in Hopkinton as our pre-marathon base camp but all the security around the athlete’s village, etc meant we needed to be there before all the streets were closed off. This mean catching the team bus just after 5am. We were all super anxious about missing the bus so those of us staying at our hotel organized to meet at 4:30am to catch taxis to the bus station. With a hug and kiss from Kilner, as well as a mandatory picture in the hotel room of me smiling, I went to meet the team. We made it to the buses on time and managed to see a spectacular sunrise on the way to Hopkinton, and along with minimizing the “missing the bus” anxiety, in the end it was a very good call.

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Pre Race Pic Stop

Arriving at our team house, the sun was up in a bright blue cloudless sky, the birds were singing and 100 or so women were full of excitement of what lay ahead of them. We settled into various groups to rest and fuel and to do any last minute preparations. There were moments of chatter and silence all mixed together and the energy was both nervous and calm all at the same time. Despite numerous catch ups in the preceding days it was during this time that we shared our storied and many friendships were forged. It was awesome!

We couldn’t see the start line but we could definitely hear it. After a rousing national anthem and military jet fly by prior to the starting gun our excitement grew.

Kathrine started the elite ladies off and after that she joined us at the house. This was when the energy rose in a wonderful way. We had a group photograph and huddled around for a pep talk. Cheers of 261 …. FEARLESS! followed frequently. Last minute pit stops and warms ups were done in our own “zones” and then we gathered for the walk to our start area. It was at this point a group of us paused a moment to pray together. The marathon is a lonely event but we knew we weren’t alone. Kathrine shared stories from 50 years ago as we walked to the start line, and as we met other runners along the way everyone was excited to see our team. The small group that was specifically staying with Kathrine for the run needed to act as bodyguards by this point as (understandably), everyone wanted to stop her for a picture. It was a bit of a walk to the start line itself but joining the throng of people was incredibly energising.

Before I realised where we were, we all started joffling across the start line and off we went.

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261 Fearless at the Start Line of the 2017 Boston Marathon

The only way to distinguish marathoners from the crowd was the fact that we were moving forward and they were cheering their lungs out. You couldn’t distinguish the course from the sidelines as there were people everywhere. As we ran out of the center of Hopkinton the space between the houses increased as did the trees, and as I looked down the road ahead, the mass of people filled every possible piece of bitumen and all I could do was run with the crowd and look on in wonder. It was at this point that I noticed the immense sound of the crowd that lined the course at least three or four deep. It was cheering on par with the biggest of football games. It was an immense sound engulfing the whole course, a life force that drowned out everything, but at the same time made the smallest of moments stand out like the first star in the night sky. Many of the crowd offered up high fives and as I decided to run on the edge of the crowd, every offer was taken up, and every touch energised me. In fact at the latter stages of the races, those high five moments gave me much needed boosts to both spirit and pace.

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The first 10km (I’m using round numbers here), went by with me floating on the atmosphere and soaking everything in. Then the rolling hills kicked in and with no shade on the course it started to feel hot. Whilst no hotter than the weather I trained in, the mental games began. Each time I would hear my name called or 261 Fearless cheered from the crowd, and I shared high fives, my pace picked up. When I retreated into my own mind it slowed. Typical marathon mind games really and I focused on ensuring I maximised the awesomeness.

We were at the top of one of the rolling hills and I was admiring the sheer vastness of the marathon before me, when Kathrine came past.  We shared a lovely moment chatting. I was slightly out of breath. She was not. It was at this moment I considered that I may have started out too fast, even though my splits were slightly faster than goal I hadn’t considered them speedy. I kept running at my pace and Kathrine powered ahead at hers. For a couple more kilometers I desperately felt the need to try and keep up with her, because well, it would be cool. I realised that if I ran at my pace I would in fact meet my goals so I then truly focused on running my own pace. All of this happened before the half way mark.

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Running with Kathrine Switzer – OMG!

With the course maps and YouTube videos being my only reference, aside from knowing the distance ran and to go, I didn’t know where I was. I did know that certain places were at certain kilometer marks so when it was getting close to half way and I heard screaming up ahead I asked a fellow runner if we were at the Wellesley scream tunnel. They nodded. I ran up the hill to meet the cheers. This was a whole new level of amazing. Kilner had organized for a sign to be made for me so I kept an eye out for it however by the time I came through many of the signs were worse for wear so I didn’t spot it. What I did do though, was high five every single person in the scream tunnel, experiencing everything about the Boston Marathon! Usually I get a rush of excitement just after the half way mark but after such a high in the scream tunnel, the crowd seemed really quiet afterwards. Wellesley was definitely a highlight.

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Kilner’s Scream Tunnel Sign

The next landmark in the course is the right turn at the Newton fire station at around the 17 mile mark. Getting there felt like it took forever and I then realised why it is known as such a key point in the course, not because it’s the first significant turn in the race, but because the crowd goes from being three or four people deep, to at least doubling that in both size and loudness all the way into Boston.

Next stop…the torturous hills of Newton.

Now for the record, whilst I find hills challenging I enjoy said challenge. My friend Gilbert taught me “never stop until you get to the top of the hill” and this was in my mind with every single hill and I stuck to it until just before the 30K mark… the hill before heartbreak is the one that broke my back. Literally! I had been suffering with thoracic stiffness all year and this is the first run where I experienced pain during my run to the point it made me walk. This gutted me for two reasons. Firstly and most obviously because I had been determined not to walk the hills and secondly and more importantly, I hadn’t realised what was happening until I was in significant pain. It really didn’t occur to me until after I was up and over heartbreak hill but once I did, I focused on getting to the next medical tent so I could take the pain medication I always race with “just in case” and stretch a little. Even though I stopped, it was a good decision. I was able to continue at a consistent pace after that. I knew that my fastest marathon was out of reach, but also that 5 hours was still realistic and it became my focus.

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Still smiling even though I’m walking up Heartbreak Hill

Once you get to the 35K mark you start to enter Boston proper. I could smell the finish but it was still agonisingly far away. Whilst my pace was consistent I was annoyed at myself for being too slow. I was afraid that my revised 5 hour target was getting beyond me. I saw the CITGO sign in the distance, smiled and then grimaced. I knew that it wasn’t until I actually reached the sign that I could officially say I was “almost there”.

Counting down the miles, (instead of the 5km markers), and trying to keep up my cadence by counting my steps in groups of eight, became my favourite pastimes for the remainder of the marathon. When my mind drifts, my pace always drops. Keeping focused and mindful always helps me run better which is part of the reason I don’t run with music, the other being that I enjoy the silence of a long run, except in Boston, the crowd’s cheering meant there was none. There was one fleeting moment where I wished for peace and quiet, and I immediately regretted that wish. I never want to wish away the joy of running Boston. That is why I then started to ask the crowd to cheer louder at regular intervals. As if that would even be possible! But we responded to one another and indeed my spirits were lifted each time.

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Encouraging the crowd to cheer louder.

The crowds got even thicker and louder at Coolidge Corner which coincided with the 24 mile mark. With 2 miles to go, everyone kept screaming we were almost there and I was constantly glancing at my Garmin knowing that the 5 hour mark was possible but extremely tight. I started cheering myself on “you can do it!” and some harsher lines that are all part of the mental strength needed at this point. By the time I got to the CITGO sign and then experienced the crowds at Kenmore square who had poured out of Fenway Park to watch the marathon, I truly did believe that with a mile to go that I truly was almost there. Pushing my pace for the remainder of Commonwealth Avenue was a challenge but once I made that right turn into Hereford Street, it was hard to contain my excitement. I knew that Kilner would be on the left hand side cheering me on on Boylston Street so I moved to the left side of the street and made that amazing left turn and could see the finish line in the distance.

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I typically see the finish line and I bolt towards it, regardless of how far I’ve run it’s like a second wind…. but probably closer to the running equivalent of a dessert stomach! Even when you think there’s no room to push that little more, there is something deep inside that kicks into gear. I was also searching the crowd for Kilner and I spotted him in the distance way before he saw me. It was more inspiration and it felt like I was bounding down Boylston on clouds. Just as Kilner saw me, a fellow runner cut right across me … dangerously so… I had to stop suddenly to avoid running into him. Slightly annoyed I ran on, waving at Kilner as I ran past him pointing at my Garmin which indicated I was pushing for a time. His smile was contagious.

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Turning to face the finish line head on I then kicked into my final sprint. It hurt. A lot. As it should.

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I remember crossing the line with my arms and head lifted to the sky feeling grateful for the gift given that day and holding back tears. I stopped my Garmin seeing that it had just ticked over the 5 hour mark. I later found out that my official time was 5 hours 3 seconds which made me satisfied with my efforts.

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crossing the finish line

Our 261 Fearless support team were waiting at the finish line as they had special passes to be there. It was totally wonderfully awesome to hear them cheer your name and congratulate you on finishing as well as get a couple of hugs straight away. It really was special! I then went to pick up my medal and goodie bag of post-race food and drinks before making my way to the family meeting area. To handle all the people meeting up post-race, it is a street with all the letters of the alphabet and our team decided to meet at letter K for Kathrine, that way as we waited for our family and friends, we would also catch up with one another post-race.  It worked. Catching up with teammates post marathon was wonderful! Kilner had a bit of trouble getting through the checkpoints but eventually we found each other. After some serious hugs we started to make our way out of the area to find a taxi to the hotel. On the way it was great to congratulate fellow marathoners and we struck up some awesome conversations. A highlight being that with a policeman who ran Boston back in 2013 – The year of the bombings. He shared how he didn’t know for a few hours whether his family was OK and again I was very grateful that everything went well.

After making it back to the hotel and soaking in a well-earned bath, Kilner and I headed off to the 261 Fearless after party. We arrived a little late but it was great to catch up with more team members including Kathrine. A banner that had all our names within 261 had been used throughout the weekend and we now all signed it with well wishes for Kathrine. Celebratory drinks and photo booth moments followed and all too soon it was time to say goodbye to friends I now know we will have for life.

Heading back to the hotel I had a deep sense of satisfaction knowing that dreams really do come true when we are fearless.

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Dreams DO come true!

261…… Fearless!!!

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