Boston Marathon: 26.2 Miles of Self Discovery

BY PHILIPP FISCHER

Philipp Fischer at Coolidge Corner during the Boston Marathon; Philipp finished in 3
HLS?Participants in the 113th Boston Marathon, left to right with running times

It’s Sunday evening, April 19, 2009. 26,331 people (among them seven members of the HLS Running Club: Colleen Harrison, Andrea Murray, Amy Sennett, Andrew Klaber, Phumlani Ngcongo, Patrick Tierney and me) have spent most of their Sunday afternoon walking around nervously, drinking gallons of water and checking every ten minutes the running gear neatly laid out on their kitchen table. And once they are laying in their bed on that Sunday evening, one question keeps frantically racing through their brain: Why am I doing this?

Some of the answers to that question are hidden in the 26.2 miles of asphalt that separate Hopkinton from Boston.

Mile 0 (Hopkinton): I run because of the pre-race excitement that slowly builds up in the minutes before the start. Packed in their starting corrals, the runners realize that they reached a point of no-return: the only possible exit from the race tunnel will come up in two, three or four hours at Copley Square in Boston. While the most fearful participants try to contain the enormity of the task, the most talkative give out advice that everyone will ignore (“don’t start too fast, it’s a long race”). All of them impatiently wait for the liberating sound of the starting gun.Miles 1 to 10 (Ashland, Natick): I run because I crave for the “runner’s high”. Each mile which I run within my target time is a small victory, each victory a stepping stone to a state of euphoria. This the reward for the slalom between puddles in November, for the long runs in the darkness of December, for the endless monotony of the treadmills in Hemenway, for the difficult choice of swapping, on a Sunday morning in January, the warmth of the bed for the icy banks of the Charles River, the sheer exhaustion after a track workout in February and the Don Quixote-esque fights against the Boston winds in March.

Mile 13 (Wellesley): I run because of the crowds of supporters. Between Hopkinton and Boston, there is not a single spot that has not been occupied by spectators cheering on all the runners, from the Ethiopian elite runner who will eventually win the race to the amateur whose only goal is to reach the elusive finish line. The noisiest supporters are certainly the Wellesley students (among them maybe the next Madeleine Albright or Hillary Clinton), lining the aptly named “scream tunnel” which crosses their campus.

Mile 22 (Newton): I run because I want to say “I climbed the Heartbreak Hill”. The Boston Marathon is not only the oldest marathon in the world (first run in 1897), it is also one of the most prestigious – although New Yorkers might disagree. The most iconic stretch of the course is the infamous “Heartbreak Hill”. This tragicomic nickname derives from the 1936 race in which defending champion John Kelley caught race leader Ellison Brown at the bottom of this hill and gave Brown a consolatory pat on the shoulder as he passed. This gesture reignited Brown’s fighting spirit; he rallied past Kelley to victory. Since then, there is no marathoner in the world who does not dream of running in Brown’s footsteps.

Mile 25 (Kenmore Square): I run in order to raise funds for the fight against cancer. By the time runners reach Kenmore Square, each step is painful, the feet are sore, the muscles scream for rest, the lungs are burning, and still the Hancock Tower marking the finish line can hardly be seen in the distance. The cheering section of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute – for which a number of marathoners are raising funds – is more than welcome at this difficult juncture of the race. Seeing these children, teenagers and adults – all former or current cancer patients – gives the decisive energy boost for the interminable last mile. It also helps putting things in the right perspective.

How can the minor inconveniences felt during a three-hour run compare with the suffering of those engaged every day in the brutal fight against cancer? How can we complain about the difficulties of squeezing our training runs into our work or study routine while the daily routine of others is structured around the medicine they must take every couple of hours to alleviate their pain? The heroes are not those wearing running shoes. The real heroes are also those who are fighting this battle and can no longer stand in Kenmore Square. Their cheers are silent, but their impact on the mind of a tired runner is enormous.

Mile 26.2 (Copley Square): We all run in order to say thank you when crossing the finish line. This adventure could not have been completed without those who shared the life of the upcoming marathoners and who had to listen marathon, speak marathon, eat marathon and sleep marathon for more than three months. Also, none of us HLS students would have reached the finish line without the tremendous support of our training partners at the HLS Running Club, who shared our highs and our lows, our hopes and our doubts. In his toast at the pre-marathon dinner, Phumlani (the best HLS finish at 3:02:00) quoted his South African countryman, Nelson Mandela: “We must never forget those on whose shoulders we stand”.

Philipp Fischer is an LL.M. Candidate from Switzerland

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