by Dante Zappala
With 24,000 time-qualified entrants at the Boston Marathon, getting to the line with a three digit bib number is a nice feather to wear. The first corral in the first wave is a gathering of like-minded nut jobs – men and women who have an unending commitment to logging miles and chasing times.
And even that approach alone doesn’t get one within 30 yards of the starting line. There is luck, along with a definitive age and gender bias, as it requires running under 2:50 for the marathon to earn the spot.
I don’t know if I’ll make it back to the first corral. As many people have said, the only thing guaranteed in life is death. But I did stand there this year, number 766, on a rapidly warming Main Street in Hopkinton, no shade tendered by the steeple of the Korean Presbyterian Church.
I chatted briefly with a young runner wearing a bib in the 300’s. He said that, given the conditions and his training cycle, he was going to take it easy and simply enjoy it. Asking me about my goals, I simply told him, “I don’t plan to enjoy this at all.”
The first eight and the last five miles had potential to be the fastest. The middle would be a slog through hills, heat and still air. I was prepared to suffer in pursuit of a top 10 finish in my age group.
Behind me in the fifth corral was a friend and former college teammate, Joe. He was motivated by the bombing in 2013 to pick up the sport again and run Boston. He’s qualified a few times now, running often at 4:30 in the morning before a long commute from Yardley to NYC.
Joe was our team captain at Penn, two years my elder. We lived together in a big house on 41st Street during my sophomore and his senior year. He was fiercely original and relaxed. We’d enjoy the venison he brought back from his hunting trips along with fresh pours from our kegerator.
Twenty-one years out, Joe and I had dinner with his family the Saturday before the marathon. We bored his youngest daughter to tears with our talk of times, training regimens and weight loss.
Never shy and always candid, Joe explained to me, in front of his wife, how one can kiss a girl in Wellesley past the 12 mile mark while maintaining form. I took notes.
The morning of the race, I met Joe at his hotel near the starting line. Our plan was to rendezvous there after the race for a beer before I headed back to Philly.
We boarded the bus together as Joe fatalistically told me that no male in his family had ever lived to be 70. I listened with the equanimity that middle-age brings to these conversations.
I watched people text and post as I looked forward to the uninterrupted time we’d have to talk over the hour long ride to the start. One can’t check anything from the starting line at Boston. I had no desire to carry a phone with me for 26 miles. I was looking forward to being offline, even as I knew the rest of my universe would be tracking my progress.
But that thought led me to instinctively put my hand in my pocket. Sure enough, there was my phone. I bolted off the bus to return it to Joe’s hotel room. He stayed put and departed to the start.
It was the last time I saw him.
I made it to Hopkinton with plenty of time to spare. I moved up through the first few miles, finding packs to draft with as we cruised downhill through the first 10k in well under 37 minutes. I felt confident, comfortable and relaxed. It gave me the space to prepare for the impending pain. As we approached Wellesley, I prepared to kiss a girl. But my right hamstring cramped a touch so I kept it on the straight and narrow.
I was inviting the hills, a chance to break my stride and breathing, a chance to relieve the primary muscles. But the wheels fell off before Newton. The hamstrings seized. I slowed, and then stopped. The last 10 miles were a combination of jogging, power walking, limping, cursing and even trotting backwards. I mercifully finished nowhere close to my goal, not even in the top 100 of my age group.
Throughout that ordeal, I expected Joe to catch me. But he never came. I would learn later that he had set out on a more conservative pace. His strategy seemed to be paying off, as he was set to run a respectable time in tough conditions. And then he descended from Heartbreak Hill. Somewhere around mile 24, he collapsed.
As I waited in his hotel lobby, he was lying in a bed of ice in a medical tent along the course, taking IV’s and arguing incoherently for a chance to complete the race.
He spent four hours in the tent. Eventually, he bargained his way back onto the course. He walked a bit, but when he arrived at Boylston Street, he instinctively started running. As he approached the line, they announced that the clock would be shut off in 20 seconds. Anyone who finished after would not appear in the official results.
With 10 seconds to spare, Joe crossed the line.
He finished dead last in our age group with a time of 7:22. I had long since departed for Philadelphia.
I reflected on the conversation we’d had at dinner. I had suggested that at our age, running was good for our health. He wholly rejected that and I ultimately agreed with him.
We aren’t in pursuit of health. We aren’t in pursuit of a three digit bib, a certain place or the satisfaction of finishing. We aren’t chasing ghosts from our glory days in college.
The quest is more elusive and much harder to articulate. But in a shared look over a shared meal, we knew without words why we had reengaged.
We can’t define our outcomes at Boston as failures or successes. But that was never the point. Our time on that course brought us recrudescence through the process of daring inquiry. The results are plain yet gloriously inexplicable. They are our truths and our mysteries. And they will be us at the line next year, no matter where we start.