The gun sounds and the 115th running of the Boston Marathon begins. My heart pounds even though this is my third consecutive Boston. I remind myself to run smart and tight on pace. I feel like I’m running at a warm-up pace, it’s so easy.
The first 5km slip by and I enjoy them. I’m on pace and as I cross the timing mat I intend to think of my loved ones. But my brain says, “5km. You have seven more 5kms to run.” I’m puzzled. Where did that come from?
I run into Ashland, the first big town, where cheering for marathoners is a time-honored tradition passed down for generations. I’m wearing my name and the sound of “Go ERIN!” with a Massachusetts accent is so sweet. It’s music to my feet.
Ashland ends and the course grows quiet between km 7 and 10. This is where runners can refocus. I’m repeating my splits but the numbers leave my mind too quiet. “10km is far away” I hear myself think. What? No, it’s not far at all. I need to fill the silence around the splits. I alternate repeating my split and the word “easy.”
I get to 10km. My brain tells me that I have 3 more 10kms to run: “Oh, my gosh, we haven’t even been running an hour.” I’m not supposed to be thinking that. Confused, I try to focus.
I breathe a sigh of relief as I run into Framingham. The crowd is big and loud. They cheer for me. I imagine that I am putting their cheers into my pocket to save for later. But I’m worried about how much I need them now, so early. “You should be worried,” a voice tells me. I survive 2 more kilometers on pace. My legs are fine. The engine is fine. But my race is not.
At kilometer 12 I want to stop. NO! I don’t want to stop! I love racing. No one wants to stop at km 12, it’s too early for that. I realize that I am fighting a demon. In my mind. I can’t understand how this could be happening. I pride myself on being a smart and mentally tough racer. I’m trying to think about this but the demon is telling me that we should get into a car.
Erin: “No! I’m running the Boston Marathon.”
Demon: “No, we don’t like running.”
Erin: “I am prepared. I am not stopping.”
Demon: “Fine, we’ll get in a car when we see your husband.”
This goes on for two kilometres. I can’t hear my split counting over the demon. “Go away,” I beg. I need to silence it. I need to fill my head with something else. I have mantras prepared. And mental images. I tell myself that I am prepared. It doesn’t work. I tell myself that I trained hard. I find an image of training in a storm on the track. I hold it up like evidence. Look, demon, I’m well trained, go away. It doesn’t work. I’m rifling wildly through my mental filing cabinets. I hold up an image of my coach. He believes in me. But the image isn’t strong enough.
I enter Natick. Please help me, I plead as I look at the cheering crowd. Something is wrong. I imagine putting their words under my feet like clouds. The word-clouds will help me run. At 15 km, I’m off by 13 seconds. I wanted those 13 seconds but the demon chewed them up and spat them out onto the ground.
Finally, an image that is strong enough takes hold. I am picturing myself in my role as high school coach. I’m at the track, timing my runners. My runners love to run. They know that I love to run. This is good. The kids are happy. I can run happy now. I can see them running the backstretch as I clock their 200 splits. I clock my split. I’m ok.
Being a coach gets me closer to Wellesley. The Scream Tunnel is coming where college girls line the course. Come on coach, let’s go. “We want to go on the subway,” says the demon.
The Scream Tunnel is glorious and loud. So loud that I can’t hear any of my thoughts. Only their joy. I want joy too. I am 33 seconds off goal pace at km 20. But the girls have filled my tank. I’m running smoothly again. I’m back.
But I wasn’t back. The demon had already dug a grave for my time goal and was busily shoveling dirt into the hole.
Kilometres 22 through 25 are really hard. And sad. I’ve raced so many times. I don’t give up. “We’re giving up today,” says the demon happily. I help kids learn to love running. I want my love to come back. Demon: “Don’t bother. We hate running.”
At the km 25 timing mat, I’m more than 60 seconds off my goal and I know that it just simply isn’t going to happen. “We can’t do this,” points out the demon.
Then I truly look at the crowd. I see myself the way that they see me. They have no idea that I am losing my time goal. They think I am awesome. I respond to the demon, “You’re right, we can’t do this like this.” I decide I will run the marathon like the crowd sees me. I abandon my time goal and begin run like I am awesome.
Now I smile out of joy, not out of desperation. I smile hugely and the crowd cheers more. I put my watch away and I throw the demon into the grave along with my time goal and I start having fun.
I run close to the barricaded crowds, smiling happily. They love it and chant my name. They chant “Canada!” In my head I hear words singing: “Have fun!” I am having so much fun.
Now I’m at Heartbreak Hill. Nothing can break me with Boston College kids on my side. I run next to them and give them what they want: Smiles and high-fives and happiness.
I run underneath Boston College’s sign reading “The Heartache is Over.” and I salute it. I left my heartache at km 25.
I run down Beacon Street amidst huge crowds. “Have fun,” sings in my head. I am running with love.
I run under the Mass Ave. underpass. I have been smiling since km 25. I turn right onto Herreford. Left onto Boylston. The crowd overwhelms me. My legs, filled with disappointment 20 kilometers ago, are filled with elation. I don’t have much left but I run as hard as I can down Boylston to finish in 3:18:04. A personal best by 90 seconds.
You see, sometimes running a marathon is about more than splits and time goals. It’s about love. It’s about running because it feels amazing. Because the community around you brings you joy. It’s about taking pleasure in the people in the crowds who are spending their day with you. It’s about honoring your hard months of training by having fun. It’s about being grateful for your athletic gift to do something that many others can’t.
I may have lost my time goal but the demon didn’t win. My smile and I did.
Up next for distance runner Erin Poirier is a 430km solo running expedition across the West African country of The Gambia. Visit her @ www.love4gambia.com