By Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH
I wonder how many of you have a bucket list of items you want to do during your lifetime. I have mine. There are jewels of adventure and experiences I want to have while I’m still able to rock and roll physically and mentally. One of those was running the Boston marathon. Truth be told, I have no business running marathons, as I’m built for the sprint. But there’s something cool about that medal at the end of the long road.
When my colleagues at the American Medical Athlete Association (AMAA) invited me to speak at their 2012 annual meeting, which takes place the weekend of the Boston marathon, they also offered me an opportunity to run with them in the race. And of course I accepted. You see, this was going to be my last marathon, the end of long distance running in my life. So this marathon was very special. It was my swan song to the 26.2-mile challenge.
With outdoor athletics, the one potentially troublesome variable is the weather. As all of us Boston runners eagerly logged onto the predicted temperature for race day, to our amazement, the weather was becoming unseasonably warm. To make matters worse, the only day predicted to have a major temperature surge was race day. Worried race administrators began to send a series of emails to all runners inviting anyone with medical conditions to defer until next year. Four thousand of the almost 29,000 qualified runners took them up on their offer. About 25,000 of us decided to give it a go on April 16th. For me, there was no option. My mind was set on completing this bucket list item and having fun, somehow, out on the hot and hilly course.
On race day, as the bus filled with my fellow AMAA runners pulled up into Hopkington, I reflected on the fact that I would be running this race by myself, for myself. So often, I have brought my patients and other people along with me. But this last marathon was different. It was a personal journey, taking myself on mentally and physically. I’d done my calculations. For every 5-degree increase over 60 degree weather, I had to slow my pace by 30 seconds. This is frustrating but necessary to avoid heat injury. I looked ahead at a good 5 hours, took a deep breath, and when my wave was up, I was running, following trainer Jeff Galloway’s recipe for safety and success.
Soon enough it was over 90 degrees. As I reached mile 6, I spotted a woman I had noticed in my audience at the AMAA meeting the day before. She was remarkable because she was in terrific shape and she appeared to be older than the average audience member. I also noted that she seemed to be straining to the left, but was trying to keep a steady pace. I headed over and we greeted one another. Beth is a 75-year-old retired nurse practitioner from Wisconsin. This was her 8th and last Boston marathon and she was determined to finish it. As a physician, I was worried. Despite her wonderful health, 75 years old in 90-degree heat and running was of concern to me. She also noted some back pain, and thus her twisting to the left. OK, do I high five her and continue on my own journey, or do I hang out with Beth and make certain she makes it to the finish line and snags the medal? It didn’t even take a nanosecond to make the decision. Laughing at each other’s bad jokes, Beth and I passed mile 7 together and we were like two peas in a pod from that moment on. It was a win-win. I cherished her wit and humor and companionship and she had me to light a fire under her when things got tough.
Beth and I were keeping it safe with a slow and steady pace. As we hit half marathon and were being cheered on by hundreds of young Wellesley women, I noticed Beth was slowing up on the hill, her back bothering her a bit. The heat was punishing and after 13.1 miles, the medical tents were filled to capacity with people of all ages. I decided to generate a renewed spark of energy in Beth by shouting at the crowds – “Hey, let’s give it up for Beth. She’s 75!” This was met with deafening cheers and young women screaming: “You’re my inspiration!” Beth jabbed me in the ribs and shouted: “I can’t believe you told them my age!” Laughing, I noted her pace had quickened and she was proudly thrusting her chest out, assuming the posture of a winning running warrior princess. I resorted to this three more times, each time as successful as the last in prompting a second wind. As we passed Boston College, Cameron, a handsome 19-year-old student, popped out of the spectators and ran out beside Beth shouting “I’m going to get you through the next mile!” Smiling, with a twinkle in her eye, she looked at me and said, “He’s definitely my type, so hands off!” He kept her occupied with adolescent banter for the next mile, then graciously bowed out, waving and wishing us good luck. Beth jabbed me again and said, “Do that shout out thing again and let’s get another one!”
When we reached mile 16, the famous four hills loomed ahead of us. Funny thing, neither of us cared. We actually love hills, preferably in cooler weather, of course. What we didn’t know was that earlier in the race at mile 18, last year’s world record breaker in the men’s Boston division, Geoffrey Mutai (2:03:05), had bailed out of the race due to cramps. Other elites were dropping out as well. Neon signs warned runners to take walk breaks, unheard of at this marathon. As it turns out, our marathon was making history as one of the hottest.
Meanwhile, Beth and I were gradually making our way up the hills. What helped us survive was not only the welcome sport drinks and water provided by the Boston Athletic Association, but the thousands of spectators. God bless every one of them for these four gifts:
1) A boisterous and heartfelt chorus of “you can do it” cheers;
2) Ice from their freezers as well as store-bought, which Beth and I happily dumped into our hats and down our fronts;
3) A run for the hoses, as the 26.2 miles was strewn with tall ladders and atop each one was some kind and wonderful person with a garden hose spraying us as we ran by;
4) Every flavor of popsicle, which began about mile 16 and was so wonderful that, to this day, and probably for the rest of my life, I can still taste the strawberry and mango melting in my 100-degree mouth.
By mile 22, we’d reached the top of Heartbreak Hill. Four point two miles of running on the flat to go. I looked at my watch and realized we were doing fine for time. Two more miles and then we finally entered downtown Boston, where the crowd’s clapping and cheering magically buoyed us through more pavement pounding. Viewing the large CITCO sign, I knew we had one mile to go. I felt terrific and sprinted ahead to fulfill my dream of running down Boylston Street Rocky style, pumping the air, mile-wide smile, a few tears of joy, and a dash across the finish line. Beth and I were greeted by gleeful friends and a welcome seat to finally rest after finishing our quest. Twenty-one thousand men and women completed this 116th running of the Boston marathon that sweaty day.
So, why is the marathon a metaphor for life? Because it’s an exercise in life mastery. Here are some tools to help guide you:
1) Set and Achieve Goals: It’s so important to have a goal you can visualize and can help give you a context within which your other life decisions can be made. Set your mind on a goal, work hard to prepare, learn to stay focused, and push through to achieve.
2) Practice Mindfulness: By being present and concentrating on every step taken in any journey in your life, you’ll realize that life is lived while you’re striving to achieve your goals, not just by achieving them. Live and breathe in the moment, embracing the sights and smells and beauty of your life.
3) Learn to Adapt and Adjust: You never know what life throws you on your quest to achieve any goal in your life. Instead of quitting and running away when things get rough, stay focused and determined and learn how to adapt and adjust.
4) Expand Your Tribe: When you get out there and participate in anything from a book club to a hiking group, you’ll meet amazing people along the way. Some may become lifelong friends. You can’t make new friends unless you show up. Create your own support system and cheerleading squads. We all need them.
5) When You’re Giving to Others, the Journey Gets Easier: Buddying up with Beth most definitely added the spice and fun I needed to have the best experience ever. When you’re sharing with someone else, the miles go by pretty quickly.
6)No Regrets: Throughout your life, make certain to live it richly and fully. Take risks and don’t be afraid to experiment and do new things. Be courageous and adventurous. As Helen Keller once said, “Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing at all.” Err on the side of the adventure!
Speaking of which, I’m already exploring fun new exploits. What about you? Stop deferring and start living. Your adventure awaits you.