Qualifying for the world’s most prestigious marathon event, the Boston Marathon, is no easy feat. On the bucket list of many runners, running a BQ requires a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. Ok, sweat and tears mostly. But because of the increased amount of applicants, even meeting the required qualifying time does not guarantee entry.
Securing a spot to run the Boston Half Marathon, on the other hand, can be accomplished while sipping a cappuccino at Starbucks.
All you need is a credit card for the $65 entry fee, a reliable internet connection, and your hands on the keyboard when registration opens. Capped at 7500 runners and no qualifying time standards, the registration for the 15th installment of the race opened on a Wednesday in mid-July at 10am EST this year and sold out in 12 minutes. And I had a spot.
I like running, but, in all honesty, I don’t love it so much that I could dedicate myself to training enough to qualify for the full marathon. Like the elusive unicorn, which is incorporated into the logo of the Boston Athletic Association, qualification might be unattainable, but that doesn’t mean I can’t try to get a glimpse into the atmosphere of an event put together by the same organization that has been organizing the Boston Marathon since 1897.
On the T to the Start
I was staying with my friend Jimmy, a runner himself, at his apartment in Cambridge, only a stone’s throw away from the Harvard campus. Despite the considerably late start time of the event of 8:30, we had to rise at 6am on Sunday, take in a small breakfast, and then head to the start area in Franklin Park, created by the same designer who envisioned Central Park in New York City, Fredrick Law Olmsted.
It did not take long until we had company from fellow runners, first on the bus and then the Orange Line on the T, heading towards Forest Hills. MIT sweaters, Harvard sweatpants, “Boston Strong” headbands and tech shirts were on display as well as a few coveted BAA jackets, which are handed out every year to volunteers and finishers of the marathon.
We got off at Green Street, about six miles southwest of downtown Boston, and started the 15-minute walk to reach the starting area at Piedpont Road, next to the Franklin Park Playstead. The weather, which only one day earlier had covered Boston in a thick grey cloud layer, was showing its brighter side. The slightly chilly conditions at the start would later transition to temperatures in the low 60s with partly cloudy skies. Very much ideal for aerobic outdoor activity.
“It has been a difficult year for the BAA,” Joann E. Flaminio, the president of the BAA, reminded the 6500 runners shortly before the start, referring to the events that had unfolded in April of this year, “but we will come back from this stronger than ever,” she added, before sending us on our way on the 13.1-mile course, or 12 388.2985 smoot, along the Emerald Necklace.
Up and down, through the Parks
What looked like a relatively flat course from the elevation profile turned out to be an almost never-ending continuation of little inclines and descents, a constant up and down. Taken in isolation, no big deal, but stretched out for half the distance of a marathon, this can drain your energy before you know it.
I started out too fast, misled by the downhill over the first 1.5 miles out of the park and onto Arborway, grazing the northeast end of Arnold Arboretum before turning north towards Jamaica Pond, with 68 acres the largest freshwater body in Boston. The sun rays were coming through gaps in the rows of houses along Jamaicaway, illuminating patches of asphalt and spots on the pond. After 4.8 miles, we reached the first turn-around point at the northern end of the Riverway and headed back south, this time passing Olmsted Park and Jamaica Pond on the west side.
Coming back the same way was deceiving since your mind might trick you into thinking that the finish line is actually closer than it is. The out-and-back so far had only taken us 9.2 miles, so back in Franklin Park, we were directed right onto Jewish War Veterans Drive, whose road surface felt like it was still the original from the 18th century when the park was established. Inch-thick cracks ran across the asphalt in irregular patterns, poorly patched in only a few spots. Premium ankle twist territory if you don’t pay attention.
The detour took us to the park’s southeast corner before turning us around and back to the junction with Forest Hills Drive. But still, we weren’t done. Instead of taking us straight to the finish, we passed the start area and did an unexpected tour of the Franklin Park Zoo. We passed several animal enclosures before a short stint along a dirt trail and then back out of the zoo to complete the five-minute express tour.
After feeling sluggish in the 2nd part of the race, the prospect of finishing in White Stadium, a track and football stadium seating 10,000 spectators, released some last bits of energy. Entering the rubberized track lanes around 300 meters from the finish line, I could see the finish arch on the other side of the football field. A last sprint, and after over 1 hour and 39 minutes, I crossed the line, and the suffering was over.
Medal around my neck and sucking on a water bottle, I had to sit down and stretch my aching muscles. Next to me was Tom, in his mid-fifties, with a lean runner’s physique, who had finished about a minute before me. “It is a tough race, especially the last three miles. Just when you think you are done…,” he described his experience. Working in IT and from the Boston area, a pebble in his shoe brought him a pair of blisters on his left foot. “I never get blisters,” he proclaimed, “but hey, could be worse!”.
Replenishing those calories
I slowly crawled to the tent where volunteers were handing out protein bars, bananas, pears, and, to my delight, chocolate chip bagels. I didn’t even know such a thing existed. And oh my, were they delicious after all that exercise. And what was there on the left? A self-service mini burger station for post-race protein! I had to hand it to the BAA. They know a thing or two about lifting a runner’s spirits.
Having taken more food than I could carry, I had to sit in the grass and munch down one or two goodies before proceeding. A young woman in her early 20s and her friend had the same idea. Isabel, however, was not too happy with her race performance. “It was not my best,” she confessed, having done the race for the third time. Originally from New York City, she majors in Social Studies at Harvard.
Close to the burger station, I met Muriele, 43, and Jacques, 44, from Montreal, finishing with decent times of 1:53 and 1:48, respectively. Jacques, sporting a red Under Armour tech t-shirt with “Montreal Canadiens” printed on the front, has been an avid runner for a while, having run several marathons in the past including the NYC Marathon. They had been dabbling in long-distance running, recently completing the North Face Endurance Challenge 50k event in Washington, DC. “Long-distance running is just so different, even at the aid stations. Here you have to be quick to grab and go, but there, you stop, you chat a little bit… it’s much more relaxed.”
Until next time
Eventually, I dragged myself out of the finish area and almost forgot to collect the half marathon tech t-shirt in plain white and the BAA logo with the unicorn on the front. Jimmy was already waiting for me at the agreed-upon spot by the soccer field. He was so happy about running a new personal best that he had neglected the food offered and headed straight for the exit. I did not set a new PR but was still happy with the accomplishment. We started the pilgrimage back to Green Street station, fantasizing first about coffee, followed by a protein-rich post-race meal. And possibly a Nutella bagel for dessert. And thinking about how cool it would be to qualify for Boston.