As the Boston Marathon approaches here in mid-April, it selfishly stirs up some incredible feelings.
It was the Spring of 1994 at Boston College, as a sophomore, when the legions of runners ran through campus, on Commonwealth Avenue. They had just finished “Heartbreak Hill” — a series of rolling hills that mentally and physically break many runners, especially after 20 miles of running.
Doing What Feels Right — Since The Beginning
The pageantry and spirit of the crowd were inspiring and exhilarating. It’s a holiday in Boston every year and they get an amazing turnout. On a whim, my lifelong friend Stan, with whom I went to school every year since 1980 (except 1992-1993 when he went to California for freshman year of college, only to come to join me at BC in 1993), decided to jump in and run the last 5 miles or so. I agreed and we mixed in with the runners, without bibs. Perhaps this was an immature decision, but we insisted.
A fighter in the making
Image Source: iStock/sharply_done
Many of my roommates that year, were on the Boston College Cross Country/Track team — Division 1 athletes. A few of them mocked me, literally laughing out loud, claiming I couldn’t run a full marathon. It was at that moment when a switch flipped in me.
They really didn’t know me, other than as the outgoing, brash Philadelphian who wasn’t in great shape. Yes, I rowed Freshman year for BC, but that was just a few months and we were a club sport back then so it wasn’t terribly rigorous.
But I knew from my rowing days in high school that I had the capability of very high cardio output. I wasn’t the leanest guy on the St. Joe Prep Men’s Crew team in high school but I’d often finish in the top group during our pre-rowing 8-mile loop runs around the river.
I wasn’t strong on the ergometer tests, largely due to anxiety, but when asked to run, I felt like I could go forever.
Further, did they know that I was a really good baseball and basketball player in my youth or the crazy hours I spent playing outside with my brother and Stan and his two brothers — the Grabishes — riding bikes, playing tackle football, doing relay races every day in the warm months?
They had no clue just how competitive I was. No clue. And so I asked myself: What could I accomplish if I actually started to eat healthily and began to focus?
The next few years would tell the story.
Getting ready for the challenge
Admittedly, I had lost some of my mojo when Stan didn’t come to BC freshman year. We had always pushed each other. I partied some and got decent grades, but I wasn’t feeling as motivated as usual, without my lifelong sidekick.
It changed when he came to BC for our sophomore year. I started to push harder with my school work, and while not in great shape, started to get back into athletic mode, going to the gym more and more.
But I was still pudgy by Spring 1994, and about 180 lbs. When I was told I couldn’t do a marathon, I started to “download” my favorite music (Live, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins) and headed for the treadmills in the newer dorms that had just been built.
The room was small and stuffy but I hardly saw anyone on the new treadmills. I started with 2 miles a day, then 3, 4, 5, and eventually would get up to 8 many days. Those runs were lonely and tough, but necessary. This was going to be a long, long road to getting into marathon shape.
And not “I wanna walk a marathon”. No, I was determined to hit 3:10 (7:20 pace per mile for 26.2 miles) to qualify for the 100th Running in 1996. But what about the long run? And how could I qualify for the Boston Marathon, the world’s most famous marathon? I did some research and found a way: through the Leukemia Society.
What a great way to help out some folks and also get a bib for the race!
Training for the Boston Marathon
I started Team in Training. We’d meet on Saturday mornings (which would eliminate the Friday night partying, which was replaced with something more like a nice dinner in Harvard Square) in Chestnut Hill and run into Boston.
We started at about 8 miles, then the next weekend it was 10, then 12, etc. We worked our way up to 20 miles by February 1995. Most of the teammates were older. No one back then really thought about doing a full marathon at the age of 20. Some of those runs were brutal — through the wind and cold Boston winter air.
But as I saw my body changing and getting fitter, I couldn’t get enough. I drank less, studied more, and looked better. What started out as running from anger was turning into running for the love of it — and all the accompanying benefits.
In February 1995, I did a 20-mile race. I finished at 2:20- in the top 50! I had also run a 10-mile race in 1 hour and 5 minutes. I was getting skinny and fast! I ran a sub-18-minute 5K at a local (suburban Philly) road race. I had no doubt I was going to accomplish my goal. Turning down parties was getting easier and although I was a bit of a loner that year, I felt incredibly good.
DIY-ing the Boston Marathon Training
My marathon journey was largely alone. No one really coached me. I was gobbling up books or anything online (the internet was new) to help.
What was this “tapering” thing and when do I start? How will my feet do over 26.2 miles when they bleed from blisters during 10-mile runs? So many thoughts swirling around my head. But as mid-April 1995 got nearer, my excitement grew and I kept envisioning myself crossing the finish line.
The Race that changed it all
It’s Boston Marathon day, 1995, in mid-April. I’m down to 150 lbs, with hardly an ounce of fat on me. Let’s F’n do this, I thought!
We got a bus to Hopkinton, where the start was. That toyed with my nerves — seeing thousands of runners and their nervous faces, pacing, trying to stretch, using the bathroom, and just wanting the start to arrive. I was firing myself up, thinking “No one will stop me and I’m going to finish no matter what.”
I had to be careful not to get too fired up, as that caused issues for me in my past with athletic performances — letting my nerves get a hold of me and then feeling weak on “game day”. I wasn’t going to let this happen. I small-talked with other runners to keep my nerves in check.
… and then I ran
We’re off. I’m running around 7-minute miles and trying not to go too fast. Start slow, finish strong. Easier said than done when people are shoving you, and running by you like it’s a 1-mile race.
“Go slower than you want, Mike”, I kept repeating.
I was doing great, on pace for a 3:10 finish. But by mile 7 or 8, my feet were hurting. I hadn’t broken in my newer running shoes enough and could sense blisters. I blocked it out. I was staying on pace for the most part through Wellesley College which is around the halfway point if I recall.
But a few miles later, I started to have stabbing pain in my side. I couldn’t believe this. I never had felt this before and was so nervous it would ruin my race. I tried to block it out. How would I survive the rolling hills of Heartbreak Hill approaching soon? And there is no way I will be seen walking some when I get to Boston College with all my friends cheering me on. I pushed through Heartbreak Hill, exhausted but knowing I had another 5 to 6 miles to finish the marathon. Those minutes felt like an eternity, to say the least.
Stan saw me struggling as I approached BC. He jumps in and encourages me for miles and miles. I was now doing a 10-minute pace per mile because of my feet, bloodied, and this pain in my ribcage area. It felt like nails being driven into my side. But with Stan’s help, and the chilling roars of the Boston crowd, cheering on everyone — even those they didn’t know – gave me the adrenaline and grit to just keep going.
When I crossed the finish line, I let out a primal scream, clenched my fists in celebration, then the tears were flowing. The sense of accomplishment was absolutely unspeakable. I finished at 3:25, not my goal, but not far off. (I ran a 3:16 later that year without even training much at another marathon) They wrapped me in the traditional marathon tin blanket to stay warm, and I started to drink as much water as I could handle. I was limping and my feet were bloodied badly. But Stan kept me moving, knowing it was not a good idea to stop suddenly after a long race. Somehow, we walked to our favorite Italian restaurant at the time, Vinny Testa’s — several miles away — after I ran 26.2 miles! Stan had no appetite for whining. He’s a producer and a gritty get-the-job-done type of person. I needed that.
The glory of the win > Bloody feet
I ended up in the Boston College infirmary the next day (sadly, as I sat there, the Oklahoma City Bombing had occurred and was all over the news) to attend to my blisters. I hobbled around campus for 10 days, having a hard time with all the steps on our hilly campus. But the glorious feeling masked most of the discomfort. It was a real turning point in my life. It was a huge commitment and I buckled down and tackled it.
How does this tie in with my work as an attorney representing injured workers? Our cases can be marathons — a battle of the will. My experience in 1994-1995 gave me the confidence to know how to dig deep, focus, and commit. This pays dividends to this day.
Good luck to everyone on Monday. #BostonStrong