I turned left on Boylston Street and there it was. A gleaming oasis only two-tenths of a mile away calling me in to the deafening roar of 100,000 people. The finish line was in sight.
I’d arrived in Boston Saturday night with my Dad knowing this would be a special weekend, but the atmosphere the next morning as we walked through downtown was electric. You could hear the overlapping broadcasts of TV crews from Australia, Mexico and Europe at the finish line, buzzing with anticipation. After last year’s bombing, the eyes of the world were on Boston for the 118th running of The Boston Marathon.
The field was the second largest ever, surpassed only by the 100th anniversary race. 36,000 runners entered. The usual complement is around 27,000, but race officials wanted to accommodate the 5600 runners who couldn’t finish last year, and it seemed like everybody wanted to get in, including me.
Police were everywhere. Some you could see, some you could only feel. Soldiers on street corners eyed the crowd looking for trouble. Muzzled dogs sniffed at packages. FBI agents sat in tinted-window SUVs and helicopters circled overhead. On this one day, Boston was the safest place on the planet.
Small Town America
We started 26.2 miles west of Boston. My wave started late, but the roar of the crowd was just as loud for us as the first runners. The early part of the race goes through seven small towns. On both sides of the course, we saw grandmas and grandpas sitting in lawn chairs, as they probably have for decades, holding up signs like “Take back our finish line!” Children shot baskets as the smell of charcoal grills wafted through the air. Volunteers held out cups of water. And the runners kept streaming past, handing out high fives to the eager palms of spectators.
The first 13 miles passed quickly. At the halfway point, the screaming girls of Wellesley offered free kisses to the runners. Fun to observe, but I had business to attend to. The hills of Newton loomed and I was bracing myself. Mile 16 began with a 100-foot downhill plunge into Newton Lower Falls, followed by the first of four significant climbs.
Everyone has heard about Heartbreak Hill, but just getting to it required major discipline. Three strategically positioned ascents lay in the path to it. As I crested the first segment of Heartbreak Hill, my running partner, Scott, pulled out his camera and said, “Congratulations! You just crossed Heartbreak Hill.” But I hadn’t. I was only halfway there. Finally, when we reached the apex, a throaty crowd of Boston College students welcomed our arrival.
The last six miles into Boston are all downhill. As simple as that may sound, every marathoner knows that’s where a race makes or breaks you. The last leg into Boston turned out to be the hardest for me. I had overcome Heartbreak Hill, but the Newton Hills had imposed their will on me and it took me three miles to pick myself up off the mat and get ready for the stretch.
The next beacon for me was Mile 24. I knew if I could get there, the crowd would carry me home. But I wasn’t there yet. As I trudged along, the challenge was as much mental as it was physical. The temperature crept into the 70’s. This was my tenth marathon, so I’ve been tested before. But this race was different. I saw a sign that said, “Trust your training.” I recalled all of those dark mornings when I headed out in the snow and cold, the runs in strange cities when I was traveling for work, and the runs while on vacation. I thought about my wife and kids and the sacrifices they made so I could run this race.
I thought about all of the people who made generous donations to the Wounded Warriors I was running for. I may have slowed, but I had to carry on. They were probably following my progress. I couldn’t let any of them down, not my friends, my family, my supporters, or, most important, the returning veterans who didn’t have the physical faculties to run at all. That’s what this race was all about. They didn’t stop fighting for me and my country, and I wasn’t going to stop fighting for them. So I ran.
As we traversed through Brookline, the crowds thickened. I could see the Mile 24 marker ahead. The Red Sox game had just finished. It was a Patriots Day tradition to play the game early so fans could flood the streets and support the runners. Spectators were 10 deep on both sides. It was impossible not to absorb their energy.
“Do this for Bahstan!” one guy screamed, leaning across the fence.
The Home Stretch
I passed the famous Citgo sign. One more mile to go. Right on Hereford, then left onto Boylston. I turned and saw the finish line. I took a mental snapshot that will be forever embedded in my mind. If I never get there again, I will always have that memory – and the sound lingering in the air of the crowd roaring.
Things were moving in slow motion in my mind, although my legs raced for the finish and my heart was beating out of my chest. I was overcome with pride, joy, and humility. At this point, my time didn’t matter. I’d been discouraged at Mile 21 seeing my goal time slip away and braced myself to accept that this would be my slowest marathon ever.
But the mind plays funny tricks on you. I found myself adjusting to the idea my slower time only meant I got to soak in the experience 30 minutes longer than I had planned! I knew my Dad was in the grandstand bleachers on the right side at the finish line, so we steered that way, hoping to see him and “tip our caps” to his presence. My Dad was the siren song calling me into the finish. I scanned the crowd looking for him, but there were just too many people. I never saw him, but he saw us and captured our finish on camera.
As we’d rehearsed it so many times before, I crossed the finish line alongside my lifelong friend Scott. A lot of emotions course through you at that moment, not the least being a huge feeling of accomplishment. But this was more than a personal victory; it was a triumph of will––our collective will––to make the world a better place.
I have never run before for a cause outside of my own. I am so proud now to have made a difference in someone’s life – a soldier, perhaps, walking on an artificial limb your funds purchased. If you’ve read this far, I commend you! In my mind, you were all running along with me, so thank you for supporting my journey and making a difference.
David York ran the marathon on behalf of the Wounded Warriors Project. If you would like to make a contribution, go here.