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2001 Boston Marathon Experience
by Dr. Harv Haakonson

3hrs 40min. Could it be? I had better check again. There it is, right in the middle of my screen:

Boston Athletic Association
Boston Marathon 2001 Qualifying Times
Age Group ~ Men 60 - 64 ~ 3hrs 40 min

Just a week ago, right after Christmas, I was sitting at dinner at Universal Studios Hollywood with my cousin's daughter, Cheryl Holland, discussing my experience running the Victoria Marathon on October 8, 2000. Cheryl has run three or four marathons herself so we were having a wonderful time comparing stories when she finally asked the question all marathoners want to have answered: "What was your time?"

"3:39:59"

"Wow!" she said, "That's really good. I'll bet at your age you qualified for the Boston."

3hrs 40 min.
3hrs 39min 59sec.

"It must be a sign", I said to Patricia when I got off the computer, "One second!!!"

So on January 29, 2001 I screwed up my courage, completed the Boston Marathon 2001 Entry Form, paid my $75US and put it in the mail. Then I waited. And waited. And waited. Reluctant to book my "flying on points" flight, or a hotel, until I knew I had been accepted, I just waited. Finally it was the middle of March, only a month until the marathon, and it came. In the mail. A large blue colored Post Card: CONFIRMED. Entering Boston. April 16, 2001.

Now to book a flight ~ on Aeroplan Points. Oh yeah! "On Easter weekend? You're kidding right?" said the Aeroplan agent. "No, I am not kidding." "Well sir, the best I can do for you is a flight from Palm Springs to Boston on Thursday, April 12th, returning Tuesday, April 17th." "I'll take it."

OK, now a place to stay. Back to the Internet. Big surprise, every single hotel listed by the Boston Athletic Association is booked. Browsing through other options reveals the delightful news that hotel rooms in Boston start about $225US with Bed and Breakfast a big saving at $150US+. And I need 5 nights. Finally I decide to book the Airport Hilton for my night of arrival and take my chances from there by renting a car and driving into the country to find something.

Boston Airport is no different than any other airport I have ever been to as it is under major construction. Really, have you ever seen an airport that wasn't undergoing construction? My hotel is lovely but not worth even the "military rate" bargain price of $190US. But I get a good sleep before heading to Budget for my wheels, a nice little Ford Taurus. The young agent is most helpful when I explain that I need to go out into the country to find a place to stay. She recommends going north, to Salem, even suggesting the Hawthorne Hotel.

The drive along Highway 1A is quite lovely through quaint countryside and along the Atlantic Ocean. I take a slight detour to drive through Marblehead and take advantage of discovering a seaside restaurant to have a bowl of Manhattan chowder for lunch. On to Salem where I discover that I am in the "Witches Hold". I get registered at the Hawthorne, a lovely old hotel with serious upgrading that hasn't taken anything away from the historical charm. As soon as I am settled in I call Patricia to let her know where I am. Of course she immediately recognizes Salem, Massachusetts because of its' lore of witchery. I guess I should read more.

Saturday, April 14th, two days before the marathon, is the day to do my reconnaissance. (That military training keeps showing up.) First down to the World Trade Center to get registered. At first it seems a bit odd: Why the WTC? Once I finally find it (all of the downtown Boston Streets are under construction) I realize why. There is a huge trade show going on with absolutely everything you might think about related to running. And why not? After all, there are going to be 15,560 runners and their assorted friends and family make their way through this place over the next two days. I wend my through the entire trade show to the registration desk because, yes, that is the way it is planned. My registration materials are in a sealed envelope with the large number 11009 on the front and a conspicuous message that says "NO CHIP. NO TIME." On the back it says "CHAMPIONCHIP. Please verify that the chip assigned to you corresponds to your name and Race Number by scanning this envelope at the ChampionChip Verification Station." When I place my envelope on the scanner it cooperates with "11009".

I had learned from the Boston Marathon web site that in order to control the start for over 15,000 runners we would each be assigned to a 'starting corral' of 1,000 runners according to our qualifying time. So I guess I am headed for the 11,000 corrals. Oh well. At least there are 4,000 bodies starting behind me!

The next matter on the Saturday agenda is to drive out to Hopkinton, Mass to look over the starting scene. This marathon differs from many in that it starts at one point (Hopkinton) and runs for 26.2 miles to the finish line in Boston, rather than being a route that circles back over the same course one or more times. Maybe that is what you have to do when you are trying to get 30,000 feet from one place to another. I am surprised when I get to Hopkinton to find that very little is set up as yet. That will all be done, so I am told, Sunday evening and Monday morning. More evidence that everything about this event is organized to run like a Swiss watch. I suppose that comes from this being the 105th running of the Boston Marathon.

The last activity in the reconnaissance is to carry out my last 6-mile training run over that portion of the marathon course that runs through "Heartbreak Hill". I start two miles back so I can run to the top of the hill and then return. I quickly discover that there are two hills to deal with prior to getting to Heartbreak Hill, acting perhaps, as harbingers of what is ahead. Although they make the body aware that they are hills, they aren't heartbreakers. Then there is the real thing. Rising about 120 feet over one mile, the hill is demanding but not that big a deal today. I must remind myself that two days from now I will encounter it after having run 20 miles. That will be a different story.

I had decided that Sunday would be a day for visiting the many witches' places, mostly commercial, in Salem. What I hadn't taken into account is that this was Easter Sunday. The witches' places had the good sense to be closed. So I had a restful day of growing anticipation. And lots of pasta.

Monday morning, April 16th, unveiled mostly sunny skies with a few fair weather cumulous clouds scattered about. The temperature was about 55. A great day for a long run. I wasn't sure what to eat for breakfast since the race didn't start until 12:00 noon. I wanted to add some energy but I didn't want to take on much fiber because the last thing I wanted was to be looking for a Johnny On The Spot to burn up running time during the race. I settled for a big bowl of oatmeal.

As I approached the parking area for runners at Hopkinton I was thankful that for once I had come early to something. The traffic was backed up for several miles resulting in nearly an hour of creeping before I could finally park and get on the school bus shuttle. The starting area in downtown Hopkinton was unrecognizable from what I had seen two days previous. There were roped off areas everywhere, big white tents scattered about and concessions of one sort or another all over the place. The circus is on!

The starting area is lined with bleachers for the important people and the route is already lined with people as far as I can see. And this is only 10:30 AM. I follow the "corrals" for a block down Main Street before the line turns 90 degrees to head another block and half before I find the 11000 corral. The nearby lines for a Johnny On The Spot remind me of Disney Land over Christmas but the necessity is unavoidable so I take my place and wait, not that it matters since I have some time to kill anyway.

As the start time draws near the hype from the guy on the microphone steps up a few notches. He is making the elite runners that he is introducing sound like they are Olympians. Maybe they are, how would I know? Overhead I count six helicopters jockeying for position to get the "best" shots of the start. Also overhead, but in the background, are four small airplanes towing advertising banners: one for running shoes, another for "the" after race pub, the third offering the "best" hotel in the area. I can't read the fourth.

The count down starts: five minutes to go, then four, three, two, and just when I expect to hear "one", two F15s zoom past and break into tight turns in opposite directions from one another. I'm sure they didn't do it just for me, but it felt like it!!!!

"They're over the start line" says the mike man.

I notice that the ropes separating our corrals have been pulled away and the 'mass' has closed ranks so the bodies are tightly sandwiched around me. I hadn't been aware that this was happening while my attention was riveted on my special fly past.

"We're now two minutes into the race" I hear the mike man say, but I have only walked about 40 paces. Slowly the mass starts to move noticeably but it isn't until I am well around the turn at a block and half that I can actually start to run a little. I step over the starting scanner with my ChampionChip attached to my right shoe, as the digital clock above the mike man reads 8:03 minutes.

I'm on my way to Boston!!!!!!!!!!!

Running room is pretty tight. There are more feet than there is space so trying to get into a reasonable pace is hampered substantially by dancing around the feet that seemingly appear from nowhere. Gradually the runners space out a little but it is a full seven miles before I get to the point where I can run at my own pace without weaving in and out among other runners. In Victoria last October I reached the same "freedom" at about the two-mile mark.

The crowd of supporters is large, and noisy, right from the starting line throughout the full 26 miles of the marathon. Promotional material has boasted a crowd of one million, but who is counting now? Whatever the number, their participation is wonderful and greatly appreciated. At about the two-mile mark there is an eight-piece country band beside the road, amps turned up high. I give them a high five and move it up a notch or two to take advantage of the beat. The music has barely slipped from my range of hearing when I pick up a new beat coming from somewhere ahead. Then I see a pick up truck on the opposite side of the road with its' back end ramped up to the edge of the street, a huge amp facing the runners blaring out something that must be hard rock because I don't much care for it. I have to confess however, that it helps keep up my country music pace.

Early in the race, as I noted several gray heads in front of me, I made a decision to entertain myself throughout the run by trying to pass every gray head I could see. I did too! Most were not a problem but there was one stringbean that I had to work at catching up to around 15 miles and actually getting past him was even more challenging. My usual strategy is to pull alongside at my own pace and just maintain it. Most people just ignore me passing by, a few pick up their pace a little to try to stay with me but usually aren't able to maintain the pace for long. Stringbean was another matter. He was already running at just about my pace when I caught up to him and he notched it up enough to stay with me as I drew alongside. We ran side by each for nearly three miles before he slowly dropped away. In spite of my efforts however, there were many gray heads that escaped my game. They probably started ahead of me and certainly stayed there. I finished at number 45 out of 274 in my age class of 60 to 64.

Every mile along the route, alternating from one side of the road to the other, was a fluid replenishment station. A small army of volunteers standing with outstretched hands holding small cups of water or Gatorade made it easy to grab a "cup on the run", drink the contents, toss the cup to the ground and never miss a beat. I took advantage every second mile, thereby keeping myself hydrated without any excess that would have required me to drop into one of the many Johnny On The Spots along the route. One runner just ahead to my left at about 12 miles took a small sip from his water cup and tossed the remainder to the side, all over my left runner. Fortunately my ChampionChip was attached to the right. Otherwise, who knows: remember, No Chip, No Time.

My other source of entertainment over the 3-½ hours was to saddle up to every Canadian flag I could see to say hello to my fellow Canucks. This turned out to be the equivalent of a lesson in Canadian geography. I first encountered two young women from Kelowna, BC. A little while later there was a man from Mississauga, Ontario, and then a woman from Toronto. The lady from New Brunswick conceded that she has lived in Maine for 20 years but she still considers New Brunswick to be home. I had a lot of empathy for the man from New Westminster, BC because he was really working hard at his run. I encountered him at 14 miles. I hope he made it. The two young women from Edmonton and Saskatoon were like "Mutt and Jeff". "Jeff" was from Saskatoon and had run the same Victoria marathon as I did to qualify. We jockeyed back and forth within each other's sight for at least 10 miles and then I lost them. I don't know whether they ended up ahead or behind. The last lady, from Ottawa, was limping a little and when I asked her she said she had an ankle injury the week preceding the race but refused to lose the opportunity so she was taking it easy just so she could finish the race. I couldn't help but note that while she was taking it easy it took me 18 miles to catch up to her. The Maple Leaf experience left me regretting that I hadn't had the foresight to attach some national identification to my outfit. Maybe if there is a next time.

There are so many stories within the story it is hard to capture them all. One that made me smile when I saw it still brings a smile every time I think of it. He was one of my gray-headed challenges though I have to be honest; there was more skin than gray on his 70ish head. As I approached him from the rear I noted his handwritten message in green on the back of his white jersey. First there was a shamrock. I suppose that means he was Irish. The message read: "Never again Jim".

At many locations along the route there were people holding out orange slices for the runners to take as they passed. Several had bags full of oranges, obviously prepared for the big crowd. Often the "holder" was a small child so the three times I accepted a slice, I took it from one of the little people. As I did, and said "Thank You", the spontaneous broad smile was the greatest reward.

Every 5 km we ran by another scanner that picked up our ChampionChip to log our time. The results were fed directly to the Internet so when Patricia first logged on to track the race she was able to get a reading on my projected finish time. The interesting information for me after the race was to compare the running time for each 5km segment and find that I ran them all between 25.5 and 27 minutes.

As we came up to the half way point there was a huge banner over the middle of the road stating: "The next 350 decibels are Wellesley College". The receptionist at the Hawthorne had told me that the students (all women) at Wellesley College were famous for how boisterously they supported the runners. Well, was she ever right!!!! WOW!!!! I suspect that 350 decibels was conservative. I am also certain that April 17th was a hoarse day around Wellesley College. But it was fun, and invigorating at the mid point of the race.

At 17 miles another army of volunteers were handing out packets of tasty high-energy gelatin like nourishment to carry the runners through to the finish. I devoured three packets, convincing myself that I had just had a big boost. Maybe I did. In any case the timing was good because the 20-mile mark was coming up and so was Heartbreak Hill.

Just as I hit the bottom of Heartbreak Hill there was a young woman lying on the ground being attended by some medics. As I crested the top of the hill there was another unconscious runner on the ground, again being attended by medics. A very large number of the runners on Heartbreak Hill as I went through had been temporarily converted to walkers. I managed to maintain my pace for the mile up hill but my Saturday observation that hitting this challenge after 20 miles was quite different than doing it as part of a short run was deadly accurate. Once I was over the crest, just as I passed Boston College on the right, I could see the downtown Boston sky scrapers six miles away ~ at the finish line. Enough for a jolt of encouragement.

The run from the top of the "Hill" is slightly downhill the rest of the way to the finish. I knew that from studying the route map beforehand so I had anticipated this would make it a little easier. Maybe it did, but it wasn't very evident to me. By now my quads were aching and I was ready to be finished. I had greater compassion for the infamous Rosie as we pulled alongside the ground level subway line that we followed for a couple of miles. It would have been so easy …

I'm now into the final stretch of the marathon and see the 24-mile sign ahead when a kind supporter alongside shouts "You're nearly there." Just two more miles I think to myself, just hang in there, keep the pace. Then I get close enough to actually read the mileage marker: 23 miles. How can that be? Where did the other mile go? Three more miles, not two!!! Agony!!!

From here on in it is autopilot. Just keep up the pace, keep the stride stretched out, left, right, left right … Ignore the quads, wait for that final turn onto the finishing stretch. Finally there it is, around the corner and a quarter mile away is the finish banner. I don't know where it comes from but there is still enough reserve to open up a final sprint to carry me over the finish line to the loud cheering of a crowd that has absolutely no idea who I am. It is wonderful!

I have just finished the Boston Marathon.

A new army of volunteers swarms around, someone throws an aluminum blanket over my shoulders, someone else takes my arm and says "Keep walking", guiding me along until she is satisfied I am OK. A block and half away I turn the corner with rest of the crowd of runners and there is the next army with drinks, fruit, cookies. A few steps further are a bank of computers under a banner that says "RESULTS". I saddle up to one and give the young man my number. He punches in 11009 and tells me that my time is 3:35:37 and I have placed overall at 6099.

I walk away with a tremendous feeling of satisfaction. I have run the Boston Marathon, the elite of all marathons. I have bettered my Victoria time by 4 minutes 22 seconds. I have finished 6099 out of 15,600 runners (I don't learn until later that only 13,397 actually finished the race). I place 45th out of 274 in my age group. Life is good!!!

I wish Patricia were here.

About Dr. N. Harv Haakonson
Harv has had a varied career, first as a military pilot for six years followed by a medical career in the military, retiring as a Colonel at age 43. He spent two years as the Corporate Director of Health and Safety for a major oil company, Petro-Canada Inc., prior to entering the world of entrepreneurs in 1986 when he founded HEALTHSERV Inc., a private occupational health management consulting firm. Throughout his medical endeavors Harv has had a strong preventive orientation and has exemplified healthy living and personal fitness. At the dawn of the new century and facing a hallmark 60th birthday later in the year, he undertook to train for his first marathon in defiance of the chronology of his age. He initially researched his plan through the State of the Art Marathon Training web site and then consulted with Art Liberman as he prepared for the Royal Victoria Marathon in Victoria, British Columbia on October 8, 2000. He posted a time good enough to qualify for the 105th Boston Marathon, which he ran on April 16th, 2001.

Thanks Harv for providing an enjoyable account of your Boston Marathon experience.

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