Friday, May 10, 2013

An Elite Runner Reflects on Running the 2013 Boston Marathon - Craig Leon

Among the reflections I have shared with readers of The White Rhino Report regarding the Boston Marathon bombings and the aftermath, there has been little in the way of hearing from the runners.  A few days ago, one of the elite runners, Craig Leon (10th place overall this year in Boston) shared on his website a very detailed and thoughtful recounting of his entire experience of running Boston for the first time in his career.

I was privileged to get to know Craig the night before the race as I served as a member of the cadre of volunteers who welcomed the elite runners and their coaches to the spot within the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel where we collected the special bottles that the world class runners had prepared for each of the 5K water tables set along the race course.

Lost amid the uproar set in motion by the two explosions is the sense of what an amazing athletic event is the Boston Marathon.  Craig’s piece (highlighted below with a link to his website at the end) paints a very moving and eloquent picture of the overall experience of a world class runner coming to Boston to run the course for the first time.  In reading his account, I almost felt as if I were on the course running alongside of him and his fellow athletes.

I actually was on the course - not running, but helping to man the hydration tables at the 40K mark.  Craig refers to the moment when we locked eyes as he approached the 40K water tables.  I think that moment is forever etched in both of our memories.
Here, in his own words, are Crag’s reflections of Boston 2013

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By Craig Leon

It was shortly before 1 p.m. on a sun-soaked, and perfectly vernal, Patriot’s Day in Boston.  I had just wrapped up a post-race massage and was making the short walk from the finish line area over to the Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel.  Thirty minutes earlier, I was busy putting the finishing touches on what was about to become the best race of my running career.  As I rounded the corner on Hereford Street, making the historic left-hand turn onto Boylston Street, these were the five thoughts bouncing around in my head:
§  I am already at mile 26?  Damn! That was the quickest 2-hour run ever.
§  I can’t believe I am at mile 26 and feel this good.  My hamstrings are still functioning!
§  The crowds are really big and really loud.
§  I wonder what place I am in, anyway?
§  This is the most fun I have ever had running.  I wish anyone who has ever run a step in his or her life could experience finishing the Boston marathon like this.  I can’t believe I get paid to do this!
The official Boston Marathon program will forever show that I finished in 10th place, with a time of 2:14:38, at the 117th rendition of America’s oldest footrace.  Not too shabby for a kid who couldn’t even crack the top-10 of Ohio’s division 2 state championships his senior year (I finished 11th place in both cross country and track – 3200m) and for a guy who left college with a 10k PR north of 30:00 (I ran 30:0x three times).

However, the 2013 Boston Marathon will forever be remembered for reasons far greater than a finishing place or time of anyone who ran that day.  The lives of innocent spectators, individuals who may or may not have known anyone personally running the marathon that day but decided to join alongside so many others to cheer on the masses, were forever changed by the malevolent acts of two deranged men.
For me, that has been the hardest thing to try and comprehend, and process, about the events that took place on Boylston Street that afternoon.  Running is such a shared experience.  In the months leading up to this year’s Boston Marathon, thousands of runners spent their time doing exactly what I did everyday – training – with the hope of reaching whatever goal they had set for themselves.  The winner of the race and the last person to cross the finish line share similar experiences.  That communal experience is transferred over to the spectators who show up at races to cheer on complete strangers.  As runners, we rely on those uplifting cheers of encouragement to help bring out the best in us.  The folks at acknowledged the reciprocity between runner and spectator in their race recap:

“One unintended consequence of the bombings was they just reinforced and reminded us what a wonderful event Boston is.  Hundreds of thousands of people go and line the streets to cheer for loved ones and people they do not even know who have spent months of their lives training for this day. A marathon is a celebration of community, and the Boston marathon is such a celebration on a grand scale.”
It has taken me a few weeks, along with an impromptu trip home to Ohio, to finally begin separating all of the positive moments of the weekend from the senseless events of Monday afternoon.  Although I don’t feel like I will ever truly be able to celebrate my accomplishment without there being some sort of void, I am thankful to have received some many congratulatory and concerned messages.  Every phone call, voicemail, text, email, tweet, and message has helped me arrive at a point where I now feel like sitting down and writing about my experience, and all the positives that I will take from a weekend in Boston that will not be soon forgotten.
. . . When we got to the start line and I took my first strider towards Boston, I was stunned by the major downhill looming 50 feet in front of me.  You hear everyone tell you about the downhill start, but it doesn’t hit home until you actually see the dang thing.  They allowed us another minute or so of warmups, before they lined everyone up for introductions.  As we stood on the start line, a human-chain of retired Massachusetts track officials formed in front of us to keep us at bay.  So there I am, a minute away from the biggest race of my life staring right into the eyes of a 80-something-year-old.  And you know what his parting advice was to me?  A handshake, and a reminder that “Bahston’s thataway!” (pointing over his shoulder to the East).  30-seconds later, we were off.
Down the hill, we lead the charge out of Hopkinton.  The fear at Boston is that you will tear through the first mile, but I was surprised how relaxed and easy I felt as we approached the first mile marker.  Then I saw our time – 5:15 – direct feedback as to why I felt so good, we were crawling!  Everyone was still bunched together, feeling each other out.  Boston, unlike many of the major marathons, is run without pace-makers, which changes the entire complexion of the race.  The top runners cannot simply tuck in behind their designated “rabbits” and run; they have to race.
. . . Shortly before the half marathon mark, a few more guys came up from behind us and joined our group.  All of the sudden we were 7-9 strong, feeding off each other and the crowd, tearing through the streets towards Boston.  Our group really got a jolt when we descended upon Wellesley.  The all-girls college has earned the reputation of loudest, and craziest, fans along the Boston Marathon course, and they did nothing to dissuade that theory as we rolled through; my ears were ringing!  I remember telling Daniel Tapia after we passed, “that was awesome.”  He looked at me, smiled, and agreed.  This is why you run the Boston Marathon!
We were entering the critical juncture of the race: miles 16-21.  The Newton Hills, followed by Heartbreak Hill.  I remember telling myself around mile 15 to stay focused and hang with the pack these next 5 miles, and then reassess where things stood at 21.  There were probably a half-dozen guys still a part of the group as we made our way up the first hill.  To my surprise, by the time we crested that initial hill, our group was more or less cut in half.  The reason for surprise was because I felt like we didn’t push real hard on that hill, so it was a bit shocking – and at the same time, encouraging – to see some of the guys fall back.  I kept with my pre-race strategy for each hill – there are 4 in all – which was to not press too hard on the uphills and take advantage of the downhills on the other side.  When I crested the top of Heartbreak, I was out in front of the two guys who were still around, and at this point, I could finally see some of the guys up ahead in the distance.  That was all I needed to be re-energized!
. . . By this time, I was rapidly approaching downtown Boston, the crowds were growing in number with each passing kilometer, and I had things dialed in.  I was running side by side with Daniel as we approached the 40k mark, our final fluid station before the finish.  As I pulled off to the right side of the road to pick up my bottle, I spotted one of the race volunteers [The White Rhino] who I had met the previous day.  When our eyes met, we shared a symbiotic smile, he gave me a thumbs up, and I was on my way.  It was a small gesture, but to me, that man represented all of the people who have helped me along this journey.  That moment will stick with me for the rest of my life.  This is why I ran the Boston Marathon!

. . . Final Thoughts

Prior ever completing the Boston Marathon, the event had such a profound draw to me.  Finishing 10th in my Boston Marathon debut, made the event even more special.  But in light of what happened later that afternoon, I now feel like I share an inseparable bond with the race.  The marathon is such an emotional event because you become so invested in your one chance.  I knew going into this year’s race that I had a once-in-a-career-opportunity, especially when a few of the top American men withdrew with injuries, and when you get those chances, you have to be ready to capitalize.  Sure, I’m a little fortunate with how things played themselves out, but I wouldn’t have had the chance if I failed to adequately prepare myself.  And that’s what I am most proud of.  The race itself was good, but I did everything I could from a physical and mental standpoint to prepare.  Whether it’s in running or every day life, you have to be ready for when those opportunities arise!  It doesn’t hurt that I got some amazing help along the way, especially from my coach, Ian Dobson.
I hope to be back racing again in a few weeks, with some shorter stuff, as I build towards the US Half Marathon Championships in Duluth, MN.  Over the next month, I’ll also be working on plans for a fall marathon; I know there’s a 2:12 floating around inside me if I find the right race.  And as for next year’s Boston Marathon, I hope to be invited back, because I want to be a part of what will be a very special event!

Craig’s thoughtful piece gives us a small glimpse into the impact that this race and our city can have on an athlete who has dedicated many years to preparing for this brief moment in time.  Plan now to come out next year when the race will be run again .  Run the race if you are able.  If not, join us in cheering on these remarkable men and women who inspire us.

 I encourage you to read Craig's piece in its entirety.

Craig Leon Running - 2013 Boston Marathon Experience

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