The Boston Marathon that broke my heart

Yesterday, at my first-ever Boston Marathon, I withdrew from the race at mile 22. I was soaked to the bone, shaking from the cold, and dealing with shooting knee pain that left me barely able to walk, let alone run. The wound is fresh and I’m sure it won’t ever fully heal. While I’m disappointed, I don’t have any doubt that I made the right choice. I let my brain win out over my stubborn heart.

I had the typical weekend leading up to Boston–trying hard to rest up while being tempted by all of the running fun to be had around the city. I met up with the Oiselle gang to spectate the 5k, visited all the pop-up shops and spent too much money, and took a million photos at the finish line. As the weather reports got worse and worse, I spent hours going back and forth on outfit choices–not daring to believe that a trash bag would end up being the smartest way to go. Something felt off for me all weekend. It’s hard to say what it was, but it never felt like I was really about to run Boston. As it turns out, my gut was right.

Monday morning my running partner Denise and I woke up to frigid temps and whipping winds. Undeterred, we donned our throwaway layers and heavy-duty trash bags before getting a ride downtown to the busses that would take us to athlete’s village. The start area was chaotic and muddy–the huge tents were strewn with mylar sheets and heaps of discarded shoes and clothing. I had a wristband for my charity team that was supposed to get me into a heated indoor space, but no one knew where to tell us to go. Undeterred, we used the facilities and squatted on an old shower curtain while we pulled on our dry socks and shoes with shaking hands. My best-laid plans of warming up, carefully hydrating, and leisurely eating my last pre-race snacks quickly went by the wayside and we strained to listen for the announcement that it was our turn to join the parade of figures in ponchos trudging to the start.

At the start line in suburban Hopkinton, I had a decision to make–either stick with Denise, who had no time goals and wanted to run for fun, or to push for the 3:25 I had trained for. As the first gust of wind whipped the rain into our eyes, I told Denise I would stick with her and we would get through it together. The first few miles we kept our spirits up, dancing along with the music being blasted from inside homes and under tents along the way. The crowds were thin but enthusiastic, screaming encouragement from the sidelines. We made a few bathroom stops but kept up a fairly steady pace as the rain pounded down, soaking through every layer.

We stopped into a med tent in Wellesley when my mittens had gotten so heavy and cold that I couldn’t move my fingers, and a helpful doctor worked my numb fingers into a pair of rubber surgical gloves. At mile 13 I saw Jeremy and gratefully accepted the poncho he had ready and waiting. Just after that, we got a huge lift in Wellesley when we heard that Desi won! What a gutsy and well-deserved win from one of my favorite runners!

The happiness carried us down into Newton, where I handed my soaked gloves off to my dad and trucked up the first of the Newton hills. Then out of nowhere, I felt a sharp, stabbing pain under both kneecaps. I gritted my teeth and trailed behind Denise before finally admitting to her that I needed to stop and see what was going on. Being the amazing friend she is, she immediately hooked her arm under mine and we hobbled together to the med tent at mile 20. The tent was teeming with runners convulsing from cold, their heads bowed under heat sheets and blankets. After manipulating my legs and seeing my grimace, the doc in the tent quickly concluded that it was likely patellar tendonitis, and handed off what he said was his first ice pack of the day. Denise was insistent that she wanted to stay with me, but I knew in my heart that I wasn’t going to make it and told her she needed to finish the race.

Alone in the tent, I put my head between my knees and sobbed–through the haze of tears, promising the volunteers that I wasn’t sobbing from the pain in my knees. It wasn’t the first round of tears and it won’t be the last. After 15 minutes of ice I was numb enough to give it one last shot, even though my gut was telling me it wasn’t smart. I knew my friend Bry would be volunteering at mile 21, and by the time I hobbled up to her, we both knew my day was over. She walked me to a church nearby that was open as a warming station for volunteers, and with wet and trembling fingers I called my dad to get a ride home.

I am still in the midst of processing everything that happened. I pride myself on being fairly in tune with my body, and as I sit here icing my tender, swollen knees I am 100% certain that I made the right choice to stop. In fact, 23 elite runners made the same choice. I have had a fairly charmed running journey up to this point, and there were always going to be bumps along the road. I’m not sure what exactly caused the knee issue, but I’m sure it has a lot to do with 2+ hours of running hunched over against the rain and wind on slippery and unstable surfaces. That was the single hardest run of my life and I’m proud to have made it as far as I did. I’m not yet a Boston Marathon finisher, but I will be. Congratulations to everyone who gutted it out to the finish yesterday–you all are beyond amazing!

The list of thank you’s is too long to include here, but it’s coming. Huge VIP shout outs to Denise, Bry, Jeremy, my parents, and everyone who reached out yesterday. I have the most fantastic support system.

Because I take my advice from the best, I will keep showing up. I will finish the race. Thanks for being here–the journey is far from over.

Leah

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