Biking the Boston Marathon route (Patriots’ Day Ride)

Monday, April 20, 2009. (Patriots’ Day) Up at 4:45 a.m. Tempted to stay in bed, of course. Still dark. Cold outside. Convinced myself it would be fun once I got going. It always is, but it’s always a struggle to get those feet out from under the covers and onto the floor. Ate a banana and a bowl of oatmeal. Drank a cup of coffee. Three layers of clothing on top. Leggings and neoprene booties over the shoes. Two water bottles. Bike prepped the night before and so ready to go. (Short prayer to the ‘blowout’ Gods that I not get a flat.)

Out the door and down the driveway. Feels warm here between my house and the neighbor’s. (We’re close; we share a driveway.) The red shakes on our house still holding heat from Sunday’s sunshine? Deceptive. Once out on the road, the real cold will hit. Probably 38 degrees.  As I come down the driveway, I hear someone going by, talking loudly to another bicyclist. It’s a guy I know who’s doing this same ride. He’s always talking. I eventually catch up with them. We’re on our way to meet all the other riders at the Newton Town Hall, about a 20-minute ride from my house.

Once there I see my friend Lee. Don’t know the others but most of them are part of a club, the Crack o’ Dawn riders. They regularly meet at 5:45 a.m., as we’re doing now, for a morning ride before going to work. This is waaaay too early. How they do this regularly is beyond me. The loud guy is talking, telling a story about getting into a fight in a bar. I listen to this story, bemused. Not at all surprised someone would want to hit loud guy. He is obnoxious. A good rider, but he talks too much.

Then we’re off. Always concerned about being left behind by these folks. They’re spending a lot more time on their bikes than I am on mine, so there’s no reason I ought to be able to keep up with them, but then, this isn’t a normal ride. Doing the Marathon Route is more of a scenic tour than a hard-charging training ride. I think. Because I keep up with them.

As always, good to be riding with a group of bicyclists. Perhaps it’s the single-mindedness. Everyone moving in the same direction, same goal, and helping each other simply by being lined up behind one another. Some people talk. I just look at the rear wheel of the bicyclist in front of me and concentrate on my breathing. And concentrate on my pedal stroke: push down, pull up. Over and over again.

We go down the hills of Newton, which we’ll be going up again on our way back. The last one coming back is the infamous Heartbreak Hill and while it isn’t steep or particularly long, it comes at the end of a series of three hills and is at around mile 20 of a 26-mile race. The runners’ legs are tired. So this hill can be a killer.

Then out through Wellesley. A favorite with the runners, well, with the male runners, because the road is lined with all the Wellesley co-eds. Screaming, encouraging co-eds. Enough to get anyone’s heart beating better.

This comment from a first-time runner (who otherwise hated the Boston Marathon for a whole host of reasons):

The only good thing I could say about doing Boston is the cheering from
the girls at Wellesley College was awesome and the best part of the
course. And it was great that the pasta dinner was free.

Then it happens, someone yells “flat!” and people up and down the line of bicyclists yell out, “flat!” I slow down and my friend Lee slows down, but most of the other folks keep going. The unwritten rule is, when someone gets a flat, everyone stops and waits while the tire is fixed. But not this time. So Lee and I are stopped a couple hundred yards ahead of the person with the flat. We won’t go back, but we’ll wait here until they show up. We’re beside Fiske Pond. There’s a mist moving over the water. Lee asks, “Does that mean that the air is colder than the water or the other way around.” I don’t think I’ve had enough coffee this morning to answer that question and then we both see a white swan gliding across the water. It seems almost imaginary it is so other-worldly. Neither one of us has a camera. Oh well. We saw it. We saw it because we stopped to wait.

You really don’t see that much when you’re on a bike. You’re watching the road. You’re watching the bike ahead, if there is one. One decent sized pothole can ruin your day. A drainage grate lined up parallel to your direction of travel can ruin your day. (It actually happens.) But really, it’s only when you stop that you really see things. So, we were lucky to have been stopped at the pond, with its mist and its quiet and the swan moving as if being pulled by an underwater rope.

The guy with the flat and 3 others show up and we stay together. The rest of the riders, 20 or more, are long gone. The road is definitely less scenic here, a light industrial area, truck repair shops, feed stores, lumber yards. We ride through Natick, into Framingham, a long flat stretch.

As we get out towards Wayland the road begins to rise. Our destination, Hopkinton, the start point of the Boston Marathon, is at around 400 feet. And where we began in Newton, is 100 feet above sea level. (I’ve done this ride before; it sure feels like you’re climbing more than 300 feet.) Then we begin to see the soldiers walking into town. I debate yelling out “Hooah!” then decide not to. These guys walk/march the 26-mile route. For kicks? As part of the Patriots’ Day celebation? Many of them carry full backpacks. That can’t be fun, but then, that’s what they do.

The closer we get to Hopkinton, the more evident are the pre-race preparations: water stations are being set up, Poland Spring trucks line the road, off-loading 5 gallon bottles of water. Volunteers in bright yellow windbreakers scurry back and forth. Water for 26,000 runners!

Then we’re climbing up the last sharp uphill into Hopkinton. (This downhill for the wheelchair races must be kind of wooly.) We pull over and lay our bikes down. The rest of the riders are already lined up for a group photo. Lee and I jump in. Then I head over to the port-a-potties and take a leak and as I’m walking back, someone yells out, “hurry up!” The group is already headed back in. I pull a snack bar out of a rear pocket and stick it in my mouth as I remount my bike.

And we’re off again. 26 miles and 385 yards to the finish line. Downhill a lot of the way. I shift into my top gear, tuck my body down and start flying by people. It’s daylight now, but overcast, and still cool. My windbreaker flaps away.

I catch up with the folks who left ahead of me and pass by them. I’m not a light person, so I really roll on the downhills. Of course, most of them pass me on the uphills where my weight is a serious disadvantage. I’m always wondering if I gain more on the downhills than I lose on the uphills. I think not.

We pass by the soldiers we saw on the way out. We pass more Poland Spring trucks offloading their water. Then we’re into Framingham, best know (at least from a bicyclist’s point of view) as the town with the tracks that run at an oblique angle across the road. You want to cross tracks at a 90 degree angle. It’s the kind of hazard that can grab your front tire and dump you onto the road in no time. It happened one year, so everyone is particularly cautious.

We all manage to get over the tracks without incident. A lot of traffic lights ahead. Last year I got left at one of the lights and I never saw the pack again. Won’t let that happen this year.

Past the pond, past Wellesley College (no girls out there cheering yet) through Wellesley and then down the hill that crosses over the Charles and then it’s up again as the road passes over Rte 128. No one ever talks about this hill, but it is a significant climb from the bridge over the river up to the rise near Newton Wellesley Hospital. In fact, one of the race organizers says this:

While the three hills on Commonwealth Avenue (Route 30) are better known, a preceding hill on Washington Street (Route 16), climbing from the Charles River crossing at 16 miles, is regarded by Dave McGillivray, the 2007 race director, as the course’s most difficult challenge.[6][7]
This hill, which follows a 150 foot drop over the course of one
half-mile, forces many lesser-trained runners to a walking pace. (from Wikipedia)

Then there’s the sharp right turn from Washington Street on to Commonwealth Avenue and the first of the Newton Hills. We pick up a couple more riders here. Now everyone passes me on the uphill.  Then the next hill near Newton Town Hall, and then Heartbreak itself.  Not too many people pass me. Then another down hill by Boston College and picking up the terminus of the B line train. There’s a red light and no traffic and everyone is itching to go but there are a dozen policemen hanging around, security for the race that will pass by here in a couple hours. Then there’s this stretch which I had never thought about and then it was pointed out by one of the commentators later when I was watching the marathon on TV. There’s a graveyard on the right and so no one ever hangs out here during the race. For the runners, then, it’s this moment of quiet. Eerie, even, since they’ve just come through Newton where the road is lined with cheering spectators all the way.

Shortly though, the runners hit Cleveland Circle and from here until the end of the race, the roadway is lined with people. (A TV commentator also noted that in the old days there were no portable railings set up between the racers and the spectators and so the fans were crowded near the road and the runners could feed off the energy of the crowd. In fact, it was pointed out that the American hope, Kara Goucher, was running as close to the side of the road as she could, for just that reason. To grab energy from the cheering throngs.)

We, on our bikes well ahead of the race, don’t have the cheering throngs, but you see people putting out chairs, marking their spot, claiming their territory for the race to come. And we keep going. Through Brookline, past the cutoff to my street, down the hill, and now I’m racing with some of these guys, really pushing hard on the pedals. It’s three miles to the finish here.

Then we’re there. The cops won’t let us actually cross over the finish line. We used to do that, but I guess things have gotten too crowded. So we turn around and walk our bikes back up Boylston Street to a Starbucks, where we grab coffee and a snack and go into the men’s room where loud guy is talking loudly in the toilet while taking a piss. He does nothing quietly. I do want to tell him to shut up, but don’t. Too tired, perhaps. Then I head outside to sit on the sidewalk, in the sun, out of the wind and relax.

Later, at home, I watch the race on TV and say to myself periodically, “hey, I was there earlier today.” (52 miles on the bike. A good start to the day.) I find myself cheering madly for Kara Goucher, whose name I didn’t know before this morning. She runs a great race, but probably ends up taking the lead too early and so doesn’t have enough kick at the end to prevent two other women from beating her to the line. And she’s so devastated in the post-race interview. She’s worked her ass off for this. Your heart really goes out to her.

But hey, there’s always next year. We’ll be out there, too.

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