Under optimal conditions, running the Boston Marathon is a long slog, eased in no small part by the cheering throngs.
If it it’s true that the crowds from Hopkinton to Boston are unmatched by any other major race, the traditional outpouring of thousands of spectators took their support to a whole other level on Monday.
Like a lot of runners, I can say -- with little doubt -- that there’s no way I would have made it to the finish line without your high fives, your ice cubes, your backyard hoses, your screaming for me and other complete strangers as if we were your children, even when we were limping.
With the temperature nearing the 90s and the sun beating down with little to no shade across 26.2 miles, it was a brutal day for a marathon. Most of us had trained through the winter, our bodies unaccustomed to running in temperatures much above 50 degrees.
Until Monday morning, as I watched the mercury steadily rise in weather reports, I wasn’t sure about the wisdom of running. Thousands of others decided to skip the race, a very sensible decision.
When we descended from the bus at about 9 a.m. after the long ride from Boston to Hopkinton, I thought I had made a bad decision. The heat was already unbearable. Most of us were already sweating before making it to the starting line.
In the corrals, where thousands of runners are packed tightly before the race starts, the heat radiated off the pavement, and there was little breeze. Breathing was a challenge.
Unlike any other marathon I have run, it was the first few miles that were the hardest. There was no water until the second mile and the crowds were thin at the beginning. Some runners started to drop out in the first mile.
I was overheating and began to think there was no way I would make it all the way to Boylston Street. At that point, I was just hoping to avoid a heat stroke.
But then, somewhere in Ashland, we came upon the first gaggles of spectators. A little boy was there holding a garden hose with a spray nozzle. He doused me from front to back, dampening my shirt and cooling my body substantially.
Finally, I was able to catch my breath.
As I plodded with other beleaguered runners through Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, and into the Newton hills, the crowds grew and it seemed every few feet there was a helping hand – someone offering ice pops, cold Gatorade and water (the officially provided Gatorade and water was warm and hard to drink), even a kiss, as is the tradition in Wellesley.
Fire departments along the course set up cooling stations, which were like car washes for runners.
I thought about my first marathon, five years before in Chicago, where the race organizers ran out of water and someone died during a similar spike in temperatures. That race was shut down midway, and there was nowhere near the turnout we saw Monday.
As I passed medical tents, the spectators’ specially-aimed sprinklers, and the many police officers and National Guardsmen, I thought, “This is how it’s done.”
As I trudged up Heartbreak Hill, with an icy towel wrapped around my neck provided by a spectator, I somehow gained strength. The crowds grew, especially as I descended toward Boston College, and hands stretched out for mine, as if I had just won an Olympic medal. Everyone, it seemed, was screaming my name, which I had written on my shirt.
Each slap of the hand gave me a little extra energy.
When I finally reached Cleveland Circle, it felt as if I was being carried by the crowds, which had swollen in size – far larger than in previous years I had run the marathon.
As I sweated toward the finish, dousing myself with cups of water from strangers every few blocks, I picked up speed in Kenmore Square. (Speed, of course, had a whole different meaning at that point.)
I was in pain – hot and tired – but when I finally heard the inimitable roar of Boylston Street, I picked up the pace.
I made the sharp turn on Hereford Street and began thanking strangers who were still handing out wet napkins, Vaseline, pretzels, licorice -- even beer – anything they had that they thought might help.
With the finish line in view, and the crowd now deafening, I ran as hard as I could, which was about as fast as someone on crutches.
But when I finished – about 40 minutes slower than my best marathon – I was thankful.
I was thankful, of course, to have survived.
But most of all I was thankful to all the strangers who cheered for me, who bathed me in their makeshift showers -- and their overwhelming support.
Thank you, Boston.
David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.