My first Boston Marathon wasn't what I thought it would be. I'd planned to set aside any performance goals and just enjoy one of running's great events. Instead, it was about surviving brutal conditions — pouring rain and nearly freezing temperatures, a fierce wind and a very real risk of hypothermia — and getting to the finish line in one piece.
But my road to the start line had been full of new and unexpected challenges, too. So I was ready.
I signed up for the marathon the day I decided to leave my job. My race registration window opened at 10 a.m. on a Friday in September; by noon I had filled out paperwork with human resources and told my colleagues I wouldn't be returning to my desk the following week.
Before the marathon, this meant I finally had a chance to take a long trip — something I'd wanted to do for years. Indonesia's volcanoes drew me to Southeast Asia, with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia also on the schedule.
There was one problem: my friend and travel companion wasn't available until February, so we'd be away during the two months leading up to the Boston Marathon in April. I had no idea how well I'd be able to train while spending time in Southeast Asia's sweltering heat.
I'd already put in thousands of kilometres of training just to qualify for Boston (runners have to meet a time standard, according to their age and gender, at an approved qualifying race). Running the Boston Marathon had been a goal of mine for years. But I wasn't going to pass up a once-in-a-lifetime trip — I had to make it work. I made sure my training was ahead of schedule before I hopped on the plane, and hoped for the best.
I went for my first run of the trip in a small park the morning after we arrived in Jakarta. I left -6 C weather behind in Toronto; it was 29 degrees Celsius in Jakarta with 90% humidity. The air was basically bathwater. I was stunned at how heavy my legs felt. Overwhelming fatigue forced me to take multiple breaks. I thought wistfully of the sub-zero temperatures back home, trying to conjure the feeling of cold.
After a good two weeks, my body learned how to sweat by the bucketful. The heat felt less oppressive, but never stopped being an issue.
There were some workouts I could never perform as planned, which made me doubt my ability to run in Boston. Many mornings I stepped outside in disbelief at how it could possibly be so hot before dawn, and thought to myself, "This is too hard. You can't do it." I got a heat rash on both feet during a long run in Ubud, Bali. Once, after an especially sweaty run on the Indonesian island of Gili Trawangan, I saw stars until a very salty night market meal helped me recover. It was often so humid my running clothes took days to dry, and if we were on the move, my best option was to strap my damp, smelly gear to the outside of my backpack. It was not a good look.
Runs had to be planned around travel, which sometimes wreaked havoc on my sleep schedule. The physical activities we had planned — volcano-hiking in Indonesia, rock-climbing in Vang Vieng, and more — placed more demands on my tired body. I tried lots of new and delicious foods, but I wasn't eating a typical training diet. I ran through daily stomach aches for weeks.
Sometimes finding a place to train safely was my biggest problem. It's virtually impossible to run on the sidewalk in a place like Jakarta or Ho Chi Minh City, where I needed guidance from locals just to cross the street. Sidewalks were narrow, crowded and full of obstructions; traffic lights were rare and the streets were a chaotic sea of motorbikes.
My best bet was to find a park or body of water to run around, which wasn't always convenient. This added travel time meant I often had to get up at 4:30 a.m. to get my run in before it got too hot. Hills were hard to come by, and I felt ill prepared for the undulating route from Hopkinton to Boston. Once, I got caught in a fishing line while running around Hanoi's West Lake at dusk.
Training made me miss out on some experiences (meeting new people was particularly difficult when social events took place after my bedtime), but also provided more than a few unforgettable ones.
I never would have found the Campuhan Ridge Trail or explored the Kajeng rice fields in Ubud if I hadn't been looking for the perfect place for a long run. I watched locals' early-morning exercises — solo and group calisthenics, elderly people dancing — along the Saigon River and Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake. I ran the length of Kuta beach at sunset and saw an impossibly beautiful sunrise on Gili Trawangan. I found an unexpected community of runners at a university in Yogyakarta, watched street vendors setting up for the day in Vientiane and Phnom Penh, and took in the nightlife around Xuan Huong Lake in Dalat.
Running is such a regular part of my life that doing it while travelling sometimes seemed like the most normal thing in the world. But it felt strange to have to put so much more thought and effort into something that was usually as simple as walking out the door.
When I got home 10 days before my flight to Boston — just enough time to get over a whopping case of jet lag and acclimatize to colder temperatures — it felt like a luxury to be able to step outside and run without a second thought. It was quick break before my final challenge: the marathon itself.
During my sweaty training runs I often told myself if it was unseasonably warm on race day, I'd be the most prepared person there. It didn't work out that way: I got the coldest and most miserable Boston Marathon in decades. There were hundreds of cases of hypothermia. Twenty-three elites dropped out.
My feet were totally numb at the start line in Hopkinton and felt like bricks when I began to run. The hand-warmers I barely managed to open with my frozen fingers stopped working once they got wet, which they did immediately. Barely six miles in, I wondered how I would make it all the way to Boston.
But I did. I high-fived every one of the women at Wellesley College's Scream Tunnel and managed a somewhat genuine smile for my mom and cousin at Mile 20. As I made my way down Boylston, I looked left and right at the cheering crowds and the international flags lining the final stretch, and tried to imprint every detail in my memory.
Training had been harder than I'd planned, too, and I was used to pushing through. My road to the finish had gone halfway around the world, and for that reason — among many others — it was one of the most amazing runs I'd ever done.
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