Once you’ve run one marathon, you cannot live in the city of Boston without trying to get to the start line in Hopkinton. Living in this city as a runner without doing the world’s oldest annual marathon is almost sacrilegious. It feels like everyone on the street is in training at certain points in the year, passing by like action figures on a conveyor belt. Running stores seem to outnumber Dunkin’ Donuts. The finish line is painted onto Boylston Street.
I knew I’d eventually try to run Boston after my first marathon in Providence last year, but a bib came my way sooner than expected after someone dropped out. I pretended I needed to think about it overnight, laying in bed and picturing the top of Heartbreak Hill.
The Boston Marathon. The marathon. Me.
Before last year, I was not a runner. I knew there were people out there who were totally addicted, who ran for tens of miles without headphones or running partners. These people baffled me. Two of my field hockey coaches in school ran marathons, and when they talked about 18-mile runs, my teammates and I laughed in their faces. I went to Boston College where we’d wake up early to watch the runners on Marathon Monday, drinking mimosas in ridiculous neon tank tops and wondering aloud why anyone would put themselves through that kind of torture.
Distance running only started to appeal to me during my first post-grad year. I started training for my first marathon because I needed to get out of the house.
I chose to live with my three best male friends after college, a mistake I’d made when I naively thought my college friendships were infallible, when I’d thought there was more that bonded me and these boys than late Tuesday nights at our college dive bar, Mary Anne’s. Spoiler alert: There was not, and my one-year lease with a promise of no sub letters had imprisoned me in what was really nothing more than a frat house.
They’d come home from work, crack open their “man-sodas,” and watch sports. I tired of the beer, the football helmets crashing together and Call of Duty and Barstool Sports’ Pardon My Take recaps outside my bedroom door, cans getting stabbed and cracked and shotgunned. My roommates bought a drone they’d buzz around our kitchen, screaming “DRONE BOYS!” and whacking cardboard boxes with an ice scraper. I shoved earplugs in my ears and Yelped a coffee shop close to my house where I could camp out with the Sunday Globe in peace.
One morning, after a particularly bad night with my roommates, I signed up for the Providence Marathon six months away. I can’t really say for sure what made me actually click “Register,” but I do know that the drone whirred outside my room and I hated myself. I willed my body to burst into the living room in head-to-toe gray sweatpants and explode, saying all the things I sort of still wish I said.
Instead, I bought Clif Energy Bloks in bulk online and started training in the bitterest winter weather, running during the week around Southie, early evenings when Dorchester Bay was flat and smooth as patent leather. At first, I listened to music. Then, I listened to podcasts — The Moth Radio Hour and Crimetown. Then, as I had to deal with my phone dying on a full charge in sub-freezing temperatures, I listened to nothing at all.
I ran up and down the hills of South Boston in my big neon yellow fleece jacket, flapping my hands to keep warm. These runs took me places I’d never seen, neighborhoods I couldn’t get to on the Green Line. After my first nine-mile run at night, woven through the Seaport and along the industrial parks on the water in South Boston, I was hooked.
The route traced a half-mile footbridge that looped out into the Dorchester Bay in a big semicircle, the stars reflecting in the water. It felt like outer space: no wind, no waves, no people around. I ran back to my house and slept, dreaming about the blue-black cocoon that surrounded me, punctured by bright white stars.
I ran the marathon in Providence on a perfect running day — 60 degrees and sunny with scattered clouds. When I finished, I ate pretzels and drank beer with my family and friends and barely stretched, my memories of the race forming a fuzzy border around my day like a vignette on an old photo. I felt a swelling happiness, cautious at first then brazen and loud, like the first days of summer vacation.
It was almost a year to the day since I graduated college. It was also the first time in forever that I’d felt like myself.
A few weeks later, I finally moved out into a quiet apartment in Brookline with two strangers I connected with on Craigslist. They’re clean and considerate, and I spend lazy Sundays reading and cooking egg sandwiches, chatting with them as we sip Yogi Tea. I haven’t spoken to my old roommates in months. Last year feels like a different universe. And I’m about to run my second marathon, my first Boston.
What does this race mean, now that I’m no longer training frantically, sprinting through Boston like a rabid animal? Now that I’m not pumping my arms and legs to pound my frustration flat like silver dollar pancakes? What does distance running mean now that I’m not desperately unhappy, now that I’m far away from the sound of video game gunfire and the smell of cigarettes secretly ripped in the bedroom downstairs?
In some ways, it almost feels like my first 26.2. This is what it feels like to focus on training, to use it as a parachute instead of using it as a Styrofoam takeout container to push down the trash. This is what it feels like to run back to an apartment where neither roommate has punched through a bedroom door. Beneath last year’s adrenaline was an electric current of dread, powered by my first year out of college, not only paying bills and sitting in rush hour traffic, but closing the MapMyRun app and opening the front door to a place that wasn’t really mine.
This year was different. Boston unfolded before me, a city not of distinct neighborhoods, but of steadily shifting streets, growing and shrinking, shimmering in the sun and blushing, darkening in the shade. Beacon Street in Brookline felt broad, populated with apartments and restaurants and synagogues, but in the Financial District was like an alley, squeezed by shiny skyscrapers.
I padded along the Riverway before sunrise with trees arching over my head like attic rafters, wrapped in snow as soft as cotton. I navigated the winding streets of Chinatown, watching groups of college kids stumble out of alleys, full of dumplings. I ran quickly across the Harvard Bridge, energized by the shouts of the coxswains bouncing off the stone.
I still run without headphones, taking in the chatter of little kids to their parents on the streets around the Common, the musings of construction workers on break in Cleveland Circle and the breathless shouts of cyclists on the Arborway. The endorphins still pulse in the same way, sharpening the city’s edges and making more vivid the various shades of green. But the pace feels better, my strides feel longer and I no longer feel like I’m running away.