18 Going On 20… (A tale of marathons and challenges to come)

This is a story about running and the challenges that come with it. And numbers. Because when you are a runner, or wheeler as I’ve been labeled for the past 25 years, your life on the road and track is full of challenges and it also involves lots of numbers.


So let’s start with the main numbers. 1, 2, 16, 18, 19 and 20. Those are the numbers that matter most to this tale. But don’t worry, I’ll throw in a ton more numbers, too, just to give this blog so mathamagic.


The first number is “1.” Here’s why it is important. It’s 1989 and I’m a college junior in Boston. A roommate and I make a macho challenge the night before the 93rd BAA Boston Marathon. Some might think we are crazy. In a nutshell, the challenge involves the two of us finding our way to the starting line then running the 26.2 miles back to Boston. As bandits. Yes, that means no training, no qualifying, and no official number. Since we both had huge egos, and wanted to impress everyone we knew, we actually did it. Yes, we showed up wearing pretty much just our running shoes and some spandex and followed the crowd. The takeaways? It hurt the whole way. There was puke involved. Pain, blisters and suffering, too. But we finished and limped our way back to our off campus apartment after sneaking onto the “T” then hobbling the rest of the way from David Square to Tufts. So, there’s “1.” Rich Harries and I finished 1 Boston Marathon together.


Now it’s 1990 and we are seniors. It’s our last year in Boston before we both graduate, become commissioned officers and head to flight school, Rich as a Marine and me as a Navy pilot. But Rich got smart in the 364 days in between finishing the 93rd and starting the 94th. When I challenge him to do it again, he says, basically, “NO WAY IN HELL.” So I’m on my own. I do a few months of training, buy a cool pair of spandex, hitch a ride to the starting line, and do it again. As a bandit. 30 minutes faster, too, which is cool. Really cool. So there’s why the number “2” (as in 2 marathons under my belt) is important to the story.


So let’s skip ahead to “16.” Without going into too many details, between 1990 and 2010, I did 16 more Boston Marathons. The interesting fact is that I did them all in the WCQ (meaning quad wheelchair) division. Why? A funny thing happened in late 1990. I broke my neck. Yes, the kind of breaking of the neck as in a 21 year old future hotshot pilot dives into ocean, hits bottom, fractures 2 vertebrae, loses ability to walk, becomes a quadriplegic, learns how to push a manual wheelchair, takes up wheelchair racing, falls in love with the sport, officially qualifies in his third marathon, rolls to the Hopkinton start in 1994, finishes, then does a butt load of Bostons, the last being in 2010 where I finish in 2:58:57. 2010 is also the 4th time in a row I win my division, the 5th time overall. Plus I qualify for 115th in the process and I’m feeling pretty stoked. So, while breaking my neck sucked, finishing 16 Bostons in a chair is cool.


Now, for “18.” 16 + 2 = 18, right? True. That’s the 4th main number in this blog. Yes, I’ve finished 18 Bostons and, as of now, am the old runner/wheeler to have done it both on foot and in a wheelchair. And no wheeler in history has finished as many Bostons as me. That’s all kind of cool.


Plus, I must add, when you come to Boston as a wheelchair athlete, people stare at you for all the right reasons – because you are a top athlete, and marathoners “get it” and show respect (and that’s not the same as the swarms of everyday people who see you as a poor, pathetic, gimpy type, and us sad stares, which is what we, in chairs, get pretty much the rest of the year). Stares in Boston around the marathon feel pretty cool. They pump our egos. I like to be looked at in Boston around the marathon.


Back to the story. Anyway, in 2011 a funny thing happens. Early in the year, as I’m upping my mileage for my 19th Boston, I hurt my shoulder. It’s my first sports related injury and it sucks. Truth is I was training incorrectly and the injury could have been avoided had I simply realized that I was, at that time, 43 years old and I should have respected my training rather than go at it like a 20-something. I didn’t know about tendonitis, bursitis and overuse injuries but I learned quickly. What happened? No surgery but lots of down time. I missed the race and, honestly, didn’t think much of it because I was confident I’d be back in 2012.


But then, a host of physical, mental and emotional blocks all happened in succession. Some were positive but most were negative. In 2012, I was afraid of reinjuring my shoulder and didn’t even try to qualify. The following year, 2013, I think about starting my Boston training early as summer turns to fall but never really give it a go. You see, I now have a newborn at home, our first, and my life is kind of crazy in a different way to say the least. My wife, Sarah? Her life is like 1000 times crazier and she is rocking out the majority of the baby duty but by the time I actually think about possibly fitting racing in to our chaos, it’s too late to qualify and race. So I miss 2013, too.


Then the bombs exploded. Bombs in Boston? On MY finish line? Just feet from the only safe, stable, consistent spot that has been a constant in my life for 24 years? Half of my damn life? It shook me to the core. I cried for weeks. Bombs are supposed to explode overseas, in countries whose names I can neither pronounce nor spell. Not in Boston. Not in my home town. For the first time in my life, I was afraid to run. Anywhere. I was afraid of what might happen if another bomb exploded and I saw it happen. So, 2014 comes and goes and I don’t want to race. Sure, I support “One Boston” and believe in “Boston Strong” but spent the year wondering if racing the Boston Marathon might ever find its way back into my heart. Could it ever be the fuel for my soul again?


Yesterday, runners and wheelers finished the 119th Boston Marathon and I felt something I hadn’t felt in years. I felt a connection. You see, for the first time in a few years, it hurt not to be there. I missed the energy, the excitement, the nervousness, seeing the flags flying, the crowds, the hills, the Citgo sign, the finish.


Why? On the surface, no, I don’t have anything to prove, and my college-sized ego has long been deflated, and I have enough medals to outfit a regulation soccer team plus subs and coaches, but, truth be told, when I saw the predicted weather report (100% chance of rain, winds out of the E/SE at 20 – 30, temperatures steady at 49 all day), I broke a smile in a weird sort of way. I wanted to be there. To test myself again. To hit 35 mph on the down hills and push .35 mph on the up hills. To laugh and cry. To suffer. To hurt. To compete. To get stared at for the right reasons. To get drenched and shiver. To cross the finish line as one of a few dozen wheelers and 30,000 others. To feel like a Boston finisher again.


And, on top of it all, I wondered to myself what it would be like to race for the first time as a Dad.


So how does “20” fit into this story? After I crossed the finish line in 2010, I told myself while exiting the transition tent, “Two more, Mike, let’s go for 20. Serve 20 years in the Navy and you can retire, push 20 Bostons and you can retire, too.” Then I added, “Sure, you’ve already done more than any wheeler in history, but 20 seems like a reasonable, decent, funny, somewhat crazy but obtainable, Boston Marathon goal.” At 42 years old, I felt like I had a few more in me, as well. Maybe I could finish 20 by the time I hit 45. So I told those close to me, “I’ll go for 20.” It was that simple. I’m a guy who loves setting goals. And when I tell others, it makes the goals real.


When I saw the weather didn’t turn out to be as horrible as everyone predicted, I took it as a sign that someone up there agreed with my assessment and was making a suggestion to me. “Get yourself back there, Mike, and I’ll help on my end. Get yourself ready and maybe I’ll throw in a tailwind for you. Just trust me.”


So here I am. I’m kind of at a crossroads. Physically, it has been 5 years since I have done a marathon and 5 years can be a long time for someone to be away. I’m 47 years old now and my shoulders regularly remind me of that. Sure, I still fit in my racing chair but I can afford to drop 15 lbs. Mentally, I need to recall and relearn the marathoner mindset. And emotionally, I need to battle through a few questionable self-doubts and silence a few internal voices to get my confidence back to where it needs to be. But these are all things I have done before and these are things we, as athletes, do all the time. I think I’m ready to do it again.


As I write this last paragraph, I’m cracking a smile and I’m filling with hope. The hairs on my arm are standing up and I’ve got the chills. Why? Because I have learned, through good times and bad, that life has a weird sense of humor – it screws with us all sometimes yet it rewards us, too – and living a life of purpose can be a pretty fantastic thing if you just let it happen. So I’m going to let it happen. I’m going to go for 19 (the final “main” number of this blog, remember?), in 2016. It’s time to live Boston again.


It won’t be easy but I’ll do my best. And I’ll keep you posted…