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Course and runner pounded each other

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By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / April 21, 2009
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Editor's note: Globe staff writer Shira Springer finished yesterday's Boston Marathon in 3:23:07.

For some runners, just finishing the Boston Marathon is a victory. I am not one of those runners.

I say this with the utmost respect for runners motivated purely by the sense of accomplishment that comes with crossing the Boylston Street finish line. I applaud their enthusiasm, determination, and wisdom. They are smarter than runners like myself, who arrive in Hopkinton confident we can outwit the course and coax a fast performance out of our bodies, certain we can somehow control the unpredictability of a 26.2-mile test of mental and physical endurance.

Once again, I learned that the course always wins, as my quads tightened heading toward Heartbreak Hill yesterday. And the more I ran, the more the chilly temperatures and demoralizing headwinds felt like the course's coconspirators. The combination did everything it could to throw me out of rhythm and off pace.

With a strong gust almost blowing me back as I crested Heartbreak Hill, I said to myself, "Are you kidding me?" As I headed downhill toward Cleveland Circle, my quads started asking the same question. It was a struggle to reach the finish line in 3:23:07, especially because everything except my legs wanted to go faster.

It was a disappointing end to a race that started with so much promise. But that is what makes the marathon so difficult to tame, if you ever can. Just when you think you've figured out how to tackle 26.2 miles, when you think you've learned lessons from past mistakes, the marathon throws something new at you.

In many ways, that is what keeps me coming back. This was the fifth time I made the trek from Hopkinton Center to Boylston Street and my ninth marathon overall.

I've run in hot and humid conditions, rainy conditions, and close-to-ideal conditions, but never with temperatures as cold and headwinds as strong as what I pushed through yesterday. Being a petite 5 feet 3 inches and having trouble finding a runner to draft behind, I found that the winds took an escalating toll. At times, it seemed I was running in place.

From experience, I knew the importance of staying under control early, regardless of weather. Between adrenaline and the downhill start, it is easy to get carried away during the first few miles and unravel before you even hit Heartbreak Hill. Been there. Done that. Based on my training and a few road races leading up to the Boston Marathon, I figured a 7:15 pace for at least the first half was a conservative plan.

As runners in my starting corral walked/jogged to the starting line, I worried about running too slowly the first mile, with participants densely packed on the narrow Hopkinton roads. Less than five minutes into the race, I thought the pace was definitely too slow. It felt too comfortable, and a man to my right was talking on a cellphone.

"I'm running the Boston Marathon," he said. "Can I call you back when I finish?"

But the conversation continued for another minute until the runner finally said, "I've got to go. I'm catching heck for this."

Surprisingly, I reached the first mile marker in 7:17 and it felt very easy. I fluctuated between 7:02 and 7:20, reaching the half-marathon mark in 1:34:38, pretty much on goal pace.

I started having visions of running under 3:10 and posting a personal best by more than five minutes. It was as good and as comfortable as I've ever felt at that stage of a marathon. It helped that other runners provided amusement and fans shouted encouragement to make the miles pass quickly. I saw a man dressed as a superhero and another taking Flat Stanley along for the run.

Wellesley College students created their famed wall of sound as runners approached the half-marathon mark. The students also held up signs offering "Free Kisses." But what I enjoyed most was seeing the first-time Boston runners beside me react to the screams. They clapped, giving the fans a running ovation.

Course-long crowd support in Boston makes the average marathoner - if there is such a runner - feel like a sports star or a VIP for a day. How many times in your life do you have rows and rows of people cheering you on?

When I do my long runs on the course early on Sunday winter mornings, I always think about what it will look and sound like on Patriots Day.

When I reached the half-marathon mark, my neighbors, Richard and Inger Nurse, spotted me and shouted heartily. When I left my home at 6:45 a.m., they had posted a good luck sign outside my door. Then they were waiting outside for me and my neighbor and fellow runner John Colavincenzo.

When the Nurses cheered at 13.1 miles, it gave me a much-needed push because I was starting to experience the first signs of quad fatigue.

And I knew all too well what lay ahead.

While Heartbreak Hill deserves its reputation, the toughest portion of the course is perhaps the stretch that drops steeply at the 15.5-mile mark, then climbs gradually over Route 95 to the 16.5-mile mark. The sharp downhill followed by the sustained uphill is torture on the legs.

That was where my race started to fall apart. After I made it through that section, I could feel my quads tightening with every step. My stride became shorter and shorter. The only saving grace was that my legs felt better going uphill. I did my best to attack Heartbreak Hill.

But as I made my way downhill to Cleveland Circle, then to Coolidge Corner, the pain in my quads felt like someone punching the muscle when each leg hit the pavement. I stopped tracking my mile splits. I momentarily thought about walking for a while, but that goes against my personal code.

I started focusing on how many miles were left, then thought of a training-route equivalent to better visualize how little there was to go.

I passed the Citgo sign and a marker that indicated there was 1 mile remaining. I looked to my left and saw a man cartwheeling his way toward the finish. Seeing that, I convinced my quads to go a little faster. I turned right on Hereford Street, then left on Boylston, and across the finish line amid a swirl of wind.

Some runners cannot imagine entering another marathon in the hours, days, or weeks after they finish one. I am not one of those runners. I'm already thinking about the possibility of a fall marathon and planning a return to Boston next year.

I will continue trying to get the better of the Boston Marathon course, even if it's a foolhardy goal. After all, setting goals like that is part of being a marathoner.

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.