If you prefer to save yourself 1,500 words, here’s the bottom line up front: I ran a marathon. Barely. I finished, but not before I threw up in the vicinity of an NFL All-Star. And I’d do it again. The long version follows.
I’ve written about running in this space before; I remain convinced that running is an essential human function, the only sport you were literally designed to do. However, you may have noticed that I failed to file an article on the Elkridge Patch last week. (You didn’t? Sad emoticon!) I missed my deadline because even Tuesday night, 26 hours after I had crossed the finish line, my body still refused to obey even the simplest of commands. That included typing or, more realistically, thinking. Doing two things together (thinking and typing, for example, or walking and chewing) was literally impossible.
The source of my incapacitation was my participation in the Boston Marathon last Monday, the day before that Patch deadline. I gained entrance into the prestigious race through my support of the Lurie Center for Autism, running to raise money for autism support and research. It was my third marathon, but one with a few notable exceptions to its forebears. For one, injuries had cramped (hey-oh!) my normal training routine and, for another, the day of the race was hot. Global warming, polar-ice-cap-melting hot.
The Boston Marathon is held on Patriots' Day, the third Monday in April. Normally, this means running-perfect temperatures in the 50s. This year, though, a few days before I flew up, I began receiving a series of increasingly panicked texts from my mother. Race day weather was predicted to be in the low 80s. No, mid 80s. Wait…high 80s? Ninety? This did not bode well.
I flew from Baltimore to Manchester, NH, on Sunday morning, having spent Saturday planning and executing a birthday party for my three year old. From the moment I landed in New England, family and friends asked me about the weather. I refused to discuss it. No negative energy. By the night before the race, organizers were sending out emails, all but begging runners to defer until next year, detailing the hazards of heat. I deleted them as quickly as possible. No negative energy.
The day of the race was sunny from the get-go, and hot. Summer hot. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. This did not bode well. Driving from New Hampshire to the starting line in Hopkinton, my father listened, as is his custom, to Boston’s flagship AM radio station WBZ, featuring “weather on the 10s.” Every ten minutes, therefore, I was reminded a) it was unseasonably hot; b) it was only getting hotter; and c) Boston Marathon organizers were preparing for record numbers of casualties. The announcer seemed particularly jovial chatting about people passing out all over Massachusetts. Fifty minutes into the ride, I could stand no more. Could we turn that off? No negative energy.
My father dropped me off as close as the police permitted, which meant I walked almost two miles into Runner’s Village to pass the remaining hours until the race began. This was mainly a time to drink water, hunt down shade, and trade nervous hi-how-are-yous with other runners. I waited in a Porta-Potty line with a woman who had run 13 consecutive Boston Marathons and was incredibly excited for number 14. Finally, some positive energy.
The start time for slow runners, forty minutes behind the pros, sweated into existence: 10:40 a.m. Although I have a bad habit of rocketing out of the gate in races, running well ahead of my planned pace, this time I remained calm and steady for the first few miles. One mile, click. Two miles, click. Three miles, click. On pace, on target. By mile five, though, things were starting to go...awry. Usually this is cruise time, when you finally settle into your groove and lock in for the long haul. Not today. By mile eight, I was suffering. I knew that feeling bad at mile eight is a harbinger of much worse things to come. I was right. (I later found out from speaking to other runners over the next few days that this sudden drop-off was typical; as it turns out, miles five through seven run through shadeless Framingham, where the highest temperatures of the day were recorded, kissing 90 degrees.)
I’d never wanted to quit a race before. I wanted to quit this one. For a while, that’s how I kept myself going, by promising (lying) to myself that I could quit once I reached double digit miles. Or I could quit when I had run halfway. Or I could quit after mile 15, after 18, after Heartbreak Hill. Eventually, it was stoplight-by-stoplight negotiations with an unwilling body. Run to that lamppost. Walk through that water station. Don’t stop. Don’t stop. Mile by mile turned to block by block, block by block turned to step by step. My mind was hazy, finding only the pain. I only really reconnected with reality in brief flashes on the occasions a merciful homeowner sprayed me down with a garden hose.
Did you know Tedy Bruschi ran this year? He did, a fact I learned at mile three when I passed him in his “Stroke Survivor” shirt. His presence prodded the crowd into performing a 26.2 mile-long wave, as thousands of Patriots fans reacted to seeing a beloved player. I breezed through that wave at three, and, it just so happens, that wave washed over me again at mile 25. The fans’ sudden cheering looming behind me coincided with sudden waves of nausea. As the two waves, one of tribulation and one of nauseation, converged, only one thought remained in my dehydrated head: Do. Not. Vomit. In. Front. Of. Tedy. Bruschi. As I staggered toward the sidelines, that one mantra is all that kept me from collapse. Let the future Hall of Famer pass by. Then go down. Spoiler alert: I didn’t make it. Just as the hometown hero pulled level with my reeling corpse, I lost control. Down goes Mayotte. Down goes Mayotte, with a heaping spray of my stomach contents tossed out for good measure. People ask me if I sprayed Tedy; I certainly hope not. But who can know?
(Aside: my favorite part of the incident, incidentally, is not Bruschi’s unwitting involvement; it was the resounding “OHHH!” reaction from the Sully/Murph types lining the course, the type of sound that normally accompanies a knockout punch, huge hit in football, or witnessing a predator capture its prey. I’m here to entertain, Boston.)
I lay on the asphalt, wretching, stomach knotting and twisting, a mere mile from my goal. I literally had nothing left. I was on the ground with little intention of moving ever again. That’s when the EMTs ran up, asking me questions, yelling for water. Someone from the crowd threw a bottle of cold water in my direction. The bystander had just bought it, ran into a nearby convenience store or something and probably paid three bucks for it, so I could have cold water now instead of warm race-provided Gatorade in a few minutes. The EMTs poured the water over my head. I gasped and pulled myself into a sitting position. A few minutes of rest, a few sips of water, and I got back on my feet. As I slowly started off in the direction of the finish line, an EMT on each side and speckled with my own vomit, the crowd started a slow clap. Catching sight of my name scrawled on my arm, they yelled support. “TJ, you didn’t come this far for nothing!” Murph, or maybe Sully, called. No. No, I didn’t.
I spent a few more minutes with the EMTs, gathering together one last patchwork of will from the scraps left to me. I thanked the EMTs, volunteers all, profusely, and waded back into the flow of runners, working into a slow jog, then into a run.
As I made the last sharp left turn onto Boyleston Street, a surge of energy hit. I could see the finish line. Then, with perhaps a tenth of a mile to go, I spotted my parents, waiting in precisely the same spot I had seen them running this same race ten years ago. I swerved over to give a quick high five and accept a bottle of water from my mother, then bolted off. So close.
In photos, I don’t look exultant crossing the finish line; I look weary. I look like I want to sit down.
But I did it. I finished, under particularly adverse conditions. I did it even though I thought I couldn’t.
In a sense, that’s why I run, why I decided to run another marathon six months ago, why I refused to drop out the night before, why I kept going even when my body was doing everything it could to prevent me from taking another step. It is rare, in our closeted day-to-day existence, that we receive the chance to push so hard failure is but a hair’s breadth away, that failure is, in fact, perhaps the most likely of outcomes. It is rare that we find ourselves subsisting on will alone. It is rare that we get to truly test our limits. I last tested my mine on April 16 at 4 p.m. on the streets of Boston. When did you last test yours? Tell us in the comments.