Boston 2020 was going to be her second Boston Marathon. Runner, teacher, and author Vanessa de Hoog reflects on the journey it took to get there and the impact rescheduling the race has had on her own personal growth. This is the second of a three-part series. The author would like to dedicate this story to Sean Clancy —for all the smiles and the miles.
The 2018 Boston Marathon is one for the history books. For this ordinary runner, the race chewed me up and spit me out as a both a changed athlete and person.
In the early hours of Saturday, April 14th, I closed the trunk of my little red Honda after filling her up with everything I would need for the big weekend. Grocery bags filled with foods containing enough carbs to fuel a small army, multiple race gear options, and, of course, the running shoes that would take me the 26.2 miles from Hopkinton to Boston. The pink New Balance runners I’d chosen to sport for the marathon were adorned with the sharpie signatures of each of my twenty-seven Grade 5 students. In the month leading up to the race, they had each signed up for a mile (and 0.2 of a mile…) that they knew “Mme Vanessa” would be dedicating to them on her race day.
The drive to Boston went fairly well (with the exception of one of my windshield wipers flying off!) and before I knew it the vocals of Bruce Springsteen, the Spice Girls, and the cast of High School Musical accompanied my arrival at the Airbnb B. My mom, her best friend, Joyce, and I found our rooms in the lovely town home we were sharing with the owners for the weekend. I unpacked my things and checked my email. Something as simple as a name lighting up on your screen can have an incredible impact. The little things are, in fact, what we eventually learn are the big things. The name I was hoping to see in my inbox, and did see, was that of my former high school cross country coach. My face lit up as I clicked it open.
from: Sean Clancy
subject: Free Advice
The message was direct, short, and not too emotional – classic Clancy. Don’t spend too much time on your feet at the expo. Good luck Monday. I’ll be tracking you between my classes. Though Clancy hadn’t coached me since high school, we’d always stayed in touch. That Saturday evening, my eyes watered reading his words on the screen. I pulled my phone close to my heart feeling so humble and grateful to have his continued support and presence in my life.
Before heading to sleep, I checked the forecast again, which I had compulsively been doing for the past week. Unfortunately, nothing had changed. Rain, wind, snow (!!!), remained on Mother Nature’s weather agenda for Monday. I shifted my thoughts from worrying about the weather to focusing on being excited that my best friend, Christina, would be arriving in Boston the next evening and eventually dozed off.
Prior to departing for Boston I had prepared folders with detailed itineraries, information on the city, important addresses, and maps for my mom, Joyce, and I to have facility in navigating this city for the first time. While they headed out to shop, I excitedly prepared for the expo. I navigated the subway and bus system and finally arrived and met up with my friends Nadine and Lydia. Now, these athletically gifted twins have always had speed to spare. Their goals for tomorrow’s race were way out of reach for me, but I was grateful to have been able to train alongside Nadine back in Ottawa and have her moral support as I battled a week of pneumonia in February.
As we made our way through the expo, I was both shaking with excitement and nerves as I clung to my race bib heading towards the kit pick-up station. I navigated the path alongside the other runners who were all crowded in our version of paradise. Each of us had a different story, a different purpose, and a different motivation behind our miles. However, that many people packed into a room with one shared common goal created an unparalleled feeling. The energy was quite simply—electric.
Back at the Airbnb, I did my best to save my legs for the big day tomorrow. I lay down on my bed watching reruns on television and waiting for my friend, Christina, to arrive. I woke up from a nap to the sound of my cell phone notifying me of a new text message. Christina was writing to inform me that the weather was awful in Ottawa and her flight had been cancelled. Now, let’s put this next part in perspective, the snow and weather was so bad in Ottawa that PLANES were not travelling. Yet Christina, my super hero of a best friend, knew how much Boston meant to me and her next text informed me that she had rented a car at the airport and was about to start her drive down to Boston that Sunday evening. Unbelievable. Just, unbelievable.
That night, the four of us, Christina, my mom, Joyce, and I were packed into my room reviewing the game plan for tomorrow. I am so grateful for Christina’s tech savvy abilities and calming presence as she reassured my mom that they would in fact be able to see me finish the race by tracking my progress on her cell-phone the next day. Meanwhile, my cell-phone screen was lit up with the weather app I had downloaded. Despite my constant refreshing of the app…things continued to look grim. A traumatic childhood experience involving severe frostbite has left me paranoid about being out in the cold. That night my mind wrestled flashbacks as I fell asleep praying the clothing option I chose would keep me warm enough from start to finish.
The morning leading up to the start of the race flew by in a blur of rain, wind, mud, and laughter. Before I knew it, my corral was called and there I was, toeing the start line of the Boston Marathon. I crossed over and joined the race with tears of joy spilling out of my eyes.
The first few miles from Hopkinton to Ashland were a total mess. I darted between the sides of the road trying to nestle into a pocket in the mass of runners in which I could keep my stride and pace. I was overthinking my clothing choice seeing what others were racing in, questioning if I should switch up my hydration/fuel plan given the cold, and essentially beginning to panic when….sh*t.
I could not believe it.
In all my years of racing I have never needed to stop during a race to use the washroom.
I lined up at the next course outhouse I saw and knew that any goal finishing time I had in mind was, well, headed down the drain.
Once back on the course, the rain started pouring down. The droplets were heavy and my layers of clothing soaked up this attack from mother nature. I had been so panicked about staying warm during the race I hadn’t thought about how heavy those layers would eventually be once they were drenched. Well, it was too late to shed any clothing because my bib was pinned over the front of my jacket. Not to mention my hands were frozen and any attempt at unzipping my coat would be futile.
Somehow I made it through twenty-five miles on the course that day. I got to experience the tunnel of girls offering kisses at Wellesley, survived the incline in Newton, and made it to the summit of Heartbreak hill. My stomach eventually settled but I was too nervous to take in any gels or fuel (besides water) for fear of needing another pit stop. I shut my watch off earlier in the race knowing that any attempt to run a good ‘time’ at this Boston was almost impossible. Out there on the race course, I switched my focus. I didn’t want to complete Boston, I wanted to live it.
As the infamous Citgo sign came into view, indicating the final mile, I was, however, physically crumbling. At this point, each step felt like its own marathon. With no fuel in my system from the past 3 hours and the frozen state of my body I hit my physical limit. The buildup of lactic acid was causing incomparable pure and raw pain in my arms and legs. My body was screaming at me to stop. Completely depleted, I hit ‘the wall’.
Mile 25 broke me.
I began bawling on the course as my body now entered what I can only describe as fight or flight. Though their cheers continued, the faces in the crowd I passed displayed obvious pity for the trainwreck befallen before them. As I continued running that final mile—choking back tears, lungs wheezing between sobs—my only motivation was knowing that each step was a step closer to my family, the finish line, and (most importantly for me at this point) warmth.
Making the famous left turn onto Boylston street, my ears were flooded with the screams of familiar voices saying my name. I crossed the street with my tears and the rain streaming down my face and collapsed into my mom’s embrace. Enveloped in her arms, I felt her giving me the strength I needed to run that final stretch.
I approached the finish line, heartbeats away from realizing my childhood dream. In those final seconds on the course, my mind was replaying images of every gain I had fought over the course of my life that had strengthened me to live out this one moment in time. Stepping across the finish line in Boston signalled the start of a new chapter in my life. That third Monday in May, 26.2 miles taught me an invaluable lesson.
When everything is said and done, it really isn’t about how many miles you’ve collected. Nor is it about how fast they were run. Maybe, just maybe, it’s about the relationships you are privileged to share with those who choose to keep you company along your route.
Vanessa de Hoog is a human. Being. She runs, teaches, writes, coaches, and consumes too much espresso. This fan of the Oxford comma lives in Ottawa with her cat Gatsby.