Back to Boston.

April 24, 2023

Right on Hereford, left on Boylston. April 17, 2023, on these iconic, final two turns into the finish chute of America’s oldest marathon, my Boston revival story came to a close. To get to the beginning, we have to rewind over 40 years to my first awareness of the race.

By the early 1980’s, my dad had committed himself to a life of fast running. His pursuits would eventually whisk him out the door of what nine year-old me thought was a happy home. But, that’s a story for another day. April 22, 1982 (the year of the infamous “Duel in the Sun“), Dad lined up in Hopkinton and raced Boston in the sweltering heat.

Up to that point, the old man’s running had been a solo affair. Boston brought fanfare.

Even as a kid, I sensed this race was different. Up to that point, the old man’s running had been a solo affair. Quiet, insomuch as it never seemed to involve my mom or me. But, with Boston, there was fanfare; travel to Arizona for a fast qualifier and a trucker hat with heat-press numbers of his finish time (“Fiesta Bowl Marathon, 2:33:15”). When April rolled around, I packed a suitcase for Grandma’s and he and Mom jetted off to Beantown.

I first qualified for Boston in 2009, at the Portland Marathon, just sliding in by a few seconds. Dad said I should wait until I was more fit. So, I trained (a lot), raced a few more marathons (five), and qualified again in 2012 at Tacoma… This time with a comfortable margin and a big PR. We agreed it was time.

As I imagine it was for my folks in ’82, Lisa and my first trip to Boston was a special occasion. We were raising three kids in the city, often working several jobs each; globetrotters in spirit, waiting for the finances to catch up. We booked the cheapest Airbnb we could find and bookended the race with a couple days of sightseeing.

That Airbnb turned out to be a tiny room in someone’s apartment (hello, awkward), so we spent the day before the race taking in a Red Sox game and bouncing in and out of bars until it was late enough that we thought our roomie would be asleep when we got home.

It’s a day forever imprinted on our lives. Confusing, traumatic, gut-wrenching.

April 15, 2013: Marathon Monday. I ate a cold sweet potato in the dark, kissed my wife, and slipped into the Boston morning. It’s a day forever imprinted on our lives. A confusing, traumatic, gut-wrenching day. Read more here.

We spent the day after the marathon roaming empty streets in the shadows of flags at half-mast. We felt hollow and scared. Every siren (and there were many) sparked renewed dread. We half-smiled in selfies and wept inside.

I quit running marathons after that first Boston. It wasn’t a conscious decision. I think I was deeply hurt and afraid of more heartache. You can’t hide from hurt, of course, and it found us again in December of 2013 when my dad died.

With the old man’s ashes in the clouds above Mount Rainier, Lisa and I left our long-time home in Tacoma and moved to our birthplace in Big Sky Country. I gradually found more of my own footing — independent of my father — during long days on the trails and sub-alpine scrambles of Northwest Montana.

When we quit drinking in late 2020, my relationship with fear changed.

Road racing might have left me, but Boston never did. As the years passed, I occasionally considered returning, but something kept me from taking action. It was fear. The marathon strips you bare. There’s no place to hide. I was afraid of that, because by this time, hiding was my modus operandi. Stay busy, stay buzzed, let the chips fall. I still loved running, but the arrangement was, erm… non-commital.

When we quit drinking in late 2020, my relationship with fear changed. Sobriety requires an intimacy with things that hurt. Not a muscling through, but a patient and compassionate understanding. I got cozy with the things that hurt about that first Boston Marathon, and decided it was time to go back.

In June of 2022, I qualified at Western Washington’s wonderful Tunnel Marathons. For a guy who loves dirt, this was the perfect transition back to roads, as the downhill course is almost entirely off-pavement (including a fun jaunt through a pitch-black railroad tunnel). It felt right to run here, where I knew my dad could watch from the verdant Cascade mountaintops he had loved in life.

Lisa and I began to make travel plans: A longer trip, good food, and Airbnb’s without roommates.

I trained with intention and focus for almost five months. And I trained differently. Makes sense, because I’m different in many ways from the Mike that lined up ten years ago. If you’re into the nitty gritty of marathon prep, I’ll write a separate journal about that in a couple days. Check back.

The days before the marathon were different, too. We replaced dark bars and Sam Adams with strolls in historic neighborhoods, book shops, and good coffee (okay, bad coffee, too… Dunkin’ Donuts is a treat when you live in Montana). We still took in a Sox game, because Fenway’s on the list no matter what. And we experienced a bright and welcoming Boston that salved decade-old cuts.

In Hopkinton, an unmarked cop car pulled alongside us. The window rolled down.

We drove the marathon course Wednesday before the race. Arriving in Hopkinton, an unmarked cop car pulled alongside us. The window rolled down and the officer said, “What brings you to town today?” When we told him, he offered to stop traffic so we could get a photo by the start line. Turns out, this officer was the Chief of Police.

And race day was different. The inexplicable strain and darkness of 2013 gave way to a run that felt smooth and calm, and an overall experience of gratitude and joy. I read the signs people made and smiled. I noticed the love and the barbecue smoke and the wet ground moving under my feet.

Cresting Heartbreak Hill, with the band Boston blaring in my headphones (no kidding), the clouds completely unzippered and torrential rain fell to the streets in sheets. At that moment, I knew my old man was with me. I raised my arms and felt the warmth.

Right on Hereford, left on Boylston.

It’s not quite right to call our return to the Boston Marathon “redemption” or a “re-do.” Those words imply a desire to erase or replace the tragic events of 2013. We never wanted to forget.

Much like other aspects of recovery, Boston 2023 was about making peace with the past and fully experiencing whatever the present would bring. We made no presumptions about feelings or outcomes, and simply opened ourselves to the possibility of something new. Often when we do that, life seems to give us a hug.

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