Taking Back Boston

I made a commitment immediately after I experienced the terrorist attacks in Boston last year that I would be back this year.  It was so important for me to take back Boston after running 4 marathons for Dana Farber.  In addition, it was the Dana Farber Marathon Challenge’s 25th anniversary and my 5th consecutive Boston Marathon.  Hell yes I was going back!

For those of you who know me, I don’t run for me. I run because I can and I run for the greater cause of eradicating cancer.  Ok…maybe selfishly I run so I can have the occasional beer or Oreo and not feel so bad about it.

Every year the day before the marathon, DFMC has a pasta dinner for its runners, families and friends.  This year was an especially emotional event due to the 25th anniversary and the bombings in Boston.  Darby Stott who ran in the race last year gave a speech that I will never forget the rest of my life.  She said that last year she ran and didn’t get to finish because of the bombings.  Darby decided to run again this year.  When she started training it was more difficult than it was previously and she thought something might be wrong.  She soon got her answers.  Her breast cancer came back and came back with a vengeance.  It metastatized into her lungs and her bones and now she had terminal cancer.  In tears, she thanked all of us runners that raised over $6 million this year and $67 million for Dana Farber basic innovative cancer research.  She thanked us because Dana Farber gave her access to three treatments she wouldn’t ordinarily have had a chance to have and it is buying her time to spend with her family and friends.  Right after the race director for the Boston Marathon, Dave McGillivray, came up in tears and said “I don’t know you Darby, but when I run tomorrow I will be thinking of you every step of the way.”

I sat next to a woman at the dinner that lost her son 15 years ago to cancer at the age of 7 1/2.  She was so strong and she told me that she keeps his memory alive through events like this.  Her daughter was with her running her first memory for her brother, Johnathan, and a woman she met at the graveyard where her son was buried (with a LEGO tombstone) was with us at the table.  Amy has run the past 5 years for Johnathan.

This is why I run.  Not because of personal times.  Or goals.  Or accomplishments.  Sure those are all nice to haves.  It’s the hug I got from Johnathan’s’ mom after dinner to thank me for what I do.  It’s the tears that flowed from my face when Darby gave her speech.

Up and early I headed to Hopkinton like I have the previous five years. There was a different feeling this year because of the bombings.  The security was intense and the police presence felt.  Things were more organized and more “corporate” because of it all.

20 minutes before the race started, my string on my shorts came out and I was in a panic trying to fix it.  I grabbed a safety pin and was feeding it through as I walked a quarter mile to the corral.  Watching the clock and patiently trying to fix my shorts so that Boston didn’t see more of me than they would like.  I conquered my shorts and felt that was the sure sign that today was going to be my day.

Soon into the race, it became evident that today was not in fact my running day.  Three miles in with the late start the temps were going up more than expected and I overdressed.  I shed some clothes (not my shorts – but a shirt) at mile 5.  At mile 8, I felt my right foot pinching exactly where my left one did last year and knew it was going to be a blister.  “Damn it” I said to myself.  And sure enough immense pain started almost immediately.  For those that run, you know now there is nothing you can do.  18 miles to go.  I slowed down and tried to fix the problem.  However, I overcompensated and by mile 11 my hip flexor in my left hip decided that it too was going to scream at me in pain.  I knew then that it was going to be 15 miles of hell ahead of me.

I have never once in 13 marathons wanted to quit as bad as I did by mile 13.  Both feet hollering in pain.  Both hips now as well and my left knee to boot.  I started to eye the medical tents to see if I really needed to quit my first marathon.  Instead, I slowed down some more and started walking through the water stations.

When I had a chance to overcome the disappointment of the race slipping away from me and look around at the crowds that were screaming “Go Steve” and “Go Dana Farber” for me, it hit me harder than the physical pain I was in.  I thought of Darby. I thought of Peter, of Barbara, of Tommy, of Lindsay, of Andrew, of Rob, of all the people I have run for and was running for.  I thought of them fighting or losing their battle.  Then I looked down at my two feet and realized that I have two feet.  How lucky am I to have these feet to carry me 26.2 miles through the Boston Marathon?  How lucky am I to actually feel the pain of this experience? To carry the torch for them?  It was my responsibility to finish for them.  To not give up and to cross the finish line at Boylston.

I hit the hills of Newton and they hit me hard back.  I refused to walk up any of them.  The granddaddy of them all was last in Heartbreak hill at mile 20 and I took it step by step still jogging at my slower pace.  But I wasn’t going to let it finish me.  Like I miracle I started seeing people I know on the course – before the hills I saw the Saroka’s and Williams’ yelling my name.  I saw Sarah at the top of Heartbreak where I cried when I hugged her and told her I wanted to stop and she told me to go.  I took in Boston College by high fiving every student on the steep slope down.  I saw Rekha, Lucia and Tom at mile 23.   They all gave me a burst of adrenaline.

I had been passing on and off a fellow Dana Farber runner, Ian, from mile 21 to 23.  He was hurting as bad as I was.  Ian, like me, normally runs at a quicker pace than we were.  But we were both done.  A 5k to go and that was it.  We made a pact that we would finish together.  And we took it step by step together.  My teammate and new friend, Ian, carried me through.  We saw another Dana Farber runner at the Mass Ave. bridge we brought him into our pact.  When we hit Boylston Street it was a wave of human electricity that I have never experienced in my life.  The kind that makes your hair stand up.  We ran past the site of second bombing and could see the finish line.  Ian asked if we wanted to cross holding our hands and holding them together.  The three of us – strangers and teammates – did just that we crossed as champions.

The minute after we crossed the finish line, Ian and I both nearly hyper ventilated from the experience.  Hugs and high fives were flying everywhere.  Somehow someway we found a way to trick our bodies into running today despite the massive physical pain we all were suffering.  It didn’t matter our temporary pain.  We ran because we could and because we were strong.  Boston Strong.

After heading back to the Dana Farber recovery center, I wasn’t feeling well at all.  I was sweating, heart racing and was nauseous.  For the first time in 13 years I sought medical attention.  Some dehydration and anxieties from the experience were causing it.  The nurses took care of me and my large blister and sent me on my way.

I am not only lucky to have my two feet to carry me through this experience.  I am lucky to have such an amazing support team that cheers for me and contributes to my cause.  Together we raised $20,000 for Dana Farber this year and over 13 years have raised $225,000 split between Dana Farber and the University Of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center.

My girlfriend, Lisa, and I talk about life moments and having these moments that are like snapshots that are so intimate and you remember forever.  Yesterday was clearly one of those.  I’m still a bit emotional about the entire event.  But I’ll never forget crossing that finish line with my two Dana Farber teammates, hugging them and thinking how lucky I am to be part of something so much bigger than me.

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About Steve Mitzel

By trade Steve is a consultant that helps business optimize their performance. Steve resides in Connecticut with his four wonderful children in the teens or tweens and is always looking for the next adventure. He is an avid marathoner who raises money for research to prevent cancer. As a two time grad from the University of Michigan he bleeds maize and blue and also likes to dabble with writing.
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