The Road is Long
A sister helps her brother complete his ultimate challenge -- the Boston Marathon.
Posted Friday, 1 April, 2005
It started out like any other year. The holidays were over so that meant only one thing; time to start training. I had been faithful to my running over the holidays logging about thirty miles a week so it was just a matter of adding in a long run. Considering myself a casual marathoner at best, anything around a four-hour finish was perfectly acceptable to me. I never loved the distance, I was more of a 5K runner but the training helped this stay-at-home mom get through the winter months without losing her mind…. well almost. The Boston Marathon however was not one to be taken lightly. If the first 16 miles of steady downhill didn’t break you down the Newton hills certainly would if you were not properly prepared.
It wasn’t until late February when I realized this year was going to be different. I found out through the grapevine of my large family that my brother was planning to run this year. To say I was shocked would be an understatement. It wasn’t Ralph’s lack of athleticism, heck he went to college on a basketball scholarship, but up until then Ralph only enjoyed sports that involved a ball. He actually attempted the distance a few years back and at about 18 miles he decided it was quicker to take the bus to Boston so he hopped on one. When asked if he would ever try it again he always had the same response “No F’n way!! His sudden change of heart took me by surprise…. at first.
It was only a few days later when I found out the real reason Ralph was planning to subject his body to that kind of pain once again. A friend of his lost his 17-year-old son in a car accident only weeks before. Ralph had been Ryan’s basketball and baseball coach throughout little league and he took a liking to him. He decided to run the marathon in his memory. He received pledges and donations from friends, family and coworkers that would go directly to the family to help with expenses not covered by insurance. I knew there would be no bus ride to Boston this year. With that I made my decision to run each mile along side of him. To start training for a marathon eight weeks prior to the race is challenging enough never mind at 44 years old with about as many pounds to lose. I’ll admit I was afraid he would have a heart attack so I thought it would be best if he had a family member with him.
For the next couple of months we trained separately, talking on occasion to see how the training was going. The only time we ran together was for a photo shoot for thelocal newspaper. I was coaching high school track that year and I got to know one of the sports writers from the newspaper. He asked me if he could do an article on me for the marathon section. I agreed to do the article under one condition, my brother be in it with me. As it turned out the track coach/mother of three running her 5th Boston marathon was no longer of interest. The new focus was on the overweight 44 year old attempting his first finish with a greater purpose. The only question directed to me was how was I going to help him finish. Jokingly I said “I’ll carry him if I have to” and that’s what was printed in Sunday’s paper along with numerous other quotes all from Ralph. Oh well so much for my fifteen minutes of fame.
The morning of the marathon Ralph showed up at my house nice and early. My husband was driving us to Hopkinton. Tony and I could tell Ralph was nervous, an emotion not typical for him. On the way there we all made jokes about his lack of running experience and that seemed to help calm his nerves. The exit ramp for Hopkinton was already backed up when we got there and police officers were directing traffic. They were not allowing cars, only busses past a certain point so we got out of the car in search of our next means of transportation. Tony yelled out the driver side window “hey Ralph, I’ll see you in Boston”. Enough said.
We hopped on a crowded school bus of over hydrated runners and made our way to the start, stopping a few times for trips into the woods. The bus dropped us off at the Athlete’s Village around 9:00 am with only three more hours to wait. Three very long hours of choking down dry bagels, drinking water and peeing. A couple of my friends were running that year as well so we made our way to Richdale’s parking lot where the team busses parked. The heavy hitters as I liked to call them. There is something about a matching uniform with a team name on it that makes even the slowest runner appear fast. Ralph decided not to participate in the pre-race chatter and went to find someplace to sit down and after a while of sharing past marathons stories and race strategies I glanced over at the building across the lot. There he was sitting on the ground against the building with his legs stretched out in front of him one crossed over the other chewing on a bagel. He was wearing a ripped Nike sweatshirt that he would eventually toss on the side of the road exposing a white T-shirt with a stick figure of a boy and the words RUN FOR RYAN across the top. His wife Linda had designed it and had one made for each of us to wear that day. As I watched him sitting there I couldn’t help but wonder if eight weeks of training was going to be enough to get him to the finish line. His longest run was 18 miles, could sheer determination carry him another eight? I had hoped so.
As it got closer to noon the sun burned through the few clouds that were left from the morning overcast and the temperature was rising. Not a good sign. They had predicted cool weather that year but it was becoming apparent they were wrong…. again.
At 11:45 we started making our way to coral 13 with the rest of the herd. There was only one coral behind us and behind them were the bandits. We were exactly where we belonged, with the 10:00 – 11:00 minute milers. Runners were lingering outside the coral doing their pre-race stretching routine. I had always found stretching before a race, especially a marathon, a little overrated. Did Secretariat stretch before the Kentucky Derby?
A voice came over the loud speaker welcoming everyone to the 103rd Boston Marathon. You could hear and see the helicopters flying overhead from the local TV stations. Then came the part that gets me every year: The National Anthem. As the gun sounded at 12:00 I turned to Ralph and said, “here we go”. Only we didn’t go, we didn’t move at all for about two or three minutes then the herd started walking. By the time we got to the actual start we were jogging very slowly. Halfway through the first mile was when we got into our groove.
We got caught up in the excitement with everyone else though the first mile and into the second, talking and laughing as if we were at a nightclub or out for the evening with friends. Reality eventually set in however and by the time we got to the third mile mark I noticed Ralph was sweating quite a bit. Too much, too soon. I feared the heat would be a problem. We stopped at the next water station and every other one after that until ten miles when Ralph needed to walk for the first time. It was going to be a long day. I could tell he was already hurting a little and starting to get discouraged. I convinced him to take a power gel and gave him a handful of the jellybeans I was storing in my pockets for later. We started running again just before mile 11 and he seemed to be feeling a better. We continued to stop at every other water station to prevent dehydration.
Ralph’s friends had planned to meet him at the fire station where we took the turn up Heartbreak Hill at mile 17. He was getting tired again and I hoped that seeing them would motivate him enough to get over the hills. As I took the turn my focus was on the crowd hoping to catch a glimpse of them but they were nowhere in sight and when I turned back neither was Ralph. He had stopped at the corner to walk for a while. His legs were junk. I knew there was no way he was dropping out this time so we just had to figure out a way to get him through the next eight miles. At that point I put my headphones on using the music as a distraction. I didn’t want to keep asking him if he was felling okay but I was starting to get concerned. As we made our way up the hills of Newton, The Hollies’ belted out the words from their 1970 hit record “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.” My eyes filled with tears as I thought back to the article in the newspaper. Would I actually have to carry him?
Anyone who has ever run Boston will agree the race doesn’t begin until mile twenty. How he got through those last six miles I’ll never know. He wasn’t talking much at that point but the look on his face said it all. Never in my life had he appeared so vulnerable and determined at the same time. Ralph was the strong one he was the big brother. He was the one who taught me how to swing a bat, make a lay up, and shoot a foul shot. He was the shoulder I cried on later in life when things didn’t turn out as planned and the arm I held walking down the aisle on my wedding day. I guess it was my turn.
I was pretty confident that his condition wasn’t serious. Dehydration wasn’t an issue he had taken in plenty of water. His main problem was his legs they were completely cramped. We plugged along for the next few miles, walking and jogging when possible but mostly walking. It was becoming difficult for him to put one foot in front of the other.
Finally, the CITCO sign!!! Only a mile and a half to go. There was no more talking at this point; it was all business form here. It was after 5:00 so the crowd was starting to thin, the spectators that were left had obviously had too much marathon “cheer”. One guy actually came into the middle of the road and took our picture with a Polaroid and gave it to me as we ran by him. I decided to wait until we finished to look at it. Come on Ralph; keep going just one foot in front of the other.
As we turned on to Hereford, I said, “You made it Ralph, we’re almost there.” No response, only concentration. We were running again as we took the left onto Boylston Street. Even the roar of the crowd that lined both sides of the street all the way to the finish line didn’t drown out the grunts and moans coming from deep inside him. Somehow he was picking up the pace as we got closer to that banner we thought we’d never see..FINISH. As we crossed the line neither of us noticed the time clock that hung above. Instead we just hugged for what seemed like and hour. He said nothing, he didn’t have to I knew exactly what he was thinking. I could have held up his exhausted body for as long as he needed me to at that moment and I did because in the words of Allan Clarke, “he ain’t heavy..he’s my brother.”
The next year I decided to train a little harder for the marathon with hopes of running a personal best. Instead, I fracture my pelvis over training and never made it to the start line. Just as well…even a PR would have paled in comparison to the year I ran with Ralph who Ran for Ryan.