BY JUSTIN VILLERE
My thoughts below are from the lens in through which I experienced the Epic Man & Boston marathon weekend.
The Boston Marathon is the Holy Grail for serious runners. It’s the only marathon in the world where the vast majority of its participants have to qualify to compete. Two letters, BQ (Boston qualifier), represent a goal that is extraordinarily difficult to achieve. Last year, nearly 500,000 people ran marathons in the U.S., but only about 5-7% of them achieved the Boston Qualify. For a group of people that are defined by their drive to achieve challenging goals, Boston is the ultimate standard. I currently define my running by pursuit of this goal.
Yet sometimes a different challenge appears that begs to be attempted. Skip Burns, a fellow Bike & Builder, introduced me to The Epic Man. Over a span of 30 hours, about 20 men and women would challenge themselves beyond the credibly possible. A 2.5-mile kayak, into a 150-mile ride overnight, into the Boston Marathon. Skip connected me with the two founders of The Epic Man, Seth Bradbury and Will Thomas. The folks in The Epic Man “get it”… success at events isn’t about your place in a race. We do these things because we seek to find our best selves, achieving things that blow past boundaries that to many people restrict themselves too. And we do it together, as a team; as my Bike & Build teammates understand, these challenges mean little without the people we share them with. I’m coming to believe that a meaningful life is about creating a better story, and each story is always better when you have more characters in it and more people to share it with. But before I signed on to The Epic Man, I had a weird question…
First flashback: last September, as I was warming down from a particularly satisfying run, I had a moment of inspiration. What if my training partners, my brother Aaron and Brett, a good friend from CU-Boulder, and I committed to qualifying for Boston 2014 together? We were already training for it separately; why not work together? We’d share training logs, encouraging each other from afar (Boston, Boulder, and Philadelphia, respectively), prodding when motivation flagged or celebrating when we found success. They both enthusiastically signed on, and for the last seven months we’ve been encouraging each other almost daily. The qualifying standard for men ages 18-34 is no joke: a sub-3:05 is a 7:03/mile pace. But we are slingshotting into races this summer and fall, with each of us gaining momentum and determination by the day to toe the starting line together on Main Street in Hopkinton on April 21, 2014, 26.2 miles away from Copley Square in Boston. I know when that day comes, it will be one of my favorite moments, with the chance to share it with two of my best friends.
So, my question for Seth and Will, organizers of The Epic Man: Would it be cool if I did the kayak and the bike ride, but then altered my running course a little bit? I wanted my first time on the Boston course to come from achieving the BQ, and I wanted it to be with Aaron and Brett. For The Epic Man, I mapped an alternate course, a 50K that traversed roads parallel to the actual course. Aaron would be my crew. We would finish at the corner of Arlington and St. James, about three blocks from the actual race finish line. Of course, Seth and Will were totally game.
So this weekend, my Epic Men teammates and I congregated in Portland, Maine. We’d do our kayak from Peaks Island across the bay to Portland, gear up for an overnight, 150-mile ride to Hopkinton, and then join the marathon festivities into Boston. We conquered the kayak without incident. The ride offered greater challenges: rain in the early miles left us wet for hours. Temperatures that dropped to the high 20s by dawn exacerbated cold limbs and digits. Darkness set in by mile 55, meaning most of the next hundred miles required a heightened sense of awareness that leaves you as exhausted mentally as physically. But we made it through the night, coasting into Hopkinton ready for the final leg. Tired? Indeed. But energized and excited for my favorite leg of the journey? No doubt. Unfortunately, I was having some problems with my left knee.
Forgive a second important flashback. About four weeks ago, I was running trails behind my place in Philly. No doubt lost in a moment of bliss, I suddenly found myself sprawled out on the ground, dazed and staring at the sky. A root or rock monster struck so quickly I still don’t even know which one of my feet he got. The fall gave me a deep bruise on my left knee. Since then, I’ve been tinkering with rest and training, usually cursing my lousy luck. Tonight, while I’m not exactly thankful for the injury, the luck-cursing will likely stop.
The knee pain returned around mile 40 of the ride on Sunday night. I chose to push through, learning to live with the discomfort. By the end of the ride, I even felt optimistic about the run. I’d run a race three days after the injury occurred in March; surely, this couldn’t be any worse.
That proved false quite quickly The knee almost immediately flared up when I started the run. So when I came to mile 3 of my revised Boston Ultramarathon course, we chose to pack it in. I was hobbling to about 11-minute miles and although the rest of me felt great, the knee just didn’t have it. We called it quits and drove home, deciding to not jeopardize the rest of the season. I crashed on the couch at about 12:15. I woke up around 3 pm to shower and summon the energy to meet my Epic Man teammates at our post-event party downtown. My spirits were uneven; I had a blast for most of the weekend, but I was bummed about the final leg of The Epic Man.
We all have those moments where we remember exactly what we were doing when we hear about something big. I’ll remember every moment of this one. Aaron knocked on the bathroom door and hastily started talking, with an urgency that was very unusual for him. I opened the door: “Huh?” – “Apparently a bomb went off down by the finish line. I can’t get a hold of Sarah (his girlfriend), so I’m going to go over to her place to see if she’s okay.”
Shortly thereafter, he found out she was fine. Our phones were crazy. Calls and texts weren’t going out, so we both took to social media to let everyone know we were okay. We spent the next three hours watching coverage and tracking down our own friends in the area. The Epic Man may have been a daunting physical challenge, but it wasn’t near as draining as the emotions we all went through last night.
Fortunately, as of yet nobody I know in the Boston area was a direct casualty. Several of my Epic Man teammates were about 0.5 miles from the finish line at the time of blasts and had to stop when they closed the course. My B&B friends were away from the finish line. Sarah was home, and Aaron was passed out next to me. What’s strange is that I begrudgingly have to acknowledge that my knee injury probably kept me away from the finish line. The “What if?” game is often foolish, but it is scary to think about. I started my course around 9:30 am… if I’d averaged about 10:15/mile, I would’ve been finishing right around 2:50 pm. Any faster, and who knows if Aaron, Sarah, and I would’ve been at the finish line checking out what we’d hopefully get to experience first-hand next year?
Interestingly, the “What if?” didn’t affect me as much as the two things that did send me over the edge, both long after news broke of the explosions. First, on my drive home today Mom told me about all of the people who had called her asking about us. When combined with the number of people who had reached out directly to me, it was unbelievably moving and humbling to realize that each of you thought of my brother and me. I am deeply touched.
Second… Dad’s voicemail. Because cell phones were jammed through much of the afternoon, I didn’t get it until much later in the day. He apparently called before we’d gotten in touch over email to let them know we were okay. Thinking about the fear in his voice moved me to tears twice today; it shakes you up thinking about what must go through your parents’ minds when they have a legitimate reason to fear if their children are alive.
The lives of the three people lost at the finish line strike hard, but what also hurts are the frequent anecdotes of “limbs lost.” I’m so grateful to have the full use of my legs to take me on these adventures. To think that many of those injured are probably runners who thrive off the full use of their bodies is devastating. Conversely, it brings into the focus the will and spirit of athletes who excel using prostheses; those injured yesterday likely have those virtues in spades.
And finally, much has been said about if this will change the mystique of the race. It won’t. The BQ is a number that means too much to too many people, most of whom are far more determined and goal-driven than your average person. If anything, this marathon becomes even more important. A lot of people talk about terrorists not being able to “win” by attacking us like this, but it’s not even a game. It’s not even a question. Of course we aren’t going to quit running this race, or any other race. We’ll bounce back, and fast. There are far too many people like the men and women who did The Epic Man this weekend. Because ultimately, the human spirit thrives off camaraderie. I felt it this weekend with the Epic Man team, from my friends and family, and from the city of Boston. That camaradarie, is far more powerful than any bomb.
Love to all. Make a better story. #alwaysbeepic