Lesson Learned On The Road To Boston

Last month, I joined more than 30,000 others to travel the 26.2 miles from Hopkinton to Boston on foot. Unlike the many experienced runners who qualify to run in the Boston Marathon, I was part of a large group of charity runners supporting non-profit organizations. In fact, prior to running the race last month, I probably wouldn’t have even called myself a runner. You see, I don’t particularly like running…and 26.2 miles, heck, I’m not a fan of even driving that far.

Nevertheless, on April 17, I successfully made the journey on foot, crossing the Boylston Street finish line 4 hours, 51 minutes and 22 seconds after leaving Hopkinton. And while one of the main reasons I ran the race was to show my kids that hard work and preparation can overcome many challenges, I learned a great deal more than I taught them. I can confidently say it was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had during the 520 months I’ve been on this planet.

The race reminded me that life is an unending series of tradeoffs. During the almost five hours of time I had to think about them on Marathon Monday, I was constantly reminded that one’s approach to these tradeoffs matters. And as any decision-making theorist will remind you, our perspective is always biased. Having now had a few weeks to recover (it took me a week before I could walk down stairs!) and think about my entire marathon experience – from initial training through recovery, I wanted to share 26 lessons I (re) learned on the road to Boston:

  1.  Social pressures and verbal commitment are powerful forces. I initially refused to tell anyone I was running the race, always wanting the option of dropping out without embarrassment. But once I started telling people, I trained more intensely and consistently.
  2. While I had at first thought of my friends, family, and fans as there to support me, I realized the race came to represent some of their own challenges, goals and hopes. It brought me closer to almost everyone I told. Many thanked me for including them, and the interactions brought additional meaning to my efforts.
  3. It takes a village to organize a marathon. Over 9,000 volunteers helped race organizers pull off this year’s event…and they’re all supportive, encouraging, and smiling. I tip my hat to the folks at the Boston Athletic Association for their efforts.
  4. The 26.2 miles of cheering fans are a powerful force for good. Signs such as “If Trump can run…” to “Run like United Airlines security is chasing you!” provided much needed smiles and motivation. And of course, what’s not to love about hundreds of Wellesley students holding “Kiss me!” signs?
  5. Given there was zero chance of my winning the race, the competition really became one of me vs. me.  The discipline of running one’s own race is a skill worth honing, both on and off the marathon course. Every person should determine their own definition of success.
  6. All marathoners, regardless of citizenship, are Bostonians on Patriots day…and if you doubt this, try listening to hundreds of runners from around the world sing “Sweet Caroline” in unison while running through Framingham; it will remove any doubts.
  7. Temperature matters. Running intensely can add ~20 degrees to the temperature you perceive. The relative heat on Marathon Monday was a shock to me, and many other first-timers.  Yet another reminder to think through various scenarios and conditions when preparing for an uncertain environment!
  8. Heartbreak Hill is misleading. It should be plural. There are several heartbreaking hills.
  9. Almost anyone can train their body to run 26.2 miles. Barring medical complications, the training really is about putting in the miles. I’m living proof you don’t have to be a stellar athlete to finish the race.
  10. It’s important to see the big picture. When my ankle started bugging me along the race, I caught a glimpse of a veteran with one leg running on a prosthetic. When my glasses fogged up and my contact lenses bothered me, I noticed a blind runner.  Perspective matters, and our own perspective is never objective.
  11. David Ortiz said what Boston has always believed: “This is our f&*ck&ng city! And no one is going to dictate our freedom.” Not the King of England. Not Islamic terrorists from Watertown. Boston has always been strong; Patriots Day makes this crystal clear.
  12. For slower runners like me, the risk of drinking too much fluid is greater than drinking too little.  And drinking too much can be dangerous, possibly even fatal, if your sodium levels drop too low. Who knew?
  13. As a first-time marathoner, I found Boston’s underdog mentality overwhelming and empowering. One fan held a poster with “Patriots 3, Falcons 28” at the base of Heartbreak Hill. Other fans blasted Toby Keith’s “How do you like me now?” from speakers alongside the course.
  14. Self-nudging works. There were several times between Boston College and Boylston Street that I doubted my ability to finish the race. But knowing my kids were at the finish line meant I couldn’t not finish. How could I face them if I didn’t get there?
  15. To witness the best of human determination, visit the finish line area after the grandstands are gone, the roads are open, and some runners are still working on getting to the finish line. It’s among the purest forms of grit and persistence I’ve ever witnessed; while elite runners are impressive, these runners are inspiring.
  16. The charity runner program is brilliant. It raises tens of millions of dollars for local Boston charities and helps beginning runners participate in the storied race. It has the added benefit of creating deep psychological obligations for those runners to finish… (One of my donors indicated his gift would be prorated for miles covered!)
  17. The body knows best. I developed an ability to listen to my body that proved essential to deciding when to “work through the pain” rather than taking time off. No doctor, book, or website can develop that judgment.  Sometimes it’s best to ignore the rules and follow your instinct.
  18. Age matters less than you might think. At one point when I was felt I could go no further, a 70-something woman put her hand on my shoulder and said “You got this…let’s go…I’ll run with you for a bit” and got me moving again.
  19. Thank god for Marathon Sports on Boylston Street. The specialized knowledge and experience that every staff member has is amazing. And not just for shoes…but when and where to use BodyGlide, how to run on packed snow vs. icy slush, what to wear when, which hydration strategy works best in various conditions, and many other topics.
  20. Not all endurance gels are the same. The salted watermelon GU is pretty good, as is Jet Blackberry. And the ROCTANE GUs are particularly useful for squeezing in much needed amino acids and sodium, with a bonus bit of caffeine. Also, in case you’re wondering, taking multiple GUs does not make you go faster!
  21. Sometimes it’s best to keep things simple.You might think the relative lack of equipment in running means preparing for a marathon is a streamlined, low-cost endeavor. Not true. It’s easy to get distracted by gear. GPS watches that might be able to identify ovulation cycles, flux-capacitor inspired running shoes, and high tech jackets that breathe but are also safe in outer space are all eager to take a bite out of your wallet. Almost all market to “spending more will make you faster” hopes.
  22. My college squash coach David Talbott once reminded me to “get in shape to play squash, don’t play squash to get in shape.” Also true for marathoning. Get in shape to run a marathon, don’t run a marathon to get in shape. But the training can kick-start a virtuous fitness cycle; I no longer dislike running.
  23. Prior to the soreness-inducing long training runs, I had never fully-appreciated the power of foam rollers to release muscle tension. It made a ton of difference in my ability to recover enough to keep training. And an ice bath, which provides sheer joy to children tasked with dumping ice into a tub containing a parent, can reduce inflammation and soreness.
  24. Reactions matter as much, if not more, than challenges. How people respond to unexpected adversity tells a great deal about their character. Mike Tyson had it right when he said “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” Along the course, I saw hundreds of people getting “punched in the face.” And I saw hundreds regroup, set a new plan, and persist. Many runners had overcome serious life challenges before the race and shared their stories on their shirts.
  25. As the movie Patriot’s Day makes clear, love may be the only thing that can overcome hate, especially in matters of potential violence against innocent masses. This spirit of support literally oozes from everywhere on Patriots Day and smothers marathoners and fans alike. If you’ve never experienced it, try to run or watch next year.
  26. There’s dignity and power in acknowledging mistakes, even decades after making them. Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, had officials literally trying to rip her bib off during the 1967 race.  Last month, race officials welcomed Switzer’s return 50 years later by giving her the same bib number they had previously tried to confiscate.

Vikram Mansharamani is a Lecturer at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and a Lecturer at Yale University. He is the author of BOOMBUSTOLOGY: Spotting Financial Bubbles Before They Burst (Wiley, 2011). Visit his website for more information or to subscribe to his mailing list. He can also be followed on Twitter or by liking his Page on Facebook.