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Fifteen years and 40 marathons later, that's the best explanation I know.
There is no easier running for me than the first few miles of the Boston Marathon. I come to that race at my peak. I am lean and fit and ready. And the excitement of the day lights a fire. So I am almost pure energy when the gun goes off at high noon on the Hopkinton Green.
The start is all laughter and talking and wishing people well. The pace is a pleasure. Smooth and comfortable and little more than a trot. I move at a speed just above that of my warmup ("In the beginning always hold something back," Adolf Gruber, the Austrian Olympian, once told me). So these miles are like no others in any race.
Down the long hill out of Hopkinton and through Ashland and over the gentle slopes to Framingham, I coast along. The running is automatic. I feel nothing but the elation of being in this company. The miles pass as if I were watching them out of a train window.
But miles change, somewhere the holding back must end. I pass the 10-mile mark and enter Natick. The miles, although no longer effortless, still come easily. My style remains sure and smooth and economical. I increase my speed, but it is still well below the six-minute-mile pace of those cruel 10- and 12-milers in Central Park. I try for maximum efficiency. Careful to push off my toes and get those extra few inches per stride that make the difference in a three-hour run.
Soon I am at Wellesley, the halfway point. The miles again change. Now each mile is becoming hard work. Not disagreeable, but an exertion not previously felt. I am still surprisingly fresh and moving well. I am running at my best, better than I have moved before or will move later. Still, the body is beginning to tell me this is no lark. No longer child's play. Not just a long run in the sun.
And then at the 17-mile mark come the Newton Hills, a two-mile stretch that includes the four hills making up the renowned Heartbreak Hill. I will take these on the grass behind the crowds that line the street.
The grass lessens the shock on my lower legs and thighs. And I shift to shorter steps as a cyclist pedaling uphill would shift to a lower gear to maintain the same work load.
Quite suddenly, what in the beginning seemed like something I would accomplish with ease and even distinction comes down to survival. A question of whether or not I can keep moving. These two short miles seem interminable. And then I am at the top of the hill, at Boston College, and it is, as the crowds insist, all downhill from there.
Downhill or not, we marathoners know that at Boston College the race is only half over. I am quite a different runner from the one who stood on the line at Hopkinton. The steady pace has used up my muscle glycogen, my precious fuel supply. The Newton Hills have built up my lactic acid and the heaviness in my muscles. The downhills in the earlier going have inserted ice picks in my thighs. My blood sugar is getting low. And although I have drunk everything in sight, I have not kept up with my fluid loss.