July 6, 2018

A Memoir by Barbara McLaughlin: "Boylston Street"

I am pursuing my masters in Professional Creative writing from the University of Denver and have spent more than thirty years in Indianapolis. I have a children's book published, entitled Reuben Rides the Rails, a Christamore House Guild selected book in 2010. It tells the story of the Reuben Wells Steam Engine housed in the Children's Museum of Indianapolis. Likewise, I worked with the Indiana Writers Center on two anthologies: Where Mercy and Truth Meet: Homeless Women of Wheeler Speak; and Finding the Words, stories of war by female veterans. Prior to writing fiction, I traveled the world as a journalist and media relations specialist for U.S. Diving in Indianapolis.

The first four times I ran the Boston Marathon, my mental energy ran circles around my aching feet. I left with highs that were hard to duplicate, intensely emotional, profoundly personal. But the last time I ran in 2017, I couldn’t muster anything, including motivation. Despite the history, the hills, the hoopla—I’d lost something essential. My mental zeal had flatlined.
I knew I was in trouble the morning of the race. In the athletes’ village, runners in tutus and greasepaint brushed past me, buzzing with nervous energy and chattering. “Where are you from? What’s your goal? Is this your first Boston?” I kept my head down and didn’t engage. All I wanted was to get the next four hours over with.
I gave myself a pep-talk. You’re here. You’ve trained. Look around and enjoy this. I started to get worried when I couldn’t conjure anything—joy, trepidation, fear, appreciation. I thought about a cashier who sold me some text books in Denver. Her arms were covered with evenly and artfully spaced, one-inch red lines. Scars, I assumed. Cut marks? I’ve heard people cut themselves—to feel something. That morning in Hopkinton, waiting for the start, I kind of got it. It’s scary not to feel anything.
My mind raced. I was going on a long-anticipated trip to Israel the next month. What if I didn’t feel anything over there? What if I felt flat when I experienced, first-hand, the Mecca of my Christian faith? Bethlehem, Jerusalem, the Sea of Galilee?
When it was time to run, my stable, non-elevated pulse barely registered at the starting gun. Damn, I thought, I can’t even count on adrenaline to shave a few minutes off my time. While others ran on the outside of the road, I kept to the middle. I’d done my share of weaving and high-fiving raucous Patriots Day revelers, screaming Wellesley Girls, and overserved Boston College students. The smell of beer is synonymous with the last dozen miles of the race. But even a cold Sam Adams at the finish held little motivation for me this year.
My first Boston Marathon was in 2001. I’d turned forty the same year the calendar turned the millennium, and we all survived Y2K. I’d qualified in Chicago, my husband running the last six miles, urging me on like a drill sergeant. I traveled to Boston with a close friend and fellow-qualifier, and we took in all the sights, bought all the gear at the expo, and felt like we were middle-aged hotties. I didn’t know what to expect on one of the toughest marathon courses in the nation and simply wanted to finish. It turned out I experienced one of the best days of my life. My wedding day, and my kids’ birthdays are all up there, but this first Boston was particularly sweet. My husband was at the finish, and not only did I run well—I flew up Heartbreak Hill without recognizing it—my time was good enough to requalify for the following year.  
That night we celebrated at Legal Seafood with my aunt and favorite uncle, Bob—my mom’s funny and smart youngest brother, a father of eight, a former IBM executive, a writer, poet, and business teacher at Babson College from nearby Needham. Bob seemed perpetually young, and was a favorite of my own children, teaching my youngest to spit watermelon seeds. At dinner, he and I talked about writing; I was working on a novel, and he had a memoir in the works. When Bob used to come to Denver to visit my mom, he was the adult and I was the kid. But now we were both adults, enjoying wine, dinner, and fascinating conversation. I felt like the four of us were friends on a double date. On top of that, my Boston family was proud of me for excelling in a race they attended every year. Bob, and one of my cousins, Kathy, had been along the course near Wellesley, cheering me on that afternoon.  
A few years later, I ran Boston again with two friends from Indianapolis. I called Bob, last minute for dinner; he and Fran had already made plans. They’d see me on the race course, he’d said, but in the sea of spectators, I somehow missed him and Kathy the next day. It didn’t matter much at the time. I’d focused on racing, I’d trained hard, incorporated speedwork, and I again breezed through the finish line on Boylston.
My third trip to Boston was sadly different…
Uncle Bob had been brutally murdered in his basement the November before. The weapon, a baseball bat he kept for backyard games with his merry brood of children and grand-children. Apparently, the man who blew out his sprinkler system had a paranoid episode. The man also beat my cousin Bobby’s wife, who suffered a stroke and nearly died. Since I knew Uncle Bob wouldn’t be at his usual spot on the course, I opted to be proactive—to raise money for a cause dear to him and his family, the Charles River ARC—where my cousin, Kathy, developmentally disabled, lived in a group setting. For the marathon, I had a picture of Bob screen-printed on a bright red t-shirt, the caption saying, “This one’s for you, Uncle Bob.”
It was a tearful race, but healing. Lots of spectators called their support. I’d pasta-loaded with the family in Needham the night before, and on race day, when I ran by Wellesley, there was Kathy, in the spot where she and her dad always stood. She held a big sign with my picture on it, and something like, “Go Barb! Run the marathon!” in her endearing, child-like handwriting. I didn’t care about my time or re-qualifying. I stopped when I saw her, hugged her, cried. I had covered so much ground running back and forth on the race-course, smiling, giving thumbs-up, saying thank you, and giving high-fives to all who shouted and showed their support. My legs got tired, and I cramped. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to complete the race, and all who had pledged money per mile would be disappointed that I had not finished. But, the cramps subsided, I dug down deep, and my emotion carried me over the finish line. In the photo I have, taken on Boylston Street, I’m pointing skyward, and talking to Uncle Bob.
In 2016, I ran Boston again. My father, my 96-year-old hero and fellow running fanatic, had died ten days earlier. I hadn’t done my last 20-mile training run because I was by his bed in the family room, swabbing his face, applying Chapstick to his lips, and promising him I’d take care of my mom—his wife of 69 years. As a child, I always loved my dad’s hands. We held hands a lot, and I’d rub my finger over a ring he wore. It had two little diamonds embedded in black onyx, manly and solid, just like my dad. We buried him on his 97th birthday, and when I boarded a plane to Boston a week later, his ring was in my carry-on.
I ran the marathon with his ring in my zippered shorts pocket. Every few miles, I’d reach back and feel it through the sweat-drenched microfiber. It gave me comfort, an emotional boost during the middle miles when I was getting tired but still had over a dozen miles to run. I thanked my dad for showing me how to finish strong. He ran before running was cool. A WWII vet, he did aerobics, hiked and skied and played golf into his late eighties and early nineties. And even though I hadn’t trained as thoroughly as I’d planned, I breezed through the race. When I rounded the corner at Boylston and saw the finish line, I cried in gratitude for the support my dad gave me along the course and throughout the years. He was proud of me when I ran my first marathon, and I knew he was proud of me running after he was gone.
When I ran Boston in 2017, I was fine for the first 21 miles. It was unusually hot, and my legs felt heavy. I’d flown in the day before—always a no-no to arrive the day prior. But I’d wanted to spend Easter with my family in Indiana before Monday’s race. When my calves began to cramp, I ran and walked the remaining five miles. When I limped down Boylston and barely crossed the finish line, medics ran out and shoved me into a wheelchair. I missed re-qualifying by 5 minutes and 14 seconds. Did I care? Not really. Boston, I decided, had served its purpose. For the first time, I’d had to fuel myself with dogged determination. And when I thought about people dropping to the pavement when the bombs went off in 2013, my cramps didn’t seem so devastating.
As for my pilgrimage to Israel…
I sobbed at the Garden of Gethsemane. I felt a joyful calm on the hill where Christ is thought to have given his sermon on the mount. I was awestruck by the beauty of Jerusalem. And I felt God’s presence at the Western Wall.

When I returned home, the only thing flat was the flower I picked near the Sea of Galilee and pressed in the pages of my Bible.

~Barbara McLaughlin
Barbara McLaughlin

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