Priest describes 26.2 miles of joy, pain

Father Mike Tobin, above, is pictured after finishing the Boston Marathon April 15. (Photo Special to The Record)

By Father Mike Tobin, Special to The Record

The coincidence of Palm Sunday preceding Marathon Monday was certainly on my mind when I clumsily folded the palm branch over and over to make a cross. I wore that cross on my food belt to remind me of Holy Week.  At mile 24, I no longer needed a reminder of the passion; I had entered into it personally.

I arose Monday morning with a bout of “Boston Madness” a first-timer’s illness. A grave symptom is a fantastic, almost magical conviction that the entire 26-mile course can be done at race pace. If I had been of sound mind, I would have set my Garmin race watch for a realistic slow pace for 21 miles and then raced the last five miles if I have anything left in the tank. The cold, rainy weather prediction for the day had been revised. Following early showers, the sun would shine and temperatures rise into the sixties.

This was another ominous sign that Monday would not go smoothly as I had intended. I smartly dressed for success in hot weather; simply shorts, my race singlet, headband and sunglasses. Even then, when the sun shined later, it was hot, humid, and sweaty. I could not satisfy my thirst.

As veterans of Boston know from experience, the first miles are downhill. If anyone has run the hills in Iroquois Park in Louisville, it is like racing down from the overlook at the beginning of the Boston Marathon. These first ten miles passed effortlessly and quickly as we ran from one small suburban town to another winding our way toward downtown. The crowd support is unbelievable with layers of fans lining the street.

I had an inkling of the danger ahead at mile ten when my quadriceps, or thigh muscles, seemed heavy or tight — “much too soon for this” I thought. “I guess I have overdone it.” Looking back at my mile splits I see the clear evidence. After holding back the first mile, I accelerated to keep up this pace I was on from miles two through nine. A voice told me at mile ten that it was already too late to undo the damage. “I may as well race ahead for the next ten miles and conquer the famous Newton Hills. Then, I would worry about how to finish the last five miles starting at Boston College.”

Running forward with abandon, I enjoyed the highlight of the Wellesley College students gathered to cheer the runners and passed the half way mark on a fast pace to satisfy my “A Goal” that had the number two and five in it, 4:12:50.  I ran a 2:06:30 half marathon split which only made sense when suffering from Boston Madness like I said above.  Then I arrived at the Natick Fire Station turning right and starting the first of four miles uphill. The best moment of the race was between hill three and four when I met baby Joey (nine-month old Josephine) held by her mom Caitlin with dad, Ryan. We had corresponded by email from their hospital room at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children.  They informed me to look out for them at mile 20 along with other patient families and staff of the hospital who lined the course. Seeing a tent marked MGHfC at a distance I kept running and shouted out the mother’s name. 

Incredibly, in a crowd of thousands, Caitlin heard my voice, saw my racing singlet with Joey’s name written on the top and my name on the bottom. She shouted out my name, “Father Mike” and we met each other for the first time right there on the course. Instantly I recognized an infant girl with Down syndrome who had to be baby Joey, but nothing prepared me for her bright red hair! Caitlin, the mom, broke out into a smile as I blessed baby Joey. She quickly turned away from me which kids naturally do around strangers, so I guess I blessed the back of her head.  Oh well!  Dad Ryan looked like a former college hockey player, strong but silent. I would learn later from the charity how challenging the diagnosis of Down syndrome and heart disease has been for them — especially Ryan. How thoughtful of them to make the journey to meet me on the race course.

For me, this was the finish line for the marathon. To run twenty miles to greet this family and know how the donors to this campaign had supported Caitlin and Ryan gave me chills. This was God’s plan all along. What was not part of God’s plan, but my own undoing was the trial of miles that followed this emotional meeting with baby Joey.

The fourth and last hill was practically done when my right quadriceps went into spasm. I simply could not believe that I would be denied the satisfaction of having run all the Newton Hills, so close to the summit.  I panicked for ten steps until I gritted my teeth and chose to run over the top no matter what. Although I felt like someone had buried a hatchet in my thigh during those 10 steps, the summit was so close and others were walking and my pride set in. “I made it,” I shouted to the crowd who were inspiring runners and pumped my fist in the air.  It was a temporary moment of joyful relief before the reality of the next five miles set in.  Knowing that it was going to be rough going.

Like a blur, the next three miles passed as the sun vanished, the clouds appeared, a wind blew and rain fell. I was getting chilled now as the wind blew and my pace slowed. Looking up at mile 24 I first saw the famous marker for mile 25, an enormous CITGO sign perched atop a building downtown. Frankly, I made this CITGO sign into a monstrance. I saw the Cross of Jesus Christ and the letters INRI in Greek, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, waiting ahead for me for the entire mile. I negotiated with the Lord.

“If I keep it together always running even if it is only a jogging pace, then I am running the marathon with you Lord Jesus, carrying the cross. No matter what happens for the rest of my days, we will always share this pain, you and me, till I reach the cross at the CITGO sign.”

I do not know if that is how all runners look at that milestone in the race, but this is how I, a Roman Catholic priest, saw it on that Monday following Palm Sunday. This was the second finish line of my marathon following the first one at mile twenty with baby Joey. Now, I had to suck it up for the final mile.  Gratefully, there was the matter of one last devilish hill to climb. The course dips under Commonwealth Avenue forcing runners to then climb up a short underpass to reach the finish line. Pride compelled me to run up the underpass when others around me slowed to a walk. I would join them later in walking when I made the turn onto Hereford Street.

It suddenly dawned on me that I had arrived at mile 26 having made the right-hand turn onto Hereford. The present pain and earlier joy were practically over. I soaked in the moment to come trying to smooth out my racing singlet, adjust my race number for the finish line photo and remove my headband and tie it off on my food belt. I saw the sign for Boylston Street, turned left and began the final drag to the finish line.

I was not sprinting like I had imagined leaving the last measure of my strength on the road; I was marching rigidly as my quads were keeping me from taking anything but small steps as I ran.

“If I cannot look like a gazelle, then at least I will keep my head up, back straight, gut in for the finish line photo.” And so, I did. I shouted out to the enormous crowd “Yes, Yes, Yes” until I heard my name called. I grinned through the fatigue as the chill of the rain falling now on Boylston set in.

I lifted my hand to the sky pointing a finger upward like David Ortiz, saluting his mother following a home run for the Boston Red Sox. I saluted our Blessed Mother for having seen me through. 

4:21:52 — four hours, 21 minutes and 52 seconds. Not exactly the combination of two and five for my 25th anniversary that I had wanted, but for a runner a moral victory. Having foolishly but grittily raced all 26 miles I had lost less than 10 minutes in the second half. Not the smartest way to run Boston, but I had survived a case of “Boston Madness” and lived to run another day.

Read Marathoner helps kids ‘run their race’

Father Mike Tobin is pastor of the Church of the Annunciation in Shelbyville, Ky., and St. John Chrysostom in Eminence, Ky.

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