Boston Marathon, by boat

Written on May 29th, 2017 by , Category Training

By Emerson Peek

The mid-December day blossomed with excitement, and it wasn’t even close to being over yet. I’d just completed my first skate skiing lesson in Leavenworth, and the thought of skate skiing becoming the backbone of my winter training plan enthralled me. My end goal? Running strong in my first Boston Marathon on April 17.

At least that’s what I thought until friends met me at Kristall’s for a beer and dropped a game-changer on me. Mutual friends of ours had invited us to join them on a six-week winter sailing trip through the northern Bahamas.

The sailboat, Legacy, heads toward the Bahamas in this photo taken during Emerson Peek’s winter adventure.

The opportunity enticed my deep love for adventure. However, I had qualified for Boston a few months prior, had registered and made travel arrangements, and I was stoked to run. Running Boston was itself an adventure and I wanted to give it my all … so how on earth could I train on a sailboat?

A First World problem, and yet it flummoxed me: train for the world’s oldest marathon on skate skis in the Wenatchee Valley, or on a sailing adventure in the Bahamas? After too much anguish and indecision, I gave in. I would incur some debt and probably drink a few unnecessary cocktails, but I would do whatever it took to train while on this sailing trip aboard the Legacy.

Our itinerary took the guys of the trip — Pavel, Kurt and I — from southern Georgia down the intra-coastal waterway of Florida and over to the Abaco Islands. Luckily, we never went a day without going ashore.

In Florida, I ran through the touristy streets of St. Augustine, the not-so-touristy streets of Titusville, and the upscale golf neighborhoods of West Palm Beach.  In Cape Canaveral, we stalled to perform repairs. As “runner,” I utilized trips to the hardware store as time trials. Winter in Florida felt like early summer to me. Runs felt lethargic and labored.

My first “breakthrough” run occurred at Green Turtle Cay. Two days earlier, we crossed the Gulf Stream, and Green Turtle was our official check-in to the Bahamas. Our passports stamped, Pavel and I wandered around town, then parted ways at 5 p.m. so I could go for a run.

A heron hitchhiked a ride during the boat’s passage across the Gulf Stream.

The sublime temperature, lighting, and island scenery came into full synergy with my bodily state, and motivation soared. After a meandering warm up, I found a straight stretch and began my version of a ladder workout. A familiar discomforttried to overcome me, but instead I embraced the workout and found that sustaining flow that allows athletes to transcend pain.

Returning to the dock, I realized that what felt like a 60-minute workout had actually lasted 90 minutes. This boosted my spirits, and made that Conch quesadilla that much more satisfying.

The polar opposite to this inspiring run occurred a few weeks later outside of Little Harbor. My intention was to go on a long run for two to three hours. On a warm Saturday morning, I carelessly ventured off under-fueled, without sunscreen, and carrying 12 measly ounces of water.

Immediately I noticed the monotony of the road. This part of Great Abaco Island used to host the region’s timber industry, which meant that the scenery equated wholly to homogenous stands of pine trees.

As I ran out of water, my brain sizzled like eggs on hot cast iron. In two hours, four cars whizzed by. I began complaining out loud to all who could hear (no one). When I finally made it back after a rough 18 miles — a small miracle — I swam back to the boat with my running shoes and watch in one hand above the water. I inhaled two sandwiches, drank some water and fell fully into a nap. It was a foolish way to attempt a long run, but at least I’d found some ‘true grit’ in the experience.

The sailboat had to stop in Cape Canaveral to perform repairs on the steering column.

Most runs on the trip were neither glorious nor diabolic, but they showed me small glimpses of life in the Bahamas. I observed the complex and fragile relationship between tourism and regional economics. I pondered the ways in which British loyalists who fled a young United States of America shaped the islands’ culture for their benefit. I noticed the lack of natural resources. Wrapped up in all of this, I also noticed how ‘island vibes’ seemed to diffuse some of people’s socio-economic stresses.

On the plane ride home, I reflected on my sailing adventures. I’d miss exploring a new place and learning how to sail, but I was also eager to turn my focus towards training. I’d done my best combining training with sailboat life, but race day was only a month away and I was still in island mode.

Unfortunately, my body didn’t transition easily. Gastro-intestinal woes usurped my motivation and nearly every run made my weaknesses wallow. Surely I would be able to finish the marathon, but probably not in the time I wanted. Just getting to run Boston was an honor, I reminded myself.

Then one day, it was time to drive to Seattle for my flight to Boston. Armed with fresh baked cookies and encouraging notes, I drove out of the Valley feeling grateful for my community.

Crosses were posted in remembrance of those who died during the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing.

When I arrived in Boston, marathon energy engulfed me. I tried to focus on relaxing by taking in the sights, but my nerves felt much like the runners I observed everywhere: agitated and eager. Fortunately, two family members joined me in Boston, and they both brought exactly what I needed in terms of constant love, support, and humor.

Race day came, and by the grace of the running gods, I woke up ready. At 5:40 a.m. I caught the tram with a handful of other runners, and we all rode to Boston Commons in quiet anticipation. We then boarded buses which took us to the Athletes Village, where pre-race hype surged like a Washington wildfire. Some shared their excitement with strangers in the bathroom line while others performed pre-race rituals on whatever small piece of grass they could find.

While we listened to the Star Spangled Banner in the starting corrals, I thought about the meaning of Patriots’ Day and reflected on the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. As national TV cameras started rolling, my attention drifted to the security personnel who looked on in quiet steadfastness.

The countdown came and went, and once those in front of me had enough room to swing their legs, I was off.

Those first 18 miles were a matrix of sensations. I heard footsteps, cheers, and heavy breathing. I saw thousands of signs – some vulgar, some funny, all encouraging. I chuckled at runners in Speedos, and smiled as I passed the Wellesley girls offering their traditional mid-race kisses to male runners. My heart swelled when I passed a blind runner, and then again when I passed runners with prosthetic legs.

One very happy, if not delirious, Emerson Peek poses with family after running the 2017 Boston Marathon.

I remember how the aid station volunteers seemed like experts at passing off water cups. I remember the scores of high fives I received throughout the race.

I maintained my desired pace until about mile 20, then I began to fade. The heat annoyed me and I began mumbling curse words to myself, but then my ‘run from hell’ in the Bahamas flashed through my mind. If I had survived that lonely slog, I could certainly do this.

I channeled the memory of that long, hot run into an awareness of my breath, and with the help of emphatic cheers from the crowd, I finally turned that infamous left onto Boylston. Seconds later, I crossed the finish line. I just finished the Boston Marathon, I realized.

Since race day, I’ve reflected. Yes, I could have run more miles, hills, and speed work. I also could have enjoyed fewer cocktails on the boat. But I have zero complaints.

I see now that Boston is special because of the people it brings together. Coming from all 50 U.S. states and 90 different countries, participants each bring their own stories and reasons for running. Add to that the 9,000-plus volunteers, and thousands of spectators, and you get a remarkable celebration of humanity, woven together with the universal thread of running.

The ability to run is something to be grateful for, and the gifts that running brings me — seeing new places and discovering mental toughness among them — are the real substance of the pursuit. This winter, I pursued two different adventures and accomplished a significant running goal. Whether that meant sharing a cup of tea with discomfort, exploring new islands on foot, or celebrating being alive with thousands of people, running took me places.

Maybe it will take you somewhere. Maybe even the Boston Marathon, by boat.

Emerson Peek helps coach cross country at Cascade High School in Leavenworth. He also can be seen at the start line at RunWenatchee races from time to time.

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