Editor’s Note: East Providence resident John Ponte recently completed the Boston Marathon not only for himself, but with a very special cause in mind. The following is his first-person account of the event:
EAST PROVIDENCE — I did it! After months of preparation and four and a half hours of mental and physical exertion, I proudly crossed the finish line of my first marathon … The Boston Marathon! What started off as just a physical challenge and something I could cross off my bucket list, became a life lesson in compassion and camaraderie.
How I Got Started
For years, I have wanted to run and complete the Boston Marathon – the world’s oldest marathon and one of the most challenging 26.2-mile courses. I got the opportunity to join the marathon team for a charity organization called Family Reach Foundation. Family Reach helps families with children battling cancer and other terminal illnesses who face financial hardship while going through treatments. The organization supports families across the country, including in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, with expenses such as mortgage payments, utility bills, groceries, gas, and other expenses that continue to incur throughout the typically long and financially grueling treatment process.
Initially, I tried to get on the Family Reach marathon team back in November but there were no available spots. The demand to run in this year’s Boston Marathon was so high due to the tragic events of last year’s race. However, one of the team’s runners got injured in late January and I was given the opportunity to take his place. Joining the team meant not only participating in the marathon but also raising money and awareness along the way for Family Reach and the families that the organization helps.
Leading Up To The Marathon
Most of the people who run the Boston Marathon begin training in October or November, if not earlier. I was nervous about starting my training so late but luckily had been recently exercising more and running five or six miles, three or four times a week up until that point. I’ve never considered myself to be a “runner” and still don’t. The little running I’ve done has usually been indoors, on a treadmill, watching a sporting event or episodes of Sports Center, People’s Court, or some other reality show. I quickly jumped into my training routine, logging more and more miles each week and capping each week off with a “long run” which grew from about 8 miles to eventually 23 miles two weeks prior to the marathon.
During my training, Family Reach introduced me to an 11-year-old boy from Maine named Zachary Gagnon. Zach was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare bone cancer, last summer. He and his single-parent mom Peggy had been living in temporary studio apartment in Boston since October while Zach underwent treatments at Massachusetts General Hospital. Zach and his mom are two of the strongest and most positive people I’ve met and became my inspiration for the marathon. Not only was I running the marathon for Zach and Peggy, but also for all the families that they represent and that Family Reach tries to support. Thanks to many of my friends and family members, I have been able to raise just over $10,000 for Family Reach … and as a team, the Family Reach marathon runners to date have raised about $90,000 to help support these families battling cancer.
It’s Go Time
Fortunately, I was able to find a hotel room in Boston where my family stayed the night before the marathon which made things easier. I still didn’t get much sleep though. Butterflies and doubts consumed me. I didn’t know what to expect and kept questioning myself and the training that I had done leading up to the big day. “Did I train enough?” “Should I have completed more long runs?” “Did I get enough carbs in my system?” “Did I drink enough?” “Did I drink too much?” “What will security be like?” “What if I can’t finish?” … and so on. Finally, it was time to just put on my “big boy pants” and just do it. I got dressed and walked down to Boston Common, a park where shuttle buses were gathering to transport runners to the starting line in Hopkinton, Massachusetts.
It was a beautiful day. The early morning was a little cool but eventually warmed up to the mid 60s and remained sunny throughout. I met up with two of my Family Reach teammates Brendan and Cassie. This was Brendan’s first marathon as well but Cassie had been there last year. She was less than a mile away from the finish line when the bombs went off and had to stop. Cassie and all the other runners who were not able to finish last year due to the tragic events were invited to participate in this year’s marathon. While on the long bus ride from the city to Hopkinton, Cassie shared her story about what it was like for her last year and how much it meant to her to be able to come back this year and finish the marathon. She was also very helpful in providing some tips and encouragement.
Once we arrived in Hopkinton, there were people everywhere…thousands and thousands of runners. Many took the time to get in some final stretching or another bite to eat or another bathroom stop. I was actually scheduled to go out around 11:25am which was the last Wave of runners for the day. Most of the runners, including the elite runners, had already started the race. Brendan, Cassie and I met a generous family who lived near the starting line who offered us their home to come in and get a snack, drink and use their clean bathroom. After going to the bathroom for what seemed like the 100th time, I was anxious to go.
Brendan, Cassie and I made our way to the starting line corrals, which were just that. We felt like cattle being ushered into our corral waiting to be let loose. As we slowly made our way into our corral, I met and chatted with a couple of people along the way. One man, who looked to be in his 70s, gave me some words of encouragement and mentioned that this was his 30th Boston Marathon and that he started running them “late” in life when he was in his 40s … just like me. As I started getting closer to the starting line, that’s when I first really noticed the level of security. There were armed guards along the route and even standing in some of the residents’ front yards, balconies, rooftops, etc. It was a little disturbing in some respect, but very comforting also. I didn’t think about it too much because next thing I know, I’m at the starting line and we’re off!
From the beginning, I felt like I was in this massive wave of people just pulling each other through the course. I kept thinking that at some point, the masses will disperse and I’ll be off on my own running either by myself or perhaps with a couple of people … that never happened. My teammates and I gave each other some words of support and then separated. Early on, I had to fight the urge to run too fast. It was difficult because a lot of people around me were so excited and running on adrenaline that they almost willed me to go out faster than I should. I quickly settled down into a comfortable pace after the second mile.
At this point, I was feeling good and feeding off of the energy of the crowds. The people lined up along the entire route cheering us on was incredible. I have never experienced anything like it. Early on, I tried to high-five everyone I could along the route, especially the younger kids. For them, they didn’t know the difference between the elite runners and the novice runner like me. They cheered us on just as much and just as loudly. I had my headphones on and had asked my 10-year-old son to create a playlist for me to get me motivated. I found a good balance between being able to hear the crowds but also hear music when I needed to. I couldn’t help but laugh to myself at times along the route when a particular song would come up that my son chose. It was quite a selection – songs like Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger,” and everything in between. There were also times throughout the race including here where I found myself just getting overwhelmed with emotion. For no reason at all, I would have to fight the feeling of wanting to cry. I think it was due to all the emotion and support coming from the crowds but also watching all these different runners, each with a unique story, running alongside me.
By the midway point (around mile 13), I had run through the towns of Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham and Natick. Every time I saw a new town sign, I was in disbelief that I was actually running this far and for this long. To this point, I still haven’t stopped and I wouldn’t stop until the finish line. After Natick, I entered into Wellesley which was one of those turning points for me. By then, my right foot had started bothering me a bit but I tried distracting myself from the pain by reading as many posters and signs I could along the way. The female students from Wellesley were particularly creative with their signs and offering kisses and hugs to runners coming by. I also started taking in more water and Gatorade. I wasn’t necessarily thirsty but I wanted to avoid getting dehydrated. I also started running along a man who had a prosthetic leg. He seemed to be struggling a little bit at that point but he kept running. I stayed at his pace for a few minutes, feeding off of his energy before I decided to pick up the pace a bit and move forward. How could I complain about little aches and pains when this guy was essentially running on one leg? As I made my way, I turned to him and said “You Got This.” He smiled and gave me a thumbs up.
By the time I entered the town of Newton and mile 20, the pain in my foot had left and I was feeling good until I made a slight move to get over to the side of the road and avoid another runner and I felt something pull in my left calf. A sharp pain that reminded me of getting a bad Charlie Horse. Coincidentally, this is the point in the course called “Heartbreak Hill.” I panicked for a second because I knew the toughest part of the course was coming up and now I just pulled a muscle. I thought about stopping and trying to walk it off or stretch but I was afraid that if I stopped, I wouldn’t be able to start back up. I kept running but slowed down my pace considerably. I remember looking over to a young guy with a Boston College t-shirt on who was holding a sign that said “I Support You Random Stranger.” I think he noticed that I was struggling and he made a point of looking me in the eye and saying “Don’t Give Up, Man.” It struck a chord with me for some reason. Here was this total stranger pushing me through. From this moment on, I decided that I didn’t care what my finish time was. I just wanted to finish and finish running across the finish line. It was very important to me to never stop and to run through the finish and not walk, or even worse, limp across as many did and would do by day’s end.
Once I was able to get through “Heartbreak Hill,” which by the way is not just one big hill, but a series of hills, the race became enjoyable again. By now, my calf was bothering me still but the crowds were getting louder and I could actually see that we were entering Brookline which meant Boston was around the corner. I kept telling myself that the only way this was going to end was to keep moving. The more I moved, the quicker this would end. When I entered Kenmore Square, the Fenway Park area, I started welling up with emotion because it was almost over. I started thinking about all the hard work I put in to training for the marathon and doing something outside my comfort zone. I also started thinking about my inspiration for the marathon, my new friend Zach, and all my friends and family who had supported me and the charity up to this point, many of whom were also tracking my progress along the marathon course during the race.
Making a left turn onto Boylston Street was the culmination of all the emotions I experienced along the way that day. The second I ran across the finish line, after four and a half hours, all the pain went away. My wife and kids were all there at the finish to greet me, as were Zach and his mom Peggy. Since the conclusion of the marathon, Zach finished his treatments in Boston and has returned home with his mom. He’ll be back to Boston on occasion for checkups every few months but hopefully his cancer will never return.
If anyone is interested in donating to my marathon campaign to support Family Reach Foundation and help families with children battling cancer, visit: http://www.crowdrise.com/FamilyReach2014BostonMarathon/fundraiser/johnponte