“I’m going for the hug.” – me
As the most recent Run to #ENDALZ runner was headed our way, there was something entirely different about how he was embracing the crowd. Don’t get me wrong, the high fives were invigorating, but I was ready to step up my game. Most of the team runners lit up when they saw the purple people ahead. Some would stop to hug a family member or two, but the rest of us would greet them with high fives as they charged on for the remaining 10 miles. This runner (Jeff as I would learn later) was stopping for a LOT of hugs. As he approached, I told my new Keurig friends that I was going for it. I had so much energy watching so many people putting everything they had into this race. I went arms as wide as they would go and embraced Jeff in what can only be described as a bear hug. Jeff would continue hugging a few more down the line before stopping for what had to be at least 5 minutes with his friends/significant other. He even lost his bib at one point. Those 5 minutes would be just the break he needed with “Heartbreak Hill” just around the corner.
All Photos by Shannon Power Photography
Attending the Boston Marathon was not on my radar last year, last month, or even two weeks ago. As I searched for community service opportunities in the area, one I stumbled across was joining the Run to End ALZ cheering section for the Boston Marathon. This fit perfect with my trip as I am raising money for the Alzheimer’s Association on my journey (more on that here). I signed up even though I was unsure if attendance would be possible. The marathon IS on a Monday keep in mind. A couple days later, I learned that in Boston, Marathon Monday wasn’t really a work day…my friends that work at the College of Holy Cross joked with a server at dinner how they would be the only ones working on Monday. I followed up and they said with Patriot’s Day and the marathon, most people had off. On Saturday when I went into the city for a tourist day, I asked the friend I met for lunch if she had off Monday and she responded emphatically with a YES!
I was convinced. This was something I had to do. I requested and was granted the half day. I was going. I had no idea what to expect. The ALZ cheering section would be at mile 16.2. I was in Cape Cod taking care of chickens (more to come on that later…), so I didn’t have any easy mass transit options to get in to the race. I flew blindly and boldly in the face of all the recommendations to not drive to the marathon. After walking the dogs and feeding the chickens, I put on my purple and headed for the race. Lucky enough to find parking, I followed people who I hoped were going to the race…careful to avoid those clearly donned with Red Sox gear as there was also a day baseball game. This came naturally as a diehard Cardinals fan.
I walked through a college campus and you would have thought finals just ended. Each lawn was packed with students. The weather was perfect…although my red nose might argue this statement…regardless, there were streams of people headed for the race. As I walked up, I saw areas already two deep on the route. This was mile 17!!! There were still 10 miles after this that I could only assume were even more crowded. I headed down the route to find the purple people. I saw a group on the other side and had some initial concern as the group looked small and off from the ropes. Eventually finding a place to cross and back track to the group, I saw a purple shirt headed my way. I asked if she knew where the group was and she said the small group back there was just her family. Michele shared that her husband was running, but it would not be until later that I would learn how much of an accomplishment that was for him. We walked down the route towards the start and saw the group on the opposite side. There were at least 75 people. This was looking good. I checked in and settled in to a spot among our group. We were on the opposite side of where the bigger crowds were and this was purposeful as I would later learn.
As the lead runners came by, there was excitement, but the lead group was not what the Boston Marathon was about. The race was about the 26,635 people that would finish after the winners on that day. For each person in the crowd, it was someone different. For me, it was about the Run to #ENDALZ team that day. Each time we caught a glimpse of an ALZ runner rounding the corner and breaking out from the crowd to head towards our cheering section I had goosebumps. This was why we were on the other side of the packs of runners. They were met with cheers as though they were finishing. Their pace picked up and by the time they got to us they were beaming. Some like Jeff would stop for hugs and others high fives. For most, this was where their family was and they were propelled onward, running away as though there was just a short distance remaining.
I was constantly checking with Michele to see where her husband (Philip) was at in the race. I learned he was struggling and there was some disappointment in her voice. The struggle with the marathon is that over such a long race, you can only be there to cheer for a short portion of it. She desperately wanted to be with him for all of it. During those .2 miles where you could see the runners, you had to cheer your heart out. You felt like you had to cheer enough to propel the runners for the remaining 10 miles. Originally not sure if I should count “cheering” as volunteering, I had no doubts after a few of the #ENDALZ runners came by our post. As it drew closer to the time for me to head home, Philip was still not in sight. I walked over to say goodbye to Michele and asked her for some details about Philip to try to spot him as I walked back along the route to my car.
This is when she shared with me the most shocking news. Philip was not like most of the runners on our team who are running in support of a friend or family member who battled or is battling Alzheimer’s. She shared that Philip is battling Alzheimer’s himself (more on his story from the Boston Globe). I was stunned. At just 43, he has been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s and he is running 26.2 miles. She informed me that he was running with two guides who were helping him navigate race-day logistics, deal with the crowds, maintain hydration, and provide whatever support he needs. Both saddened and encouraged by the news, I left with an odd feeling as I said goodbye and good luck to Michele. As I walked the half mile down the race path to my car, I scanned the runners. Just a 100 yards before I had to turn off, I saw the #ENDALZ bib coming up the path. Running with 2 other purple shirts, I knew this was Philip. I asked “Is that Philip?” and the guide responded with a yes. I rang my mini cowbell one last time and mustered up all the voice I had left to push Philip towards his family.
Lemi Berhanu Hayle finished in 1st place. Philip Posa finished in 25,383rd place. Different accomplishments. Equally impressive.