March 14, 2005

Boston: On the run in Southie

"Too bad they changed the course,” said the guy walking next to me as we entered Boston’s World Trade Center early yesterday morning. We were two of the 8,500 people who’d signed up for Boston’s Run To Remember, a new half-marathon honoring the over 280 Massachusetts law enforcement officers lost in the line of duty. Net proceeds from the race will benefit the Boston Police Foundation’s Kids at Risk Program and help provide safe, active, kid-friendly alternatives to hanging out on the street or spending endless hours home alone.

“Changed the course??!! You’re kidding!” I stopped walking and stared at my new friend.

“No. It’s changed. We’re not going along the river. We don’t even go over that way. We’re going through South Boston. Down by the docks.”

I wasn’t happy. Not only did I have the original 13.1-mile route through the heart of the city down pat in my head, visualization being a key component of my distance-running strategy, but I was going to be cheated out of spending time down by the banks of the river Charles, that formerly dirty water extolled by
The Standells in their backhanded 1966 love song. Running the Charles, both its Boston and Cambridge sides, is one of the running world's great urban experiences, and I was counting on the incomparable city and river views and excellent people-watching to make a fair chunk of the race’s miles go down easier.

Thoreau wrote, “A river touching the back of a town is like a wing. River towns are winged towns.” The Charles gives Boston its wings. We’re a city on the ocean, but the Charles is our waterfront.
Our ocean side, the front of the town to Thoreau’s back, isn’t people friendly, given over as it is to pricey hotels and condos, warehouses, the airport, and ship terminals and docks. Instead of the graceful stone arches of the Longfellow Bridge, which spans the Charles and carries the shiny cars of the "T's" Red Line, it looked like I was going to get an eyeful of docks, and not the picturesque, peeling-paint, sleepy fishing village variety.

My morning was off to an inauspicious start. Course change; no Charles; not enough toilets or time to accommodate the full bladders of 8,500 super-hydrated athletes; only static on the 10 stations I’d preset into my radio (around mile seven I’d catch a snatch of Mick Jagger wailing Beast of Burden, and I felt like one. My second wind usually kicks in around seven, but my first hadn’t even made an appearance yet); warnings from race officials to watch out for potholes; deep slush puddles birthed by last night’s snowstorm; a pesky sesmoid bone in my right foot that flared up after last weekend’s 18-mile marathon training run. The gun went off, and I decided to look for nothing more from this outing than thirteen pain-free miles.

The first five miles were a familiar jaunt through Boston’s historic center. Past
Faneuil Hall and the Old State House, where the Declaration of Independence was first read publicly from a balcony overlooking State Street below. Along the cobbles of Downtown Crossing’s pedestrian zone (photo above) to Boston Common, start of the Freedom Trail. Near the Common, a big knot of men stood outside the homeless shelter where they’d spent the night. Forced to vacate the shelter during daylight hours, they were visibly and audibly delighted at the unexpected 9 am sight of thousands of women running by in Spandex. We ran to Beacon Hill, where those who hadn’t focused on hill training groaned – the course change required that we run up it. But the gold dome of the State House at Beacon Street’s crest acted like a magnet and pulled us to the top.

At five miles, the thousands who’d signed up to run just that distance finished their race, and the half-marathoners headed for South Boston, a part of the city that some argue
has its own language and a part that I don’t know very well. On this course, I expected only the cargo terminals and warehouses of streets like Black Falcon and Dry Dock Avenues, but as we pushed farther into Southie, we were treated to slices of neighborhood life and groups of spectators who’d come out of their triple-deckers to stand on the sidewalk and cheer us on. Southie is the epicenter of Boston’s Irish community (and on the day of the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade, March 20 this year, epicenter of holiday fun for more than a half million "Irishmen" of all nationalities).

At a turnaround marked by parked police cars with blue lights flashing, we passed the Curley Community Center's
M Street facility, smack on the ocean. Dedicated in 1931 by colorful mayor James Michael Curley to promote fitness among South Boston residents, the Center’s beachfront annexes at K, L and M Streets collectively offer activities that include bingo, boxing, kid camps and senior lunches, a men’s card room, aerobic and cardio training, handball, weights, a solarium. And running and swimming. The L Street facility, just up the broad seafront avenue from the turnaround point, is better known outside Southie than its K and M counterparts, largely because of its harriers and human polar bears.

The L Street Running Club, which offers members long run camaraderie during Boston Marathon training season, takes to the streets the rest of the year under the motto, “No Pace too Slow – No Distance too Short.” And the L Street Brownies have been plunging into the L Street Beach’s chilly Atlantic waters since the early 1900’s, often for charity. Their coldest and most famous dunk is their Annual New Year’s Day Swim.

We were in for one more treat on the South Boston course. A last major turnaround that would tee us up for the push to and through the home stretch came at
Castle Island, a piece of strategic oceanfront real estate fortified since 1634 by a succession of forts built to protect Boston from sea-based attacks. As we looped around the island’s parking lot, using precious energy to leap over puddles and potholes, giant jetliners on approach to nearby Logan Airport soared and whistled, landing gear engaged, just over our heads. We must have been a sight to see from the air – a twisty, moving, several mile-long chain of runners clad in black and pastels and primary colors.

In the final two miles, my radio sprang to life and gifted me with enough Tom Petty and Fleetwood Mac to energize me for a bolt to the finish. Incredibly, despite the race’s unpromising beginning, I was on target to beat my best half-marathon time. If a PR (personal record) is within reach, most runners dig deep and kick whatever they’ve got left into overdrive.

It was a Run To Remember. I PR’ed. My foot didn’t hurt. My entry fee went to help kids. And I had a rewarding tour of South Boston, a slice of the city I’d too long overlooked.