I ran in Boston Marathon this past Monday as a guide for Amy McDonaugh of Irmo, SC -- a good friend and someone I've guided in competitive races before, at Woodrow Wilson 13.1 last October. She asked me to run Boston as her guide since we had a good experience at WWB 13.1 and we had developed a solid friendship from it. I countered that I had not run a complete road marathon yet (just a trail ultra and most of several marathons as pace help for friends) and offered 20 miles if we could get her a guide for the first 10k (Boston rules dictate guide relay posts can occur every 10k). That worked for her, although in hindsight, I should've been a little more bold and just ran the whole thing, as you'll see why shortly.
By the way, Amy is legally blind -- completely blind in her right eye, 20/400+ in her left eye, able to see up to 4ft in front of her albeit not well, and zero peripheral vision and virtually no depth perception. But she is definitely an elite amateur runner, possessing a 13.1 world record and a 26.2 PR of 2:49.
I warmed up for 1.5mi around the 10k mark until I saw the pro men scream by, then I watched out for friends and Amy. I was actually looking for her guide to the 10k mark, a taller fellow in a red shirt, when I heard ANDY ANDY OVER HERE! And I looked to see Amy with a shorter man in a gray shirt yelling at me. This was not the same individual who started the race with Amy, and it turns out that the original guide had a little difficulty staying with Amy's pace and had to exit the race around the 3rd mile (which goes to show just how strong of a runner Amy really is!). We got going and it turns out after he dropped Amy sped up a lot to simply have feet to run behind as unofficial 'guides', who were being good samaritans by looking out for Amy. We both thanked the runner who was with her and got focused on racing. The pace started a lot quicker than was actually comfortable, probably around the low-teen 6s. To be honest for 2 miles I was feeling like I was working a little! I was definitely not warmed up enough to suddenly jump into low-6s but I was handling it fine. I beseeched Amy to hold back a little as this pace was way too hot for her to sustain since her target pace was 6:30s. We did relax a little and eventually settled into a much more reasonable 6:20-6:30 pace, but a couple miles still dipped into the high teens. I made sure not to lead Amy as per Boston rules but just be her support crew (I grabbed water/gatorade/gu/chomps when she wanted and placed cups/food in her hand) and a reference point so she knew she was running in a straight line (I also had her run along white or yellow lines which she could make out so she had another reference). I had to be pretty alert and talkative the whole time.
We hit the half-marathon point in 1:22:46, which is only about 15 seconds slower than Amy's world-record 13.1 PR for the B2 division (which she set last month in NY), and that got me nervous, it was still too early for world records, but Amy seemed fine! We ran through the wall of sound at Wellesley (dang they're loud!) and Amy was receiving lots of support, either from spectators who knew her name or called out our team name, Team With a Vision, or from fellow competitors we passed or were passed by. Around mile 16-17 we came up on Joan Benoit Samuelson who offered some kind words. We attempted to stay with her and exchanged leads a couple times. However it was becoming clear that Amy's fast first 10k was beginning to take a toll on her as hills were clearly slowing us down. Amy was super fast on downhills but she was losing more ground on uphills than she was gaining on downhills.
Around mile 20 I definitely noticed a lot more fatigue on Amy's part but she seemed encouraged when I told her we just had 10k to go. It was a hard last stretch as that is where the hills emerge, and Amy was hurting on those. We started hitting a string of high-6 to low-7 minute miles. I noted to Amy we were losing time quickly and would have to really go hard up hills to negate damage. A few girls were passing and Amy was getting pretty frustrated. But she was giving it all she had.
We hit mile 25 and were not going under 2:50 but she was still heading toward a fantastic time, so I demanded 7 more minutes of her hardest running. Half mile to go, I demanded 3 more minutes. Her calf was knotting up and she was hurting but kept pushing, knowing she was mere meters from the finish. We made 2 tight turns to get onto Boylston St and she held onto my arm to make sure she took the tightest turns possible (turns are not easy for Amy as she can't see how tight or wide the turns are). I saw the finish ahead and asked Amy for one more minute of speed, and she gave what she had left, holding off some hard-charging runners to finish in 2:52:05 (6:33/mi), 57th woman and 988th overall, a very impressive time and placement. Easily the first female visually impaired runner as well.
Some personal comments are that this was the most enjoyable runs I've been a part of. I wasn't racing per se but it sure felt like it. I had to be Amy's eyes not just for water stops, course hazards and people, but also her eyes for competitive purposes, as I let her know where other women were around her. I felt the same frustration when she got upset at the thought of women passing her late in the race or on hills. I imagine this is a similar feeling for anyone who guides a visually impaired individual in a running race, which is why I recommend anyone who wants to give back to the running community to sign up as a VI guide! You'll make new friends and develop a greater respect for those who work through their impairments. I know I'll be volunteering... no, I'll be ASKING to run with Amy again. We've even begun scheming future marathons we can run together (CIM and Boston 2014 and yes, I'm doing the whole thing next time)... In the meantime I can say I really enjoyed my weekend guiding and Monday running with Amy and getting to know the other members of Team With a Vision. A truly wonderful experience.
Of course later that day (about 40min after we left the race site), two explosions rocked the finish area, leaving as of now 3 dead and over a hundred injured. I keep my reactions to myself mostly and don't make too many public declarations, but I will say I feel very angered, saddened and even kind of scared by the whole situation. Mostly anger though. I hope that turns into something more productive or positive. I am certain however that Boston Marathon will return stronger than ever next year, backed by a strong community that loves its city and its hometown race. It's in these times that the human spirit really shines through and shows the good we are all capable of.
Thanks for reading.
-Andy Sovonick of Gaithersburg
it made me happy to read this - thanks for sharing.
Good job in guiding, Andy. Being as fast as she is, I'm sure it's not easy for Amy to find someone who can pace her. For her to find someone that she would ask to come back and pace her again says a lot about you and your abilities.
Boston is not an easy race to guide with all those hills. Everyone at Boston is fast, so no matter how fast you are, there are always people around that you have to watch out for. I remember that there were sections where I was cranking out 7 min/miles and I literally passed no one, zero, nada.
Andy, you're a real gem, man. Awesome stuff. Most of us would be happy just to reach paces like Amy, much less get to that point and then volunteer. You're an inspiration. And so is she.
Heartwarming story in all this ugly tragedy.
Great work, Andy and Amy. You guys are awesome.
That's a very heartwarming tale that shows what running and marathons are truly all about. It's about pushing yourself and at the same time about a selfless community. Nothing of what happened in on Boylston Street can shake that core truth about it.
Thanks for sharing this, Andy.