If you follow many runners on social media, you’ve probably noticed a lot of them posting photos like this lately. I was no exception. I literally did the excited baby dance when Brian sent me a photo of the envelope. (I’m so glad no one was around me at work at the time.) And when I got home later that night and opened the envelope? Goosebumps, over my whole damn body.
And of course I immediately posted a photo on Instagram and Facebook. Then I re-arranged my inspirational materials on my fridge and posted a photo of that. And then I sat there and stared at it while sipping a glass of wine. It’s been there for two days now and every time I walk past the fridge, I stop and gaze at it for a few seconds.
I keep thinking that if this is how I’m feeling with every step of the process – crossing the finish line of my qualifying race, getting the acceptance email, booking my hotel and flight, getting the confirmation of acceptance in the mail – then I could very well just have a total joy-and-happiness meltdown once I’m actually at the race. Think Kristen Bell + a sloth and then multiply it by a thousand. Probably even just buying that jacket will be enough to make me cry. (No shame in my cry-game.)
Obviously I have a lot of feelings about this, as anyone would have regarding a goal they had worked towards achieving for several years. Plus, there’s no denying the emotional and mythological grasp that Boston has on us distance runners. But there are other things going on here as well, things that have to do with Boston itself and what it represents in my personal history.
For a short period of time, when I was nineteen years old, I lived in Boston – actually, Brighton, to be exact. My now-former partner was a student at Boston College, and I was living in Oklahoma. I had always wanted to live in a big city – and as a high school student, I’d thought college would be my way to make that happen – but instead I ended up at the University of Oklahoma. While Norman was substantially larger than Ponca City, which is where I’d gone to high school, it lacked the big-city glamour of places like Chicago, Los Angeles, New York.
So when my former partner and I decided that we wanted to live together after a couple of months of long-distance dating, I knew exactly what to do. I dropped out of college, pack up everything I owned and drove my shitty Honda Civic across the country to live in off-campus student housing in Boston.
I’d had this fantasy about what it would be like to live in a big city, something that involved seeing cool music and wearing cool clothes and having a cool group of friends and leading a very cool life. It was all very vague, which is exactly what I would expect from a girl who had lived her entire life in places like small-town Oklahoma and suburban Utah.
It only took a few weeks before I realized just how far apart my fantasy was from my new reality. I found it impossible to make friends. I didn’t fit in with Boston College girls, who all wore the same black boot-cut Express pants and who all listened to Dave Matthews Band. I was cold all the time. I could never find parking. My filthy basement apartment was absurdly expensive, and I shared it with three college boys who had apparently never touched a can of Ajax in their lives.
And my partner…well, I quickly learned we had next to nothing in common, and that he was not willing to bend even a little bit. Here’s one example: I spent hours watching college hockey, even driving up to Maine and out to Wisconsin to cheer for the team, but when I bought tickets to a Liz Phair show that coincided with a hockey game, he refused to go, so I drove to Providence alone, watched the show alone and drove home alone.
But really, that wasn’t even the worst part. The worst part was that I quickly learned that my romantic, passionate boyfriend had a much darker side. I’d seen glimpses of it when we were long-distance, but my inexperienced teenage self interpreted it as “romantic” and “proof that he loves me” and “he just wants to be with me all the time.”
But then he actually hit me. And then he hit me again. And I hit him back. And he threw a Mountain Dew at my head. And he tackled me down the stairs into our apartment. And I spit in his face. And he tore up a book I was reading because I wasn’t paying attention to him. And…and…and…
My fantasy of a new life where I could be the sophisticated, worldly Caitlin I’d wanted to be had turned into an actual waking nightmare. I didn’t leave for a lot of reasons, but the main one was that I was too proud to admit that things had not worked out the way I’d wanted them to. So I stayed.
I did find moments of respite, usually riding the T alone, back and forth to the job I’d taken with a tax software company in Harvard Square. I’d put my headphones on, lean my head against the glass and watch the lights of Boston pass by, feeling forever cut-off from whatever promise the city had once held for me. To this day, whenever I listen to Beth Orton’s “Central Reservation,” I’m instantly transported back to those stolen moments of quiet, moments where I could pretend like I was a carefree city girl and not a scared country mouse.
I’d wanted so much from Boston, but Boston had thoroughly denied me. And by the time we left Massachusetts a few years later, I was a sadder girl, with not a lot of optimism left in me. It was too much for me to deal with, so I’d learned to numb myself. There was a line in a Spoon song – “How comes she feels so washed out at such a tender age?” – that felt like it was written for my life, for me. It took several more lost years in Florida before I finally started to do right by myself – leaving that relationship, going back to college, quitting all my bad habits, seeking therapy, making real friends, taking care of my body and my mind.
In my mind, Boston isn’t just about setting an impossible goal and achieving it, although it is very much about that too. It’s much more personal than that. It’s about returning to the scene of a crime that was committed against my heart and my soul and restoring that sense of wonder and possibility to a place that had been the site of so much unhappiness in my life. I’d wanted so much, and this time I might actually be able to get it.
I’m going back to Boston as a completely different woman than I was when I left in 2001, someone who is stronger and prouder than I was before, and I can’t think of a better way to show that than by running the Boston Marathon.